Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures

Read time: 6 minutes

I have argued in a couple of posts recently (see below) that the “gospel” in the New Testament is not the personal message that Jesus died for your sins but the public proclamation, in the particular historical setting of the crisis of first century Israel, that God has raised his unjustly executed Son from the dead and has given him authority to judge and rule, first over Israel, then over the nations. But John Shakespeare asks about 1 Corinthians 15:1-5:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor. 15:1–5)

For the sake of completeness and in hope of putting the topic to bed for a while, here is how a I think this needs to be understood.

1. When Paul says that Christ died for “our sins” in accordance with the scripture, he speaks as a Jew, on behalf of Israel: Christ died for the sins of God’s people. He refers  in the same way to “our fathers” all being under the cloud and passing through the sea (1 Cor. 10:1). If, as seems likely, Paul has in mind the suffering of Isaiah’s servant, who “bears our sins”, who was given over “because of their sins” (Is. 53:4, 6, 11, 12 LXX), etc., then “according to the scriptures” means that this was a death for Israel. Similarly, Jesus’ resurrection “on the third day according to the scriptures” recalls the narrative of Israel’s punishment and restoration in Hosea 6:1-2:

Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.

2. The gospel that Paul passed on to the Corinthians is the whole narrative: Jesus died, was buried, was raised, and appeared to many people. That is the “good news” which Paul had originally preached in Corinth. But the emphasis widely in the chapter is on the resurrection and its implications for the future—those in Christ will also be raised, every enemy will be defeated, the kingdom will be given back to God the Father.

Moreover, Paul states that “Christ is proclaimed (kērussetai) as raised from the dead”, and warns the Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins”, those who have fallen asleep have perished (15:12, 17-18). They will be saved if they hold fast to their belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and that the entailed apocalyptic narrative about the kingdom will, in due course, come to pass. If Jesus’ death for the sins of Israel is part of the gospel, it is not the most important part.

3. According to Luke’s account of Paul’s time in Corinth, he “was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus”, and when they opposed him, he declared, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent” (Acts 18:5-6). Paul is not interested in persuading the Jews that Jesus died for their sins. His argument rather is that “it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:3). Robert Wall notes the echo of Ezekiel 33:4 and the parallel with the quotation from Habakkuk at the end of Paul’s address to the Jews in Antioch in Pisidia (13:46).1 But it is not simply the “loss of eternal life” that is in view. Ezekiel is the watchman who warns Israel that YHWH is bringing a sword against the land. If they do not heed the warning, then their blood will be upon their heads. They, not the prophet, will be responsible for their deaths. This underlines the political character of Paul’s teaching. It is the historical future of God’s people that is at stake.

4. The “cross of Christ” is relevant further in 1 Corinthians as the necessary condition for proclaiming and living this story about Jesus effectively:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Cor. 1:17)

The cross, here, is not the content of the gospel. Rather, Paul proclaims the gospel on the basis of his identification with the death of Jesus; the church bears testimony about the risen Lord Jesus, who will come to vindicate them, from a position of weakness, foolishness, vulnerability. This is what it means to be “in Christ Jesus” (1:26-30).

5. A passage to be considered in conjunction with 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 is this one, where we also have reference to Jesus’ death “for our sins” (huper tōn hamartiōn hēmōn), presumably as part of the gospel which Paul fears the Galatians are at risk of abandoning:

Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age…. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…. (Gal. 1:1, 3-4, 6)

It seems likely that the gospel Paul delivered to the Galatians consisted of the same narrative as that delivered to the Corinthians: Jesus gave himself for the sins of God’s people, he was buried, he was raised from the dead, and appeared to many, including Paul, who was commissioned to preach the risen the Lord among the Gentiles. Significantly, Jesus was revealed to Paul as the exalted “Son” (Gal. 1:16)—that is, as the one to whom authority had been given to judge and rule.

So I suggest that the basic point stands: the good news proclaimed by the early church was that although Jesus had been unjustly executed, God had raised him from the dead and had given him authority to rule as Lord at his right hand—a “political” move on God’s part that would have profound implications both for Israel and for the nations. Because Jesus’ death could also be seen as having an atoning function for God’s people, like the death of Isaiah’s servant, it comes as no surprise that this detail was included in the “tradition” passed on to the churches. But this should not detract from the political force of the announcement, and it certainly does not warrant the sort of reinterpretation of “gospel” as the offer of personal salvation that we find in much evangelical teaching.

