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Why Christ Had to Die

Not until we fully understand our human condition—that of total depravity—can we fully appreciate what God did for us through Christ's death and resurrection.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon said that preaching is like throwing a bucket of water at a row of bottles. Some of the water goes in some of the bottles. But by talking to people personally, you have the opportunity of topping off every bottle and making sure none of the water spills.

If I had the chance to go back over the 42 years that I've been preaching, I'd like to sit down with all the people I've ever preached to and ask them, "Do you really feel that Christ is your Savior and your Lord?"

I can't do that. But I want to explain to you in the simplest possible terms why Christ died for you, the significance of that, and what it should mean to you.

The Bible explains that the human condition is serious indeed.

The Bible explains carefully that the human condition is serious indeed. We could live our lives as reasonably happy people. We can get things reasonably well organized. We can get ourselves into a relatively comfortable situation and never really feel that life is all that serious, that the human condition before God is all that drastic.

Yet, if we are to take what the Scriptures say seriously, we have to come to terms with the fact that the human predicament is extreme.

What we are in ourselves is fundamentally at odds with God. That's the root problem. The technical term for it is total depravity. It's not a biblical term, but it's an accurate one, provided we understand it correctly.

Dr. J.I. Packer put it this way: "Total depravity means not that at every point man is as bad as he could be, but that at no point is he as good as he should be." That is the fundamental human condition in a nutshell, according to Scripture.

Some people try to persuade people they are totally rotten and despicable, utterly, thoroughly, totally depraved. People, understandably, react to that!

They think the preacher is saying, "At every point of your life you are as bad as you possibly could be." Rather, there is no point in our lives at which we are as good as we should be. We have come short of God's glory.

In this passage, there are various words that describe the human condition. In verse 6 it says we are "powerless." In the same verse it says we are "ungodly." In verse 8 it says we are "sinners." In verse 10, we're "enemies." These all have a slightly different nuance that simply can be added up in this whole concept: At no point are any of us as good as we should be. We have fallen. We have failed to be what we were created to be.

That is the meaning of the word sinner: someone who comes short, someone who misses the mark. One of the sad tragedies of our being sinners is that there is a certain powerlessness about us. This powerlessness manifests itself in different people in different ways.

Martin Alfonse, a Methodist pastor in Madras, India, told an interesting story: His father, an orthodox, dedicated Hindu, became seriously ill. As a result of his illness, he went around trying hard to get proper medical care; none was available to him. In desperation, he turned to some Christians. They prayed quite specifically for his healing, and he was healed by a dramatic, divine intervention.

At that point he became convinced that Jesus Christ was Lord. As a result of a specific, physical need being met, he acknowledged Christ as Savior. Now, there was a certain physical powerlessness about him that was the direct or indirect result of sin. But Christ was able to intervene.

Martin Alfonse's experience was totally different. He had an overwhelming sense of inferiority. It was so severe that he was practically crippled in his everyday relationships with people.

But somebody told him that Jesus Christ could heal him in the area of his inferiority complex, that he would begin to understand his true worth as somebody whom Christ loved. When he heard this message, he turned to Christ, and Christ became his Savior and Lord. He was met not like his father at the point of physical need but at the point of his deep psychological need. Both were powerless as a result of sin. It manifested itself in different ways.

Pastor Alfonse went on to tell about a delightful family in his congregation. As is normal for Hindus, they had been looking for inner peace. They went through all the rituals of their religion. They were totally committed and deeply involved, but at no point did they ever get close to the sense of an inner peace.

Someone told them it was possible for people to experience peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. They heard it, and they believed it; Christ became their Savior and Lord. They were met not at a point of physical need or the point of psychological need but a point of clear, acute spiritual need. All were the result of sin, powerlessness manifesting itself in different ways.

That is the human predicament—not that at every point we are bad as we could be but that at no point are we as good as we should be. As a result of this, there has been a debilitating impact of sin in our lives. We're sinners, and we're powerless.

This powerlessness can manifest itself not just in passive inability but in active hostility. We engage in ungodly behavior. We behave as those who are at enmity with God. We become rebellious. We shake our fists in the face of God. We deride his name. We disobey his commands. We go about showing that we have no time for God at all. We enthrone ourselves, and we dethrone God, and we do all we can to resist him in our lives.

Not that at all points we're as bad as we could be, but at no point are we as good as we should be, manifested in powerlessness, ungodliness, hostility, and sin. That's basically the human condition.

Do we see ourselves as totally depraved? Has that sunk in? Do we believe it?

Now, I wonder, honestly, if deep down you see yourself in those categories. I wonder if deep down you acknowledge that there is something fundamentally wrong with who you are as a person. Has that sunk in? Do you believe it?

