For me, a viable understanding of how the cross saves us begins with five affirmations:
- The entire Trinity thought up the plan of salvation,
- Calvary does not change God. It is entirely for created beings, both here on earth and in the rest of the universe. It is a teaching tool, a demonstration, with several very important lessons to convey. If I fail to understand those lessons or if I say, “I don’t know how it works, it’s a mystery,” then the cross has failed to fully achieve its purpose in my life.
- The ultimate goal of Calvary is a restored relationship with humanity (at-one-ment). The cross was intended to deal with the fundamental sin, which is estrangement from God.
- The cross didn’t make anything so, it simply revealed what was already so.
- The members of the Trinity are all equally eager to forgive.
Any explanation of how the cross saves humanity should deal with all five affirmations. In this article I address the question, “Why was the cross necessary in order for God to forgive?”
Even though the members of the Trinity were all equally eager to forgive, They faced one major problem: “How do we forgive sin without encouraging it?” How do we forgive without creating the subsequent problem of people taking sin lightly?
Imagine what would happen if the United States Supreme Court said, “We will pardon any convicted criminal who asks for it.” By ignoring the issue of accountability, the judges would unleash cultural anarchy and could be charged with malpractice.
The issue of accountability is infinitely bigger for God. How he treats sinners, not only effects a local town or city, it affects the thinking of the entire universe. If God acts like the misguided judges, the entire universe would be thrown into confusion and chaos.
So what to do? How to forgive without fostering lawlessness? The cross was the answer.
At Calvary the curtains are pulled back on the future and we see played out before us in heartbreaking detail what will happen to unrepentant sinners at the final judgment. Christ’s experience on Calvary mirrors two key elements of what the godless will ultimately endure. In both cases they will feel completely separated from God and face a future without hope of a resurrection.
The cross is about demonstrating that the universal law of cause and effect will never be abrogated. Golgotha makes searingly clear that the principles of God’s kingdom are as permanent as the law of gravity and the consequences of rejecting them will result in disaster.
On Golgotha, God is saying to all humanity, “Just because I forgive those who seek it now, don’t think for a moment that I am doing away with ultimate accountability for those who choose life without me. Examine what happened to my sinless son when he was treated as you will of necessity be treated if you ultimately choose to make self your God.”
Once that fundamental truth is nailed down, God can extend forgiveness without risking misunderstanding, without creating the perception that indifference and rebellion don’t really matter.
The apostle Paul asserts this very thing in Romans 3:25-26:
“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith…He did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
Because of what happened on the cross, God can justify us and still maintain justice in the universe. He can forgive us without being accused of thereby eliminating accountability. That’s what the scriptures mean when they say that Christ “paid the price,” “took our punishment,” and “bore our sins.” The cross enabled the Trinity to do what they always wanted to.
After the savior was nailed to the cross, God the Father separated himself from his beloved son from about noon until 3 P.M. Jesus’ cry of horror draws from Psalm 22:1:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?”
The Lord yelled the opening words of the first verse because it was the perfect expression of what He was experiencing. Christ had no doubt studied this Psalm very carefully in an attempt to anticipate His ordeal. But the reality turned out to be far worse than He imagined.
Ellen White in The Desire of Ages (1945) describes the inner darkness from separation as so profound, so overwhelming, that the Lord lost hope. In His humanity, the Savior could no longer envision His own resurrection (see pg. 753).
For over thirty years, Jesus had depended fully on His heavenly Father for spiritual guidance and strength to endure. Their relationship was more intimate than any of us can imagine. The Savior’s connection to the Father was as vital as a deep sea diver’s oxygen line to the surface. But during three terrible hours on Calvary, the prospect of eternal separation was all that Christ could see. The Devil and his minions wrung the Savior’s heart by repeatedly shouting, “The Father will never take you back, it’s over!”
What must the separation from God have been like? Any portrayal will inevitably fall far short of reality. But I can at least imagine that around noon the Lord sensed that something vital was changing. He could feel that something essential to his very existence, something he had depended on his entire life, was draining away. A shudder ran through his body. Waves of emotional and mental pain caused the physical pain to be hardly felt. He had a hard time focusing. Everything seemed to be closing in on him. Inner turmoil caused him to throw up and suffer periodic dry heaves.
What he had dreaded in Psalms 22 was coming true. Christ now faced the greatest threat of his life. his mind screamed at him that all was lost. He prayed to remain faithful just one more second, and then another, and another. At one point the inner desperation could not be contained any longer and his dry, battered lips formed the cry that shook the heavens, “Why have You forsaken me?” It took every ounce of concentration and trust to stick with the plan and stay on the cross, no matter what.
Thankfully, at about 3 P.M., Christ’s sense of separation lifted and hope returned. He looked upward through swollen eyes, took in as big a breath as possible, and yelled, “It is finished! Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.” Those words echoed among the familiar Judean hills. His head then slumped forward, and he died (Luke 23:46).
Image: Crucifix, 16th–17th century, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kongo peoples, solid cast brass, 27.3 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)