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To the Gentiles, the cross is a scandal. The notion that Jesus had to die a horrible death on the cross in order for God’s justice and wrath to be satisfied simply does not resonate with the 21st century mind.
In the words of the Reformed confessions, “God's justice demands that human nature, which has sinned, must pay for its sin” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 16). So “God sent his Son to assume the nature in which the disobedience had been committed, in order to bear in it the punishment of sin” (Belgic Confession, Art. 20). The Son of God in Jesus Christ “presented himself in our name before his Father, to appease his wrath with full satisfaction by offering himself on the tree of the cross” (Belgic, Art. 21). The Son “sustained in body and soul the anger of God against the sin of the whole human race.” In so doing, Jesus “set us free, body and soul, from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God's grace, righteousness, and eternal life” (Heidelberg, Q&A 37). He had to go all the way to death because “God's justice and truth demand it” (Heidelberg, Q&A 40). To contemporary ears far removed from the Old Testament sacrificial rites, this sounds scandalous.
Did God practice divine child abuse and literally beat his own Son to hell? Absolutely not.
1. Jesus laid down his life voluntarily. Jesus himself said his life was his own to give. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:18 ESV). Jesus had a choice. Neither Satan nor the Father had a gun to his head.
2. God the Father would have come to his Son’s rescue at any moment. At any time during Christ’s passion, he could have called for 12 legions of angels to rescue him (Matt. 26:53). Just one angel was enough to make a Roman guard collapse in fear (Matt. 28:4). We can only imagine what it would be like to suddenly have 72,000 angels rescuing Jesus. But Jesus did not say he would call the angels on his own authority. Jesus said he would call upon his Father to send the angels, and the Father would send them “at once.” The picture here is of the Father with his army positioned to move in. God’s arm is raised, ready to give the signal that would launch the forces of heaven if Jesus just said the word. The Father would have come to his rescue in an instant.
3. Jesus as Son of God is just as much God as the Father. All three persons of the triune God are equally uncreated, immeasurable, and eternal. This means when we sing the words “Till on the cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied” (“In Christ Alone”), it was not only the wrath of God the Father. It was the wrath of Jesus too. Christ on the cross is not God sending someone else to pay for sin. Christ on the cross is God himself taking the punishment for our sin. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. . . . By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24 ESV).
4. God the Father suffered just as much, if not more than Christ. In the triune God, three distinct persons are so unified that they are properly “one” as much as they are “three.” When one suffers, the others suffer also. When human beings love one another, we suffer along with those who suffer (1 Cor. 12:26). How much more does the Godhead suffer together being bound with love that is perfect?
Recently I was talking with a father whose 10-year-old daughter was scheduled to have ear surgery. She was terrified about the upcoming surgery but it needed to be done. This father said how much he wished he could take her place. He wished he could take the fear and pain upon himself instead of having to watch the daughter he loves suffer. How much more did God the Father wish to take the place of his only Son in anguish on the cross? As difficult as it was for the Son to endure the cross, how much more difficult would it be for the Father to keep himself from intervening? When Jesus was mocked and ridiculed for being “king of the Jews,” how much did the Father want to rebuke with a thundering voice from heaven? When they pounded nails into his hands and feet, how much did it hurt to hold back and watch his Son suffer mortal agony? How awful would it be to hear your only child cry out, “Why have you forsaken me?” and not rush to comfort?
Taken together, all this suggests that the cross was a coordinated plan mutually agreed upon by all members of the Godhead. None were afflicted against their will. All three had to suffer greatly for the sins of believers to be taken away.
Understanding that Jesus chose the cross gives added weight to his words “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV). Our Lord Jesus Christ truly loves us if he intentionally chose the cross of his own free will. His passion came from pure love.
The cross may be scandalous to the minds of others, but for those of us who are saved, it is the power of God and the incredible love of God (1 Cor. 1:18-24).