Christ died for whose sins in accordance with the scriptures?

Paul reminds the perhaps predominantly Gentile believers in Corinth of the gospel which he had originally preached to them. This gospel he had received from others: “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…” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). My question is this: Who does “our” refer to? For whose sins did Christ die?

Gordon Fee points to the relevance of Isaiah 53:4-6, 11-12 LXX: “This one bears our sins… weakened because of our sins… gave him over to our sins… shall bear their sins… because of their sins.” But he then speaks of this “atonement” in universal terms: Paul’s brief creed “presupposes alienation between God and humans because of human rebellion and sinfulness, for which the just penalty is death”.1

This is a simple example of a basic error of comprehension that is commonly made when we allow theological interpretation priority over historical interpretation. We instinctively read it as a universal statement. Paul meant it, I think, in a more restricted historical sense.

The servant of Isaiah 53 does not suffer for the sins of the world. He suffers on account of the sins of Israel. He atones for the sins of Israel. The Targum of Isaiah 53:5-6 makes this even clearer:

But he will rebuild the temple that was defiled by our sins, handed over by our iniquities. And by his teaching peace will increase upon us, and when we follow his words, our sins will be forgiven us. All of us like sheep have been scattered. We have gone into exile each before his way, and it was pleasing from before the Lord to forgive all of us our sins on account of him. (Is. 53:5–6)

Jesus’ death is put forward as a “propitiation” or atonement (hilastērion) “apart from the law” because the Jewish Law was impotent to justify Israel (Rom. 3:21-25). Luke has Paul make the same case to the Jews in Antioch in Pisidia:

Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38–39)

It was a matter of secondary effect that God was shown in this way to be God of the Gentiles also (Acts 13:46-48; Rom. 3:28-30).

The phrase “for our sins” (hyper tōn hamartiōn hēmōn) is also found in Galatians 1:4, where Paul writes that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age”. The argument of the letter as a whole makes it clear that Paul speaks on behalf of sinful Israel, not of humanity generally. God sent his Son “to redeem those who were under the law” (4:5); and those who have faith are not merely saved individually but are “sons of Abraham”, heirs to the age that will succeed the “present evil age” (3:7-9, 18, 29).

Similarly, Paul’s statement in Romans 4:25 that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” forms the conclusion to a lengthy argument about who, in this time of eschatological crisis, constituted the legitimate “offspring” of Abraham. This provides the proper framing narrative for Paul’s theology of atonement.

The argument that Paul the apostle propounds, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, is not that Jesus died for the sins of the world. Paul is not John. It is that Jesus died for the sins of Israel. It runs as follows:

1. The Jews have shown themselves to be as much under the power of sin as the rest of humanity. Only in this particular regard can it be said that the confession “presupposes alienation between God and humans”. Israel’s sin is not merely an instance of general human sin. The sin of humanity in Adam is highlighted (for example, in Romans 5:12-21) for polemical reasons, in order to account for Israel’s sin. It is Israel’s sin and its catastrophic political consequences that are of concern to Paul.

2. Because the Jews, being human, cannot escape the power of sin, they are condemned to destruction by the Law. When Paul says that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, he means for the community of God’s people which has been set free from the Law of Moses—not from some universal moral law—and which now lives according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-8).

3. Jesus’ death was an act of atonement for the sins of Israel so that the family of Abraham would have a historical future—indeed, would inherit the world (cf. Rom. 4:13). See the argument in The Future of the People of God. When Paul says that “Christ died for our sins”, he is speaking on behalf of God’s people in eschatological transition. Only in this context does it make sense to speak of penal substitutionary atonement.

4. Those Gentiles who believe this argument about Israel will also be “justified” on the day of God’s wrath (first against the Jew, then against the Greek) and will share in the inheritance. Their inclusion in the renewed, Spirit-filled “commonwealth of Israel” is a sign and confirmation of this.

This could be construed as an argument for a limited atonement, but not in the sense that only a restricted or select group of individuals are destined to be saved. In my view, the whole theological debate about the scope of salvation—including the argument about universal salvation—is founded on the wrong premise. It is not individuals who are saved by Jesus’ death—certainly not according to the dominant New Testament narrative. It is a people or community that is saved, and individuals find personal salvation only in the context and within the parameters of that narrative. 

  • 1. G.D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT, 1987), 724.
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Submitted by Andrew Terry on  Tue, 07/15/2014 - 16:37

I assume in saying Paul is not John you are refering to scriptures like 1 John 2:2 where is says Jesus is the “propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” I can understand Paul coming from a strict Jewish narrative in his writtings and indeed using this apporach opens up many of the Scritpures. Yet, I wonder how differnt would our concept of the atonement look in light of the whole Scripture, including John, if the atonement was udnerstood as being for the Jews. In our current setting wouldn’t this then be symatics? I guess what I am getting at: with the understanding of atonement you are describing how would this change the way we “do” our faith today?

