We Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins (Rev. Dr. Charley Reeb)

Rev. Dr. Charley Reeb   -  

Why did Jesus have to die a brutal death so God would forgive us? If you struggle with that question or you know someone who does, this message is for you. 

Today we focus on one of the hallmark beliefs of our faith – the forgiveness of sins. All Christians believe that something mysteriously powerful occurred on the cross that forgave our sins, redeemed us and reconciled us to God. The work of the cross is critical to the Christian faith. 

However, a bloody cross is where many people get stuck.

I have a friend who is an agnostic. One time he said to me, “Why are you Christians so obsessed with a bloody execution. It’s macabre and disturbing. And if you are not talking about blood and guts, you are laying guilt trips on people. Every time I go to church it feels like another guilt trip. What a depressing religion.” 

Maybe you can relate? Maybe you have friends who say something similar to you when you talk about church. Or maybe you are not a Christian and you are thinking, “That is why I am not a Christian! I just don’t get the whole sin and guilt thing. Why are Christians so bent on making people miserable? I also don’t get the bloody cross. Why was that necessary for God to love and forgive us?”

Many people can accept Jesus as a great teacher, healer, and radical lover of sinners. Many people can take Jesus as the forgiver and encourager. And many people can take Jesus as the incarnation of God. But many people cannot tolerate a God needing blood, guts and sacrifice to save us, to relieve his wrath and anger toward sin. They can’t believe in a God like that. Ever been there? Are you there today? 

Perhaps you struggle with what you have been told you about the meaning of the cross. Perhaps it has been the one hurdle preventing you from following Christ. Or maybe you have been a Christian your whole life and you still find it difficult to accept what you have been told about that atonement. Maybe you like everything about the Christian faith but this particular idea of God needing a bloody execution in order to love and forgive us. 

Let me just name the elephant in the room. What so many people have a hard time with is the common view of the atonement in the western church. It is called The penal substitutionary theory of atonement. This understanding of the cross means that in order for a holy God to forgive sin, he demanded and needed a blood sacrifice of a sinless person. So, God sent his son as our substitute to be executed so God’s wrath would be satisfied. After Jesus was crucified, God’s honor was restored and his anger relieved and he forgave the world. This bloody execution made everything right for God.

And some of you in this room hold to this view of the atonement. You accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior based on this understanding of the cross. And I respect, honor and value that and I am not going to discount it. In fact, the substitutionary theory of the atonement is what I grew up believing as a cradle Christian. 

But a conversation I had with a dying man many years ago led me to broadened my perspective and understanding of the cross… I was at his bedside and he said to me, “I love Jesus. I just can’t get passed why God needed him to be killed. I can’t accept the faith if that is really what happened.” 

“Tell me more about your struggle with the cross.”

He said, “I have some questions.” He then asked:

– If God needed Jesus to die in order to satisfy his anger, why didn’t he just allow Herod to kill Jesus when he was born? 

– If God hated sinners so much and needed a sacrifice for them to be in his presence then why did he hang out with sinners all the time when he walked the earth?

– If God can’t forgive us without Jesus’ blood then it makes no sense that Jesus forgave people on the basis of faith alone during his earthly ministry.

I said, “Those are great questions that I don’t have the answers to. But can you accept that Jesus loves you so much that he did something for you on the cross you couldn’t do for yourself that forgave and redeemed you?”

“Yes.” “Let’s leave it at that.” 

We prayed and he accepted Christ as his Savior and died a few days later. But his questions haunted me. I could not forget them. I could not get them out of my mind. And I would come across more and more people in ministry who expressed their hang ups and struggles with the atonement…

And so I decided that if I was going to be a good pastor I better figure out other ways to explain the cross. And so I studied and studied, prayed and prayed, talk to professor and ministers and I discovered something that not only deepened my faith in Christ but allowed me to help so many people. In fact, I would say that it is this single discovery that has made the biggest difference to people when sharing my faith. 

What I am about to share may be transformative for many of you who are stuck on the atonement. When you hear this message, you will experience the power of the cross. Some of you may finally decide to accept Christ as your Lord and Savior and follow him because of what I am about to tell you. Some of you are going to feel renewed, liberated and feel good about your faith for the first time in your life. Some of you are going to see the cross in a new way and Holy Week will take on a completely different meaning for you. Some of you are going to see God in a completely different way. This message may just change your life. 

And my discovery began with one simple question: What did Jesus actually say about his own death on the cross? You see, that’s what people miss when they talk about the cross. They debate and argue but they never actually read what Jesus said about why he had to die. This is exactly where we find the answer – from the lips of Jesus. What Jesus has to say has the power to transform your understanding of the cross. More importantly, it has the power to transform your life. 

In Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 Jesus described his upcoming work on the cross this way. As giving his life… “as a ransom for many.” Jesus said his death was the paying of a ransom. 

When a person is kidnapped, who are the people who demand a ransom? The bad guys, not the good guys! Ransoms are paid by the loved ones of the kidnapped. Ransoms are not demanded by those who are good but by those who are bad. 

So why was it Jesus’ ultimate goal and ambition to die on the cross to pay a ransom for us? Who would be so cruel, twisted, sick and demented to enjoy watching Jesus die a brutal death? Evil. That’s right. Satan. He is the missing person in event of the cross. So here is what I want you to understand: 

“The cross was not a ransom demanded by God but paid by God.” -Benjamin Corey

The word “ransom” Jesus used is a means of deliverance or rescue. 

