Who Was the Cross For?

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Crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald, 1523-25, originally on the other side of the panel known as the Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece

There is one question that has haunted me since I first heard it posed in a seminary class some years ago:

Who was the cross for?

Various students raised their hands. “It was for us.” “It was to erase our sins.” “It was so we could be saved from God’s wrath.” “It was so we could go to heaven.” All of these answers are obviously correct.

But the professor then asked, Who else was the cross for?


His answer: It was for God. Huh? “But God didn’t sin, so he didn’t need any forgiveness,” was my first thought. True, but it misses the intent of the question. This question caused me to shift my understanding of the cross from the creation to the Creator himself.

The cross has two sides. Traditionally, the focus has been dominantly one-sided. This one-sided focus has been on the cross’ effect and purpose concerning salvation for mankind. But there is also another side—the Creator’s.

Who was the cross for? It was for mankind. But it was also for God himself.

In order to understand this better, there are two things to grasp about the nature of God. First, he is holy, meaning he is separate from sin. In fact, it is impossible for him to sin because of his holy nature. When someone is a certain way by nature, it means it is an unchangeable attribute of who he is. He cannot decide one day just to be different. For example, we cannot wake up one day and decide not to be human. We are human by nature. So with God, he is holy by nature. This is why it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18), or sin in any way.

Second, God is righteous. This means that he always conforms to a standard—the standard being who he is by nature. That God is righteous means that he will always act in accordance with his nature. He will never do things that are against his own nature. He will never one day decide he no longer wants to be a loving God. He will never violate his nature. (See Why the Death of Jesus? for further explanation on God’s nature.)

With these two concepts solidified, in that God is both holy and righteous, we can explore the side of the cross that has effect on God himself.

We can understand that the moment a holy, righteous God creates people who are not of the same divine essence and nature as himself (meaning they are not equally divine, holy, or righteous by their very nature), the cross then becomes a necessary event in the life of God.

The moment Adam breathed his first breath, Jesus had to come and die. This is because God, who is perfect in nature, becomes a law by default for lesser beings, such as us, once they come into existence. Because of his nature, God is the absolute model of all that is true and right. Juxtaposed against a created being who is not equally divine, God’s perfection becomes a law for the creation in relation to him. And if that creation does not share his same perfect nature, the created being will never live up to the standard that by default exudes from the perfect Creator (in other words, the created being is prone to sin against God). So God, when deciding to create mankind, understood that unless he made them as perfectly divine by nature as he is himself (which he did not), then what he created would never be able to match his standard. This falling short of the standard of God is the very essence of sin.

The cross is God’s answer to his own problem, so to speak. His problem, if you will, is that his divine nature is unequaled by his created beings; they fall short of him. That very same divine nature prompts God in his love to desire to save his created beings so they can live in eternal fellowship, in oneness, with him. And his holy nature resists oneness with sin, thus he cannot be united with sin. He will destroy the sinner—this is the source of his wrath.

God went forth with the plan of the cross as dictated by his own special needs just as much as for the needs of his created human race. In the mind of God, there is no creation of mankind without the event of the cross. There is no other way he can live in eternal fellowship with his creation apart from the cross. He created us for fellowship with him (Genesis 3:8-9, 1 Corinthians 1:9, Revelation 21:3). There is no other way for God to remain righteous and have eternal fellowship with us other than to put the punishment on Jesus that we deserved because of sin.

The cross satisfied once for all in the being of God his righteous nature both to love his creation (by dying for it) and to remain holy (by pouring out his wrath on Jesus to punish sin). Because of his holy nature, there is no way he can withhold punishing sin. He has to, or else he is no longer righteous!

Who was the cross for? It was for us. But it was first and foremost for God himself.


