A podcast/radio listener named Charles asks a great question:
I have a question that I’d like to get your opinion on. I’ve been taught that Jesus paid my penalty of death. Jesus died bodily. So, by my reasoning, the penalty of sins is physical death. But if Jesus paid the penalty, then we shouldn’t still die physically. If his bodily death paid the penalty of second death, I’m having difficulty making that connection. Any input would be greatly appreciated.
The Scriptures clearly teach that Christ has redeemed us. Admittedly, in Christian circles redemption does not sound like a purchase. Yet it is in the Bible. The Greek word agorazein or exagorazein, translated to redeem, could also be translated to buy or purchase (e.g., Matt 13:44, 46; 2 Pet 2:1; Rev 3:18; 13:17; 18:11).
What is it that Jesus bought by His death on the cross?
According to the Parable of the Hidden Treasure in Matt 13:44 and the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price in Matt 13:45-46, He bought the kingdom, which certainly includes buying the people who will be part of His kingdom. Of course, many interpreters say that the man who buys the treasure and the pearl of great price is the unbeliever who is buying his own salvation by the work that he does in his lifetime. But that interpretation runs directly contrary to salvation being the gift of God (John 4:10; Rom 4:4-5; Eph 2:8-9; Rev 22:17).
In 2 Pet 2:1, Peter says that Jesus bought even the coming false teachers, whom he indicates will spend eternity in the lake of fire (2 Pet 2:17). So, Jesus bought everyone in the whole world, even those who would never believe in Him. This is a statement of unlimited atonement. Compare John 1:29 or John 3:16.
While Jesus will one day put death to an end (1 Cor 15:26, 54, 55, 56), His death on the cross has not accomplished freedom from physical death for anyone up to this point (other than Enoch and Elijah, who might well die at the midpoint of the Tribulation).
Nor did His death purchase everlasting life for everyone. It made everlasting life possible for all. It made all savable. But in order to be saved, one must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for the everlasting life He promises (John 3:16; 1 Tim 1:16).
Charles is alluding to the fact that many people say that Christ “paid the penalty for our sins.” Often, they do not analyze what that actually means. But Charles is right to do so.
Is there a verse that says, “He paid the penalty for our sins”? No. So where do people get that?
One verse people might claim say that is 1 Cor 15:3, “Christ died for our sins.” Paul does not say that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. He says He died for our sins. Since he is writing to believers, he does not explain. But elsewhere he makes clear that Christ died in our place, as our substitute (Rom 5:8; 1 Thess 5:10; 1 Tim 2:6).
People sometimes go to 1 John 2:2 to prove that He paid the penalty for our sin. But it reads, “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” The word propitiation does not mean payment. It means satisfaction. Christ’s death satisfied God’s justice in terms of our sins. In other words, His death means that no one will be eternally condemned because of his sins. Condemnation is due to unbelief (John 3:16-18; Rev 20:15).
Occasionally, people cite Paul’s point that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). But Paul is simply saying that death is the result of sin. That started with Adam and Eve and continues to our day. Jesus’ death did not reverse that. Paul was saying in Rom 6:23 that the wages of sin are still death. It has not yet stopped.
One reason people conclude that Christ paid the penalty for our sins is because of the teaching in systematic theology called penal substitutionary atonement.
Gotquestions.org says this about penal substitutionary atonement:
In the simplest possible terms, the biblical doctrine of penal substitution holds that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross takes the place of the punishment we ought to suffer for our sins. As a result, God’s justice is satisfied, and those who accept Christ can be forgiven and reconciled to God.
The word penal means “related to punishment for offenses,” and substitution means “the act of a person taking the place of another.” So, penal substitution is the act of a person taking the punishment for someone else’s offenses. In Christian theology, Jesus Christ is the Substitute, and the punishment He took (at the cross) was ours, based on our sin (1 Peter 2:24) [see here].
Notice that what the article is really saying is that Jesus’ death on the cross makes us savable. It says that “God’s justice is satisfied, and those who accept Christ can be forgiven and reconciled to God.” The death of Christ does not remove the penalty for our sins. It makes us savable.
Thegospelcoalition.org agrees, writing, “The penal substitutionary view of the atonement holds that the most fundamental event of the atonement is that Jesus Christ took the full punishment that we deserved for our sins as a substitute in our place, and that all other benefits or results of the atonement find their anchor in this truth” (emphasis added) [see here].
There are other views of the atonement besides the penal substitutionary view, including the ransom to Satan view, substitutionary atonement, the moral influence theory, and Christ as Victor. These views all try to put the NT teaching on the death of Christ into a cohesive theory.
Finally, some wonder how anyone could be cast into the lake of fire if Jesus already died for his sins. The answer is that the death of Christ only makes everyone savable. It removes the sin barrier (John 1:29). As a result of Jesus’ shed blood, the one who believes in Jesus has everlasting life and is accounted as righteous. But the one who does not believe is condemned, not because Jesus did not die for his sins, but because he never believed in Jesus for everlasting life and hence his name is not in the Book of Life (Rev 20:15).
The blood of Christ not only made everyone savable, but it also has many other benefits. See this article by me dealing with the various benefits of Christ’s blood for different groups of people.