We see this understanding of the cross in the very beginning of scripture in Genesis 3:15. When sin entered the world, take a look at what God says to the serpent: 

“You will bruise his heel, but he will crush your head.” –Genesis 3:15 

This is a reference to Jesus’ death on the cross! God is saying, “Yeah, you may hurt Jesus and kill him for a time but you will be destroyed. Your head will be crushed!” 

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see it confirmed in the New Testament: 

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. -1 John 3:8 

So, to those who have struggled with the atonement, this is what I believe happened on that cross 2,000 years ago and the view that I hold dear. What I am about the share was dominant understanding of the atonement for a 1,000 years in the church and goes back the church fathers. It is the “Christus Victor” understanding of the atonement. 

On the cross Jesus faced the wrath of evil “head on,” and defeated it with his transforming love. The only thing that could destroy the force of evil is the force of God’s love. All the sin, hate, prejudice, death, and perversion that evil wanted to ruin this world with collided with the love and grace of God. And the love and grace stopped it once and for all. 

Evil came at this world with everything it had and Jesus, said, “Go ahead, make my day.” When the cosmic bullet of evil came at us, Jesus jumped in front of us to save us and his pure, life giving blood smothered the devil once and for all. The cross was the climax of the cosmic war between God and evil and God’s love in Christ won.

Christus Victor, Christ was victorious over evil, sin and death! The only thing that can stop the force of evil is the force of God’s love and this is what happened on the cross. 

Here is the message today: The cross is not about satisfying the wrath of God but about the love of God overcoming the wrath of evil. 

Here is a powerful painting of the Christus Victor view of the atonement:

You can see the cross was like a stake through the heart of the devil. And when I think of that final stake through the devil’s heart I think of a true story I heard about Fred Rogers.

I loved Mr. Rogers growing up. I was raised on his TV programs. What many don’t know is that Mr. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Once when he was invited to deliver the Commencement address at Pittsburgh Seminary, he told a story about one of his professors there, Dr. William Orr. Fred Rogers had gone to see Dr. Orr, toward the end of his life after a stroke left him partially paralyzed, but his professor was still bright in mind and spirit. Mr. Rogers asked him about something that puzzled him for a long time. It had come up again during the Sunday morning worship service earlier that day. One of the hymns sung that morning had been Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. What puzzled Mr. Rogers was the verse that says:

“The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.”

Fred Rogers asked, “Dr. Orr, what is the one little word that will fell the prince of darkness? That one word that Luther claimed would strike down evil?” Dr. Orr said, “Forgive. The word is forgive. Forgiveness is the only thing evil cannot tolerate.”

The cross means the love and forgiveness of God wins. The love and forgiveness of God is the most powerful force in the world. 

So why is there still evil in the world? Because evil is a sore loser! It is just a mopping up effort now. Everything evil, everything that goes against the force of God’s love will be mopped up and discarded when the Kingdom of God comes in all of its glory. 

One thing remains is the overcoming power of God’s love and forgiveness revealed on the cross. And that love is something that is available to each of us. It is available to you right now. 

Now that you know that the cross is not about the wrath of God but about the love of God overcoming the wrath of evil, perhaps your heart is opening up to God’s love. God’s love is always available to you and can give you the power to overcome sin, hate, prejudice, pain and anything else that is keeping you from wholeness in your life. 

A colleague of mine used to play basketball with his friends in seminary. They would always play in the same gym. There was a kind janitor who would wait patiently for them to finish their game so he could lock up. One day my colleague noticed the janitor reading the Bible as he waited. In fact, he was reading the book of Revelation, a book not even seminary students understand. My colleague approached the janitor and said, “I see you reading Revelation. Do you understand that book?” “Sure,” he replied. “It’s pretty easy to understand.” 

My colleague was intrigued. Revelation is a book that has confounded scholars and theologians. It is the sources of countless conspiracy theories. Yet here was an uneducated man who understood it. So he asked the janitor, “Well, what does the book mean?” The janitor looked up at my colleague and said, “It means Jesus is gonna win!” 

Folks, there are many ways to see the atonement and cross. In addition to the substitutionary theory, there is the “moral influence theory” that says that Jesus ultimate act of love and obedience proves that he loves and forgives us. There is the “New Adam theory” that Christ was the new Adam and he fixed everything the sinful Adam did wrong. There is the incarnational view that in Christ we participated with God in his death and resurrection. 

But they all mean that Jesus wins. They all mean that on the cross Jesus was doing something for us we could never do for ourselves. And what he did saved us and redeemed us!

So deciding to be a Christian means letting Jesus be your hero. It means allowing Jesus to rescue you. It means allowing his love to save you from all the things that are holding you back in life. It means allowing the power of his forgiveness to make you new. It means following him and reflecting his love in the world. Jesus already loves you. He has already forgiven you. He has already won the fight against evil. Just give yourself over to God’s love and follow Jesus. Your life will never be the same. You will find all the things you have been longing for.

If you want Jesus to be your hero and desire to become a Christian here is a prayer that may help you make that decision: Jesus, I want you to be my hero. I need your transforming love. I accept and receive your forgiveness of my sins. I open my heart to your grace and the power of your Spirit. Make me new. Make me whole. Guide me so my life may be a vessel of your love that overcame the power of evil on the cross. Amen. 

If you prayed that prayer, we want to hear from you. Please call or email us and let us know how we can help you as you begin your journey as a follower of Christ.