If God is God, could He not just declare man forgiven and it would be so? Why go through the rigmarole and messiness of the cross?
This is a fair question. This is a sincere question and the answer to be honest, is not difficult at all. It boils down to this: Justice! But we will circle back to this point subsequently.
First, let us take a look at the concept of prerogative of mercy. This refers to the powers of the executive (either the president of a country or the governor of a state) to pardon a convict and either commute, postpone or completely annul the resultant sentence from the conviction.
Now, note that for prerogative of mercy to come up at all, a crime must have been committed. There must be a wrong of some sort and the person charged with doing the wrong needs to have been convicted by a court of law. An innocent man is not in need of prerogative of mercy, the power is only exercised in respect of the guilty.
From a purely legal standpoint there are two main issues with a prerogative of mercy. First, the courts are in agreement that a prerogative of mercy does not make a guilty man innocent. It acknowledges a man’s guilt but absolves him from punishment for his wrongdoing.
The second issue with this legally speaking is that there is often no justification for the exercise of this power. If the president and the right amount of the legislative arm or advisory body(depending on the constitution) share the same sentiment, no matter how ill advised or wrong, a guilty man who deserves to be in jail by every standard would be pardoned.
Now the thing with justice is that it must not only be done but it must be seen to be done. With that in mind, the two issues with prerogative of mercy are that it does not take away guilt and justice is not seen to be done by the relevant stakeholders (public interests and the victims of the guilty man’s wrong doing).
Circling back to God, the cross and justice, does God have the power of prerogative of mercy? Of course He does! He says to Moses,
“…I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Exodus 33:19)
But God has to be just in all His ways. He has to be just to every interest involved in man’s rebellion against Him.
“He is the Rock, His work is perfect;
For all His ways are justice,
A God of truth and without injustice;
Righteous and upright is He.” (Deuteronomy 32:4)
God declaring man forgiven would not take away man’s guilt. Man would have remained as guilty as before, the only thing such a declaration would have done is ensure there is no punishment for his sin and every other interest involved (Onlooking angels, spirits, demons, Satan) would have that nagging feeling that justice has not been served, worse still, guilty man would have felt no consciousness of the consequence of his actions and who is to say he would not go ahead and rebel again?
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne;
Mercy and truth go before Your face.” (Psalms 89:14)
So there had to be a righteous and just basis for man’s sin to be forgiven. A basis upon which justice would not only be done but be seen to be done. This is where the cross comes in.
In the cross, there is punishment for man’s sin in the body and blood of Christ. So as messy and disconcerting as it is, as abhorrent and unpalatable it is to behold, when man looks at it, he sees that indeed the wages of sin is death and becomes conscious of the consequences of his sin against God.
Not only that, in the cross, man is fully punished for sin as he is pronounced dead in Christ (crucified with Christ as Paul puts it), this means the sin issue is actually dealt with, the wages of sin is fully paid and man is acquainted with the full ramifications of God’s wrath on rebellion.
In Christ’s resurrection from the death on the cross, man can be “born anew” (Born again as Jesus puts it in His discourse with Nicodemus), free from all the sin he died to in Christ.
Man can thus legally and righteously have his slate wiped clean. He is forgiven not because God with mere words declared him forgiven but because in the work of Christ, he has paid for his sin by suffering God’s wrath and dying on the cross and in Christ’s resurrection, he is a new man, a man God has no bone to pick with, a man that can be reconciled to God righteously and justly because the sinful man deserving of God’s wrath has been executed, justice has been served on him.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Now nobody can complain. Sin cannot claim it was swept under the carpet on the ground that “boys will be boys”, it was destroyed on the cross in the body of Christ. Satan, by playing a part in the killing of Jesus (tempting Judas to betray Him), cannot complain because his dominion was over sinners (as opposed to Jesus who had no sin), Angels in heaven cannot complain because they see God exercising justice by punishing sin but showing mercy by sending His Son as the bearer of the punishment. Man cannot complain because just as he is a sinner by birth on the basis of what Adam did, he can now become righteous by being born again on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done.
So it had to be the cross, because that is the only location where justice and mercy meet, it had to be the cross because that is the only platform where man’s sin is by atonement dealt with and his guilt is taken away. It is not a pretty sight because the consequences of our sin are not a pretty sight. Still, it had to be the cross, because in it, we see the depths of God’s love and the depths of His justice.
“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33)