Christ died for your sins.

Sound familiar? Whether you are a Christian or not, you have probably heard something like this before. This is not surprising: if Christianity could be boiled down to a simple expression, “Christ died for your sins” would easily be a top contender.

This simple statement is both biblically accurate and deeply profound, but “simple truths” can lose truth value if they are made too simple. Constructing an understanding of the Cross and Christianity around such a singular statement runs the risk of missing the complexity of God’s redemptive plan and ultimately of mischaracterizing the Cross. This happens when we view the Cross simply as act of love and mercy in which Jesus dies on the cross for the punishment we rightly deserve in order to satisfy God’s justice. My argument, rather, is that the Cross was an act of love, mercy, and justice; moreover, the Cross was an act of cosmic justice.

So what is “Cosmic Justice”? Cosmic justice is a cosmological conceptualizing of justice that posits that the universe itself is ruled by some standard of justice. This could be an impersonal force or law of moral cause and effect – like karma. Or it could mean that there is some type of cosmic governor – God – who administers justice in the universe which He governs. My argument takes the second approach.

Then what is “justice”? There is hardly space for a treatise on the subject, and I will not attempt to commit to a definitive definition. So off to the dictionary we go! Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “justice” reads “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” Most conceptions of justice are heavily related to government, fairness, punishment, or a “righting of wrongs,” and two types are relevant for our study: retributive justice and restorative justice.

Retributive Justice: Penal Substitution

Retributive justice entails punishing the guilty and clearing the innocent. Transgressions against the law demand punishment. It is unjust if a burglar breaks into a house but is allowed to live freely without repercussions. Likewise, a just universe is one where transgressors of divine law are met with punishment. From this conception of justice, we get author Randy Alcorn’s “If there is no Hell, there is no justice …We all are sinners who deserve Hell.”[1] The issue I am highlighting is not Hell per se but rather the close linkages between cosmic justice, universal guilt, and the need for punishment. How does God deal with this? Under a retributive conception of justice, this is where a theological idea called Penal Substitutionary Atonement and “Christ died for your sins” steps in.

The Penal Substitutionary Atonement model (PSA) operates on a logic of retributive justice and is the dominant atonement model in Evangelical Christian thought. Before moving on, let’s unpack PSA. The Atonement is the means by which mankind is reconciled with God. The Atonement is penal in that Christ died on the Cross as a punishment for sin. It is substitutionary in that He died on the Cross in our place. Moreover, Christ died on the Cross to satisfy God’s justice.

The need for atonement is created by the demands for retributive justice and God’s love. All of mankind stands guilty of breaking God’s law (Rom 3:9-11; Rom 3:23; Jas 2:10). God must – it is argued – avenge Himself and punish sin (Nah 1:3; Ex 23:7; Ex 34:18; Num 14:18). Retributive justice demands that the guilty are punished. Without the atoning work of the Cross we would all receive God’s justice – that is – Hell (or possibly annihilation). Why, then, do we not receive God’s justice? It is because God loves us and in a great act of mercy He sent His son to die for us. Or, perhaps more accurately, Christ offered Himself up as a sacrifice for our sins. According to Galatians, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Gal 3:13, ESV). The Prophet Isaiah, too, states, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities … and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:4-6).

Has cosmic justice been fulfilled or thwarted? This is the crux of the problem. The typical way of viewing the Cross, as shown by the Penal Substitutionary Atonement model, pits God’s love and mercy against His justice. This renders the Cross as satisfying God’s justice but it is not itself an act of justice. It is analogous to giving a bouquet of roses (in substitute of love) to an angry wife to satisfy her rather than giving the bouquet as an act of love itself.

Instead, the Cross should be viewed as an act of love, grace, mercy, and justice. Now I present an altered version of the Moral Governmental model (MGM) of atonement which places the Atonement within a context of cosmic governance and justice.

Restorative Justice: Moral Government

Before the Atonement, God reigned over a broken and rebellious universe. As subjects of God’s cosmic government, mankind’s continuous rebellion through sin threatened to undermine cosmic order. As head of the moral cosmic government, God is concerned with the moral behavior of his citizens, the prestige of his divine law, and the integrity of the cosmic order. Additionally, sin corrupted mankind – originally made in the image of God – into warped versions of who we were meant to be (Gen 1:27). By sin, mankind was alienated from God, destroying the type of relationship God originally intended within His universe.[2]

A broken universe is in need of restorative justice. It is critical to note here that under the Moral Governmental Model, sin is not an offense against God requiring retribution, but rather a rebellious act against the divine government which corrupts and threatens the universe as willed by God. Justice thus entails restoring the universe and “making things right.” The cosmic government requires the administration of cosmic justice. But how should cosmic justice be carried out?

God – as head of the cosmic state – has policy options for His administration of cosmic justice. He could freely offer clemency to all of humanity. But such a policy would undermine the integrity of the moral law. He could simply annihilate or punish all of His rebellious subjects. But such an act would betray God’s love for us and also would defeat the purpose of creation. Neither option would restore mankind or the universe. But there was one act of justice that could: the Cross.

As an act of cosmic justice, the Cross made reconciliation with God possible while still maintaining the integrity of divine law and God’s commitment to justice. Within the traditional governmental model, “Christ by His death actually paid the penalty for no man’s sin. What His death did was to demonstrate what their sins deserved at the hand of the just Governor and Judge of the universe, and permits God justly to forgive men if on other grounds, such as their faith, their repentance, their works, and their perseverance, they meet His demand.”[3] Paul writes that God put forward Christ “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.  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” (Rom 3:25-26). Instead of satisfying a debt created by cosmic justice, the Cross is rather an expression and demonstration of God’s justice.

The exact mechanics of Atonement differ between PSA and MGM. The theology gets pretty technical, but basically, under the governmental model Christ paid the ransom for mankind’s sin, but He did not pay the punitive price. As the Gospel of Mark writes, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). Jesus paid our ransom and suffered on our behalf, but He did so in substitution because guilt and punishment are non-transferable. We need not decisively accept or reject MGM’s insistence of ransom instead of punishment. For our purposes, the importance of MGM is to think about the Atonement within a framework of cosmic governance and justice.

Regardless of the atonement model, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes reconciliation with God possible. Reconciliation makes possible the restoration of the cosmos. In this sense, the Cross is the ultimate act of cosmic justice, because it initiates the restoration of our universe to the way it should be. God’s grace and love did not work against His justice and its retributive demands for punishment, but rather, His grace and love worked with God’s restorative justice to make things right in our universe.

So yes, Christ died for your sins, but He didn’t do so merely to clear a judicial ledger. Rather, He did so to provide you (and the world) a means by which we may be justified, forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and glorified as a part of God’s larger redemptive plan to restore the entire universe from its state of sin and brokenness into one where humanity regains its true identity and fellowship between God and mankind is made perfect.



[2] This is a complicated subject, but one has to closely examine the Garden of Eden and God’s relationship with Adam and Eve to understand what is meant to “reconciliation.” Reconciliation entails a restoration of what it means to be fully human. God’s original blueprint seems to be one where humans would have close fellowship with the Father, live righteously and with love, and possess authority. Romans 8:16-17 says that the redeemed will be co-heirs with Christ. 1 John 3:2 says that we will be like him [Jesus]. Clearly, the state of our universe looks very different from this.

[3] Raymond, Robert. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 479

Daniel Lowery ’16 is a Government concentrator in Dudley House.