Sometimes Christians argue that Jesus has to be divine in order to atone for our sins. I noticed someone recently citing this argument and asking, “Really? Got a Scripture for that?” Well, that’s the real question for many of these theological questions.
What does the Scripture say? And what does Scripture mean by what it says? Put another way, what pattern of teaching does the Bible provide that can answer the question?
Answer: Scripture not only says that Christ had to be divine to forgive sins; it says much more than that.
The basic logic of salvation works like this. We die, we sin, and we serve Satan. We die because we have corruptible bodies. We sin because we have vitiated natures. We serve Satan because we fear death, and because we fear death, we sin. It is a vicious circle.
Christ breaks the circle.
- Since he is divine, he can give eternal life to us who have corruptible and mortal life.
- Since he is divine and assumes a common human nature (but not a person), he can atone for the sins of all humanity.
- Since he overcomes sin and death, he conquers Satan who wields these weapons to enslave mankind by fear.
Let’s take those one at a time, paying attention to the ways that Scripture describes Christ’s life and work.
Christ overcomes death by giving us divine life
All earthly life ends. Then the soul enters Sheol. The only way to avoid Sheol is to be immortal. And only someone who has life in himself can give eternal life. And this is precisely what the Father has granted to the Son: to have life in himself just as the Father does (John 5:26; 1:4).
What sort of life? Eternal life. And eternal life can only come from an eternal being. That being is God. Hence, knowing God and Christ means that we have eternal life (John 17:3).
Only someone who has eternal life in himself can give eternal life to corruptible creatures and thereby cloth mortality with immortality, corruptibility with incorruptibility.
This is the basic logic of eternal life. We have it by faith in Christ because the Father has granted the Son to have that life in him. By faith, the Spirit unites us to Christ where we receive life in Christ by the Spirit (1 John 5:11–12).
God through Christ gives “the Spirit without measure” (John 3:34), and it “is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63). So to give us eternal life, Christ had to be divine. Or else, how would he be able to have life in himself as the Father does? He could not. Therefore, he must be divine.
Christ overcomes sin by dying a common death
Likewise, no other human could die for the sins of the whole human race. Were I to die, my death would not atone for the sins of others. Certainly, kings could represent their people. So David could atone for his sin which affected his people (2 Sam 24:25). Yet that atonement staved the wrath of God, since it looked forward to the work of Christ who alone is the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Tim 2:5).
Christ who fully existed as the man Jesus Christ (Acts 2:22) and yet who always pre-existed as the Word of the Father could die for ours (John 8:58; 17:24). Since he was truly human (Heb 2:14), he could die—he was mortal. Since he was a divine person (John 1:1), he could assume a human nature and not a human person. He did not assume Joseph the Carpenter but a common human nature.
The only person in Christ is the Word of God (John 1:1, 14). Christ is one person with two natures. Hence, he has a common human nature. So his life and death could both heal and atone for the entirety of human nature. This metaphysical grounding explains why his kingship and federal headship work.
He healed human nature totally. So that by faith, we unite to him spiritually and receive life. We heal our natures through him. And God declares us just in him.
Had he not been God and so a divine person, then he could not have assumed a common human nature. And then he could not have atoned for humanity.
Christ conquers Satan by defeating the powers of the devil, namely sin and death
The author of Hebrews clarifies that although the Son “is the exact imprint of [God’s] nature” (Heb 1:3) and although he is superior to angels, the Son still shared in real flesh and blood:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Heb 2:14–15)
Why did the exact imprint of God’s nature become human? To destroy Satan’s power. Satan uses fear of dying to entice people to sin.
Yet since Christ died according to his mortal nature, rose according to his eternal life, and propitiated judicial wrath by dying as a common man, he destroyed Satan’s power. Sin and death no longer have a hold on us (Rom 6).
So Christ liberates us from Satan through the cross and resurrection by putting death to death and shattering sin. Satan has no more power. He cannot use the fear of death to draw us to sin.
All of this happens because Christ’s eternal and divine life overcomes the corruptibility of mortality and because his common nature grounds his federal headship allowing him to die on behalf of all humans. Satan loses.
A foot stands on his head, ready to crush it at the Second Coming.
Christ had to be the union of divinity and humanity to enact salvation according to Scripture. The pattern of sound words in Scripture shows us why God became man. He did so for us and for our salvation.