This is not a merely academic issue in some parts of the Episcopal Church.
I think one of the warrants for setting up this dichotomy comes from a series of sermons published in a very influential and popular book entitled The Will of God. The author is Leslie D. Weatherhead.
In this book, Weatherhead makes a distinction between three modes of God’s will: God’s intentional will, God’s circumstantial will, and God’s ultimate will.
According to Weatherhead, God’s intentional will was for Jesus to make disciples, to fashion followers, who would help us live into right relationship with God. But when things went awry, God resorted to “Plan B” (God's circumstantial will) which involved Jesus’ betrayal, passion, and death on the cross.
Here's what Weatherhead says:
Was it God's intention from the beginning that Jesus should go to the Cross? I think the answer to that question must be No. I don't think Jesus thought that at the beginning of his ministry. He came with the intention that men should follow him, not kill him. The discipleship of men, not the death of Christ, was the intentional will of God ....
But when circumstances wrought by men's evil set up such a dilemma that Christ was compelled either to die or to run away, then in those circumstances the Cross was the will of God, but only in those circumstances which were themselves the fruit of evil [The Will of God (Abingdon Press, 1972), p. 12; emphasis in text].
According to this version of the gospel, God did not intentionally will for Jesus to suffer and die. That was an unfortunate (and unforeseen?) monkey-wrench thrown into the original plan. So in response to the sinfulness and brutality of human beings, God adjusted and adapted the plan to effect His ultimate will, which was bringing us back into right relationship with Him.
In other words, the cross wasn’t supposed to happen. The passion and death of our Lord was not a part of God's intentional will. And so Jesus did not die for our sins; rather, Jesus died because of our sins.
If I’m reading the argument correctly, the whole idea that God’s intentional will could have been to send the Son to suffer and die on the cross is viewed by Weatherhead as morally offensive. It makes God out to be a sado-masochist. After all, what kind of a father would will for his only son to be brutally tortured and murdered if not a morally vicious one?
It concerns me that this kind of reasoning finds a foothold within the Episcopal Church. I note, for example, that Forward Movement has published a pamphlet that wholeheartedly endorses Weatherhead's argument (I cannot, at the moment, recall the author or title, but I do remember reading it a few years back).
My problem with Weatherhead’s argument - and the reason it concerns me that it is so popular and influential - is that it contradicts the entire tone and tenor of the New Testament and the basic narrative of salvation outlined in the historic creeds. In doing so, it sets up a false opposition between Jesus’ mission of suffering and dying on the one hand, and his mission to make disciples on the other.
When we look at the canonical Gospels, we find messianic mission statements that fly in the face of Weatherhead’s theology. Here's one example:
" … the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28; cf. also Mark 10:45).
"I am the good shepherd … and I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:14 & 15).
Then there are the passages that form the scriptural basis for the institution narrative in our Eucharistic prayers:
"This is my body given for you. ... This is my blood shed for you."
Moving to the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s preaching of the early Christian kerygma is insistent:
"God foretold through all the prophets that his Christ would suffer" (Acts 3:18).
Here's what Peter tells his audience:
"This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge" (Acts 2:23).
If Peter and the other New Testament authors are right, then Jesus’ death on the cross was not an accident or an afterthought. It was no “Plan B.” It was a central reason for why he came.
The whole point is to free – not just Jesus – but all of us “from the agony of death” (Acts 2:24). That can’t happen if Jesus doesn’t die. So if Jesus’ suffering and death were accidental to his mission, then it is correct to say not only that the crucifixion was an unforeseen tragedy, but even more, the resurrection was an afterthought. Sort of like God’s way of taking a lemon and making lemonade.
This line of reasoning trivializes Jesus’ passion and death. It guts the Gospels of the telos that drives their depictions of the story of Jesus, for in each of the Gospels, the shadow of the cross is central to the plot.
This reasoning also undermines the uniqueness of Jesus. If Jesus died, not for, but merely because of, human sin, that makes Jesus no different than any innocent person who dies because of human sin. Jesus would then be no different from someone wrongly convicted for murder and executed by lethal injection. Or any number of untold millions of persons who have died tragic and unjust deaths.
Weatherhead's argument also subtly suggests, in a way that strikes me as veering towards the Gnostic, that God could have, and indeed, wanted to, effect His original will without this messy business of suffering and death.
God sending the Son to suffer and die on the cross can only be construed as sado-masochistic if – as Arius taught – the Son is less than the Father. But if, as the Nicene Creed affirms, the Father and Son are one, then Jesus’ willing submission to the cross is not a concession to the Father’s vicious will. Rather, the Divine will is ONE will - a loving, redemptive will for Jesus' death to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. When we see Jesus' voluntary submission to the cross, we see God's will for the redemption of the world unfolding. We see the reason why Jesus was born.
On the question of why Jesus died, Weatherhead and his present-day followers propagate a false dichotomy. It's not an either/or: either Jesus died for our sins, or Jesus died because of our sins. On the contrary, it's a both/and: Jesus died for our sins, and Jesus' death happened because of human sinfulness in rejecting and murdering the love of God incarnate.
The path of discipleship cannot be separated from the cross of Christ. It is precisely because Jesus died for our sins at the hands of sinners - and then rose victorious from the grave - that we are called to be his disciples and to learn from him what it truly means to love God and our neighbor.