I came across a Facebook status on the Bethel Music page where they said: “The reason for the cross was not sin. It was love.” A touching little statement. But is it true? I shared the status with the comment “Yikes. Theological train wreck” which garnered some response both in the comments and in private messages.
What do I find so troubling about this statement? I have no trouble with someone saying that the cross was motivated by love. That’s certainly true. God’s love for rebellious sinners. God’s love for his own glory. Christ’s obedient love to the father. Love is a crucial component of the cross. But the above statement is creating a false dichotomy. It suggests that the reason for the cross is either sin or love. And to say that the reason for the cross was not sin is terribly unbiblical.
I turn now to J.I. Packer, who as usual, puts it far more eloquently than I ever could:
The basic description of the saving death of Christ in the Bible is as propitiation, that is, as that which quenched God’s wrath against us by obliterating our sins from his sight. God’s wrath is his righteousness reacting against unrighteousness; it shows itself in retributive justice. But Jesus Christ has shielded us from the nightmare prospect of retributive justice by becoming our representative substitute, in obedience to his Father’s will, and receiving the wages of our sin in our place….
Do you understand this? If you do, you are now seeing to the very heart of the Christian gospel. No version of that message goes deeper than that which declares man’s root problem before God to be his sin, which evokes wrath, and God’s basic provision for man to be propitiation, which out of wrath brings peace. Some versions of the gospel, indeed, are open to blame because they never get down to this level.
We have all heard the gospel presented as God’s triumphant answer to human problems—problems of our relation with ourselves and our fellow humans and our environment. Well, there is no doubt that the gospel does bring us solutions to these problems, but it does so by first solving a deeper problem—the deepest of all human problems, the problem of man’s relation with his Maker. And unless we make it plain that the solution to these former problems depends on the settling of this latter one, we are misrepresenting the message and becoming false witnesses of God—for a half-truth presented as if it were the whole truth becomes something of a falsehood by that very face. No reader of the New Testament can miss the fact that is knows all about our human problems—fear, moral cowardice, illness of body and mind, loneliness, insecurity, hopelessness, despair, cruelty, abuse of power and the rest—but equally no reader of the New Testament can miss the fact that it resolves all these problems, one way or another, into the fundamental problem of sin against God.
When we downplay sin as the fundamental problem, we are distorting the gospel. That is what I find so troubling by any statement that implies that our sin was not the reason for the death of Christ.
Quotation from J.I Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 189-190. In the chapter “The Heart of the Gospel”