Redemption Accomplished, Part 1 – Did Christ Have to Die to Save Sinners?

For this series of blog posts, my aim is to summarize (with my own words and thoughts) one or two main ideas from each chapter of John Murray’s book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, and to reflect upon what these truths mean for us as believers.

I listed this book in my last post as one highly recommended for reading in theology. As the title indicates, Murray’s purpose is to explore the nature of the atoning death of Christ on the cross (redemption accomplished), and the way in which the Holy Spirit applies that saving work to his people (redemption applied).

As I write this, Prof. Murray, in portrait form, sits on my top bookshelf, looking over my shoulder. He sits there with other luminaries from Princeton and Westminster Seminary’s past – B.B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos, J. Gresham Machen, and Cornelius Van Til. And in front of me, hanging on the wall, is John Calvin. Truly I am surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses”! As far as I know, John Murray was the only one among them who had a glass eye. And though he was a beloved man, according to Westminster lore his strictness as a professor was such that you could tell which eye was glass because in that one there was a glint of mercy!

So I’m somewhat glad that by the time I was a student there, he had already gone on to heaven and there was no chance for me to find out from experience if that was true or not! However, I have learned much from Prof. Murray through his writings. The careful and thoughtful reader will profit much from his books.

Chapter 1 is entitled “The Necessity of the Atonement,” and with it Murray begins his book by asking a question that you may have never thought to ask. And that is, was the atonement necessary? That is to say, did Christ have to die to save sinners?

The answer is “yes” or “no”, depending on where you put the stress on the question. One could ask, “Did Christ have to die to save sinners?,” as in, “Did God have to send his Son into the world to deliver us from sin and death?” The answer to that, of course, is “no.” God was under no obligation at all to rescue us who are, because of our sin, “utterly undesirable and hell-deserving objects.” That he did at all testifies to the wonder of the “free and sovereign love of God.” So no, Christ did not have to die to save sinners.

But one could put the question this way, “Did Christ have to die to save sinners?” In that case, the answer is “yes”. In other words, since God determined to redeem and adopt a lost and sinful people for himself, the only way that he could have accomplished that is in the way he did in fact accomplish it: with the God-man Jesus Christ dying on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. So, in this sense, with what Murray calls a “consequent absolute necessity,” Christ had to die to save sinners. The atonement, then, was necessary.

Murray gives good biblical and theological reasons for believing this, the most important of which have to do with the gravity of sin and the holiness of God. In short, for sinners to be saved, sin must be dealt with in a way that satisfies the uncompromising holiness of God. And the only way that could happen was for Christ, God and man in one person, to offer himself as a sacrifice to take away God’s wrath from us so that God could be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 5:26).

This truth of the necessity of the atonement says much about us, and about God.

Concerning us, this truth highlights the utter seriousness of our sin. God could not wink at our sin, nor could he simply pretend we are not sinners when in fact we are. Because God cannot compromise his holiness (to do so would be for him to become less than God!), he must judge against us for our sin. And that means nothing less than the penalty of eternal destruction in hell: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). But how lightly we take our own sin! The sins of others may appall us, even infuriate us. But my own sins? Why, they are mere indiscretions, minor flaws in an otherwise sterling character. But God’s assessment of my sins is quite different – each one deserves the penalty of death. What happened to Jesus at the cross, is what God thinks of my sins. As the famous hymn puts it:

Ye who think of sin but lightly nor suppose the evil great

here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate.

Mark the sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load;

‘tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed, Son of Man and Son of God.

Concerning God, the necessity of the atonement shows us how unfathomably deep is his love for us. Given God’s righteousness, and the nature of our sin, there was only one way for God to save us. And that was by sending his beloved and only-begotten Son into the world to suffer and die. Christ’s death on the cross was a sacrifice in every meaning of the word. It cost God his own Son. Yet he gave up his Son, and he did it because he loved us. To quote another well-known hymn:

Amazing love!

How can it be that thou, my God,

shouldst die for me?

God’s love is amazing indeed!

Pastor Scott