Octavius Winslow once famously said, “Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Judas, for money; not Pilate, for fear; not the Jews, for envy—but the Father for love.” We could just as easily edit this statement in the following way: “Who put Jesus on the cross? Judas, for money; Pilate, for fear; the Jews, for envy; and you and me, for enmity.” This is a truth we should never tire of hearing and to which we must often return. Our understanding of the nature of our depravity is essential if we are to rightly understand the nature of the death of Jesus. In short, the doctrine of human depravity helps us better understand who delivered Jesus up to the death on the cross.
When considering the nature of sin, many professing Christians have a tendency to focus on the horizontal relationships they sustain with those around them. In a very real sense, all of us have been culturally conditioned to think of the manifold ways in which we violate the last six—rather than the first four—commandments. Perhaps it is because the relationships that we sustain with one another in a visible world seem to make the last six commandments more tangible. However, Scripture makes it clear that the violations of the last six commandments—called “the second table of the law”—flow out of violations of the first four commandments—called “the first table of the law.” The first table of the law is summarized by the first great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength,” whereas the last six commandments constitute the scope of the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” All of our sin is first and foremost against God (Ps. 51:4), and any of our violations of the last six commandments are violations of the first commandment, “You shall have no other Gods before me” (Ex. 20:3; Col. 3:5). Only when we understand that our sin is primarily against God will we rightly understand what our sin truly deserves—and why Christ had to die.
When we begin to understand all that Scripture reveals about the death of Jesus, we start to come to terms with what our sin deserves. Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus gave “his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), was made to be sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), became “a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13), “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24), suffered for our sin (1 Peter 3:18), was sacrificed for us (1 Cor. 5:7), and “gave himself for our sins” (Gal. 1:4). Jesus substituted Himself for His people on the cross, taking all of their sins on Himself and bearing the full weight of the wrath of God that those sins deserve. Jesus endured hell for us on the cross. An eternal being, manifest in the flesh, took the eternal wrath on Himself in order to propitiate that wrath, satisfy justice, and atone for our sins. If we want to know what our sin truly deserves, we should look at the cross. The eighteenth-century Irish hymn writer Thomas Kelley set this truth out in the most salient of ways when he wrote,
Ye who think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly
Here its guilt may estimate
Mark the sacrifice appointed
See who bears the awful load
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed
Son of Man and Son of God
The cross brings the heinousness of our sin into view as we look upon the crucified Son of God. However, seeing Christ crucified also enables us to understand more about the true nature of our sin and depravity.
The Bible, in no uncertain terms, reveals that all natural-born descendants of Adam are, by nature, enemies of God (Rom. 1:30; 5:10) and that our lives and actions bear witness to that enmity (Eph. 2:1–4; 4:18). Jesus Himself said, “Men love the darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19). Nevertheless, I have yet to meet an unbeliever who consciously admits that he truly hates God. In fact, in all the evangelistic labors in which I have been engaged throughout the years, I have had the opposite experience. Nearly everyone to whom I have sought to bear witness to Christ and the gospel has suggested that—far from being at enmity with God—his relationship with God is “fine.”