Why did Jesus die on the cross? That the cross is central to Christianity makes the answer to that question crucially important. Central to all aspects of His crucifixion is that on the cross Jesus paid the penalty for sin. His payment fully satisfied God’s wrath so that His death turned God’s wrath away from us. On the cross he suffered the wrath we deserve.
The Cross and God’s Wrath
On the cross, Jesus satisfied God’s wrath toward sinners. Each person has sinned. We have all broken God’s commands. As such we each deserve God’s wrath. Our sin provokes God’s anger (Jer. 32:30-32). God burns with wrath towards sinners (Josh. 7:1). His character requires that His wrath towards sin be satisfied (2 Kings 23:26). The wrath of God can only be satisfied when His judgment is complete (Ezek. 5:13; 16:42; 21:17). Being righteous, God requires payment for sins. His character demands it. Without salvation, we will each pay for our sins in hell. That’s why Jesus had to die. Either sinners pay for their own sins or Jesus pays for them. One way or another, payment must be made.
The Cross in the Old Testament
We see the need for payment in Leviticus. Leviticus 16 describes the day of atonement on which the people sacrificed a goat to God and then sent another goat into the desert. Substituting for the people, the ritual animal sacrifices demonstrated the removal of sin, the satisfaction of God’s justice, and the turning away of God’s wrath (Lev. 16:16, 17, 24, 30, 32-34). What the Old Testament foreshadowed in those animal sacrifices was fully realized in the cross of Christ (Heb. 9:15, 28). Moving from Leviticus into Isaiah, we find that same need for sacrificial payment fulfilled in a suffering Servant (Is. 53:7). The Servant’s punishment is on behalf of others (Is. 53:7-9). The Servant’s death results in the turning away of God’s anger towards His people as He restores them to righteousness (Is. 53:10-11). The Servant carries and bears sins as a substitute to satisfy God’s wrath (Is. 53:4, 5, 11, 12). Christians believe that the suffering Servant is Jesus Christ. He never sinned, and He received the wrath of God that we deserve (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24). The animal sacrifices found their culmination in Isaiah’s suffering Servant, who is Jesus Christ.
The Cross and God’s Justice
The New Testament uses the word “propitiation” in reference to Jesus’ death (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10). Propitiation means that Christ’s death satisfied God’s wrath and turned God’s wrath away. Instead of fearing judgment for our sins, Christians have peace with God because Jesus received the judgment we deserve. Paul says that Jesus died as a propitiation to show God’s “righteousness…so that he might be just and the justifier” (Rom. 3:25-36). From that, we learn that by Christ’s death God can justly justify sinners. Allow me to explain. Without payment for sin, God would be unable to save sinners. To do so without payment would be wrong, unjust. Having offered Christ as a payment for sinners, God can now justly save sinners. He is right to do so because of Christ’s propitiatory death. Payment has been made so now we don’t need to make it. Jesus fully satisfied God’s wrath to the point of turning it away.
Jesus died to satisfy God’s wrath and turn God’s wrath away from sinners. Each person has sinned. God must judge sin. In the Old Testament, God tells the people to offer animals as payment for sins. Those offerings are fulfilled in the suffering Servant of Isaiah who died on behalf of God’s people. The New Testament tells us that Isaiah’s suffering Servant is Jesus Christ. He died on the cross for sinners. Instead of paying for our own sins in hell, if we believe in Jesus God promises to accept Jesus as our payment. In Him we can be saved. That’s why Jesus died on the cross.