“For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23) Physical death is the consequence of sin entering the world. Because of sin we are also spiritually “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) outside of Christ. And if left uncorrected, this leads to eternal separation from God, what Revelation calls “the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
Someone may ask, “Why can’t God just forgive us? Why should anyone die on account of sin, including Jesus?”
In explaining the meaning of the death of Christ, Paul states: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, ESV). God’s own character is at stake in this business of forgiveness.
Suppose a defendant has a trial before a judge. All the evidence points to the defendant being a criminal worthy of punishment, but the judge lets him off. We would not consider such a judge to be just. We would question his character.
In the same way, God’s own justice demanded a substitute, a sacrifice. Paul uses three key terms in his explanation of the death of Christ (Romans 3:21-26): justified, redemption, and propitiation (the NIV’s “sacrifice of atonement”).
Propitiation is a sacrifice that averts wrath. Such a sacrifice satisfies the laws demands. It also involves substitution. The substitute takes our place and receives the wages of sin in our behalf.
Redemption is the payment of a price to set someone free. The debt owed is the wages of sin, which would lead to our eternal punishment. In the death of Christ, he paid our debt.
Justified is a law court term, the rendering of a favorable verdict. The charges are dropped against us in Christ, not because we are innocent, but because the demands of the law have been satisfied by our substitute. The debt we owe has been paid.
Humanity has a sin problem. If uncorrected, it leads to eternal separation from God. It even posed a problem for God: how to remain just and yet forgive. These problems find their solution in the death of Christ.