What Sacrifice? Or What a Sacrifice!

I had an interesting conversation recently with an atheist (Robert) which was wide-ranging and led into many areas that I might write about later, but I want to focus now on one area – the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

What Sacrifice? Or What a Sacrifice!

Robert asked me, “Where was Jesus before He came to earth?”

“In heaven with His Father,” I replied.

“Where is He now?”

“In heaven with His Father.”

“So, what is the sacrifice then? He was in heaven before; He’s in heaven now. The period of time He was on the cross is insignificant in light of eternity.”

Robert was unimpressed by the sacrifice of Christ. Maybe you feel the same way? Let’s ask a couple of questions about this subject.

What was the sacrifice for?

Robert had the idea that the death of Christ at Calvary was intended to win our hearts. He found this quite insulting – the human race suffers for thousands of years in misery and pain, and God takes a sliver of time out of paradise to step into our suffering before going back to heaven, and we are supposed to be filled with awe and praise?!

If that was the purpose of the death of Christ, then I think Robert would have a point. The sacrifice of Christ has won, and does warm, my heart; it does fill me with awe and praise, but only because that wasn’t the reason for it. If the reason was to win us, then it would be nothing short of emotional manipulation. But that wasn’t why He did it.

I told Robert that the reason for the sacrifice of Christ was to pay the penalty of sin and satisfy the demands of justice so that salvation could be offered to sinners. If Robert isn’t impressed by that, so what? It wasn’t done to impress him, it was done because it needed to be done to provide salvation, and the Lord Jesus did it. Whether someone reckons the sacrifice to be great or small, the fact is it was necessary if any were going to be saved from their sins.

"The reason for the sacrifice of Christ was to pay the penalty of sin and satisfy the demands of justice so that salvation could be offered to sinners"

What was the sacrifice of?

But was it an insignificant sacrifice? Not at all. I told Robert that I thought he was looking at this the wrong way. I asked him to imagine someone rushing into a burning building to rescue a child. Suppose he experiences horrific pain in the rescue effort but makes a full recovery and goes on to live a full and healthy life. I don’t think any of us would just shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that was no sacrifice – nothing to admire there!” To willingly suffer horrendous pain for the good of another is noble, admirable, praise-worthy and awe-inspiring, even if it is only for a short period of time.

Then consider what was involved in the sacrifice of Christ. It was not merely that the Lord Jesus experienced the awful pains of crucifixion. He was paying the penalty for sin. The Bible presents God as holy and righteous. Because God is holy, sin must be banished from Him; because He is righteous, sin must be punished by Him. On the cross the Lord Jesus experienced that banishment and punishment, and that was agony we cannot imagine, much less describe.

He was banished from God

The eternal Son of God, the one who eternally existed in loving fellowship with God, was forsaken by God – bereft of the enjoyment of His presence. It is impossible for us to appreciate what this meant to Him. We have never known the fulness of God’s presence, but the Lord Jesus did – there was never anything that came between Him and God to spoil that infinite and eternal joy. And we have never known the fulness of God’s absence – even though sin separates humanity from God, we are still surrounded by innumerable mercies and blessings. But on the cross, the one who knew the fulness of God’s presence knew the fulness of His absence. Charles Spurgeon, a great 19th century preacher, wrote, “Hell itself has for its fiercest flame the separation of the soul from God.”1

He was punished by God

The Bible describes God’s punishment as “indignation and wrath” and the results of it as “tribulation and anguish” (Romans 2:8-9). A person in hell will experience the punishment for his own sins, so that those who sin more will suffer a greater intensity of punishment. But for the Lord Jesus, He was not suffering the punishment of a certain amount of sins. The Bible says God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). That is, God treated His own Son as sin deserved to be treated, so that He could not have suffered any more. There couldn’t have been more indignation and wrath. The tribulation and anguish could not have been more intense.

The thought of that might not mean much to you, but as the Lord Jesus anticipated it the night before His death it caused sweat to fall from His brow, tears to flow from His eyes, and an agonising cry to rise from His heart, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). This was certainly not insignificant to Him, He said on one occasion, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished” (Luke 12:50). Because of the infinite value of the eternal Son of God He could drink the cup, accomplish the baptism and say, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He paid the penalty for sin in full, and thus God raised Him from the dead.

Robert agreed that the man who rushed into a burning building to save a child was making a sacrifice worthy of admiration. But consider what the gospel teaches: we are not like little children caught in a burning building – we are guilty rebels deserving of condemnation. It was not a mere man who came to save us, but the one we had offended and rebelled against – our almighty Creator. Robert looks at it and says, “What sacrifice?” I look at it and say, “What a sacrifice!” What is your response?

"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."
 1 Corinthians 1 18 (NKJV)


  1. C. H. Spurgeon, Psalms, Volume 1, Crossway Books, 1993, p. 78.