If Jesus did not die to satisfy the wrath of God for sinners, then is this cross even necessary?
Recently I asked Is Penal Substitutionary Atonement Necessary? I asked this question is response to the recently SBC resolution which in effect made penal substitution atonement (PSA) essential to the gospel and thus, necessary. My primary argument was that PSA as defined by propitiation (the turning away of divine wrath) and satisfaction (payment offered to satisfy God’s justice) is not necessary because God does not have literal wrath that needs to be satisfied. Wrath or anger is not a literal characteristic of God’s nature because God is pure love.
A Moral Need for Satisfaction?
In his amiable response to me, Reformed thinker Derek Rishmawy argues that “It is entirely possible to love someone and be angry with them. And not just in a petty way, but precisely out of love it is possible to absolutely be furious with someone’s self-destructive choices which hurt themselves and others.” I agree it is possible for human beings to love and be angry simultaneously, but it would be morally reprehensible to say that I both love someone and react to that person with “judicial retributive anger” particularly if that anger took on the form of retributive violence.
Rishmawy further claims I create a false binary when I argue God is always extending a yes to humanity and never a no. Rishmawy contends that God’s disposition is indeed yes towards us but no towards our sin—an important nuanced description that I did not find in J.I. Packer’s logic of PSA. So in Rishmawy’s view, the death of Jesus was necessary in that God has a “moral need for satisfaction.” In other words, someone has to pay the price in order for God to be able to forgive. This view, which is standard in Western (Roman Catholic/Protestant) theology, makes God accountable to something other than himself, a nebulous force which Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexandre Kalomiros called a “gloomy and implacable Necessity.”
God is not compelled by anything other than love. As seen throughout the earthly ministry of Jesus, God can forgive sins at any time. As the living Word of God, Jesus regularly forgave sins without the need for retributive justice. The issue was not ‘who has paid the demands of justice’ but rather ‘who has the authority to forgive?’ Jesus—as God in human form—had the authority to forgive, and He did (see Mark 2:5-12). While it may be possible for human beings to express both love for a person and retributive anger, it is not possible for God because God is not a mixture of pure love and “holy” wrath. The requirement for retributive justice isn’t a part of God’s nature. As the living Word of God, Jesus regularly forgave sins without the need for retributive justice. Click To Tweet
God isn’t indifferent when it comes to sin. God is a God of judgment, and God’s judgment flows from his love. God will hold us all accountable for our sin, but God’s mercy is not dependent upon His own “moral obligation” to see that someone is punished for sins. God’s mercy is dependent upon His love alone.
As a pastor I regularly help people think through these complex issues. I explain from the Scriptures that Jesus’ death was not a payment made to enable God to love us because God already loves us. Payment to turn away God’s wrath is not necessary. That often prompts people to ask, “So is the cross even necessary?”
Four Reasons the Cross is Necessary
Before I get into the reasons why I believe the cross is resoundingly necessary, let’s take a look at Roman crucifixion.
Rome chose to execute traitors and rebels by crucifixion because of its ghastly and terrifying nature. It established and maintained Roman dominance. For Jewish people of the first century, crucifixion was too offensive to be talked about openly in public. A crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah. The earliest believers in Jesus would have done well to hide the fact that Jesus died in such a humiliating way and only preach his resurrection, but they did just the opposite. They made the crucifixion of Jesus predominate in their preaching (see 1 Corinthians 2:2). God’s answer to the corruption of sin was to make a covenant whereby God could rescue his world. The cross becomes the climax of this rescuing work.
#1 Jesus died for our sins according to the story of Israel.
“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3 ESV) doesn’t imply that Jesus died according to a few hand-selected verses of Scripture that fit a certain theological system. “Accordance with the Scriptures,” means according to the story of Israel. God made a covenant with Abraham to bless all the families of the earth through his family. Abraham was the answer to Adam. Covenant was the answer to corruption.
God wasn’t going to forsake the world he created, but He was going to work within the world to rescue it. God chose Abraham—and thus Israel—not to save one race of people and damn the rest. God chose Abraham and his descendants so that through Abraham, God could redeem and restore God’s good world. Israel had been carried off as exiles, and even though they were in their ancestral homeland by the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were still living as exiles under Roman domination. The story of Israel was unresolved. Jesus came and died as the conclusion of that story. His death offered a new Exodus for the people of God so that their calling to be a light to the Gentiles could be carried forward. Abraham was the answer to Adam. Covenant was the answer to corruption. Click To Tweet
#2 The death of Jesus demonstrates God’s love and covenant faithfulness.
Jesus said, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9 ESV). Jesus is the walking embodiment of the living God and God’s image is never clearer than when Jesus was dying on the cross. We may have thought God was vindictive and violent, angry and abrasive, but at the cross we see God’s self-giving and co-suffering love.
“God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). God could have demonstrated His love in some other way, but He chose the death of Jesus upon the cross to demonstrate His righteousness, that is His covenant faithfulness. Jesus came as Israel-in-person, taking on the vocation of Israel and dying as Israel’s suffering servant (Isaiah 53).
#3 Jesus died to take away our sins.
Jesus died for us, not for God. Jesus descended from heaven to earth for us and our salvation. The problem was not that God was morally angry at our sin and His anger needed to be pacified. The problem was sin. Jesus came as the Lamb of God “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Our problems: sin and the idolatry that lay beneath our sin. God was never our problem. Sin needed to be taken away so that we could be forgiven and cleansed from our sin. Then we could be restored to the image-bearers we were created to be, reflecting God’s image into God’s world.
In dying on the cross, Jesus becomes like a holy tornado drawing into Himself the sins and of the world, dying for our sins, and taking our sins into death and leaving them there. His death removes our sins and breaks us free from the enslavement to sin that we experienced when we were worshiping idols that were not God. Jesus didn’t appear to appease the wrath of God, “but as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26 ESV).
#4 Jesus died to inaugurate the Kingdom of God.
God desired to be king of Israel, even though Israel wanted an earthly king. Israel had the audacity to proclaim that their God was King of all the nations:
Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm! God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. —Psalm 47:6-8 ESV
The gospel writers have much to tell us about the meaning of the death of Jesus. One thing they make clear, from Pilate’s trial to the sign placed over His head as He suffered on the cross: Jesus was king. The cross was His throne and His death was His coronation. When the disciples met with Jesus after His resurrection, they asked if now was the time that Jesus was going to restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). The disciples just did not know it yet, but the Kingdom of God came rushing into the earth through the death of the King of Kings. His death undermined all earthly rule and authority. Jesus died innocently at the hands of religious and political leaders, dying shamefully to shame those in power. In the death of Jesus “the power of love overcame the love of power.”  In the death of Jesus the power of love overcame the love of power. Click To Tweet
 N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 416.