Christianity, unlike other religions, is based primarily upon the death of its Founder. Christ's sacrifice is a fundamental theme of the gospel. (I Cor. 15:1-4.) Paul declared, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). He explained, "The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18). The story of salvation flows forth from a wooden cross and an empty tomb.
The cross was the goal of Christ's earthly ministry. Jesus was born to die. In a certain sense, He was "born crucified." The shadow of the cross extended across the years to the manger of Bethlehem. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15). "He was manifested to take away our sins" (1 John 3:5). "Now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself " (Heb. 9:26). At the beginning of His ministry, He was revealed as "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Our Saviour explained, "The Son of man came ... to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).
The death of Christ is unique. It stands alone, a solitary event in the history of men. There has never been another death like His. His sacrifice can never be duplicated; His sufferings can never be equaled. The uniqueness of His death consists in its purpose, importance, and His infinite worth as the Son of God. Others have suffered crucifixion; many have experienced agonizing torture. Countless innocent men, moreover, have been executed unjustly. The death of Christ is unique, not because He died as a martyr or experienced a humiliating death, but because He alone is the Lamb of God who died for the sins of the world. His death was not merely martyrdom; it was a sacrifice.
I. Basis of Salvation
Christ's sacrificial death is the basis of salvation. Through the infinite value of His sacrifice, Jesus paid sin's penalty. His death removed the barrier created by man's sin in its relation to God's holiness. It provided a basis whereby God could bestow His blessings of grace upon sinners without violating His own nature of holiness and justice. Jesus is the only Saviour; there is no other way to God. If man is to be saved, he must be saved on the basis of Christ's sacrifice. Apart from His death, there can be no salvation.
II. The Sinner's Substitute
Jesus died as the sinner's Substitute. He took the sinner's place and bore the penalty of sin in His sufferings and death. He died on the cross so that believers would not die the second death.
"The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). God's holy nature requires that the penalty for every sin committed in the universe must be paid. The death of His Son upon the cross was payment of sin's penalty for believers. Being without sin, Jesus did not need to die for Himself. Through love, Jesus voluntarily sacrificed Himself and died as the believer's Substitute. Believers who are united with Christ through conversion, therefore, are free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1) and are exempt from the second death (Rev. 2:11; 20:6), in which the wicked will pay sin's penalty. Christ's righteousness is imputed to believers at conversion and is actually imparted to them as they permit Christ to exercise an influence in their lives.
1. Why Sin Must Result in Death. The wages of sin must be death, the opposite of life, because sin is anti-God and God is life. Sin violates God's moral laws, which are expressions of His own moral attributes: holiness, love, and truth. God Himself is the standard of right and wrong. Godliness is God-like-ness. To be godly is to be God-like in character and conduct. God is holy, and He said, "Be ye holy; for I am holy" (1 Pet. 1:16). God is love, and Jesus explained that love summarizes God's commandments (Matt. 22:37-40). When believers have been transformed according to God's plan, they have become reflections of the character of God and Jesus.
God's moral laws are not arbitrary. They did not result from arbitrary will nor divine whim. God's laws express not only His will, but also His holy character. Sin is contrary to the inward nature of God. God's holiness, righteousness, and justice require that sin result in death. Sin is anti-God. God must either condemn sin or violate His own character. Sin must result in destruction. The penalty for every sin must be paid. (Rom. 6:23; Gen. 2:17; 3:19; Rom. 1:32; 5:12.)
2. Second Death will Pay Sin's Penalty. Sinners will pay the penalty for their sins by being destroyed in the second death. (Rev. 20:15; 21:8.) The first death is not the final payment of sin's penalty. If it were the final payment, Christians, whose sins have been forgiven, would not die the first death. All men die the first death; only sinners, however, will die the second death. Why did not God destroy the human race the moment Adam and Eve sinned? Through mercy, grace, and longsuffering, God postponed the date when sin's penalty would be executed. He has "stayed" the execution until the second death so that sinners may have opportunity to repent.
