Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures.
That is one of the basic affirmations of the Christian faith. It’s one of the things “of first importance” in the Gospel that the Apostle Paul proclaims to the church at Corinth and to all succeeding generations of believers.
Christ died for our sins.
The statement has a ring certainty to it, a ring of finality that is reassuring but also a bit puzzling. What exactly does it mean to say that Christ died “for our sins”?
How does this work? What does the death of Christ have to do with anybody’s sins, let alone mine? When I call Jesus “savior,” what am I trying to say? What is Jesus saving me from? What is he saving me for? How does his death actually save me from or for anything?
Those are some of the questions we will look at over the next six weeks, during the season of Lent. We explore these questions as a Lenten discipline, a way of preparing ourselves for the joy of Easter.
It’s one thing to proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” But even a child at some point will ask, “Why did he die?” Cross and empty tomb are firmly linked. Good Friday means nothing without Easter. Easter means nothing without Good Friday. To understand one, we have to understand the other.
So before we proclaim “Christ is risen!” we have to ask, “Why did he die?” We won’t be looking at the historical factors that led Jesus to the cross. Instead, we’ll look at the varied theological explanations that believers have proposed over the ages. We have varied theological explanations because scripture is not definitively clear here. Scripture offers not one but several explanations for how Christ’s death saves us.
The technical name for this kind of theology is soteriology. The name comes from two Greek words: sotēria, meaning salvation; and logos meaning study or word. I want to emphasize that New Testament soteriology offers several differing explanations for how the death of Jesus saves us.
Some faith traditions say there is only one way to understand this question, and of course that is their way. This stance involves a grievous misunderstanding of scripture. As a matter of fact, scripture offers several ways to understand what’s going on when we say, “Christ died for my sins.” We call them theories of atonement, explanations for how Christ’s death saves us from sin and reconciles us to God.
Throughout this series of messages, we’ll be following the outline of two books: primarily Savior by Magrey deVega, but also Dying to Live by James Harnish. They are the current and former pastors, respectively, of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida.
The first theory of atonement that we are going to look at is the one that’s especially popular in fundamentalist and evangelical circles. It is called substitutionary atonement.
The idea is that Christ literally died in my place. I deserve death because of my sin, but God accepts Jesus as a substitute. Jesus died so that I would not have to die. Jesus suffered punishment for my wrongdoing.
You can see hints of this explanation throughout the New Testament. Today and on following Sundays, you’ll find some of these scriptural citations on the handout that came with your Weekly Update.
Galatians 3:13: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.
2 Corinthians 5:21: For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
1 Peter 2:24: He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
That quotation hearkens back to Isaiah 53:5, one of the passages where the prophet talks about a Suffering Servant who suffers for all: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”
Perhaps the clearest versions of this theory come in narrative form, most notably in the story of Barabbas. He was the leader of a failed insurrection against Rome, and he was scheduled to die that day. Pilate, the Roman governor, offered the crowd a choice: “Shall I release Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?” (Matthew 27:17 and parallels)
The crowd yelled for Barabbas, so he was released from custody. The cross that Jesus carried had Barabbas’ name on it. Similarly, the cross of Jesus had our names on it. We deserve to die for our sins, for, as Paul says in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.”
Eleventh century theologian Anselm of Canterbury explains it this way. We are sinners. Sin is a violation of God’s intention for us, God’s order, God’s law. Such violations incur a deep debt to our holy God. The debt is so deep that only our death can erase it. Christ pays the debt, thus freeing us from sin and death.
It’s a powerful argument that has moved many over the centuries. But it has some powerful holes in it. Topmost is fairness. Jesus is innocent of any wrongdoing. How can God punish him for acts that other people have committed? Where is the justice in that? Even if Jesus agrees with this and offers himself as a sacrifice for the sins of others, how can any form of substitution, forced or voluntary, be just?
Let’s go back to Romans 6:23 and read the full citation: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It may appear to be a free gift to us, but it represents a ton of suffering for Jesus.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” or – more to the point here – “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Why should God expect us to forgive anyone anything when God is so unforgiving? Why should we be forgiving if God requires blood – especially the blood of God’s own Son?
I cannot tell you how many awful sermons I have heard that go like this: “Would you offer your son as a substitute for sinners? I wouldn’t either. But God did! How much God must love us!”
On the internet you can find the French film titled “The Bridge” and similar accounts. They’re all based on an old story about a railroad switchman who faces a terrible choice. A fast-approaching passenger train is carrying hundreds of people. The switchman must switch the train to another track so it can safely continue on its way. But to his horror he sees that his young son is walking on that very track. If he doesn’t divert the train, it will crash and everyone on board will die. If he does divert the train, his son will die. What must he do?
This is presented as the dilemma God faces. God must sacrifice his Son to save passengers on the train. It makes for some powerful cinema, but theologically it’s thoroughly bogus. The dilemma is full of false equivalences, things that just don’t add up, logically or scripturally.
I have similar complaints against the C.S. Lewis tale The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The idea is that a “deep magic” from the past demands that the Lion Aslan must die to save young Edmund from his sins. But after the White Witch kills Aslan, an even “deeper magic” restores him to life. I’m sorry, there’s entirely too much talk of magic here to suit me.
Both the railroad story and the Aslan story rely on the idea that God is forced by circumstance or some basic law of the universe to sacrifice Jesus. This is utter nonsense. God is the ruler of the universe. There is no “higher law” or “deeper magic” than God. There is no higher force than God. God is not “forced” to do anything.
Whether God offers the Son or the Son offers himself as a substitute, it is a totally voluntary act. God is under no compulsion, not even some imaginary compulsion to satisfy God’s honor or an imaginary rule of justice that actually perverts justice.
Then there’s the whole legalistic flair of this theory. One illustration goes like this: The judge finds the defendant guilty and worthy of the death penalty. Then the judge steps down from his bench and says, “I will take the punishment for this defendant.” That sounds noble, but where’s the justice in that?
And where precisely do we get the idea that our sins require our death? Sure, Romans 6:23 says “the wages of sin is death.” Paul makes that statement in the midst of a complicated argument about the differences between law and grace. He may be arguing that following the law leads you to death but following Jesus leads to life eternal.
In coming weeks we’ll look at other explanations of Christ’s death that have similar problems as this one. That is, they rely on courtroom metaphors. That should not be too surprising, because some key theologians, including John Calvin, also were trained as lawyers. Courtroom analogies came natural to them. That doesn’t make them true.
Substitutionary atonement can be expressed in some fairly sophisticated ways, but it is most effective when it’s expressed crudely. Let me show you. This little ball represents the world. This hammer represents God’s wrath. God wants to smash you because of your sin. But – bang! – Jesus jumps between you and God to save you! That’s substitutionary atonement at its most crude and basic. And at its most crude and basic, it is very problematic for anyone who believes in a loving and just God.
At its most sublime however, remember what Jesus said to his disciples on the night before he died: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
A quick review of substitutionary atonement: Sin is a violation of God’s law. We deserve punishment. Jesus dies in our place.
Now let’s own it, by repeating 1 Peter 2.24, putting ourselves into it.
Jesus bore my sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sin, I might live for righteousness. By his wounds I have been healed.
That’s gospel. Jesus died for my sins, so that I might live for righteousness.
This message was delivered February 21, 2021, the first Sunday of Lent, to Edgerton United Methodist Church, from 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.