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‘God Sacrificed Himself to Himself’

Joe Heschmeyer

One slogan that has recently become en vogue with those who abandon Christianity (or as they put it, “deconstruct”) is a twisted summary of Jesus’ passion: “God sacrificed himself to himself to save you from his punishment.”

I’ve gotta say, I’m really glad they raise this, because sometimes it’s true: Christians present Christianity in a way that seems kinda arbitrary and insane. I mean, imagine somebody getting so mad that he punches himself in the face. That’s how the theology of the cross sometimes gets communicated.

Fortunately, there’s a better way of understanding the cross. But for starters, we’ve got to understand sin properly.

Sin isn’t just a violation of a random set of rules. Sin refers to certain behaviors that we do that actually hurt us and hurt those around us. St. Paul puts it like this: “We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). That’s what sin looks like: it’s becoming a slave to your passions and pleasures, becoming an envious, hateful, malicious person.

And it’s in response to that—in response to real sin—that God the Son enters our world, taking on a full human nature, becoming one of us. God chases after us when we go astray—not wrathfully to punish us, but like a good shepherd who comes to gather the lost sheep and bring them home, rejoicing. That’s the actual biblical imagery, not the image of God punishing himself.

So why, then, does Jesus go to the cross? Well, St. Thomas Aquinas offers five reasons in his Summa Theologiae (III.46.3):

  1. So we can know how much God loves us and be stirred to love him in return. We can look at the cross and we know that is God pouring himself out for us.
  2. As an example for us. If you want to know what humility, obedience, constancy, justice, and the like look like, look to the cross.
  3. To win for us not only salvation, but also sanctifying grace. Christianity is about a lot more than just not going to hell. It’s about being transformed in the divine nature, and the cross plays a really important part in that.
  4. To deter us from sin.
  5. Finally, because it gives us greater dignity. Sin entered the world through a man, Adam; and rather than abandoning humanity, God defeats sin through a man, Jesus Christ. That gives humanity a greater dignity than it had before.

So in short, then, Jesus goes to the cross not out of some twisted sense of human sacrifice, but to show us the height and the depth and the breadth of his love for us; that he loves us enough to die for us and that he’s strong enough to overcome the power of death.

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