The first death does not remove the sinner's guilt. Complete payment of sin's wages will be effected by the sinner when he will be destroyed in the second death. Raised to life in the final resurrection, sinners will still be under God's condemnation and wrath. The fact of guilt will not have changed. They will be chargeable for sins committed in this life. They will be judged according to sinful works they commit today. In the second death, sin's penalty will be paid; sinners will be destroyed.
3. Why a Substitute Is Needed. Eternal death and eternal life are mutually exclusive. If one pays for his own sins by being destroyed in the second death, he cannot live eternally. The second death will be destruction, extinction of life. Since God's holy nature requires that sin's penalty be paid, and since the sinner cannot pay that penalty himself and still experience eternal life, it is evident that if one is to be saved, sin's penalty must be paid by a substitute.
Through His plan of salvation, God provided a means whereby sin's penalty could be paid and the forgiven sinner could live for eternity. Jesus, the sinless Son of God, voluntarily became the sinner's Substitute. In His sacrificial death, He paid the wages of sin for believers. He took their place. Jesus is the only person who could have served as man's Substitute. He alone was without sin. If Jesus had not become man's Sacrifice, man would have been without salvation.
4. God's Holy Nature Maintained. Christ's vicarious sacrifice makes it possible for God to retain His holiness, righteousness, and justice while He forgives and justifies the sinner who believes in Christ. In forgiving the sinner, God does not act contrary to His holy character. Paul explained: "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Rom. 3:24-26). Through His death, Jesus satisfied the demands of law and requirements of God's holy government of the universe. God can continue to be holy while He justifies sinners because the demands of His holiness were met at Calvary.
5. Only Two Alternatives. The wages of sin can be paid in either one of two ways. The sinner may pay the penalty of his sin himself by being destroyed in the second death, or he may accept the benefits of Christ's sacrificial death. In each way, the wages of sin would be paid and the claims of God's holiness would be satisfied. If man paid the penalty of his own sin in the second death, he would be making personal satisfaction for his sin. If he became vitally united with the Lamb of God and accepted the benefits of His sacrifice, he would be making vicarious satisfaction for his sin. The sinner, therefore, has only two alternatives. He must accept Christ's sacrifice or be destroyed in the second death. There is no other possible choice. Apart from Christ, sinners face destruction.
III. Condition of Salvation
Christ's sacrifice is infinitely sufficient for every sinner; it is effective, however, only for those who accept it through faith. Provision of salvation has been made for all; application of salvation is made only to those who accept it. The Lamb of God potentially bore the guilt and paid sin's penalty for the entire human race. The benefits of His sacrifice, however, actually become effective in the sinner's life only when he becomes properly related to Christ through conversion.
Salvation is conditional. Originated in God's grace and based upon Christ's sacrifice, salvation can become a reality in the sinner's life only if God's requirements are met. Man's acceptance is the condition upon which salvation is bestowed. God has provided salvation; man must accept that salvation. Man has the responsibility; God receives the glory. At conversion, the sinner acknowledges Jesus as his Sacrifice, Substitute, and Saviour. By trusting in Christ, the believer reaches forth and accepts God's gift of salvation. He identifies himself as one for whom Jesus died. He thereby claims as his own all the spiritual benefits effected by Christ's sacrifice. What God has promised, he accepts as fact. He recognizes that he himself has been forgiven, justified, reconciled, redeemed, made holy, given newness of life, and adopted. He acknowledges the truth that he has entered into Christ and that Christ has entered into him. He knows he has a new legal standing and a vital relationship with God through Christ. Conversion includes the three elements: repentance, faith, and baptism. These are things man must do in order to accept God's gift of salvation.
(Adapted from Systematic Theology, by Alva Huffer, published by Church of God General Conference, Oregon, Illinois 61061, U.S.A.)
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