  • 1R. Wall, Acts (New Interpreter’s Bible), 254.
John Shakespeare | Wed, 08/27/2014 - 18:30 | Permalink

Thanks Andrew. I’m not unhappy with your response as I think pronouns in the New Testament are ignored to the detriment of understanding the texts’ intended meanings. Examples range from Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus to Paul’s statement (1 Cor 5:21) ‘…For he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him…’ which applies, it seems, to the proclaimers of the apostolic message rather than to Israel or to Christians in general.

Having said that, and without wanting to pick any nits, I refer to your original statement that ‘…the propositional content of the “gospel” is not that Jesus died for anyone’s sins…’ Now, it seems, we are to understand Israel’s sins. I’m fine with that, but it does seem to be a modification of your original assertion.

@John Shakespeare:

I may indeed have to concede the point in this instance, but I still think it is right to hold that the basic message throughout the New Testament has to do not with salvation but with kingdom. It is certainly an implication of the kingdom proclamation that Jesus did not merely suffer but suffered “for the sins” of Israel, but that is not what challenges the leaders of Israel or defies the gods of the empire.

If Jesus’ death for the sins of Israel is part of the gospel, it is not the most important part.

I have to concede that I’m probably not following the intricacies of your arguments here which I suspect must be linked to your historical narrative reading of scripture. However it seems to me that relegating Jesus’ death (to atone for the sin of Israel/sinners) to the periphery of scripture’s storyline is frankly absurd (not trying to be rude, just can’t think of a more appropriate word). 

Two questions to try clarify my understanding of where you are coming from please: 

1. Are you suggesting in saying he died for Israel’s sin that Jesus did not die for the sins of all men, or at least those who would put their faith in him? 

2. What is the eschatological outcome you feel scripture is pointing to — a heavenly community of redeemed people from all nations or …? 

@Rob :

Hi Rob. No offence taken, always good to hear from you.

1. I am suggesting that it makes more sense historically to say:

i) that Jesus’ death was an atonement for the sins of Israel;

ii) that at the same time it removed the barrier of the Law keeping Gentiles from full participation in the covenant;

iii) that our “salvation” now is really a matter of being incorporated into a historically redeemed and transformed people.

But the point is not so much to downplay the saving significance of his death for us as to bring into the foreground the story of God’s people because I think that gives us a better sense of how the New Testament “works”.

What I have asserted in these posts is not that Jesus’ atoning death, whether for Israel or for the world, is marginal to the storyline but that it is not, except incidentally perhaps in the case of 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, the content of the gospel. The “gospel” was a statement not about salvation but about kingdom, understood as YHWH taking control of the situation for the sake of his people and for the sake of his own reputation among the nations. Salvation is one of the consequences of kingdom. What is especially striking is that Luke can tell the story of the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom from Jerusalem to Rome in some detail without mentioning the atoning significance of Jesus’ death.

2. Basically, I think that the New Testament has three eschatological horizons:

i) I don’t think the Gospels see any further than the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple—judgment and salvation have to do with that event;

ii) for the apostles and churches in the Greek-Roman world the dominant horizon is the anticipated victory of YHWH over the gods of the pagan nations and perhaps over a deified emperor in particular;

iii) on the periphery of the New Testament’s vision is a final judgment and renewal of creation, which is now our horizon.

I think that the martyrs went to heaven to reign with the supreme martyr Christ throughout the coming ages. The rest of us, good and bad, saved and unsaved, will die and be dead until the final judgment, when it appears that we will be judged according to what we have done.

I enjoyed this.  It seems to me that Christianity (as practiced generally) places far to much emphasis on the death of Christ (especially the idea that Jesus “died for our sins”) and far too little emphasis on the resurrection.  As I read Paul it seems to me that the early church attached great importance to the resurrection (note for example his speech in Acts 17, which emphasizes the theological importance of the resurrection but says nothing of atonement), yet other than on Easter morning we seem to give little attention to these days.

peter wilkinson | Sun, 08/31/2014 - 16:46 | Permalink

Andrew, you say: “in hope of putting the topic to bed for a while”. You’ll be lucky. It’s having nightmares. You go on to say:

When Paul says that Christ died for “our sins” in accordance with the scripture, he speaks as a Jew, on behalf of Israel: Christ died for the sins of God’s people

If Paul meant here only the Jews, it’s a shame he didn’t make himself clearer. The chapter begins:

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.

