St. Paul places this in the very forefront of that gospel which, as it had been delivered to him, so he in his turn had delivered to the Corinthians, that "Christ died for our sins." Neglecting all, deeper interpretations of this, it is at least clear that in the apostle's mind there was the closest and most intimate connexion between the death of Christ and the fact of human sin.
Now it is important to remember that that connexion was, in the first place, an historical one.
Christianity is a religion founded upon facts. In this is seen at once a sharp distinction between our religion and that which claims the allegiance of so many millions of our race -- the religion, or better, perhaps, the philosophy of the Buddha. Certainly there is such a thing as a Christian philosophy. For we cannot handle facts without at the same time seeking for some rational explanation of them. The plain man becomes a philosopher against his will. In its origin our Christian theology is no artificial, manufactured product. It is rather an inevitable, natural growth. Neither the minds of the earliest Christian thinkers, nor our own minds, are just sheets of blank paper on which facts may impress themselves. Scientists, some of them at least, while repudiating philosophy put forth metaphysical theories of the universe. Theology is simply the necessary result of human minds turned to the consideration of the Christian facts. But it makes all the difference which end you start from, the facts or the theory: whether your method is a posteriori or a priori; inductive or deductive; scientific or obscurantist. And Christianity follows the scientific method of starting with the facts. In this lies the justification of its claim to be a religion at once universal and life-giving. It is universal because facts are the common property of all, although the interpretation placed on those facts by individuals may be more or less adequate. It is life- giving, because men live by facts, not by theories about them; by the assimilation of food, not by the knowledge how food nourishes our bodies.
Following, then, the Christian, which is also the scientific method, we now set out in search of the facts, the historical causes which brought about the death of Christ.
Now these causes appear to have been, mainly, these three: prejudice, a dead religion, and the love of gain and political ambition.
1. Prejudice may, perhaps, be best defined as the resolution to hold fast to our belief, just because it is our belief; to adhere to an opinion, and close our eyes to all that has been said on the opposite side. Now nowhere and at no time has prejudice exerted a more absolute dominion over the minds of men, than it did in Judaea in the first century of our era. The people had inherited a traditional conception of the Messiah, from which they could not imagine any deviation possible. He was the Deliverer and the Restorer predestined of God. He would throw off the hated foreign yoke, and make the people of God supreme over all the nations of the earth. It was for a long time doubtful whether Jesus of Nazareth intended to claim the position, and to enact the part of the Messiah. "How long keepest thou our soul in suspense?" was the question put to Him as late as the Feast of Dedication, 28 A.D., the year before He suffered. But, finally, the people found themselves confronted with a type of Messiah differing toto caelo from the accepted traditional type. The kingdom of God, which meant the Divine rule over the souls of men, was at least not such a kingdom as they were looking for, as they had been taught to expect. There is a long history in the gospels of the gradual rise of a popular hope, more than once seeming to have attained its eagerly longed-for goal; but at last doomed, and conscious that it was doomed, to bitter and final disappointment. And it turned to hatred of Him Who had aroused it from a long and fitful sleep of centuries. "Crucify Him" was now their cry. Jesus was put to death on the legal charge of being "Christ, a King," a provincial rebel. He really died because He was not "Christ, a King," in such sense as He had been expected to be. Thus the first historical cause of the death of our Lord was prejudice, inveterate and ingrained, in the minds of the people.
2. The second historical cause of the death of our Lord was the existence in His day and place of a dead religion. This is, when we consider the meaning of the phrase, the strangest of paradoxes, the existence in fact of a logical contradiction. For religion is in its essential nature a living thing, for the very reason that it is part of the experience of a living person. As experience is not merely alive, but the sum of all our vital powers, it is ever growing, both in breadth and in intensity. So far then as we are in any true sense religious men, our religion, as part and parcel of our experience, must be alive with an intense and vigorous activity, growing in the direction in which our experience grows. Hence a dead religion is a logical contradiction, as we have said. But, as truth is stranger than fiction, so life contains anomalies and monstrosities which simply set logic at defiance. A dead religion is indeed a monstrum, something portentous, which refuses to be reconciled with any canons of rationality. But it exists -- that is the astonishing fact about it; and it found its almost perfect expression and embodiment in the normal and average Pharisee of our Lord's time. There are three characteristic features about a dead religion, and all of them receive a perfect illustration in the well-known picture in the gospels of Pharisaic religion.
