How Does Christ’s Sacrifice Work to Remove Sin?
Was it necessary for Jesus to
be the Creator—being “worth more” than his creation—in
order for his sacrifice to be effective in removing mankind’s sins?
by Kenneth Westby
Since “the wages of sin is death,” and “all have sinned,” does it follow that to forgive sin, “pay” the debt of sin; the “payer” must be worth more than the entire sinful human race? Only the Creator of man could be worth more than his creation. Hence, for Jesus’ self-sacrifice to be effective in “paying” for the sins of humanity, he had to worth more than humanity and only the Creator fits that requirement. Jesus, assuming this premise, must have preexisted as the Creator in order for his sacrifice to be effective.
There is cash register logic to this proposition that is so commonly used to explain how Christ’s sacrifice pays for man’s sin. In times past I remember using this logic at baptismal counselings in explaining why Jesus had to die; the value of the sacrifice had to outweigh the debt. But is this really how sacrifice in Scripture works?
Just weeks removed from the Passover season, the concept of sacrifice should remain fresh on our minds. We understand the Passover story of being under the sacrificial blood of a lamb to be pointing to Jesus, the Lamb of God. In that original Passover the blood of a slain lamb was painted upon the door lentil causing inhabitants to go under it to enter the dwelling and be spared from the death plague sweeping Egypt. The first born of all under the blood were spared from death.
Question: Was the killed lamb of greater worth than the human inhabitants within the home? Did the “angel of death” (sent by God) spare the firstborn of Israel because of the great worth of their animal sacrifice? Is that how sacrificing works? Was it their animal that delivered them or was it their obedience to God that merited his mercy.
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams (1 Sam 15:22). God asks, “Do I eat the flesh of strong bulls, or is the blood of goats my drink? Offer to God praise as your sacrifice and fulfill your vows to the Most High; then call upon me in time of distress; I will rescue you, and you shall glorify me” (Ps 50:13-15, NAB).
The only thing that made a sacrifice effective in the OT was God’s acceptance of it. The only sacrifices that he accepted were those offered with an obedient and pure heart. God said, “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats…What are they to me?” God wants our heart and minds. He says, “Come now, let us reason together…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow…if you are willing and obedient…” (Isa 1:11-20).
Again, “the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says: …I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all my ways I command you, that it may go well with you” (Jer 7:21-23).
What makes a sacrifice effective isn’t a magic formula that of its own can effect some desired result. The incantations and sacrifices of ignorant pagans have that cachet. Sacrifice in Scripture is directed Godward and appeals to his mercy and kindness. It functions like prayer which, if arising from a sincere and obedient heart and directed to the one true God, will be heard in heaven.
The blood of bulls, goats and lambs don’t remove sin and never did. God forgives and removes sins as he sees a repentant and sincere heart desiring to follow him. Continually God makes plain what he expects from man: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6).
Blood sacrifice in the OT was a deadly business. There was a vicarious element in the sacrificial rite that spoke a serious truth: God alone accepts or rejects (or ignores) the sacrifice based on the heart and actions of the one offering it. The sacrificer must identify with the sacrifice in the sense that its life is given to God with an appeal for God’s forgiveness, mercy and blessing.
Abraham’s offering of Isaac in sacrifice to God perfectly illustrates the dynamic. What was God’s objective in asking this supreme sacrifice—that of his only son, the son of promise? Was it not to measure the depth of Abraham’s belief, trust, and obedience to Yahweh? God didn’t want Isaac’s blood, just Abraham’s total commitment of mind, body and soul. It was the most difficult request ever made of a man and when Abraham obeyed God he was told, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Gn 22:12).
Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son prefigures the Father’s gift of his son. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that who ever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16).
What makes Christ’s sacrifice efficacious to forgive the sins of the world? Jesus’ sacrifice was not vicarious—he was the Lamb of God to be slain for the sins of the world. He willingly offered up himself for that purpose. So what made his sacrifice acceptable to his Father, Yahweh? Was it that he was “worth” more than the entire creation? Remember, God loved the world before he offered his son, and mercy and forgiveness is not based upon worth or merit.
What made Jesus the perfect and supreme sacrifice was that he was the unique, one and only Son of His Majesty; and, most importantly, that he was well pleasing to his Father. Jesus’ sacrifice is effective on our behalf because it has been accepted by God. This is called God’s mercy. “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (Rm 3:28).
What made Christ’s sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to his heavenly Father? Was it not the perfect fulfillment of the same expectations God has always had: reverent submission and obedience to him and his will? Speaking of Jesus, “he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he because the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…” (Heb 5:7-9).
Jesus provided both the sacrifice and the proper attitude of heart to accompany the sacrifice. Jesus was a lamb without blemish not needing to repent of his own sins for he was sinless. Yet he became the vicarious offering for our sins. He did so in obedience and reverence for his God.
The Father was involved at both ends of this once-for-all-eternity sacrificial rite: He offered his son (like Abraham) and he also accepted the offering, the precious life-blood of his beloved son. He did this on our behalf.
For Christ’s part, the
words of Psalm 40 fit perfectly: “Here I am—it is written about me in the
scroll—I have come to do your will O God” (vs 7). Jesus’ life was one of total
submission and obedience to his Father, the Creator. The will of the Father was
Jesus’ all consuming concern (see
Scripture makes plain that the Father accepted his son’s sacrifice because he was a “son in whom I am well pleased.” What made Jesus a perfect and pleasing sacrifice? Everything about him: his heart, mind and strength, his love, mercy, justice, character and his total obedience and devotion to the heavenly Father. Jesus said “I do all things to please him” (Jn 8:29).
This is why the Father graciously accepted Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf and offers to remove the sins of all who come in the spirit of his son. Peter announced to the multitudes on the Day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Ac 2:38).
God wants us to become like his son in heart, mind and action. He is a merciful and kind God ready and willing to forgive. He asks that we come in the name and spirit of his son and not only will he forgive our sins, but raise us to eternal life as he did his son.
It is not cash-register logic (Jesus had to preexist as Creator in order to be worth more than the debts of sinful humanity) that is required to pay for sin. It is the love and mercy of God the Father and Jesus Christ that forgives our sins and brings us into the Kingdom of God.
The Bible plainly tells us what was required to forgive the sins of the world: A perfect sacrifice—the man Jesus, Son of God, Son of Man; and the mercy of our good and gracious Father.