This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Mike

    I’m a little confused, though maybe there’s something I’m missing here. I thought it sounded like you were saying any creation that is less than God demands the crucifixion, though I’m guessing you wouldn’t put trees, nor animals in that category, that you’re implying solely mankind. You could be referring to any creature that we traditionally think of as reasonable and having free will, which would take care of that- but what then of the angels, some of whom rebelled and some which did not? They were not created on par with God. Also to say that mankind was guaranteed to sin because to be less than God is a sin, then why did God call all of creation good when it was created as less than Him? To created something with very specific limits, how can it be considered as falling into error? That would be like designing a car to be a car, and then considering it a failure for not being a boat. This too would nullify being able to honestly call it a good creation, either it’s good because it came out as intended or it didn’t. For the man and woman in the story in the story of the fall, it’s always been taken as hinging on an event, but you seem to be implying the fall and any possible punishment rests on who they were ontologically, even though ontologically they were named as being very good.

    1. Keith Wrassmann

      Hi Mike, thanks for your comment. I was not implying “any creation”; I was referring to mankind. Also, I did not say to be less than God is a sin, but that we created beings (humans) who are less than God in nature cannot by nature equal him in his righteousness, and we eventually will sin (because God himself is the standard of righteousness). Also, when God calls his creation “good,” he is not making a moral declaration, but one of proper function and order (see John Walton The Lost World of Genesis One for an in depth discussion of what it means that God called his creation “good.”) Lastly, the fall does hinge on an event, which was inevitable because that which is created (humans) can never equal the divine righteousness of God (please see my post on Sin: A Fundamental Understanding).

      1. Mike

        I hope none of this none of this comes across as aggressive, I just think we’re coming from 2 very different places to the point that I don’t easily see where you’re coming from and was curious where you’ve come up with so many of these ideas.
        I come from being taught that all created things have a goodness in and of itself. These goods pale in comparison with the infinite goodness of God, they only share in different allotments of his good, but they form a hierarchy of goods, not evil. Goodness would tie with existence, with evil not having an existence in and of itself. Evil rather, would be a corruption of good, a destruction- a negation. Goodness would tie with the ideal nature of a thing, what a thing is designed for and its eventual end, what philosophy would call its telos.
        So all of these things you’re saying about the fundamentals of sin all sound very foreign to me and it’s hard for me not to connect an object’s or subject’s goodness with its intended nature. Your ideas of what you’re trying to say morality is, comes across confusing for me- though maybe not for one who has a similar mindset to you. Morality for me has been taught as being both tied to our intended nature, Natural Law, which the apostle Paul begins to talk about in Romans Chapter 1, and Divinely Revealed Law. Almost all of western theology holds to these ideas.

        1. Keith Wrassmann

          No problem, it is not aggressive. Discussion on theological topics can be difficult because often the people dialoging have different foundational understandings on various subjects. I am responding here to your reply directly above. In my understanding, morality comes from and is defined by the nature of God. Nothing else. There is no other or higher standard for what is right and wrong. This understanding of right and wrong comes from the nature of God. It is evident in general revelation (Romans 1:18-22), as well in God’s law codes (Old Covenant and New Covenant). Our human nature does not come pre-loaded with this foundation of morality. In fact, our human nature, by its very nature, does not want to keep this law perfectly. It can’t. Not because it is depraved from the fall, but because it was not made as an equally divine nature. A lot of confusion in the religious world comes from an improper understanding of the nature of God. The nature of God is the foundation of all theology. What I have done is to first strive to understand the nature of God (to my best ability), because only from there can one begin to understand other things, like out human nature (which is not divine) in relationship with God, who is the only Divine Being.

