By Angel Manuel Rodríguez
QUESTION: I cannot find a Bible passage that says Christ suffered the penalty for our sins. How can we support that claim?
This question, together with many others of a similar nature dealing with the work of Christ for us, suggests that the meaning of Christ’s death remains an important subject of discussion in the church, and in some cases can be divisive. A detailed answer to your question would require a careful study of the nature of sin, its consequences, and an examination of how Christdealt with the problem of sin. Here I will discuss only three main ideas to support the claim that Jesus suffered the penalty for our sin.
1. He Bore Our Sin: The phrase “to bear sin” is important in the Old Testament, particularly in passages dealing with the sanctuary services. For example, a person who cursed God “shall bear his sin” (Lev. 24:15); a person who witnesses a crime but does not come forward “will bear his guilt/iniquity” (see Lev. 5:1); a person who acts defiantly against the Lord will bear his sin (Num. 15:31). The phrase is a legal declaration that identifies the sinner as responsible for the sin they committed. In this case the sin is objectified and described as a heavy burden that will crush the individual unless something or someone delivers them from this mortal load. The phrase means to be responsible for the sin committed and liable for its results or penalty. In a good number of cases the penalty is death inflicted by a human or divine agency (e.g., Ex. 28:43; Lev. 22:9; 19:8).
There are cases in which a person bears the sin of the sinners, thus removing the load and freeing them from the penalty. The most important example of this is found in Isaiah 53, a prophecy about the experience and work of the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah. The Servant bore the sins of the people and they crushed Him (verses 4-6, 10-12). In other words, He assumed responsibility for the sin of the people and suffered its penalty. This same phrase is applied to Jesus in the New Testament. Hebrews clearly states that Christ was “offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28). The Old Testament background of the phrase allows us to understand it as meaning Christ assumed the full responsibility and penalty for our sins in order to free us from both.
2. He Was Made Sin: According to Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21, God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” The first thing to notice is that Christ became sin for us vicariously; meaning that even though He was innocent—He knew no sin and did not deserve to die—He became sin for us. Second, in the Bible the words for sin designate not only the sin committed but also the consequence or penalty that follows the sin. After Cain killed Abel the Lord announced to him the penalty for his sin, and Cain exclaimed, “My punishment/sin is too great to bear!” (see Gen. 4:13). Thus when it is said that Christ became sin, the emphasis is not so much on the sinful acts themselves but on the guilt, the consequence, the punishment for our sins. This idea is even clearer if we translate the phrase “became sin” as “became a sin offering.” In the Old Testament the sin offering bore the sin of the Israelite and died in place of the sinner, i.e., experienced the penalty for the sin.
3. He Became a Curse: Paul also wrote: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). This passage contains several ideas that need brief comment: First, the violation of the law brings with it a specific penalty, called here “a curse.” Second, this is considered a valid claim that needed to be dealt with. Humans needed to be freed from that curse. Third, the legal demand of the law was met by Jesus, who took upon Himself the curse, the result, and penalty for our violation of the law, and thus redeemed us. Our punishment as sinners was appropriated by Christ, our substitute.
I hope this explanation is useful to you in your Christian experience.