Why the Lord Jesus Christ freed the human race through harsh suffering, not through power.
This question, dearly beloved brothers, occurs to many; the thought of this matter sends many men of little understanding into anxiety. For they say: “Why did the Lord Jesus Christ, the Power and Wisdom of the Father, work the salvation of man not by his divine power and sole authority but rather by his bodily humility and human struggle? For without a doubt he would have been able by the heavenly power and majesty to overthrow the Devil and to free man from his tyranny.” Certain others ponder: “Why did he who is proclaimed to have given life in the beginning by his word not destroy death by his word? What reason was there that lost men should not be brought back by the same majesty which was able to create things not yet existing? Why was it necessary for our Lord Christ to receive so harsh a period of suffering when he was able to free the human race through his power? Why his incarnation? Why his infancy? Why the course of his life? Why the insults? Why the cross? Why his death? Why his burial? Why? Why did he take up all these things for the sake of man’s restoration?”
This is what men of little understanding say. Without a doubt our Lord would have been able to triumph over the Devil by his divine authority and to free man from his rule. He would have been able, yes; but reason resisted, justice did not give its permission: and these are more important to God than all power and might. These two attributes are praised even among men; how much more are they praiseworthy to God, who is the Creator and Judge of reason and justice! Now it was in the mind of God to restore man, who had been deceived by the Devil, to eternal life. This then had to be kept in mind: compassion must not destroy justice, love must not destroy equity. For if He had finished off the Devil and rescued man from his jaws by His majesty and power, there would indeed have been power, but there would not have been justice. For the Enemy of the human race would have been able to say: “O Lord, you are just and true; you made man in your goodness, you who created me as well as a good not an evil angel. You gave to me as much as to man the free power of the will; you gave the law with this threat of judgment: if we touched something forbidden, we would die the death. I ruined myself at the very beginning by a voluntary envy; then I persuaded man to do a wicked deed. I persuaded, I did not force; for I was not able to force one having the freedom of his own will. I was listened to more than your word was preserved. We received by your judgment sentences befitting our merits: I the eternal word sent into evil, man was sent with me to death and terrible punishment. Man joined himself to me by his own will; he separated from you not unwillingly but by the same will: he is mine. Together we are destined for punishment; if he is torn away from me, it is not justice but violence, it is not grace but an injury, it is not compassion but plunder. Why should man, who did not wish to live when he had the ability, be made alive unwillingly? I presume to say this, O Just Judge: it is not fitting for there to be unequal sentences in the same case. Ultimately, if it pleases you that man be saved against all justice and reason, we ought both to be saved—both he who perished and I who was ruined.”
Should that speech of the Devil not have seemed to God to be just and reasonable, since He did work and still works all things justly and reasonably? And so in order that this criminal voice should not have any place and that all the deeds of God should be consistent with justice and reason that very Strength came from heaven; it came not to tear man away from the Devil through power, but rather only after it had preserved equity in all things. This is just as the Lord Himself reminded John the Baptist at the time of his baptism—when John wished to decline—saying: “Without delay; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all justice.” Therefore for this reason our Lord and Saviour came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” as the apostle teaches and endured all things without sin; so that thus with justice having been fulfilled he might condemn sin in his flesh, since his flesh was taken up without sin from a sinful substance. That encounter in the desert orchestrated by the Spirit proves this, when the Devil was conquered not by divine majesty but by the memory of a command, by fasting and by a lawful response. The many different tests of the Pharisees also prove this, by whom the Lord was often challenged. When He benefits the ungrateful, when he does not resist an injury, when by his patience he overcomes an insult, by his goodness conquers ill-will, all justice is necessarily fulfilled and every sin is condemned. Because of this the same Lord preached: “The Prince of this world comes, and he possesses nothing in me.” This is the first victory: that the flesh, assumed from a sinful race, stands forth as having no part in a misdeed; and so in that same flesh sin was condemned, in which it had believed itself able to reign; the same flesh, which at one time sin had conquered, conquered sin. For if divinity alone had conquered, the Devil would not have been in great confusion, and it would not have inspired confidence in bodily men that it would conquer.
Let us see what the cross might want from itself, how the sin of the world is remitted upon it, how death is destroyed and the Devil triumphed over. The cross is certainly not deserved, insofar as it pertains to the form of justice, unless by sinners; for both the law of God and of the world is recognized to have decreed the cross for guilty men and criminals alone. Therefore with the Devil hurrying about working through Judas, through the kings of the earth and through the princes of the Jews, who “came together as one” to Pilate “against the Lord and against his Christ,” Christ was condemned to death; an innocent man was condemned just as the prophet says in the Psalm: “But the righteous man, what has he done?” And again, “They will seek against the spirit of the righteous and will condemn innocent blood;” the man guilty of not even a trivial sin is condemned, since the serpent was able to leave no trace in this rock. He patiently endured both insults and blows, the thorny crown and scarlet robe, and the other mockeries which are contained in the Gospel. He endured this without any guilt, so that filled with patience, as “a sheep to the sacrifice,” he might come to the cross. He received this in a dignified manner who would have been able to inflict injury upon his enemies. He endured very powerful forces, as David sings, “as a man without help,” who would have been able to avenge himself by his divine majesty. For he who withered the fig tree to its roots by his word would much more easily have immediately withered all flesh, which was reckoned as grass, if he had wished to resist. For if even those who had come to capture him retreated backwards when they were questioned with a gentle speech, that is, “Whom do you seek?” and they were made like dead men, what would he have done if he had wished to resist? But he fulfills the mystery of the cross, for which purpose he also came into this world; so that by means of the cross, by means of a salvific justice and reason, the note of our indebtedness to sin might be cancelled, the enemy power be captured after being enticed by the bait of the cross and the Devil lose the prey he used to hold.
Now, it is necessary for this to be believed to have been done in this way. Christ the Lord without any guilt, without any blame, underwent a penal sentence; the innocent man is crucified without sin. The Devil is made guilty by the death of an innocent man; the Devil is made guilty by bringing the cross upon a righteous man who owed nothing. The death of Christ benefitted man: what Adam owed to God Christ paid by undergoing death, having been made without any doubt a sacrifice for the sin of men and for their race, just as the blessed Paul taught: “Christ,” he says, “loved us and handed himself over for us as an offering and sacrificial victim to God in a pleasing aroma.” For that original sin was not easily able to be dismissed unless a sacrificial victim had been offered for the fault, unless that holy blood of propitiation had been poured out. For the saying of the Lord at the time of the Exodus remains in force now: “I will see the blood, and I will protect you.” For that figure of the lamb points to this Passion of the Lord Christ. When blood is paid out for blood, death for death and a sacrificial victim for a fault, even so did the Devil lose what he was holding. It is now rightly said to him: “O enemy, you do not have that on account of which you had a legal case. The first Adam sinned but I the last Adam did not receive the stain of sin; let my righteousness benefit the sinner, let my death, imposed upon me unowed, benefit the debtor. You are no longer able to hold man in endless death, for he conquered, overcame and crushed you through me. You were not truly conquered through power, but by justice; not by domination, by rather by equity.” Thus the Enemy vomited up what he had gulped down and justly there was taken away from him what he used to hold, since unjustly he dared to infringe upon that which under no arrangement was his concern.
Behold, dearly beloved brothers, how much I deem that a reason has been given for why our Lord and Saviour freed the human race from the power of the Devil not through power but through humility, not through violence but through justice. For this reason let us, to whom the divine compassion gave so many benefits with no preceding merits of our own, labour as much as we are able with the help of that same divine compassion so that the grace of so great a love should not produce a judgment for us but a reward.