John Stott tries to explain why Jesus Christ came to earth in Chapter 7 of his book Basic Christianity. On April 14* I commented on God’s gift to us, that God had taken the initiative to rescue man from sin by sending us Jesus. For a new Christian this is a very complex idea. On April 22**, I commented on Stott’s ideas about the cross being the central idea of the faith. On April 29*** the topic was the “basic” meaning of the cross for the new believer, with a focus on Jesus Christ as the Christians’ example.
To end Chapter 7, Stott focuses on Jesus as sinbearer. As I read through these pages, I was struck by a quote by Stott describing the unpopularity of this idea: “This simple and wonderful tale of the sinbearing of the Son of God is strangely unpopular today. That He should have borne our sins and taken our penalty is said to be immoral or unworthy or unjust” .****
Let’s look at those three ideas, incorporating basic ideas about Jesus as sinbearer throughout.
What would be immoral about Jesus bearing our sins? Anyone with any sense of morality would say that He did not deserve His fate. Jesus was God and He was not capable of sin, yet He died a horrible death of a common criminal on a Roman cross. Some may question my use of the word fate above. Fate is defined as “the development of events beyond a person’s control” and people who say that Jesus suffered a fate He did not deserve, don’t understand the purpose of His life. This was not some development of events beyond His control. He was totally in control of what happened to Him. He did not have to suffer on the cross; He chose to suffer on the cross. Now in our world today, giving one’s life for someone else is not very common (in fact, that kind of act often elevates one to hero status). Jesus gave His life for all mankind as a way to relieve us from our burden of sin. Man was never successful in living a righteous life by the sacrifice of animals even though he tried to do just that. But when John the Baptist saw Jesus for the first time, he cried out “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He knew exactly why Jesus was on earth. Jesus’ death was not some immoral act done on a poor individual. Maybe misunderstanding the intent of Jesus’ life causes people to think things that make it strangely unpopular.
Unworthiness is a second reason that the idea of Jesus as sinbearer is “strangely unpopular.” Of course anyone who is without sin would be unworthy of the punishment of death, but maybe worthiness goes much deeper than the innocence of the Victim. People who don’t understand Jesus’ sacrifice may wonder about their own worthiness; in short, why would this Man give His life for me? The most common comment I hear from new Christians is “I am not worthy of Jesus’ sacrifice. Of course, we are not. I remember when I was a new believer; I thought I “owed” Jesus my best behavior because of what He did for me. NOTHING I could do would repay what Jesus did for me. What did I need to do? I needed to accept His sacrifice; I needed to accept His gift with grace. It was free, with no strings attached. In my mind, I owed God something. How can I owe when I am incapable of repaying? As time in the faith went by, I eventually began to realize that I was the unworthy one.
“That He should have borne our sins and taken our penalty is said to be …unjust” . When someone has a crime committed against them, they seek justice from the criminal justice system. If we file charges, we want the crime investigated, evidence collected and the crime prosecuted. So many reality crime shows on television today***** are predicated on those very ideas. People are often interviewed who cry out for justice for the victim. In the case of Jesus Christ, of course there was no justice in His punishment. He was not tried by a jury of His peers. He was punished because He made the religious authorities of His day upset; He questioned their qualification for power. When He was put before the crowd, mob mentality took over and they called out for His death and in His place, they let a horrible criminal go free. There was nothing correct about what happened to our Lord and Savior. From a legal perspective it was all wrong. In the New Testament First Peter 2 states “He committed no sin; no guile was found on His lips.” Isaiah 53 predicted this in the Old Testament: “He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in His mouth.” For no reason “He was reviled” [1 Peter 2]. It is no surprise that this was predicted in Isaiah 53 “He was despised and rejected by men.” Jesus was on a mission and death was part of that mission, death on the cross. We are the ones who benefit from the lack of justice that He experiences. The people of His day did little to correct their mistake but Jesus knew what they were going to do. He knew He was going to an unjust end.
A great many people make fun of Christianity. They see no great difference between the Christian faith and eastern religions. When they consider Christianity they claim it is a system of human merit. “God helps those who help themselves.” If we are good people, God will reward us; if we are not, we will be punished. They don’t understand that nothing can equal what Christ did for us and they don’t understand God’s forgiveness as we live sinful lives. Stott writes “He died to atone for our sins for the simple reason that we cannot atone for them ourselves. If we could, His atoning death would be redundant. Indeed, to claim that we can secure God’s favor by our own efforts is an insult to Jesus Christ.” Maybe what makes the “simple and wonderful tale of the sinbearing” so unpopular is that we owe a debt that we cannot repay so we can’t turn to God and “we can manage without You.”
I love the way Stott ends Chapter 7 so much that I want to close my comments with his final words “Every Christian can echo these words. There is healing through His wounds, life through His death, pardon through His pain, salvation through His suffering” .
*St. John Studies, “Not Understanding God’s Gift to Us,” April 14, 2022.
**St. John Studies, “The Big Picture,” April 22, 2022.
***St. John Studies, “The ‘Basic’ Meaning of the Cross, April 29, 2022.
****Let me assert that unpopularity of Jesus’ sinbearing is based on worldly standards. We cannot judge Jesus’ act by evaluating it with the world’s standard of morality, worthiness and justice.
*****e.g. “Dateline,” “Forth-eight Hours” and “20/20.”