Nearly 2,000 years ago, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was tried and put to death by crucifixion on the Friday before Easter, which today we call Good Friday. Unfortunately, many Christians, mostly of the reformed tradition but others as well, focus solely on this event as the whole crux of Christianity. Basically it all boils down to the paganistic idea of penal substitution.
Within this theory of atonement, Christ was punished (penalized) for our sins taking God’s wrath in our place (substitution). As fallen, sinful humanity we could no longer appease the wrath of God by any means, but only a pure, sinless offering could fill our place. While on the cross, Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us and our sinfulness was imputed to Him. As a result, through faith one becomes “covered in the blood of Christ” and sin is hidden because Christ took the punishment for us.
Unfortunately, this idea couldn’t be any further from correct. Both the Bible and the early Church make it very clear that while Christ did die for our sins, however, His death was not a substitute for us to avert God’s wrath. We are told in Ezekiel that “the soul that sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20), meaning that one cannot die in place of another for their transgressions. We are each held accountable for our own sins. In addition to this, we learn from David, a man after God’s own heart, that God didn’t desire blood sacrifices, but that “sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a broken and humbled heart God will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
Fr. James Bernstein, an Orthodox Christian Priest, says this in regards to sacrifice:
As I researched the subject, I discovered an essential aspect of the sacrificial system described in the Old Testament: the outer act of sacrifice should reflect the inner state of the offerer seeking personal reconciliation with God. The goal of the sacrifice was to gain interior cleansing and change of heart, not to change God. This contrasts with the pagan view, in which the efficiency of the sacrifice is not at all dependent on the state of the individual offering it. Its purpose is not to change the state of the offerer, but to appease and change the deity…[the pagan] goal has a materialistic and utilitarian motivation; its goal is not to gain interior change, healing or love, but instead to gain control over other people and objects.
In other words, the idea of penal substitution falls into the category of the pagan view of sacrifice, where the goal is to appease the deity (in this case, God) rather than to actually inwardly change the person offering the sacrifice. But this was simply not the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross. Christ came to heal us, to change us inwardly, not change God. Just like when He is talking to the Pharisees, He calls them “whitewashed tombs” and tells them to first “clean the inside of the cup and dish” (Matthew 23:26, 27). We are to inwardly change. Referring again to Fr. Bernstein:
[Jesus] became incarnate, not in order to pay a debt to the devil or to God the Father, nor to be a substitutionary offering to appease a just God, but in order to rescue us from our fallen condition and transform us, enabling us to become godlike.
As fallen mankind, we needed healing; we needed restoration; we needed transformation. And this is exactly what Christ came to do. Christ spent His whole life as the perfect example, living a sinless life. He spent the last three years of His life teaching us the message of God and how to love one another: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving behind an example for you, that you should follow in His footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21). And it was through His loving sacrifice that He, and only He, was able to give His life as a perfect offering to defeat death, allowing us to be reconciled back to God, and to one day receive eternal life. It had nothing to do with appeasing God, but simply healing us from our wickedness and sinful desires. When we decide to put our faith in Christ and realize what exactly it is that has been accomplished, then we, too, are “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). We no longer live for ourselves, but we live for God. We are to “deny ourselves, and take up our crosses, and follow Him” (Matthew 23:26).
So as we observe Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and beyond, have you been crucified and are now following Christ, or are you crucifying Christ as the pagans did?