The cross cannot be understood by itself – it has to be understood in context of its need. Understood by itself, the cross is just a brutal beating; but understood in its context, the cross becomes a statement of God’s love. So before we can rightly understand the cross, we must first understand our need of the cross –
Romans 5:6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (NASB).
The Bible teaches that we needed the death of Christ, and that it was demanded by our sin. This is what Romans 5 means when it says that Christ died for the ungodly. It means that the sin of man made Christ’s death necessary. In the Bible, Sin is anything which dishonors or displeases God. Sin always angers God, it always separates Him from man, and worst of all it always demands His punishment and wrath upon the person who commits it:
Psalm 5:4-5 4 O God, you take no pleasure in wickedness; you cannot tolerate the sins of the wicked. 5 Therefore, the proud may not stand in your presence, for you hate all who do evil (NLT).
Romans 1:18 But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people . . . (NLT).
Colossians 3:5-6 Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don't be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. 6 Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming [upon those who are disobedient] (NLT).
We should not overlook that the God of the Bible is not just a God of love; he is also a holy God who hates sin – and his wrath is something to be feared. It would be a mistake for someone to assume that if God is love, then he will not punish sinners. We are repeatedly told that God’s wrath against sinners is frighteningly intense, and that he will show them no mercy in the judgment.
Rev. 14:10 presents a particularly graphic picture of God’s wrath. Those who worship a false messiah, according to this text, will experience God’s wrath at its worst – John compares it to drinking unmixed wine:
Revelation 14:9-10 Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, 10 they will also drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.
In cultures of the day wine was stored in wine skins, and when poured was generally cut with water by a 1:1 ratio so as to prevent those from drinking the wine from becoming drunk. To drink wine “full strength” meant that the wine was not cut with water at all – those who drank in this fashion desired to get drunk. The imagery here is that God will not “cut” the wine of his wrath with the water of mercy; those who are disobedient will be forced to drink God’s wrath at full strength!
Though this aspect of God might not be the most enjoyable for us to think about, it is essential to the gospel. The gospel is about salvation from something – if God does not punish sinners, if he has no wrath for the ungodly then there is nothing to be saved from.