in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. – Colossians 1:14
Jesus didn’t pay for your sins. — Don’t stone me yet. You might be surprised how biblical that statement might be.
Before I get into this, I want to be clear. Jesus most definitely died for our sins so that we can be forgiven, escape judgment, and receive everlasting life. There’s a heaven to gain and a hell to shun. Only by faith in the cross of Christ can a person be saved. There is no hope apart from Him.
Now don’t think that I just contradicted myself. You may have (like me) always assumed that Jesus dying for sins and Jesus paying for sins is the same thing. But it’s not. And it is an important distinction.
It’s commonly taught that when we sin we incur a debt against God, much in the same way that someone may incur a financial debt. The wages of sin is death and the only way that the sin debt can be paid is by death. All this is true. It’s very similar to how someone must pay for a crime. Justice demands that criminals be punished. The Bible says that ‘the soul who sins shall die.’ But we also believe that Jesus came to save us from this death. And He did. Many people maintain that He did this by literally paying the debt of our sin. That is, that He suffered and died in such a way as to zero out our sin debt against God, much in the same way that someone might pay off a financial debt. But is that what really happened? I would argue no. Here are the reasons:
1 – First of all, I can find no scripture that emphatically states that Jesus paid for our sins in this fashion. Such an important, foundational doctrine should be crystal clear in the scriptures. But it’s not. You’ll find that Jesus bore our sin, became a curse for us, redeemed us, purchased us with His blood, etc., but not that He paid for our sin. Like I said, this is an important distinction. Jesus did pay a price for us, as I will explain further, but there’s no evidence that our sin debt was that price. *
2 – The Bible in all places teaches forgiveness of sins, not payment for sins. There’s a difference.
Think about it. Is there not a difference between someone forgiving a debt and someone paying a debt? If you owed someone a lot of money and a third party paid that debt, what need is there for forgiveness? The debt is paid. You’d be thankful that the debt was paid, but you wouldn’t need forgiveness. However, if you owed someone money and that person canceled the debt, that would be forgiveness. See the difference?
We see an example of this in Matthew 18. In a parable declaring what the kingdom of God is like, a servant owed his master a lot of money. This is an illustration of our large sin debt. Look what happened when the servant could not pay:
The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. – Matthew 18:26-27
What did the master do? He didn’t say, “The debt must be paid!” No, he forgave the debt.
However, if someone came and paid the debt for this man, would there still be a need for forgiveness? Of course not. If the master was paid, it would be strange for him to say, “I’ve been fully paid for this debt, therefore I forgive you.” There would be nothing to forgive. Much in the same way, there would be nothing for God to forgive if Jesus paid our sin debt. But we see that God does forgive sins (Mat 26:28, Luke 24:47, Acts 2:38, Acts 5:31, Eph 1:7, Col 2:13-14, and others).
If Jesus paid our sin debt, it would be logically incoherent for God to forgive. God is not logically incoherent.
So why did Jesus have to die?
Someone may be thinking at this point: “If this is the case, what need is there for Jesus’ death on the cross? If God just forgives sin, why did Jesus have to die?”
Great question. The answer is this: because God must maintain His righteousness in forgiving sin. This is exactly what the Bible teaches:
being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. – Romans 3:24-26
This verse emphatically states why Jesus had to die. If the reason for the atonement was for Christ to pay our sin debt, this would have been the perfect time for Paul to say so. Instead, he says something different. He says that the atonement was to demonstrate God’s righteousness. In other words, God could not forgive sins and remain righteous (just, perfect, holy) unless Jesus suffered on the cross. That’s the reason Jesus had to suffer and die. Only by that sacrifice can God forgive sin and remain righteous.
The next question that naturally arises is ‘Why?’ Why can’t God righteously forgive sins without the sacrifice of Jesus?
The answer lies in the purpose of law in the first place. God gives us the law of love: love your neighbor as yourself. Why does this law exist? It exists to promote the ultimate good of God’s creation. When the law is obeyed, we have heaven, when it is disobeyed, we have hell–as we can clearly see now.
Now the very nature of law implies sanctions. If there is no punishment for breaking the law then it is not a law, but a suggestion or good advice. Therefore God’s law also carries sanctions. He has said, “The soul that sins shall die,” and, “the wages of sin is death.”
Why does law carry sanctions? The Bible answers this itself: so that ‘all may see and fear and not act presumptuously,’ that ‘those who remain shall hear and fear, and hereafter not again commit such evil among you’ (Deut 17:13, Deut 19:20). In other words, it is so a clear message will be sent that God takes His law seriously, of God’s hatred of sin, His righteous anger towards it, and the fate of those that disregard it. This isn’t just an Old Testament thought (Acts 5:1-11, 1 Tim 5:20). The execution of the punishment of the law is to prevent further disobedience. The greater good demands that evil be punished.