What we do is a manifestation of what we are. If you look at the terms "sinner" and "powerless," this will give you the impression that what we do is wrong because we fail to do what we're required to do. If you look at the terms "ungodly" and "enemy," you'll see that that suggests we do the things that we are forbidden to do. We call these "sins of omission" and "sins of commission."

Now some people who have lived rebellious lives have no difficulty whatsoever identifying specific sins of commission. They have no difficulty understanding that they have insisted on doing what is forbidden. I've had people say, "As you took us through the Ten Commandments, I realized I have broken every single one of them."

But the majority of people who go to church don't see themselves as sinners by commission because they live reasonably respectable lives. But every one of them, if they're honest, will admit to being a sinner of omission. Have we truly loved God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength, and our neighbor as ourselves? Of course not. That is evidence that what we are is fundamentally wrong. What we've done is intrinsically unsatisfactory.

God pays us the incredible compliment of making us accountable. This proves to us conclusively that God regards us as creatures of significance. If God is keeping track of what we do and what we shouldn't do, that proves that what we do and what we don't do is worth keeping track of in heaven. Which proves that what I do is significant in the highest court of evaluation.

If that is true, then I cannot fail to recognize that I am significant too. God has paid us the inestimable compliment of making us accountable. Whether I see myself either as a powerless sinner or a hostile, ungodly enemy, God wants me to know three things:

1. I'm accountable to him.

2. He is just and holy and righteous.

3. He is indignant about our sin.

We come under what the Bible calls "the wrath of God." Here again, I realize that this is not a popular subject for polite conversation. But it is a subject that needs to be addressed carefully and understood thoroughly. The wrath of God is not to be seen as something like the wrath of man ballooned up to divine proportions. The wrath of man is often totally unwarranted, utterly hypocritical, thoroughly unreasonable, given to extremes.

The wrath of God, John Stott says, "is his righteous hostility to evil, his refusal to condone it, and his just judgment upon it."

It's as if you've stood in the court of God, he has presented the evidence, then the judge looks at you and asks, "Do you have anything to say for yourself?" At that moment, you can't say a word. The evidence against you is so overwhelming and so utterly incontrovertible, there's not a thing you can say. You are utterly without excuse.

That is the human condition. I wish I could sit down with each one of you and make sure that each one of you understands that.

God's divine compassion is the antidote to our total depravity, to our sin.

The divine compassion is the second thing we note. Please notice in the passage of Scripture before us in verse 6, "While we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly." Verse 10, "God demonstrates his own love for us in this. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

It was while we were still in this condition that the divine compassion was poured out toward us. God is not in the business of saying, "Reform yourself, and I'll see what I can do." Neither is God saying, "You're a good kid." God is looking into our hearts, knowing we are without excuse. Yet, while we're still sinners, still powerless, he is moved with compassion toward us!

Compassion isn't just a feeling. Compassion is demonstrated by action. The action that demonstrates the divine compassion for people like you and me is this—Christ died for us.

Paul said, "The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me." God loves to such an extent that he moves out and empties heaven of its greatest treasure—Christ—and gives Christ to die on a cross for us.

That word "for" can mean Christ died instead of us. It can mean Christ died on behalf of us. I stand before you as somebody who thoroughly understands that in and of myself, I deserve nothing more than the righteous indignation of God and banishment from his presence for the whole of life and the whole of eternity.

Yet God took the initiative and said, "Briscoe, it is not necessary for you to live in the condition that you deserve. My Son will take it on behalf of you, instead of you, and die for you."

Incredible, but true.

Where do these great truths leave us, then?

Where does that leave me, then? Well, the apostle Paul sums it up brilliantly in verse 9: "Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him. For if when we were God's enemies we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life."

If I'm to understand what the cross is all about, I not only need to understand my condition and the divine compassion, but the eternal conclusion. The eternal conclusion is this: It is possible for me to be justified by his blood. All that I have done has been blotted out, utterly forgiven. I stand now just as if I'd never sinned.

Not only has he taken away my accountability for sin, he has also taken away the guilt of my sin and purged eternity of all record of my sin. I have been justified by Christ's blood. Which is another way of saying, "Because he died on behalf of me, instead of my dying."

Incredible, but true.

It is incredible to think that I have been justified by his blood. But over and above that, he says that I will be saved from wrath through him. In other words, instead of there being that fearful looking forward to a judgment, that horror of death, the agony of wondering what will happen to me after I die, and that dreadful sinking feeling that if God judges me I won't have a leg to stand on—instead of all that, I can say, having been justified by his blood, much more than that. When the day comes for me to stand before God, I will be saved from God's wrath, not through what I have done but through him. He will intercede for me.

Which means that in the same way that being justified by his blood saves me from the consequences of what I've done, being saved from wrath through him means I have been saved from where I'm heading. But there's much more. Much more.

Incredible, but true.

