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Why Jesus Died for Our Sins Instead of Just Saying, “You’re Forgiven”

Trent Horn

Caller asks Trent Horn, Catholic Answers Apologist, why Jesus had to die for our sins instead of simply forgiving us. Was it a choice that God made or was Jesus’s death on a cross mandatory for our salvation?

Check out the article discussed in this video:


I was talking with my granddaughter about Jesus being born of a woman, and then I wanted to go into that he came to die for our sins. But I started thinking: I’m not even sure why he had to die for our sins. I’m not sure why he couldn’t just say “You’re forgiven.”

Well, the answer is: he could’ve done that. It’s interesting, this is something that I think sometimes people inherit from Protestant theology, thinking that “Well, no, Jesus had to be crucified, there has to be justice that’s done,” even thinking that Jesus had to be punished in our place, as if he were a sinner, which we as Catholics reject, we reject what’s called “penal substitutionary atonement.”

So we reject that; St. Thomas Aquinas talks about this, he says, well, certainly God is all-powerful, and because he’s all-powerful, he could’ve simply forgiven all of our sins through a divine decree. But he chose to not do that. He said he chose to be born to live a life of obedience, and then to die on a cross. But why? So he didn’t HAVE to die for us; why did he choose, then, to do that? Well, first, the mechanism—there’s different ways of understanding, then, HOW we’re forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice.

One that I like is what would be called the satisfaction theory, and that is that Christ’s death on the cross is not a punishment as if he were a bad person, but it is a sacrifice and a reflection of him as a good person. And the fact is, he did not HAVE to be crucified. Instead, Christ wanted to offer himself to the Father as the ultimate and perfect sacrifice of love to demonstrate his love for humanity and desire for the sins of humanity to be forgiven.

So what we would say, then, is that rather than Jesus being punished with all of our sins and that’s why our sins go away, rather we would say that Jesus’s death on the cross is so good, it’s so meritorious, it’s of infinite value, because Jesus is God and man—he’s divine, so what he offers the Father in that act is of infinite value, because he’s divine—that it outweighs the harm caused by our sins. It outweighs the damage, the punishment due. It’s like, you know, imagine balancing the scales of justice, that when you have our sins put the scales one way, Christ’s sacrifice punches the scales infinitely in the other direction.

So that is why, I think it’s 1 John 2:2 where John says that Christ’s propitiation, or sacrifice, not just for our sins, or the sins of believers, but for the sins of the whole world. So Christ’s death on the cross, it was so good that it’s superabundant. More grace was merited in Christ’s death on the cross than would ever be necessary to atone for the sins of humanity. There’s more than necessary. Now, that doesn’t mean everybody’s going to heaven, it just means there’s more than necessary.

What can stop that grace is you choosing to not allow it to be applied to your life, or rejecting it later. Hebrews 10 talks about this a lot, Hebrews 10, I think it’s 26-27, or 25-26, says he who goes on sinning deliberately, for him “no sacrifice for sins remains.” So it’s superabundant. To summarize: sacrifice of love that outweighs our sins. It is more good than how bad our sins are, and we choose to let Christ apply that to our souls by receiving him primarily in baptism. But let’s go further into your question: he didn’t HAVE to do that, why? Well, Aquinas offered several reasons. One of them that sticks out to me is that it’s a visceral reminder of God’s love for us. ‘Cause why did God ask the Israelites to offer animal sacrifices? He didn’t HAVE to do that.

He could’ve just said “Leave a flower outside for me.” But as human beings, ritual helps us…sometimes we understand things not just through what we are told, but through what we do. So offering your lambs and your goats and the animals you’d really like to eat, and killing them and giving them to God, is a way to reinforce “Hey, God is more important than your lamb, your goat, your hut, your tent, your tabernacle—he’s more important than anything. So Jesus dying on the cross shows us, it is a visceral reminder, that God loves us; a visceral, stark, and graphic reminder of how much God loves us and is willing to give of himself for us. So I would say that it’s the supreme demonstration of Christ’s sacrificial love. As Jesus says of the Greek love “agape,” that “No man has greater love than he who would lay down his life for a friend.” So it’s that stark demonstration of God’s love for us.

I remember when I was very young, I remember hearing a speaker give a talk about this…I mean, it’s probably apocryphal, but the story still works well, about a dad who would travel on business—and I travel on business a lot—and whenever he would leave to go on business, he would tell his kids “Don’t forget how much I love you!” And they would say “How much do you love us?” And he would stick out his arms really wide and he says “I love you this much!”

And they would run in and give him a really big hug, and when he came back from his business trip he had his arms out: “Remember how much I love you! I love you this much!” Arms straight out. And so this youth speaker said to us: “And when Jesus is on the cross, he’s saying ‘I love you this much.'” Arms completely outstretched to die, was the cause of his death. So that might be a way I would run through and explain it. I apologize, Mark, for the lengthy explanation, but I hope that it was a sufficient one for you. Is that helpful?

Well, in Isaiah 53, it says “But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquities. He bore the punishment that makes us whole.” And so it seemed like for a long time I believed in that punishment explanation because of that. How would you address that, then? Yeah, and I would say there’s different ways of looking at it. If you stay on the line and give us your information, I’d be happy to send you an article written by my friend Jimmy Akin, where he goes through all of Isaiah on this point to show how the language can be interpreted in both a punitive and non-punitive way. Because there is a way to say—you can put it this way, that if God had not chosen to forgive us at all, and the means he chose to forgive us was through the crucifixion, if he had chosen to not do that, then the alternative would be: we would be punished for our sins and have no hope of eternal life.

So there’s a way to look at it to say that Jesus received the suffering—or he was punished, he was legally punished, he suffered capital punishment—he undertook a suffering, a punishment, and a death so that we would not have to, that in doing that, we will not have to do that. But that does not mean that the Father poured out his wrath on the Son and punished him for our crimes, ’cause it doesn’t make sense to punish an innocent person for somebody else’s crimes.

But stay on the line, give us your email, I’ll send you an article my friend Jimmy Akin wrote that goes into that in more detail, and I think it’ll be helpful for you. Thank you so much. Thanks, Mark. Maybe we can put that article in our show notes as well.

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