Any good ruler would understand the importance of punishing evil-doers. Evil is like a cancer, unless it is snuffed out, it will continue to spread and grow. This is precisely the teaching of the Bible (1 Cor 5:5-7). If people don’t see the execution of the punishment of the law, they won’t take it seriously. This precisely the reason that so many of God’s judgments are recorded in the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) and the reason hell was so often spoken of by Christ.
Carrying out the penalty for sin is vitally important to the well-being of all of God’s creation for all of eternity. Since this is the case, how is God to forgive sinners and yet uphold His law, showing that He hates and punishes sin and regards His law with supreme importance?
The answer would be with a substitute.
What could be done that would sufficiently accomplish the same purpose (or better) than executing the punishment of the law upon sinners? If the purpose of the execution of punishment upon sinners is so that God’s law is upheld and so that others may ‘see and fear,’ what can be done to accomplish that same end and yet allow for God to forgive?
We can easily see that the answer is in the sacrifice of Christ.
All throughout the Old Testament, we see examples of this with all of the sacrifices commanded by God. When a man would lay his hand on the head of an animal before he slit its throat, he was receiving a clear message that his forgiveness did not consist in God setting aside His law. God’s law was being upheld, as he could clearly see from the cries and the blood of an innocent animal. Of course, an animal is not really sufficient to accomplish God’s purpose in atonement. We kill and eat innocent animals all the time. Those sacrifices were pointing to the One who was to come.
What about Redemption?
The Bible speaks a lot on the subject of redemption. Redemption implies a ransom price paid to secure freedom for its object. Because of this, many have assumed that the price that was paid was the debt of our sin. But I would maintain that it was not.
First of all, I have found no scripture to indicate that the price paid was our sin debt. Since it is not abundantly clear that this was the price paid in scripture, it should not be tightly held as a foundational doctrine.
Secondly, a ransom payment may or may not have anything to do with the amount of debt that is owed. If someone kidnapped a child and demanded a ransom, the parents of that child might be inclined to pay that ransom price despite the fact that their child does not owe it.
So we must ask ourselves a couple of questions:
– Who or what was holding us captive?
– What was the required price for our freedom?
If the typical idea is held that Jesus paid the debt of our sin to set us free, we must ask: Who did He pay that debt to? Is the debt not owed to God (Mat 18:21-27)? Does this mean that God sent Jesus to pay the price to God so that God would set us free from Himself? No, God is not holding anyone captive. God and His Son are on the same team, bringing freedom to the captives (Luke 4:18).
In the Bible, redemption is often used in the context of slavery or bondage (however that bondage may have occurred). For example, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. God said, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments” (Exo 6:6). Did that mean that God paid Pharaoh to let His people go? Of course not! It meant that God was going to do what was necessary to deliver them from slavery. How was He going to redeem them? “With an outstretched arm and great judgments.”
In the same way, you and I were slaves to sin and Satan. Sin is an evil taskmaster and we needed someone to deliver us (redeem us) from its clutches. Jesus went to great lengths to secure that salvation for us through the work of the cross. He paid a great price with His own blood to secure our freedom!
who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed – Titus 2:14
You see, Jesus was not paying anyone for our sin-debt. He was paying a price in the sense that He endured a great deal for our freedom. We use the same imagery in our language today when we say things like “those soldiers paid a great price for this country’s freedom.” We don’t mean that in a literal sense, nor does the Bible. We can see ‘redeemed’ was used many times in a similar fashion in Old Testament examples (Exo 6:6, Job 5:20, Ps 119:134, Isa 50:2, Jer 31:11, Micah 4:10.)
Now don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with the idea of Jesus paying our sin debt if it were true. When I first stumbled upon this subject I was sure that I could find scripture to uphold the idea that Jesus paid our sin debt, but I couldn’t. It’s what I had always believed. And I would be happy to go back to believing it if I were convinced in the scripture that it was true.
Why it matters
“Jesus paid for our sin / Jesus paid the price to free us from sin, isn’t it all just semantics?”
I say no. I think the distinction is very important.
They say if a man is flying to Hawaii and gets off course just one degree that he’ll be way off course by the time he should arrive. The same is true of theology.
There have crept up in the church several false teachings because many have veered off course at this very point we’ve been discussing. I’m going to list a few of what I believe to be dangerous, false teachings:
– Bad doctrine 1: That Jesus only died for the elect.
Here’s the reasoning that some hold: if Jesus paid the sin debt for the whole world, then the whole world would be saved. Since we know the whole world will not be saved, Jesus must have only paid for the sins of the elect.