There is no reason to think that Paul was intending a different group to be understood by the our of 1 Cor.15:3 from the you of 15:1-3a. In 1 Cor.10:1, the our (of our forefathers) refers not only specifically to forefathers of Paul and the Jews, but also generally to all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, by virtue of them being joined together in the same story (Romans 11:17, where the wild olive shoot is grafted in “among the others” in place of the broken stems of branches “broken off”).

Second, kingdom and salvation are indivisible. The gospel was the means by which you (Jewish and Gentile believers at Corinth) are saved. What was the gospel? It was the announcement that the awaited king in David’s line had come (Romans 1:3-4), with the unexpected rider that he was also Israel’s sin-bearer, who died on the cross for their sins as well as sins of Gentiles (Romans 1:16, 1 John 2:2), and rose from the dead for all. If these events were applicable to separate groups in different ways, Paul would not have included both groups in his introduction to Romans in 1:5-6 and 1:16-17. without qualification.

The warnings of 1 Corinthians 10 only make sense if Paul is addressing the shortcomings of the whole church, Gentile and Jew, not Jews only. In fact he uses the pronouns you and our/us interchangeably, as in 1 Cor.10:11-13. The distinction you make is entirely spurious, here as in 1 Corinthians 15.

The same is true of Galatians, where the you/our distinction is also imaginary, since Paul is warning Gentile Galatian believers as well as Jews (from 2:14b) not to add Torah observance to their faith and think that it will still be effective. There is no hint in Galatians that he is addressing his message to a Jewish audience only, and evidence for the opposite — eg their worship of “the gods” in 4:8, and even less that he is switching his message from one group to another in the letter. In the one instance where he does make a distinction, he makes it very clear, and adds that Gentiles also are involved — 2:15-16. (Jews have put their faith in Christ Jesus as well as Gentiles - v.16).

The gospel preached by Paul was the gospel which Jesus introduced, the same gospel of the kingdom, the same message of the kingdom, in which the cross was a central event, because it saved Jews and Gentiles from their sins (Acts 13:39), and worked through allegiance to Jesus as the Messiah raised from the dead, King and Lord in a new order. This allegiance sometimes worked with Rome (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13), but always remained the supreme authority — Romans 1:4-5. This was the gospel of salvation whose power was (and is) “the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile”.

The universal applicability of this gospel depends on your interpretation of the righteousness of God in v.17. In the narrative historical approach, it is the covenant faithfulness of God to Jews for the benefit of the whole world. I think you have split apart gospel, salvation, kingdom and new creation in ways that are entirely unwarranted and unnecessary. When Jesus rose from the dead, he was introducing the new creation as a present reality. This was the gospel of his resurrection from the dead, by which all, Jew and Gentile alike, are made new creation/creatures — 2 Cor.5:17, in which “the old has gone, the new has come”. There is no suggestion that this reality was reserved for the coming horizon of a future generation.

To make the case which you are presenting, there has to be a split between the message Jesus came to announce (which only looked to the destruction of the temple as its historical horizon), the message Paul announced (which only looked to judgment on Rome as its horizon), and a far distant generation to whom “new creation” would be the relevant horizon. A far better interpretation is to understand Paul’s gospel as integrated with Jesus’s gospel, which is our gospel. Otherwise there has to be some extraordinary playing with the meaning of first and second person pronouns, and the addressees of letters, and groups of people within letters — which rests on inferences drawn from conjecture, not an explicit meaning provided by Paul (or Peter, eg in 1 Peter, and 1 3:18 etc especially). 

@peter wilkinson:

There is no reason to think that Paul was intending a different group to be understood by the our of 1 Cor.15:3 from the you of 15:1-3a.

I didn’t say that—I think you’ve misunderstood me, though I may not have been clear enough. My point was that Paul has in mind the narrative of Israel, his own people, even if he now includes Gentiles in the story. Therefore, Jesus’ death is to be interpreted primarily as part of that story, not, as so often, in isolation from it.

@Andrew Perriman:

I don’t think I’ve misunderstood you. The Jesus narrative was Israel’s narrative, as you describe it. What Jesus did was for Israel, according to you. The Gentiles were included in the narrative, as I understand you saying, when Jesus was raised as king over the nations.  Your argument runs that this ‘reign’ was one of judgment against God’s enemies, as perceived in that particular OT category. How that reign continues today is less clear, though we can assume that judgment is a integral part of it.