  2. Mike

    Thanks for your response. I definitely didn’t think you would say that Christ should die for plants or animals- I just thought the way your argument was written, it would include this if we were to follow the logic as is without assuming what you probably meant. I figured it had to do with mankind being created uniquely in God’s image, but I didn’t want to put words in your mouth. The one part I am still confused on though is that not every angel has fallen, so with both mankind and angels having the ability for free will and to make moral choices, what would determine that humans are destined to sin while angels are not?
    Where my beliefs differ so far would be that I believe that mankind was created to image God- to a finite point and it was making a deliberate choice that was well within his (and her) mental capacities that could and should have been different. So it was Adam going against his nature, his intended nature, thwarting the intended end goal that his nature was designed for, that was his downfall. And as this choice wounded his nature such as introducing physical death, sickness, and other physical deficiencies that all of humanity are inflicted with, it probably affected reasoning as man works as a unified composite and where we see that even mental illness is not completely unrelated to the physical.
    As every created thing has an intended form and function, an ideal and an optimal end, I’m not sure how man created to image God could be called good and yet not have been created to function to the moral precepts that he’s called to that are animals are not. To hold to an idea that mankind fell as a finite being who couldn’t match up to an infinite standard still leaves open the problem of angels who are less than God yet still not fallen.
    It poses only more questions for me, so at this point I still hold to what I find more likely. The creation story shows mankind thwarting the intended end goal of his nature, the one created for him, his nature no longer works optimally and holistically healthy as corruption is introduced, not all angels are fallen but as they were created individually and not through some type of communal interdependence such as with procreation, only some individual angels fell. Christ’s Incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection as a whole promises to heal mankind’s nature as a whole with the resurrection of the dead from the separation of body and soul, a body free from physical illness, and healing from the effects of moral wrongs. Since what is healed is rooted in the intended creation and design of mankind, I’m not sure why this too would not hint at man’s fall was from his optimized nature.
    I’m not opposed to novel theologies, but not if it introduces new problems to tackle to make aspects of it to work. I don’t see problems in sin being a corruption of the nature God created a thing to have. For sin to be anything less than God himself, is this an idea you’ve come up with or do strands of Christianity actually teach this to?

    1. Keith Wrassmann

      Your questions about sin as pertaining to angels is a good one. I will probably end up producing a blog post on this issue specifically. But I will say that Jesus came as the solution to the sin of mankind, not the angels. Hebrews 2:17: “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brothers so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” The angels are an entirely different created being. Do they have a law code to follow from God? Do they have a nature as a spirit that is different from a human’s corporeal nature? How does God deal with an angel if/when it sins? Are they immediately kicked out of heaven? Is there a time for repentance? Does an angel have the same temptations as a human? Does an angel have any temptations?
      These are all questions that would need to be answered to understand whether angels, as created beings who are not equal to God in his divine attributes, have a similar “potential” to fall short of God’s perfect righteousness (to sin). With this, the question of the angels should not and does not negate that man has this “potential” by his nature to sin.

  3. Mike

    Also, some of the things you wrote about God’s wrath seem a bit excessive. God promised there would be death if disobedience happened, which was likely to mean both physical and spiritual which we see followed in Genesis. But this seems to be out of moving away from God which conflicts with his nature as his nature was to have a relationship with God, which is a brokenness to the foundation of his existence and meaning. This is a punishment itself. But this idea that Christ suffered so that we don’t have to, men had suffered before him and men have continued to suffer after him, even some by the same methods. If Christ suffered so we don’t have to, then why do men still suffer? You may say this is in regards to torment in hell, but again, hell is not mentioned in the Genesis warning.
    Couldn’t an alternative be that Christ sanctifies what he assumes in the Incarnation? That our suffering can have meaning through him, that only through death do we have life? That God respected man’s decision, not by taking suffering and death away, but by providing salvation through death that we can have resurrection and eternal life. That he provides this path as the New Adam. That instead of an excessive penal substitution that can ignore man’s errors by venting anger elsewhere, he instead paves a path that we can follow and be sanctified through in essence.

    1. Keith Wrassmann

      The idea that Christ suffered for mankind does not pertain to the general suffering that comes upon a person in his lifetime. The suffering pertains to Jesus taking the the wrath of God that was owed us for our sin. This is why the Bible says multiple times that Jesus was the propitiation for our sins. Propitiation means “an offering that takes away wrath.”

      Romans 3:25
      whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in God’s merciful restraint He let the sins previously committed go unpunished;
      Hebrews 2:17
      Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brothers so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
      1 John 2:2
      and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins;
      1 John 4:10
      In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

      This desire of God to put the wrath we were owed onto Jesus comes from his nature–as discussed in this blog post.

      One of the most helpful lessons I have learned is to go at whatever doctrinal question I have by starting first at the nature of God. This sets the parameters with what is even potentially a possibility.

      Your series of questions at the end are not wrong. But they are not the main purpose of which Jesus came. He came first and foremost to die as the propitiation for our sins.

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