(a) It tends less and less to rest on experience, and more and more to repose upon tradition. It is academic, a thing on which scribes may lecture, while the voice of the scholastic pedant with blatant repetitions overpowers the living, authoritative voice within the soul. "They marvelled, because He taught with authority, and not as the scribes. A fresh (not new) teaching, with authority!"
(b) It removes the living God to an infinite distance from human life. Religion is a matter of rules, of minute obedience to a code of morals and of ceremonial imposed from without, not of a fellowship of the human with the Divine. In fact, God is banished to a point on the far circumference, and the centre is occupied by the Law. He is retained in order to give authority to that Law, as the source of sanctions in the way of rewards and punishments. In short, the idea of the living God degenerates into the necessary convention of an ecclesiastical tradition.
(c) Closely connected with this second feature is the third characteristic of a dead religion -- its inhumanity. When men substitute obedience to a code for service of the living God, it is no wonder that the truth -- the central truth of religion -- fades rapidly from their minds, that the service of God is identical with the highest service rendered to our fellow-men. "This commandment have we from Him, that he who loveth God, love his brother also." This explains why the Pharisee held aloof from the outcast and the sinner. They might be left to perish -- it mattered not to him.
Now, all through the Gospel history our Lord appears as standing in absolute and sternest opposition to the dead religion of the Pharisees. He could make no manner of terms with it. He acted against it. He denounced it at every point. He rebuked them for "making the commandment of God of none effect" by that tradition which they loved so dearly. He brought the idea of a living God into closest touch with the actual lives of men. He deliberately consorted with publicans and sinners. And, finally, He condemned, in set discourse, the whole system, traditional, Godless, inhuman, with scathing emphasis. Christ died, not only because His words and acts ran counter to the prejudice of the people, but because He spoke and acted in opposition to the dead religion of the Pharisees.
3. The third historical cause of the death of Christ was the love of gain and the political ambition of the Sadducees. Their hatred, indeed, would have been powerless if our Lord had not already provoked the enmity of the people and of the Pharisees; but that enmity, in turn, without the unscrupulous intrigues of the Sadducees, a small but most influential section, would never have proceeded to its fatal and murderous issue. The Pharisees gave up the conflict in despair: "Perceive ye that ye prevail nothing? Behold, the whole world is gone after Him." It was the Sadducean High Priest who gave the counsel of death. "It is expedient that one man should die for the people."
We must remember that the Sadducees represented the aristocracy of Judaea, and that, as resulted necessarily from the nature and constitution of the Jewish state, was an ecclesiastical aristocracy, an hierarchy. They are the party denoted several times in the New Testament by the term "the High Priests." The nearest analogy to their position is supplied by the political popes and bishops of the Middle Ages. Their interests were political rather than spiritual. A considerable amount of independence had been left to the Jews in their own land. The Sanhedrin, the native court, exercised still very considerable power. And the Sadducean minority possessed a predominating influence in its consultations. What political power could be wielded in a subject state of the Empire was in their hands. Incidentally, a large and flourishing business was conducted under their control and management in the very Temple Courts, in "the booths of the sons of Hanan." Our Lord struck a blow at their financial interests when He drove out these traders in sacrificial victims and other requisites. But, much more, and this was the head and front of His offence, by His influence with certain classes of the people, and by the danger thus presented of a popular movement which might arouse the suspicion of the imperial authorities, and lead to very decisive action on their part, He threatened the political position of the Sadducean aristocracy. So with complete absence of scruples, but with great political sagacity, Caiaphas uttered the momentous words, an unconscious prophecy, as St. John points out, at that meeting of the Sanhedrin when the death of Jesus was finally resolved upon.
