April 19, 2015

What “Dying for our Sins” Mean?

Dear Dr Craig,

I was born in Turkey and simply followed the traditions and became a Muslim. I have always been hungry for knowledge and understanding. So I started to research Islam with the hope that I could have a closer/stronger connection with God. But unfortunately I realized that the Prophet Mohammed stands between God and me. This was my first disappointment. I also found out certain things that put me off so much from Islam, and in fact, from all the other religions. I then became and atheist because I believed it was intellectual, logical and rational. After I studied Mathematical Physics (and understood the true meaning of science, rationality and logic) at university, I realized that atheism was not for me either.

My question is about Jesus. I am not a Christian but feeling very close to Jesus since the first day I came to know him. I don't understand him dying for our sins. What does that mean? No Christian has given me a satisfactory answer and I can't think of an answer myself. I am ready to die, today, for my mother but that's not what Jesus did (I assume?).

What does it mean to "die for someone else's sins"?

Thank you


United Kingdom

I’m glad that you’re feeling drawn to Jesus, Hakan. He is a compelling figure, isn’t he? I’ve dealt with your question in lectures 9-13 of Section 6 “Doctrine of Christ” of my Defenders class on Christian doctrine and apologetics, and I’ll refer you to the podcasts or transcripts of the lectures for a fuller answer.

The followers of Jesus claimed that Jesus died both for us (Romans 8.32; 14.15; I Corinthians 8.11; Galatians 2.20; etc.) and for our sins (Romans 5. 6, 8; Galatians 1. 3-4, etc.). I think this latter expression is best understood in the context of the system of animal sacrifices practiced in ancient Judaism. Among the offerings to God made in the Temple, there were offerings for the sins of the people. These offerings were intended to atone for the sins of the people, that is, to remove their estrangement from God as a result of the guilt they bore. These sacrifices were intended both to propitiate God (that is, to annul His wrath, justly deserved for violating His law) and to expiate the people’s sin (that is, to remove it).

Now you might say that this is bizarre. How could the sacrifice of a dumb animal take away people’s sins or meet the demands of God’s justice? Well, the writers of the New Testament would have agreed with you! The author of the book of Hebrews says flatly, “It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10.4). He explains that the animal sacrifices were merely a temporary device that served God’s purposes until the true sacrifice should come, God’s own Son.

Jesus thought of himself as that sacrifice. At his last Passover meal, which Jesus ate with his disciples the night he was arrested, “he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’” (Mark 14.22-24). Jesus uses the same words that Moses used in instituting the old covenant (Exodus 24.8), showing that he saw his death as inaugurating new covenant between God and man.

Looking back, the apostle Paul wrote, “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed” (I Corinthians 5.7). He says that God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” (Romans 8.3), the expression “for sin” being the expression in the Greek Old Testament for “sin offering.” Christ has done what sacrificial animals could not do: his sacrifice removes our sin and meets the demands of God’s justice. Paul says, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5.21).

How are we to understand this? Well, there is no theory of the atonement that is mandated by Scripture. We are told that Christ gave his life as a sacrificial offering for sin that is efficacious on our behalf. Christian theologians have formulated many different theories of the atonement, which represent different facets of the truth. I think that vital to any adequate theory of the atonement will be the Protestant Reformers’ idea of penal substitution. According to this theory, Christ took upon himself the penalty for sin that we deserved, something that no mere animal (or other sinful human being) could do. He stood as our proxy before God and took the penalty for sin that we deserved. God imputed to him our sin and guilt and in turn imputed to us Christ’s perfect righteousness.

If this is correct, it makes Jesus an even more compelling figure. Can you imagine that this man would voluntarily give himself to the horror of crucifixion to die as a sacrifice in your place, to take the death penalty of sin that you deserved so that you might go free! “What wondrous love is this!”