In our last blog post on this topic, we showed that the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ were voluntary and necessary, necessary because God ordained them for His Son; voluntary because Jesus willingly endured them for His people.
But why would the merciful Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ordain such dreadful sufferings for His beloved Son? Why would He not spare Jesus? The answer lies in another necessity, the necessity of our salvation.
The Dreadful Cup
Jesus wrestled with this necessity in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before His arrest. After the Last Supper with His disciples, Jesus made His way to a garden on the outskirts of Jerusalem. In that garden, Jesus prayed. In His prayer, we get a glimpse into the soul of Jesus as He contemplated the path that He must take to the cross. Jesus describes how He felt: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matt. 26:38). What could have so oppressed the soul of Jesus that He became “sorrowful and very heavy” (v. 37)? What could have caused Him to be “in an agony,” so that “His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44)?
The answer is found in one word—the “cup.” In the Bible, a cup describes the allotted portion of something. Sometimes a cup is a cup of blessedness and salvation. The Psalmist sings, “The LORD is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup” (Ps. 16:5) and “my cup runneth over” (Ps. 23:5). Elsewhere, the Psalmist vows, “I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD” (Ps. 116:13). Often, however, a cup is a cup of punishment, cursing, and wrath: “Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire, and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup” (Ps. 11:6); “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is full of mixture; and he poureth out of the same: but the dregs thereof, all the wicked of the earth shall wring them out, and drink them” (Ps. 75:8).
Jesus knew that God had appointed a cup for Him to drink, but when He saw the contents of the cup, He shuddered. The cup contained the wrath of God, the fullness of His Father’s fury against sin. Only by the drinking of that cup could the sins of God’s people be forgiven! Understandably, Jesus looked for another way—could, perhaps, salvation be accomplished even if He did not drink the cup? Listen to His prayer: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” and “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done” (Matt. 26:39, 42).
The Father answered by His silence—there is no other way. Either Jesus drinks the cup, or we must drink the cup. If we drink the cup, we will perish, because we must drink the cup forever in hell if Jesus does not drink the cup for us.
Having understood that, Jesus willingly went forth to embrace suffering and death. The Son of God in our flesh submitted His human will to His Father’s will. The next time that Jesus mentions the cup is at His arrest. Peter attempts to save Jesus with the sword, whereupon Jesus, rebuking Peter, exclaims, “Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11).
The Necessary Cup
That leads us to another question—why is such a cup necessary? Why does anyone have to drink the cup? Could the cup not simply pass away so that no one—not Jesus, and not we—drinks it? Or to express it in different words, could not God simply forgive sins without the need for the suffering and death of His Son?
The answer to that question is the justice of God.
God’s justice is that perfection of His being according to which all of His activity is in perfect harmony with His holiness. As the holy God, He hates sin, which is rebellion against His Law; as the just God, He punishes sin. God revealed this in the Garden of Eden, where He declared, “In the day that thou eatest thereof [of the forbidden fruit] thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Throughout scripture, God has revealed that the penalty for sin is death: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20); “They that commit such things are worthy of death” (Romans 1:32); “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Every pious Jew understood this, for God has ordained a system of animal sacrifices to teach him this important truth.
Moreover, death in the Bible is not merely physical death, but spiritual death, which is the corruption and ruin of man’s nature; and eternal death, which is eternal torment in the lake of fire.
Therefore, as the righteous judge, God will punish sinners with death (physical, spiritual, and eternal death), and God must punish sinners with death (physical, spiritual, and eternal death). Not to punish sinners with death would be for God to be unjust.
The Bible, however, teaches that God forgives sins. But He will not forgive sin at the expense of His justice. God declares to Moses, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty…” (Ex. 34:6-7). The true God of the Bible is merciful—rich in mercy, abundant in mercy and truth—but He will not clear the guilty. He has always revealed that in order to forgive sins He requires satisfaction of His justice. Anything less would be injustice, or a denial of His justice.
Islam teaches forgiveness without atonement, for Islam teaches that Allah forgives sin without payment for sin. At the same time, the Qur’an claims that Allah is just: “Allah is never unjust in the least degree: if there is any good (done), He doubleth it, and giveth from His own presence a great reward” (4:40). If Allah is not unjust, how can Allah forgive sins without satisfaction of his justice? The Qur’an offers no answer to this.
Atonement is necessary.
The sinner cannot pay the penalty for his own sin. If he does, he perishes everlastingly.
God will not clear the guilty. If He did, He would be unjust.
Is there, then, anyone who can pay the penalty of sin for the sinner?
The answer is that God provides a substitute, His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
To that we turn next time, DV.
This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland.