'Christ Died for Sins'

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18a).

Consider four important things this verse tells us about Jesus’ death.

1. “Christ died for sins.” The gospel message is not just that a man was crucified; in the Roman era, that happened all the time. What the New Testament affirms is that Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s appointed sacrifice to take away sins, the heart of His plan for redeeming mankind. He “bore the sin of many and interceded for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). As Jesus himself said, he came “to give his life as a ransom for many,” and his blood would be “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 20:28; 26:28). His sacrificial death is the foundational message of the gospel; it was “of first importance” in the apostles’ preaching that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

The New Testament sometimes describes Jesus’ death with the word “propitiation” — a sacrifice to appease God’s judicial wrath on sin. “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2; cf. 4:10; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17). That idea of “propitiation” calls to mind the sacrifices offered by the priests under the Mosaic system. In fact, Peter’s language in our text happens to echo the wording used in the Greek version of the Old Testament to describe the Israelite sin offering (cf. Leviticus 5:7; 6:30). But unlike those sacrifices, Jesus’ death on the cross was …

2. “Once for all.” Under the Mosaic covenant, the priests continually made offerings for the various sins of individual Israelites; and every year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest offered sacrifices for the sins of the nation. So Hebrews 10:3 says that “in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year.”

Jesus’ sacrifice for sin is different: it was made “once for all,” or “one time for all time.” He “does not need daily, like those [Old Testament] high priests, to offer up sacrifices…because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Hebrews 7:27; cf. 9:28). As William Barclay wrote, “on the Cross something happened which never needs to happen again…On the Cross God dealt with man’s sin in a way which is adequate for all sin, for all men, for all time” (The Letters of James and Peter 276). The Hebrew writer summarizes:

We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:10-12).

These passages show that the animal sacrifices offered under the Mosaic system ultimately were not adequate to pay the price for sin and justify the guilty. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:3). A better sacrifice was needed. A sacrifice of …

3. “The just for the unjust.” In Jesus, God provided the only sacrifice that can truly atone for sin: not animal life, but human life; and not just any human life, but a sinless life. The word “for” in Peter’s phrase means “in place of.” That is, the Father accepted the death of sinless Jesus (“the just”) as a substitute for our sinful lives (“the unjust”). Peter wrote earlier that we have been redeemed “with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:19), the one “who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth” (2:22).

Despite these Scriptural statements, surveys have found that many professed Christians think Jesus sinned while on earth. But a Jesus who sinned would be no more fit to “give his life as a ransom for many” than you or I would. Because sin makes us worthy of death (Romans 6:23), only one without sin could lay down his life as a propitiation for us.

Incidentally, Jesus’ sinlessness was confirmed by his resurrection; death could have no hold over one who had no guilt of sin. “God raised him up again…since it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24).

The phrase “the just for the unjust” may be an allusion to Isaiah 53:11-12: “By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities…He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors.” As Paul expressed it, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus, who deserved no suffering or death, bore the penalty for us who deserve both. Why?

4. “So that he might bring us to God.” Here is the great purpose of Jesus’ death. “Bring” here denotes opening a way of access (cf. Ephesians 2:18). Barclay notes the connection of the Greek word to the title of a royal official who determined who could be admitted to the king’s presence, adding, “It is Jesus Christ, through what he did, who brings men into the presence of God, who gives them access to God, who opens the way to God” (278). Through Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, sinful people can be justified before God and reconciled to Him. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).