I think there is a disconnect in the argument, and certainly in the logic, at this point. According to you, the message to the Gentiles is that Jesus died for Israel only, and was raised for Israel, as their Messiah. As Messiah, he was raised as the victor over Israel’s enemies, who were defeated by judgment, historically, on Jerusalem and Rome. This was a judgment on unbelieving Jews and imperial idolatrous Romans. For those who believed, this is the logic of coercion through threats and violence.

This might no longer quite be the message today, in your logic, since the message was to a particular historical situation and context, within which the NT, gospels, epistles and Revelation are to be understood. The message today seems to be that Jesus is Lord over the nations, and he will sort things out whilst ensuring our survival. Meanwhile we are to be an authentic people in the world, not trying to convert the world or repair or redeem it, not forcing our views on anybody, but simple ‘being’ God’s people and quietly showing how God wants things to be and to get done.

In particular, in your interpretation, the message of personal transformation, with which the NT is spectacularly replete, is neither personal at all, nor does it apply to us. It only applied to Israel, and her story, in terms of the application of Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection. According to you, the purpose of the NT message is not about me or any individual at all, but about a people. We become part of a people, and only then experience the benefits - communally.

It seems to me that this is a fair summary of all I have understood through years of trying to understand your particular take on the biblical narrative. I still think there are alternative ways of making sense of the narrative, and not least an understanding of the gospel which starts where Jesus started with the gospel of the kingdom, and continues as Paul preached it throughout his ministry up to and including Acts 28:23/31.

When we are talking about the narrative, it’s not just a case of counting up the chapters and verses which follow one line of interpretation (your own) against those which follow another (not your own). The bible is far more nuanced than this. It’s a question of what was controlling the narrative, especially as it was understood by Jesus himself, whose interpretation of the narrative continues through Acts and letters, only his location having changed from geographical Israel to non-geographical heaven.

That there was significant disjunction in the OT narrative with the coming of Jesus is obvious from the subsequent disappearance of Israel the theocratic nation and all its instruments of theocratic rule. The key to understanding the narrative is in balancing this disjunction with continuity in the narrative in which Israel, despite her unfaithfulnes as a whole, was still the bearer of God’s plans and purposes which found their ultimate expression in Jesus, and all that he released into the world.

There most certainly is a narrative historical interpretation of the bible which desperately needs to be restored today. It begins not with me and my needs, but with Jesus the king who calls me and everyone to allegiance to him and his kingly agenda. Yet the way he does this is by meeting us in our personal needs with love and compassion, just as he did it in the days of his earthly ministry. This is a gospel very much for the individual, as a way of becoming part of a renewed people, to bring repair and redemption to the world now, and as it will be when renewed in the future.

Since Scripture says that Christ died for the sins of the whole world, and since God desires that all would come to Him, I am of the mindset that Jesus’ death was…for you. For everyone.

Then, when we share the gospel with someone we can honestly say that “Christ loves and died for you.”

That many will not hear this message and come to a living faith is another issue. We don’t know why some hear and believe…and others do not.

We’ll have to ask God when we get to Him…as if at that point it will matter to us. Maybe it will…I dunno.

@Steve Martin:

Steve, thanks. It seems to me, though, that when we want to affirm that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, in those sort of terms, we turn to John The Johannine argument appears to suit our universal outlook much better. But my argument is that most of the New Testament (Synoptics, Acts, Paul, Hebrews, non-Johannine letter, Revelation) works with a more focused historical narrative, according to which Jesus dies for the sins of God’s people. Both lines of thought are part of the New Testament, but I am asking whether we are not missing something of crucial importance when we prioritize John over everything else.


you stated:

Moreover, Paul states that “Christ is proclaimed (kērussetai) as raised from the dead”, and warns the Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins”, those who have fallen asleep have perished (15:12, 17-18). They will be saved if they hold fast to their belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and that the entailed apocalyptic narrative about the kingdom will, in due course, come to pass. If Jesus’ death for the sins of Israel is part of the gospel, it is not the most important part.

I have to interject here.  I think your usage of the 1 Cor. 15 passages above are wrong and misleading.  Yes, Paul proclaimed Jesus as raised from the dead, but he wasn’t warning the Corinthians that if they denied that fact — as if that is what they were doing — they, or those fallen asleep, would perish.  I think you have completely missed Paul’s entire argument in 1 Cor. 15.

