If I do not turn to Christ, what is the penalty for my sins? Did Jesus pay the penalty for my sins so that I would not have to pay it? The common answer to the first question is to quote Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death.” The common answer to the second question is to cite 1 Cor. 15:3: “Christ died for our sins.” So there you have it: the penalty for sin is death, Jesus paid my debt by dying for my sins. Simple, isn’t it. Case closed…
… until I received a series of emails arguing that:
1) “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), not eternal burning hell.
2) Since Jesus took my place and paid the price for my sins, but did not go to hell eternally, then my punishment never would have been eternal hell.
3) The price Jesus paid for my sins was death, just as Rom. 6:23 says. The wages of sin is not hell.
Over the years, I have heard various arguments to get rid of hell; but this is the first time I have heard arguments like this. And it made me think — in various directions. Is it true that Jesus paid my penalty? Or is this a simplistic, well-intentioned statement that will not stand up under careful Scriptural scrutiny? Let’s examine.
What Scripture Does NOT Say
I know we commonly say that “Christ paid the penalty for us”; but what exactly do we mean by that? What Scripture says that? None comes to mind. Another expression we hear is that “Jesus took my place.” Perhaps this is an unjustified, loose expression that we sometimes state. However, taken literally, with no explanation, is it really scriptural? Another variation we hear is that “Jesus took my deserved punishment for my sin.” Such a statement seems to be the furthest from Scripture.
Romans 6:23 says: “The wages of sin is death.” If “death” in that verse is simply physical death, then we do have a dilemma. Since Jesus paid the price of physical death, why do believers still die physically? Looking at it from another direction, if death in that verse is physical death, then both believers and non-believers all pay our own price; we didn’t need Jesus to pay the price for us. Any way you look at it, there is a big problem if “death” in Rom. 6:23 means simply physical death.
“The wages of sin is death.” There is no problem with interpreting wages: it is something a person earns or deserves. And sin is disobedience to God’s law; that is clear, too. But, what is death?
“Death” most generally refers to the cessation of life in our physical bodies. Not only is that true in our every-day speech, it is also true in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. I am of the impression that there are very few texts in the OT in which death means anything aside from physical death.
In the NT, however, “death” often refers to something other than the cessation of physical life. Before looking at some texts, let’s just remind ourselves that this is not strange. Our modern English also gives other meanings to “death,” “dead,” etc. “The party was dead.” “She was worried to death.” “At the end of that twelve-hour shift, I was dead.”
What exactly is physical death? One of the clearest and briefest statements in Scripture is found in James 2:26: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” The first half of this verse is sort of a Scriptural explanation of death. When the spirit leaves the body, the body dies. Or when the body dies, the spirit leaves. Either way you look at it, death involves separation. The second half of the verse also expresses a separation (works separated from faith), and it uses “dead” in much the same way as we commonly do today: something with no life, empty, useless.
Paul said in 1 Tim. 5:6: “She that lives in pleasure is dead while she lives.” In Luke 9:60, Jesus said: “Let the dead bury their dead.” Both texts refer to a person being physically alive but spiritually dead. Here are some other examples:
John 5:24: “He that… believes… is passed from death unto life.”
Eph. 2:1: “dead in trespasses and sins.”
Rom. 8:6: “For to be carnally minded is death.”
1 John 3:14: “We have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.”
It is not difficult to understand this type of death. In James 2, we saw the concept of death involving separation. Do not all these verses carry with them the truth that sin separates us from God? Separation from God is spiritual death.
“The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). In this key verse, the opposite of “death” is “eternal life.” How then can this verse be speaking of physical death? We all die physical death, sooner or later, believer or unbeliever. I submit, therefore, that “death” in this verse cannot be physical death. I submit that this death is separation from God. Furthermore, because death here is placed in contrast to “eternal life,” there is the strong implication that death in this verse refers to eternal death.
