But then again, we’ve hardly answered the original question, which is just how is it that the cross results in our forgiveness. And before we go on to other theories, we have to consider —
(Isa 53:4-8 ESV) 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 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.
6 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.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
Isaiah’s famous poem about the Suffering Servant is frequently referenced in the New Testament, and certainly speaks in some sense of Jesus paying the price for us. “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Peter agrees —
(1Pe 2:24 ESV) He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
As does Paul –
(Rom 4:23-25 ESV) 23 But the words “[faith] was counted to him” were not written for [Abraham's] sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
And the author of Hebrews —
(Heb 9:27-28 ESV) 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
It’s unmistakable that, in some sense, Jesus’ died to bear our sins. Our sins were somehow placed upon him in his crucifixion.
Let’s look a little more closely at Paul’s words in Romans 3 —
(Rom 3:24-26 ESV) 24 and [we] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Paul asserts in v. 26 that God put forward Jesus as a propitiation so that he might be “just.” Evidently, Jesus had to die to satisfy some sense of divine justice.
But “just” translates dikaios, meaning righteous. Or just. But the primary meaning is righteous. However, going back to Luther at least, translators have preferred “just” on the theory that Paul is resolving God’s difficulty in being both just and righteous, because he’s being asked to declare the guilty innocent.
But the English hides the problem. You see, Paul has been speaking about righteousness, and so in context, dikaios would most naturally be translated “righteous.”
Indeed, as argued in this post, contrary to many a preacher (and blogger), dikaios is not primarily a legal or forensic word. Rather, it speaks of being good or moral. Hence, the translation “just” would have to be compelled by the context, and the context is the righteousness of God — his goodness as shown by his honoring of his covenant.
Thus, God is not creating what we lawyers call a “legal fiction” whereby he can claim to be just by condemning Jesus for our sins (which is hardly just at all!). Rather, God is acting righteously by honoring his covenant with Abraham. As N. T. Wright explains,
Paul’s answer is that the Messiah, King Jesus, has been the true, faithful Israelite. Underneath the dense theology of [Romans 3:21-26] stands Paul’s central gospel scene: the death and resurrection of Jesus, seen as the point at which, and the means by which, God’s covenant purposes for Israel, that is, his intention to deal once and for all with the sin of the world, would finally be accomplished. God has dealt with sin in the cross of Jesus; he has now vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. ‘The faithfulness of Jesus’ (which later, in Romans 5, Paul can also refer to as ‘the obedience of Jesus’) is thus the means whereby the righteousness of God is revealed. God is himself righteous, as the covenant God who has made promises and kept them. In terms of the law-court metaphor, he has been true to his word, he has been impartial (note the way in which Paul goes on at once to speak of God’s even-handed dealing with Jew and Gentile alike), and he has dealt with sin. He has also thereby vindicated the helpless: he is ‘the justifier of the one who has faith.’ This theme of God’s own righteousness, understood as his covenant faithfulness, and seen in terms of the law-court metaphor, is the key to this vital passage.
Paul stresses, by repetition, the underlying point: the gospel of Jesus reveals God’s righteousness, in that God is himself righteous, and, as part of that, God is the one who declares the believer to be righteous. Once again we must insist that there is of course a ‘righteous’ standing, a status, which human beings have as a result of God’s gracious verdict in Christ. Paul is perfectly happy with that…But Paul does not use the phrase ‘God’s righteousness’ to denote it. God’s righteousness is God’s own righteousness. In this crucial passage in Romans 3, he shows how God has been righteous in all the senses we outlined earlier. He has been true to the covenant, which always aimed to deal with the sin of the world; he has kept his promises; he has dealt with sin on the cross; he has done so impartially, making a way of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike; and he now, as the righteous judge, helps and saves the helpless who cast themselves on his mercy…Romans 3:21-4:25 as a whole expounds and celebrates God’s own righteousness, God’s covenant faithfulness, revealed, unveiled, in the great apocalyptic events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…
God’s justice is his love in action, to right the wrongs of his suffering world by taking their weight upon himself. God’s love is the driving force of his justice, so that it can never become a blind or arbitrary thing, a cold system which somehow God operates, or which operates God.
N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?, pp. 94-111 (emphasis is original except the boldface is mine).
You see, the traditional “forensic” interpretation of Romans presupposes that God must pretend to be just by unjustly killing Jesus for our sins because God is subject to some cosmic law that he must be take an eye for eye. He therefore takes the life of Jesus in lieu of the lives of those with faith.
In reality, though, this would not be just at all. Someone else taking your beating is not justice. But it might be righteous — under certain very special circumstances. But those circumstances aren’t quite demonstrated by the traditional sermon in which Jesus takes the punishment for those with faith. It’s close, but not quite there …