How does a vicious, humiliating instrument of Capital Punishment become the ultimate symbol of grace and forgiveness?
Christ’s passion on the Cross is mocked by some as “divine child abuse” while others deny justice could ever be done by proxy. Still others wonder why forgiveness would require any penalty at all. “If God really is Good,” (they might ask) “what prevents him from just forgiving everybody?”
The question of whether there is any other way has been answered; Jesus himself asked about one in the Garden of Gethsemane. Feeling the weight of what was coming, he was still committed to finishing the work he came to do. Yet he still asked if there was any other way. Since Jesus went to the Cross, there was not.
Calvary was the time and place in history where the ongoing tension between justice and mercy was finally resolved. What tension? Let me explain.
Think of any recent news story where a crime was committed; where the accused is obviously guilty. Make it a serious enough crime where the penalty is catastrophic. It could be death penalty, or else lifelong prison.
Now put someone behind the bench that takes his responsibility as judge very seriously. He understands that both victims and the accused depend on him to execute his job faithfully. Real guilt needs real consequences, and the innocent need his protection. He’s a good judge, one that cannot be bullied, bribed, or conned into acting against his conscience.
It’s a slam-dunk, right? Let the beggar rot, right? Absolutely. That’s justice. To do less than throw the book at our criminal would be dishonest. It would dishonor his victims, and it would make him a dishonest judge.
Unfortunately, there sometimes are judges like that in our broken world today. In the real world, the guilty sometimes do go free, and the victims have no recourse. But not our judge; he’s a straight arrow.
Imagine that our honest judge had, for some reason, great compassion for the accused. It wasn’t that the accused did enough good things to deserve a lighter sentence, or that his background was somehow an excuse for his crimes; nothing like that.
For some reason, this judge identified with the accused, and saw something of himself in that man. The guilt and the need for penalty didn’t change. It was something different. He saw that delivering the proper penalty for the crime would be a tragic waste of life, if there was any hope of redemption.
Do not misunderstand me. He would never just let a guilty man go free. He’s guilty, and the punishment is just. But if there was some way the judge could provide the justice the victims demanded and deserved, without also destroying the life of the accused, that would be worth it.
Imagine there was a way to present a choice to the accused. Option one, was remain exactly the way you are, and face the due penalty for your crimes, come what may. That’s the obvious option, and for many people, the only one they can see.
Suppose there was a way to offer another choice. Something like this: The man you are today, in this cell, guilty as you are, dies today. That man will never walk out of the cell again. But that is not the end.
You will no longer be that man. You will undergo a transformation at the deepest level of who you are, and a radically different you will walk out of this cell. Truly a new man. A pledge to live differently won’t be enough. It needs to be more. What you love will need to change; your motives and drives — those things you can’t really change on your own.
Suppose the person offering this choice also had the ability to “operate” on that person’s thoughts, loves, and motives the same way a surgeon can extract a cancer, but he required the cooperation of the accused. And better still, suppose he knows how to return health to the places he cut.
That still doesn’t solve the problem of the vindication of the victims. Somebody has to pay, and you can’t just swap out some schmo off the street. That would be unjust, making the Judge as guilty as those whose cases he hears.
The substitute would need to be innocent, not facing any charges of his own. (Imagine — sentencing someone on death row to his second execution!) He would also have to take the guilt willingly and acknowledge that he was accepting someone else’s penalty and offering his own real innocence to the accused in exchange.
This is precisely what the Bible (Romans 6:4) describes in the life of a Christian. We all have real guilt, which has a real penalty. Christ took on our guilt, and offered his perfect righteousness in its place.
If we identify with his death as ours, trusting in His righteousness, and more than that, share in his Resurrection by the new life He offers us, we have understood why He has come.
To satisfy divine justice — Christ bled and died.
To satisfy divine mercy — Christ offers a renegade people his own righteousness, that we may be reconciled to God.
What is the good news of Easter?
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
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