This is a doctrine that I am vehemently opposed to and that I think can easily be refuted with an abundance of scripture, but that is for another time.
– Bad doctrine 2: That everyone will eventually be saved.
This is called universalism. It is prevalent in the church today. The reasoning is similar to what I mentioned previously: Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world so the whole world will eventually be saved.
This is a common false teaching that has been around in varying degrees for most of church history.
– Bad doctrine 3: That there is no need for repentance after one is saved.
I’ve heard this often. The reasoning is this: Jesus paid for your sins, past, present, and future. This being the case, your sins are already taking care of and therefore do not affect your relationship with God nor your standing in his kingdom. I can’t overstate how dangerous this teaching is. Some preachers even hold that a saved person can theoretically sin to any degree possible and still be saved! If this is the case, what on earth did Jesus come to save us from??
No, forgiveness of sins come upon the condition of repentance and faith, whether you’re saved or unsaved. This is clearly taught and implied throughout the entire Bible. 1 John 1:9 is forever a rock-solid testament of this.
– Bad doctrine 4: That Jesus suffered in Hell
Some hold that Jesus needed to suffer in hell after the cross to fully atone for our sins. The reasoning is this: how can Jesus fully pay for the sins of the world with only His physical death when lost mankind will suffer with spiritual death? If one holds to the idea that Jesus literally paid our sin debt to redeem us, it doesn’t seem logical that His temporary physical death could be equated to mankind’s spiritual death and suffering in hell. Therefore, some have resorted to teaching.
Although this is wrong, I don’t consider this false teaching as dangerous as the others, for I believe that Jesus would have indeed suffered in hell for us if it had been necessary. But it was not.
These false teachings all stem (in part) from the incorrect notion that Jesus paid for our sins. Each of these views are logically coherent deductions that proceed from a faulty premise. A correct view on the atonement easily refutes all of these false teachings.
In conclusion, I do want to be clear that many people don’t take this error to the extreme. I also want to be clear that I believe there are many wonderful and beautiful Christian brothers and sisters who hold to some of these errors just listed. Being wrong about theology doesn’t (necessarily) disqualify a person from salvation. However, I do believe it is dangerous.
If anyone has contentions with the way I present this, I would like to point out that this view was held by many great and godly men of days gone by. This includes Charles Finney, William Booth (The Salvation Army), commentator Albert Barnes, many of the great 19th century Methodist preachers, and others. Not that what they believed matters in regards to determining truth (since many other greats believed differently), but to show that this isn’t some new doctrine. To me, it seems to be precisely what the Bible teaches. Of course, I encourage you to search the scriptures for yourself.
Didn’t Jesus say ‘Paid in Full’ when He died on the cross?
In John 19:30, it is recorded that Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “It is finished!” This phrase is translated from the Greek teleō (more specifically, tetélestai). In two places in the New Testament, this Greek word is used to indicate the payment of taxes (Mat 17:24, Rom 13:6). Some have said that archeological findings have turned up evidence that this term was written on receipts in the time of the New Testament to indicate that payment had been received in full. I don’t doubt this. This being the case, some have argued that Jesus was actually declaring, “Paid in full,” as He was dying on the cross, indicating that the sin debt had been paid.
The problem with this view is that the same Greek word is used many more times throughout the New Testament to simply indicate that something was finished or accomplished. In fact, this word is used 17 times to indicate that something is finished, accomplished, or fulfilled. All of these incidents have nothing to do with paying anything or anyone. Only twice is it used in regard to a payment, and that only with a clear reference to taxes.
In regards to Jesus’ statement of ‘It is finished,’ just two verses prior John makes this comment:
“After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, ‘I thirst!’” – John 17:28
Here, John uses the exact same word that Jesus used in John 19:30, tetélestai. If we are going to be consistent, we would have to conclude that John was saying this:
“After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now paid in full, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, ‘I thirst.'”
Is that what John was trying to say? Could it be that all the sins of the world were paid in full before Jesus actually died? Were all the sins of the world paid for and afterward Jesus decided to take the time to ask for a drink of sour wine? No, I think the honest reader can understand and see that John and Jesus were referring to the mission of Christ to atone for the sins of the world. That mission had come to its completion. Every single English translation of the Bible that I can see translated this word as, “It is finished.” I think it would be good scholarship to also concluded that Jesus indeed meant, “It is finished.”
For more on this, see my other posts on this subject:
*I would concede that “Jesus paid for our sins” is correct if it is meant in the sense that Jesus paid a price that we might be forgiven of our sins, but I would maintain that it is incorrect if it is meant in the sense that Jesus literally zeroed out our sin-debt by His suffering and death. In my experience, most people mean it in the latter sense.
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