By Elias Ayala (MDiv & M.A.T.)
Was the atonement of Christ necessary? In an ultimate sense, it was not necessary for the Father to send the Son in that it was not necessary for God to save sinners. It is God who shows mercy on whom He wills to show mercy (Romans 9:15). We see the freedom of God in saving others or not in 2 Peter 2:4 where it says, “God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until judgment.” We could imagine that God could have chosen to have mercy on these angels, but He decided in His perfect righteousness and justice not to show such mercy. In reference to human beings, God did not “have to” have mercy on anyone but He decided that He would.
If God chose to have mercy on no one He would have been perfectly just in damning all of man kind since “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). However, in God’s perfect love and wisdom, He decided to bestow mercy on sinners which included the provision through which this mercy would be received and made effectual. Hence, in light of God’s desire to save sinners and reconcile them to Himself, it was necessary to send the Son to die on their behalf. In theology, this perspective is known as the “consequent absolute necessity” view of the atonement: The atonement was not absolutely necessary, but as a consequence of God’s decision to save some human beings, the atonement was absolutely necessary.
Consider Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). We know that Jesus would be crucified shortly after and so the suggestion is that it was “not possible” for this cup to be passed from Jesus, in light of the Father’s desire to reconcile sinners to Himself. In other words, if Jesus was going to accomplish the will of the Father, then it was necessary that He should die on their behalf and make atonement for their sins.
The necessity of the atonement is further suggested in the account of Jesus walking on the road to Emmaus. When speaking with two disciples he explained to them: “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory” (Luke 24:25-26)?
In God’s decision to save sinners it was necessary that God do so in such a way that He also maintained His righteousness. This means that while He had mercy on sinners, the penalty of their sins still did not go unpunished. God shows mercy, the debt accrued due to man’s sin is paid on the cross. In the cross of Christ, we see God’s perfect love and mercy, as well as His perfect righteousness and holiness in that even in showing mercy, the demands of His perfect law are met. “It was to prove at the present time that he Himself is righteous and that He justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).