A gracEmail reader asks, “Was the cross necessary in order for God to forgive our sins? Did Jesus have to die in order for God to love us sinners?”
Jesus considered it imperative that he be murdered (Matt. 16:21) by crucifixion (Luke 24:7) and that he be “counted with the transgressors” (Luke 22:37). These things were “necessary” because the Father’s own love and holiness made it so, not because of something external to God himself which God was bound to obey. Nor were these things imposed on an unwilling Jesus by a determined Father, for Jesus “gave himself” (Gal. 2:20). Jesus’ heart and the Father’s both beat with identical love.
Scripture does not tell us exactly why Jesus’ death was necessary for God to forgive us, or precisely how his death accomplished that result. The Bible uses metaphors that illuminate this truth, analogies and figures of speech that shed light on this mysterious subject. It mentions “ransom” and “redemption.” It talks about “atonement” and “propitiation.” It speaks in terms of substitution and victory and recapitulation. We need to use care how we talk about the atonement. We are faithful when we affirm it, but we are foolish if we think we can fully explain it.
Most evangelical Christians now think and talk as if Scripture always spoke in terms of penal substitutionary atonement and only in those terms. As a result, that one metaphor is overworked while other scriptural figures remain unused and wasted on the shelf. We will do well to use all the concepts that the Bible uses, and to employ the full range of biblical terminology to express those concepts.
The Bible repeatedly affirms that Jesus carried our sins and died in the place of sinners. Jesus was “made sin” for us and “became a curse” (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). But Scripture never says that the Father was angry with Jesus. The Greek word orge occurs 36 times in the New Testament, where it is translated as wrath, anger, retribution, vengeance and indignation. But the New Testament never uses orge to describe God’s attitude toward his well-beloved Son.
Indeed, Jesus endured “punishment,” but the punishment he endured was ours. Isaiah explains: “But he lifted up our illnesses, he carried our pain; even though we thought he was being punished, attacked by God, and afflicted for something he had done. He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5, NET Bible). New Testament writers speak of judgment, justice, punishment, vengeance, revenge, torment, penalty and retribution, using eight different Greek words. But they never use any of those words to say what the Father did to Jesus.
The cross did not change God’s attitude toward sinners from hate to love. Rather, the cross demonstrated the love God had for sinners from eternity. John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world that he gave.” It does not say, “God gave so that he might love the world.” The suffering and death of Jesus in place of sinners expressed and demonstrated the eternal heart of God — the kind intentions of the Creator which preceded not only the cross but also Creation itself.
The Son of God became human in Jesus of Nazareth to “make propitiation” as high priest for the sins of his people (Heb. 2:17 NASB, NKJV). Instead of saying “make propitiation,” other English versions here say that Jesus “made atonement” (NIV, NET), “made a sacrifice of atonement” (NRSV), or “offer[ed] a sacrifice that would take away the sins” (NLT). The Greek verb behind all these phrases has a rich background in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), where it appears 12 times and always means “to forgive” or “to pardon.” (It has that same meaning in Luke 18:13, its only other appearance in the New Testament.)
The Septuagint also uses another, intensive, form of our Greek verb 90 times, 75 times as a translation of the usual Hebrew verb meaning “to make atonement.” English versions of the Old Testament nearly always translate this intensive Greek verb as “to make atonement” or “to forgive.”
This is significant, because non-biblical Greek writers regularly used the verb found in Hebrews 2:17 to mean “to appease” (particularly the gods) or “to turn away anger.” But does the verb carry that same connotation in the Greek Old Testament? My review indicates that it sometimes does, but not when it stands for the Hebrew verb that means “to make atonement.”
However, the intensive form of this Greek word, which the Greek Old Testament uses 75 times for the Hebrew verb meaning “to make atonement,” does connote appeasement of anger three times (once of God; twice of humans), and the idea might be suggested in two other places. That said, most often in the Septuagint, this Greek word clearly does not involve any stated relationship to anger or expressed thought of turning anger away.
I conclude that in the Greek Old Testament, either form of the Greek verb found in Hebrews 2:17 can include the notion of appeasement, but that notion cannot be assumed by the mere usage of either form of the Greek word itself. I further conclude that when New Testament writers use this word and others related to it, they do so with the Old Testament usage in mind, and that we should give greater weight to the way this word is used in the Greek Old Testament than to its non-Christian Greek usage, in forming our own understanding of this family of words.