The crucifixion of Jesus raises a multitude of questions, even for those who have been following the Savior for years. Why did Jesus die? What did he do to deserve death? How could God the Father allow his Son to be treated so terribly?
There was a lot happening on both the earthly and cosmic planes outside of Jerusalem centuries ago. But, as the Christian faith is a historic faith, it’s good for us to grapple with these historic events.
In this article we’ll consider one facet of the crucifixion that is profound and fundamental to our faith. The crucifixion of Jesus was one of the greatest simultaneous displays of justice and injustice in history.
Injustice at the Cross
To limit the length of this article, we’ll confine our observations to the Gospel of Luke. This one book provides plenty of evidence that Jesus’s crucifixion was a terrible injustice.
When the council of elders met, they produced no credible evidence to convict Jesus (Luke 22:66–70). In his subsequent trials, it was more of the same—Pilate said, “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4). When Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, again there was no guilt to be seen (Luke 23:15). Pilate declared Jesus’s innocence three times (Luke 23:4, 14, 22) and summed up his findings this way: “Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him” (Luke 23:15).
Jesus’s innocence was obvious to many involved in the crucifixion, even to those with no prior allegiance to him. One of the thieves who was crucified with him knew Jesus had “done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). And after Jesus died, the centurion said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47) The brutal, public execution of an obviously innocent man is a grave injustice.
The corruption went still deeper. Since Pilate knew Jesus was innocent, he planned to release him (Luke 23:16). But the crowd’s cries for Pilate to release a criminal named Barabbas grew so insistent that Pilate relented (Luke 23:23). The result? Pilate abandoned his responsibility to a mob and released a murderer and insurrectionist instead of the innocent man Jesus.
We read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s execution with anger and tears. He was treated so unfairly and with such cruelty.
But there was much more happening at the cross.
Justice at the Cross
If the cross was the site of such gross injustice, why are Christians so focused on it? Why do so many wear the symbol as jewelry?
While the human actors in the crucifixion drama were guilty of injustice, God the Father was also at work. He was accomplishing a great work of pardon and forgiveness.
Because God is perfectly righteous and just, he must do what is good and just and right at all times. Obedience must be blessed and disobedience must be cursed. All debts must be paid. To use the legal metaphor, every transgression results in an enormous fine, and we all have empty bank accounts.
How will God curse our disobedience and still bring us to himself? God accomplished this through the work of Jesus as our substitute. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The sins of God’s people were put on Jesus at the cross, and, in the pattern of so many Old Testament sacrifices, Jesus offered himself. “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).
This exchange—this transfer of our sin to Jesus—is perhaps seen most clearly in the prophecy of Isaiah.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4–6)
While the cross was a horrific example of human injustice, it was also a necessary work of God’s justice. He must not ignore sin, and he dealt with the sins of his people on the cross in his son. In this way, God was reconciling us to himself through Jesus Christ.
We do not have time to fully explore the glory of the cross in this short article. We have touched on the deep mystery of how the crucifixion satisfied God’s justice and accomplished our forgiveness. The wonder of the gospel is that there’s even more!
When God credited our sin to Jesus, he also credited Jesus’s righteousness to us. Not only are our debts forgiven, but our bank accounts are overflowing. This topic is worthy of deep, sustained meditation (and certainly more explanation).
As a fitting way to close, let’s consider this beautiful summary from the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 56).
Q: What do you believe concerning the forgiveness of sins?
A: I believe that God,
because of Christ’s satisfaction,
will no more remember my sins,
nor my sinful nature,
against which I have to struggle all my life,
but will graciously grant me
the righteousness of Christ,
that I may never come into condemnation.