WAS CHRIST'S death really necessary? Jesus Himself told the story of the creditor who had two debtors. Between them they owed a great sum of money and neither had the wherewithal to pay. But the creditor, when they couldn't pay, "frankly forgave them both" and wiped out the debt (Luke 7:41-42). Why couldn't God forgive sin that way? If God is really all-powerful, couldn't He simply say, "I forgive you"? Was it really necessary for the very One who created the whole, vast universe to actually die? Surely a loving and merciful God could forgive sin without such a tragedy having to take place. Why must God be so exacting, so punitive — even legalistic, some might say? Isn't He big enough to overlook what we have done? Why make such a "big deal" out of sin? You've probably heard about the parable of the "prodigal son" recorded in Luke 15. This son wasted away his entire inheritance on riotous living. He had "sown his wild oats" until he was in a state of abject poverty. But when he "came to himself," this tragic specimen returned home to his father to seek help. And "when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him" (verse 20). All was immediately forgiven! Why couldn't God just write off our sins like the prodigal son's father? Was the murder of God's own Son really necessary to make possible the forgiveness of sin?
Nothing Is Free
You've probably heard that forgiveness is free. Millions believe that it is. Now, you can't earn forgiveness. But neither is it free! Is that a contradiction? Consider. Is there anything that is really free? You've heard the expression, "Free as the air we breathe." But even fresh air doesn't come for nothing. It takes work — even though involuntary — to breathe. Nothing is free in the strictest sense. You simply can't get "something for nothing." We must pay ill some way for everything. And forgiveness is no exception. It may come to us as a gift, but it is not free. It cost a tremendous price. It is because millions believe forgiveness is free that they have overlooked the real purpose for Christ's death!
The Debt of Sin
Sin is a debt. To sin is to "miss the mark" — to come short of God's required standard, breaking God's perfect law (I John 3:4). That's something we've all done. As Paul put it: "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). As a result, we owe God a debt, and the debt we have incurred will cost us our very lives, for the penalty of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). If we personally pay that debt, we will perish forever! Fortunately, we don't have to suffer eternal death. Since Jesus Christ is responsible for the existence of every human being who ever walked the face of this earth, His life is worth far more than all our lives put together. He is the One who created Adam from the dust of the earth. He could pay the debt in our stead — and be resurrected to life again because He lived a sinless life. So He put up the ransom price for us — His own life. "... All come short of the glory of God, but they are justified for nothing by his grace through the ransom provided in Christ Jesus... " (Rom. 3:23-24, Moffatt translation). Forgiveness comes to us freely in that there is nothing we can do to "earn" it, but it is not really free in the strictest sense because Christ payed the debt of sin in our stead with His life. But why did anyone need to pay it? Couldn't God just excuse the debt without someone dying for us?
The Law-Abiding Universe
God set in motion laws which exact a penalty if they are broken. These laws are inexorable. The penalty is automatic. God has physical laws to guarantee order in His universe. They continually operate the same way without fluctuation. If God weren't that way, if His laws governing motion and matter in the universe were flimsy, uncertain, or indefinite, the whole universe would fall apart! There would be no orderly universe, no solar system, and no human life if God's laws were not inexorable. We would have chaos. And God is not a God of confusion (I Cor. 14:33). God's spiritual laws are no different. There's only one way to produce order, peace, happiness; and God's law defines that way. You can't be completely and continuously happy any other way. God's way — the way which results in every good thing — is the way of love, the way of giving, serving, sharing and helping. Love is outgoing concern — doing to others as you would have them do to you. This philosophy of life is expressed in God's law. Indeed, it is the whole aim of the law (Matt. 7:12; 22:37-40). When we go in the direction of death, breaking God's laws, we shall eventually arrive at the destination toward which we have been traveling. God doesn't somehow mysteriously step in to bring the penalty of lawbreaking upon us whenever we sin. The penalty of sin — the result of the way we have been traveling — is automatic. If you take a plane to New York from Los Angeles, you end up in New York. If you travel down the road that leads to every form of misery and wretchedness, that's where you end up. If you go in the way which leads to death, God will oblige and eventually put us to death. "For the wages of sin is death..." (Rom. 6:23). When you break the law and go in a different direction, the inevitable result is going to be unhappiness. Any "kicks" that come from breaking God's laws are only temporary (Heb. 11:25) and will lead to undesirable "kickbacks."
Every Book Must Balance
God by His very nature and in His supreme wisdom has determined that the books must be balanced — every debt must be reconciled. For forgiveness to be possible — for us to continue to live — someone had to pay the debt we have incurred. Someone had to suffer the penalty of death in our place. Consider again the parable of the creditor who forgave the two debtors. They got off "scot free" — or did they? No, someone had to pay! The creditor himself met the price of their debt, and it cost him a great sum of money. The father of the prodigal son forgave his son's foolishness — but there was no longer an inheritance by which the son could have a living. The father had to pay for his sustenance. So, sin always exacts a price. And the person who forgives must balance the books at his own expense. Sin is too serious to be just "shrugged off" — the debt must be settled, and the books balanced. And Jesus Christ settled the debt for us. God was willing to allow the life of His own Son to be sacrificed to pay the debt that no human being could ever afford to pay. Christ died because God's character is so consistent that there could be no other way for Him to extend mercy to us. God had a way to extend mercy to every human being who ever sinned — and still not compromise His holy, righteous, perfect character.
Be Ye Perfect
God is perfect — He hates imperfection. Christ said that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, or we will never enter His Kingdom (Matt. 5:20). The Pharisees strove to keep the physical aspects of the law, but Christ taught we must keep the law in its full spiritual intent. The letter of the law said don't commit adultery. Christ said we shouldn't even look upon a woman in a lustful way (Matt. 5:27-28). The letter of the law said don't murder. But New Testament Christians are told that hatred is the spirit of murder (verses 21-24). What does God require? "Be ye therefore perfect, even as [to the same extent as] your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (verse 48).
Forgiveness — An Investment in the Future
Forgiveness is not just an end in itself. It's a means to an end. David wrote: "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust" (Ps. 103:13-14). God recognizes we are human, subject to all of the pulls and weaknesses of human nature. He knows that we can't become perfect overnight. Building righteous, godly character is a lifetime project. He understands that we will stumble along the way. When we do, Christ's sacrifice enables the Father to extend His mercy to us so that we may get up and try again. God's mercy — His forgiveness — is an investment in future growth and progress. It is through Christ's resurrection, not merely His death, that we have hope of eternal life — "We shall be saved by his life" (Rom. 5:10). It is the resurrected Christ who gives us the power to strive for perfection — and so make His forgiveness bear fruit. Clearly then, Christ's shed blood does not excuse sin — it doesn't allow us to continue on in the same rut of disobedience to God's law. God expects us to overcome human weaknesses, and to grow toward perfection (Rev. 2:26; II Pet. 3:18). Like the Apostle Paul, we must press toward the high standard God has set. "Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended," Paul wrote, "but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded..." (Phil. 3:13-15). Are you striving for perfection, growing spiritually, keeping God's law more completely and wholeheartedly as Paul did? Christ died not just to pay for our past imperfection. Nor did He die so that we could continue to live in sin. He died to give us time and help to change. His death is an investment in our future growth. Let us never forget the enormous investment Christ has made in our lives. If you would like help and encouragement in using God's grace to conquer sin, read the article "How To Be an Overcomer." Also read Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong's inspiring booklet Just What Do You Mean...Conversion? This material has helped thousands lead more Christlike lives.