Thus the main historical causes of the Crucifixion were these three, prejudice on the part of the people, a dead religion on the part of the Pharisees, love of gain and political ambition on the part of the Sadducees.
We may see then how absolutely true St. Peter was to the facts of the case. "Him . . . through the hand of lawless men, ye affixed to a cross and slew." God was not the cause of the death of Jesus Christ, as in popular and ditheistic theory, forgetting "I am in the Father, and the Father in Me." The real causes of His Death were the definite sins of lawless, of wicked men. God's part was a purely negative one. He held His hand, and allowed sin to work out to its fatal issue. The Resurrection, indeed, is the sublime act of God's interference, at the most critical point in all human history, at the one point supremely worthy of such Divine interposition, in order to finally and completely vindicate the cause of moral goodness. But up till then, sin was allowed to have its own way, to display fully its malign character, to reach its ultimate result in the Death of the Sinless One.
But behind the historical causes of our Lord's death, were deeper and spiritual causes. "Him being by the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God delivered up. . . ." God foreknew the result. There is no difficulty here. But in what sense can He be said to have "determined" it?
The answer leads us to a consideration of decisive importance. God works by law, in the spiritual, no less than in the physical region. The Death of the Christ, at the hand of lawless men, came about in virtue of the working of those laws. As we have said, sin is the alienation and estrangement of man from the Divine life which is in him, and by virtue of which he is man. Now, in the human character of Jesus Christ, we see, for the first time, the perfect, genuine, uncaricatured humanity, in which the human will is at every point in absolute agreement and fellowship with the Divine Will. Shortly, He represents the complete and absolute contradiction and antithesis of sin. It could not have been, that that Life should have been realised in a world of alienation from the Divine, without the result, which followed as necessarily and inevitably as any of the physical happenings of nature, of the death of the Sinless. "He became obedient unto death." A deeper meaning lies in these words of St. Paul, which contain the whole secret of the Atonement. But, for the present, we may understand them to mean, that death was the natural issue of the Life of perfect obedience lived in a world permeated by the spirit of disobedience. Thus we gain a clear knowledge of the manner in which the death of Jesus Christ happened in accordance with the determined counsel of God. That which takes place, in the spiritual or in the physical world, as the result of the working of those laws of God which are the constant expression of His will, may be said to have been determined by Him.
There is a yet more profound meaning in the Death of Christ as the result of sin, than any which we have as yet considered: that Death is the outward sign and sacrament of an inward and spiritual fact. When we sin we are, in a measure proportioned to the deliberateness and heinousness of our sin, doing to death the Divine life, the Christ within us. That which happened once on Calvary is renewed time after time in the inward experience of men. The outward fact is an historical drama representing an ever-repeated spiritual tragedy. Daily, by the hands of lawless men, by ourselves in our moments of wilfulness and disobedience, Christ is being put to death. There is no sin which, in its measure and degree, is not a rejection and crucifixion of the Christ.
The Cross of Christ, viewed in the light of its historical and spiritual causes, is (i) the revelation of the malignity of sin. There we see our favourite sins stripped of all pleasing disguise, and revealed in their true horror, and cruelty, and selfishness. The Incarnate Son of God put Himself at the disposal of sinful men, and His violent and shameful death was the result. There is the true meaning of the sins in which we delight. (ii) It reveals the disastrous result of sin, the death of the Divine Man within each one of us. There is no sin which is not an act of spiritual suicide.
It will not then be altogether in vain, that we have now considered the causes of the Death of Christ if, in the "solemn hour of temptation," we, remembering the Cross, and Him Who died thereon, and why He died, "stand in awe, and sin not."