But we need more than implications. So let’s turn to Revelation. Rev. 20:14 says: “Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” Rev. 21:8 says: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”
I submit that “death” in “the wages of sin is death” refers to the “second death” in “the lake of fire,” which is in contrast to “eternal life” in Rom. 6:23. Both the life and the death are eternal, just as it says in Matt. 25:46: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”
We all know that Jesus is not spending eternity in hell. Therefore, statements such as “Jesus took my place,” “Jesus paid my debt,” and the like, are at best well-intentioned over-simplifications, which have left the door open for “clever” arguments to try to get rid of hell. This means that we need to take a closer look at Scripture to gain a clearer understanding of what it does teach about the death of Jesus on Calvary’s cross.
What Scripture DOES Say
Scripture does say that Jesus paid a price for our sins:
Matt. 20:28: “Son of man… give his life a ransom for many.”
Rom. 3:24: “Justified…through the redemption that is in Christ.”
Rev. 5:9: “redeemed (purchased) us to God by your blood.”
1 Peter 1:18-19: “You were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold… but with the precious blood of Christ.”
“Ransomed, redeemed, purchased” have to do with paying a price. They have nothing to do with going through the same experiences or dangers that a person in captivity is or would be going through. When someone is kidnapped and threatened with death, the ransom has nothing to do with the ransom-payer being kidnapped and threatened with death. The ransom or redemption has to do with paying the money demanded to release the person. One dictionary says: “Redeem implies releasing from bondage or penalties by giving what is demanded or necessary. Ransom specifically applies to buying out of captivity.” So the condition or danger of the person is one thing. The price that is paid to free the person is a totally different matter.
What price did Jesus pay, according to the Bible? He paid the price that God considered necessary to release us from our sins. The most interesting text in this regard is 1 Peter 1:18-19, quoted above, which says we were not redeemed with gold but with the blood of Christ. Blood of a perfect sacrifice is the price God demanded to ransom us.
Over a century ago, brother J. W. McGarvey preached a sermon (“Redemption in Christ”) dealing with this issue. He mentioned the idea that many people have “that Christ, in His death, actually paid the penalty that was due to the sins of the whole world.” He refuted it easily, stating we “know that Christ did not suffer the penalty due to our sins, either in the nature of it, or in the duration of it.” Why then did Jesus die? McGarvey continued: “What is, then, the explanation? Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t believe any other man knows what the reasoning of God was on this subject, by which he felt compelled, according to His own infinite nature, to refuse to pardon a single sin except through the blood of His Son.” This scholarly, spiritual man of God was willing to admit he did not know the reason. Only God knows.
If scripture does not say that Jesus paid my penalty, what does it say? Consider the following examples:
Matt. 26:28: “My blood… is shed… for the remission of sins.”
Rom. 4:25: “Who was delivered for our offenses.”
Rom. 5:8: “Christ died for us.”
Rom. 5:9: “Justified by his blood.”
Rom. 5:10: “Reconciled to God by the death of his Son.”
1 Cor. 15:3: “Christ died for our sins.”
Heb. 2:14: “Through death he might destroy… the devil.”
Heb. 9:26: “He… put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
Heb. 9:28: “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many.”
Heb. 13:12: “Jesus… sanctify the people with his own blood.”
1 John 3:16: “He laid down his life for us.”
None of these purposes of Jesus’ death have to do with him suffering exactly what we would suffer if we remained in sin. They all speak, with one expression or another, of Jesus’ blood and death making possible the forgiveness of our sins. Why is that so? As brother McGarvey indicated: only God knows. It is the price that God demanded. It is the price sufficient to release us from our sins when we yield our lives to God through Jesus.
So the next time someone says that Jesus paid our penalty or that Jesus took our place, turn to God’s Word for a more exact understanding of what was taking place on Calvary. Jesus did not “take our place.” Rather, He paid the ransom price that God demanded in order to free us from eternal hell. Praise God for His beloved Son!