Nobody in Corinth was denying that Christ had been raised.   Paul stated in verse 1 “…the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand…”, and verse 11 “…so we preached and so you believed.”

Paul is clear they stood firm in what he preached to them –that Christ had been raised.  What was being denied by some (not all) was that “the dead” would not be raised.  Paul’s argument is this.  If you Corinthians are going to deny that “the dead” would be raised then these are the consequences; Paul then presents six consequences for their denial of “the dead” being raised, one of which was that Christ couldn’t have been raised either.  The six consequences were:

  1. That Christ wasn’t raised, and if Christ wasn’t raised then…
  2. Paul’s preaching was in vain (vs 14).
  3. Their faith was in vain/futile (vs 14, 17).
  4. Paul and the other Apostles were misrepresenting God (vs. 15).
  5. They were still in their sins (vs. 17).
  6. Those who had fallen asleep in Christ had perished.

It’s because the Corinthians did believe that Christ had been raised and that they were not still in their sins and those who had perished were going to be included in the Resurrection, that Paul could form his argument (logical argument modus tollens) as he did.  The commentary by Gordon Fee (The NITC on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians) that you referenced in another post even points out this line of argumentation (p.740) by Paul.

This argument is in relation to 1 Cor. 3 and the division between those following Paul and those following Apollos, which stems from the Jew/Gentile feud that was going on in the early Church (See Acts).   The “some” who followed Paul were Gentile believers and the “some” who were following Apollos were Jewish believers.  What was happening was this.  Because the Jews in the early Church were rejecting the Gospel (See Romans for the hardening of Israel) and the fact that the Gentiles were flocking in faster than imaginable (God using the Gentiles to provoke to jealousy the Jews -Romans) the Gentiles in Corinth had become high minded thinking they were “in” but OC Israel had been cut off (Romans).  Paul would not have it though.  Paul was pointing out that if you cut off OC Israel (the dead) and reject their resurrection, then you have to reject Christ’s resurrection too, because Christ was 1) Israel’s new Adam and corporate head (thus he was Israel), and 2) as a Jew born under the law he was himself part of OC Israel,  i.e. part of “the dead”.   Fee is very close when he points out that Jesus was raised out from among “the dead” but misses that “the dead” was OC Israel.  He stated:

“Even though in vv. 1-11 Paul did not use the language that Christ was raised “from the dead,” this is in fact what he intended and is his regular way of speaking of Christ’s resurrection.  Thus, as the creeds says, Christ died and was buried, and as Paul regularly says, he was also raised from the dead, referring not to his being raised from death itself but from among those who have died.” p. 740-741.  See footnote below for additional comment.

So, to reject “the dead” and insist they would not be raised is to, by logic, reject Christ having been raised as well (and all the other consequences being true too)!  Paul’s argument destroyed the position “some” (Gentiles) had taken in rejecting OC Israel’s participation in the Resurrection.

Consider those who had fallen asleep.  Who were they?  They were believers who had come to faith in Christ but had physically died prior to the resurrection.  The important part is that they were believers in Christ, unlike OC Israelites who were not believers in Christ because they died prior to Christ having even been born.   They were thus not part of the “Body” of Christ!  This is why they could ask Paul “How are the dead being raised?  And what kind of body are they coming in (1 Cor. 15:35)?  To the Gentile because they were not part of the body of Christ via baptism, they would not be raised.   But if they were what “body” were they to come in?  The “body” being raised in 1 Cor. 15 was the body of Christ which in the end is the new corporate (spiritual) Israel.  Christ came to fulfill the promises made unto Israel; to raise her out from covenant death and unto life.

I can’t recommend strong enough to you Max King’s book “The Cross and the Parousia of Christ: the two dimensions of one age-changing eschaton” for a full 300+ page commentary on 1 Cor. 15.

I also noticed in your quote that you said “They will be saved if they hold fast”.  Actually it is “are being saved”.  Paul uses the present tense passive voice as he does all throughout 1 Cor. 15.  It was a process from 30 -70 AD.  Same goes for death being destroyed in 1 Cor. 15:26.  See Fee’s commentary page 756 for his comments regarding the grammer of verse 26.


Footnote: While I disagree with much of what Fee presents, due to him not understanding that “the dead” is a reference to OC Israel, and taking the traditional position of a physical bodily resurrection of each believer– which he really tried hard to hold on to the point of embarrassment I thought — , I do agree with him on the nature of Paul’s argument.