If being justified by his blood wasn't enough, if my being saved from wrath through him wasn't enough, Paul says, "I will be saved by his life." God has raised up the crucified Christ and sent his Spirit into the hearts and lives of the justified. Having been justified by his blood, we will be saved from wrath through him. In the interim we can know the presence of the living Christ within us.

Incredible, but true.

Many years ago I wrote a little booklet called This Is Exciting. It simply told the story of my spiritual life. The first stage of my spiritual life was: This is easy. All you do is say you're sorry, have your sins forgiven, then wait to go to heaven when you die.

Then somebody pointed out to me that I was supposed to live like a disciple of Jesus Christ. I started trying to do it, and I changed from "this is easy" to "this is difficult."

Then somebody began to show me what it really means to live as I'm supposed to live, and I came to the conclusion that "this is impossible." Then I got mad with God.

I was perfectly happy with God when it was easy, and I got along fine with him when it was difficult, but I got very upset when I discovered it was impossible. Then and then only, he began to show me that in addition to being justified by his blood and promising that he would save me from wrath through him, he sent Christ into my life to save me from the sheer impossibility of trying to do it on my own. By faith I began to live in step with the Christ who lives within me to save me from what I am.

Incredible, but true.

Many years ago when the children were small, we went for a little drive in the lovely English countryside, and there was some fresh snow. I saw a lovely field with not a single blemish on the virgin snow. I stopped the car, and I vaulted over the gate, and I ran around in a great big circle striding as wide as I could. Then I came back to the kids, and I said, "Now, children, I want you to follow in my footsteps. So I want you to run around that circle in the snow, and I want you to put your feet where your father put his feet."

Well, David tried and couldn't quite make it. Judy, our overachiever, was certain she would make it; she couldn't make it. Pete, the little kid, took a great run at it, put his foot in my first footprint, and then strode out as far as he could and fell on his face. His mother picked him up as he cried.

She said to me, "What are you trying to do?"

I said, "I'm trying to get a sermon illustration."

I said, "Pete, come here." I picked up little Peter and put his left foot on my foot, and I put his right foot on my foot. I said, "Okay, Pete, let's go." I began to stride one big stride at a time with my hands under his armpits and his feet lightly on mine.

Well, who was doing it? In a sense, he was doing it because I was doing it. In a sense there was a commitment of the little boy to the big dad, and some of the properties of the big dad were working through the little boy.

In exactly the same way, in our powerlessness we can't stride as wide as we should. We don't walk the way we should. We don't hit the target the way we ought. It isn't that at every point we are as bad as we could be. It's just that at no point are we as good as we should be. Something's got to be done.

The message of Easter is it has been done. You can be justified. You can be saved from wrath. You can be saved by his life. All that is the message of grace—God offering you what you don't deserve.

Stuart Briscoe is pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin. His books include Mastering Contemporary Preaching.

(c) Stuart Briscoe

Preaching Today Tape #163


A resource of Christianity Today International

Stuart Briscoe is minister-at-large of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and author of several books, including What Works When Life Doesn't (Howard Books).

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Sermon Outline:

Introduction: An explanation of why Christ died, and what it should mean to us.

I. The Bible explains that the human condition is serious indeed.

We are fundamentally at odds with God; the technical term is total depravity.

- "Total depravity means not that at every point man is as bad as he could be, but that at no point is he as good as he should be" (J.I. Packer).

Romans 5 includes words about our condition, like "powerless" and "sinners."

Sin has had a debilitating impact in our lives; we are powerless.

II. Do we see ourselves as totally depraved? Has that sunk in? Do we believe it?

What we do is a manifestation of who we are.

- We are guilty of sins of commission and sins of omission.

By holding us accountable, God regards us as creatures of significance.

God wants me to know three things

- I'm accountable to him; 2) he is just, holy; 3) he is indignant about our sin.

Because of these things, we are all under the wrath of God.

III. God's divine compassion is the antidote to our total depravity, to our sin.

"While we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly" (Rom. 5:6).

Compassion isn't just a feeling; compassion is demonstrated by action.

God loves us so much that he let his Son die on a cross for us.

IV. Where do these great truths leave us, then?

The eternal conclusion is that we have been justified by Christ's blood.

- All I have done has been blotted out, utterly forgiven, as if I'd never sinned.

We have been saved from wrath through Christ.

We have the Holy Spirit living within us.

- Illustration:

When Briscoe's children were young, Briscoe found an open field, covered in fresh snow. He ran in a big circle, taking long strides, then asked his kids to follow in his footsteps, putting their feet in his footprints. They couldn't do it; the strides were too long. He then picked up his youngest, and put his son's feet on his own feet, and retraced the steps. The point: "He was doing it because I was doing it… . In our powerlessness, we can't stride as wide as we should… . Something's got to be done."

Conclusion: The message of Easter is that that "something" has been done.

We have been justified, saved from wrath, saved by his life, saved by grace