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.