The Gospel writers tell us that Barabbas was a murderer. He was imprisoned for inciting rebellion and he was awaiting execution. In most every way, he was as good as dead. When the guards came and unlocked his cell, I’m sure he thought his life was over. But instead of marching him away to be crucified, they took the chains off his wrists and said, “You can go.” I wonder if he might’ve thought the guards were playing some cruel joke on him. But then maybe one of them spoke up and said, “No, it’s true. Someone else is going to die in your place. His name is Jesus of Nazareth.”
And I’ve always wondered what Barabbas did with that knowledge. The innocent Son of God died in the place of a rebel and a murderer.
And the rest of the Bible declares that what Jesus did for Barabbas, He also did for us. He died in our place as a result of our rebellion.
This understanding of the cross — called the substitutionary theory of atonement — is the predominant view for most Christians today. To use our golf club analogy from a couple of weeks ago, this is the largest club in the bag. Without a doubt, the idea of Jesus dying in our place is one of the most important things we can say about the cross.
In fact, we could say that this idea is really at the heart of the entire biblical story.
Sin: The Human Problem
According to the Scriptures, every human being is under the power of sin. No one can claim to be righteous (Romans 3:9-12). Although human beings are part of God’s originally good creation, sin has corrupted that goodness. We are now under Sin’s condemnation.
The Bible defines “sin” in a few meaningful ways. One way of understanding sin is to think of it as “missing the mark.” Imagine a target whose bullseye represents God’s good purposes for humanity. After all, we were made in the very image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). But sin causes us to fall short of this target (Romans 3:23). Weakened by sin, we will never be able to pull the bow back far enough to hit the mark on our own.
Sin is also described as living in the passion of the flesh (Ephesians 2:1-3). As a result, we were children of wrath, incurring the just punishment for our sin. Taking things even further in Ephesians 2, Paul says that apart from Christ, dwelling under Sin’s dominion, we are dead in our sins.
So because of sin, God has this dilemma. He loves us with a perfect love; but God is also perfectly holy and He simply cannot have anything to do with sin. God’s wrath is His opposition to sin — because sin always undermines God’s good purposes. Whereas God created us for life and glory, sin only creates death and corruption. That’s what we read at Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” After their sin, Adam and Eve must leave the garden (God’s place of life) and enter into a new, corrupted world (the dominion of sin, the place of death). Likewise, we incur the same penalty of death when it comes to our own sins.
So as we’ve said for a couple of weeks now, our human predicament is twofold:
- We are guilty of our sins and we need to be forgiven.
- We are also enslaved to Sin and we need to be delivered from its power.
Our guilt continually accrues with each individual sin we commit. It grows more and more every time we sin. But there’s also this: with each sin we commit, Sin (as a Power, as a cosmic, spiritual force) increases its hold on us. We become more and more enslaved to Sin as we’re drawn further into its dark realm.
Sin wants us to be guilty before God; but it also wants to enslave us. That’s the great danger of watching pornography or lying or drunkenness or gossip — or any sin. Yes, those individual sins stain us, standing against us and declaring our guilt. But each time we commit them, we’re also entrenching ourselves even further in the enslaving realm of Sin. This is what the writer of Proverbs was referring to when he said, Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly (Proverbs 26:11). The fact that we keep returning to the same sins over and over is evidence of the enslaving nature of Sin.