Atonement belongs to the Jewish narrative, but when we get to Paul, it’s not quite as simple as atonement being “for the Jews”. Because God has done something “apart from the Law”, it is as easy as for a Gentile to believe as for a Jew. I tend to think of it as Gentiles being incorporated into a saved people of God. It is in this more complicated, indirect sense that Jesus died for Gentiles, and I would argue that we are in the same position today. We believe the story, our sins are forgiven, we receive the Spirit of the living God, and we are baptized into that historical people for which Jesus died.

Submitted by Rich on  Tue, 07/15/2014 - 18:07


This is so right on.  Glad you can see it too and have the articulation to put forth the argument.

Once one sees and understands this more correct understanding of the NT narrative the easier it’s for one to see other NT truths that escape him.  For example, in that same commentary you referenced (Gordon D.  Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians) he continues to makes additional comments concerning  the rest of 1 Cor. 15 – forget the page number and I’m at work so I can’t look it up now – on Paul’s  use of the present passive throughout the chapter, which he states is very odd and doesn’t understand why.  So, verses like 1 Cor. 15:35, which most translations state as, “…How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come in?”, should actually state, “…how are the dead being raised?  And with what kind of body are they coming in?”.

The reason Paul uses the present passive throughout is because the reference to “the dead” in 1 Cor. 15 is in reference to Israel corporately (see Max King, The Cross and the Parousia of Christ”) and not a universal application to physically dead people individually.   Same goes for the “body” being referenced.  Paul is not speaking of raising individual physical bodies (plural), but of a body (singular), which is the spiritual in contrast to the natural (which doesn’t mean physical, see 1 Cor. 2:14) that Paul contrast throughout 1 Cor. 15.  This raising was not a one-time event either but a process that lasted 40 years (AD 30 – 70), thus Paul’s “being raised” (the 1st Resurrection from Rev. 20:5).  See also Israel’s transition from the old covenant to the new covenant (Gal. 4:21-31, which is the reality of the foreshadowing of Israel’s 40 year transition from slavery in Egypt to the promise land presented in the OT.  Heck, starting is 1 Cor. 15:12 one could probably substitute Israel for “the dead” and maintain correctness of the text.

This is all connected to the fact the Jesus died for Israel’s sins so Israel could be raised (corporately) via her Messiah.  Without the raising of Israel there was nothing for the gentile (wild olive shoot) to be grafted into — see Romans 11.

I disagree with you Andrew on your reference to Adam.  While, the gentile was certain guilty of sin too, they did not reside in Adam’s sin and death.  This is why in Romans 6 Paul makes reference to “the sin” and “the death” (not just sin in general) which was due to law (note: only Young’s Translation seems to actually acknowledge the definite articles) .  Paul is dealing with Israel.  This is why in 1 Cor. 15:56 Paul could tie the resurrection to Israel’s law (the gentile was never under Israel’s law).  It was the law over Israel that condemned Israel.  Christ (Israel’s representative/federal head) died to raise Israel out from under the law thus removing her out from death, which was the last enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), which was accomplish with the destruction/removal of the OC and its law in AD70.  Also if you notice Paul once again in 1 Cor. 15 takes it back to Adam, which is all tied to the law, which ties Adam only to Israel  (I know I’ve mentioned this before in another post that you rejected, but you are wrong).

You are so correct in the need to pay attention to the “we”, the “our”, the “us” etc. throughout the NT.  The universal application of these references has completely distorted the Church’s understanding of the NT’s historical narrative beyond all recognition.

Submitted by Andrew on  Wed, 07/16/2014 - 16:43

In reply to by Rich

Rich, I’m afraid I have a hard time seeing any merit in your argument about the resurrection.

What is at stake in 1 Corinthians 15 is whether the “dead” (plural) are raised (16), and the implication of 18-19 is presumably that those who have died, seemingly in vain, will be raised in the future. Christ is the “firstfruits” of those who have fallen asleep, not of corporate Israel (20). All will be made alive in Christ (future).

The present tense does not have to be understood in the continuous or durative sense that you describe—something is happening at this moment. The futuristic use of the present is well documented. Turner cites 1 Corinthians 15:32: “tomorrow we die”, where ἀποθνῄσκομεν is the present tense. Blass and Debrunner: “In confident assertions regarding the future, a vivid, realistic present may be used for the future….” But in the heavily conceptual and abstract discussion of 15:35-49 the present may perhaps be better classified as gnomic.

Notice that in 15:49 we have a future tense: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear (φορέσομεν) the image of the man of heaven.” And 15:52 is future: “the dead will be raised (ἐγερθήσονται) imperishable, and we shall be changed”.

And what about 1 Thessalonians 4:16: “the dead in Christ will rise (ἀναστήσονται) first”? Or Philippians 3:10-11, 14, where resurrection is clearly an outcome that Paul desires to attain in the future? Or Acts 24:15: “having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will (μέλλειν ἔσεσθαι) be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust”, which is emphatically future.

As you rightly point out, we have discussed Adam before.


It’s not an issue for Paul to speak of Resurrection as both ongoing and as future a event just as Paul could speak of other issues as being both on-going and yet future.  This is usually spoken of in terms “the already but not yet”, which I find to be wrong.  It’s more like “the already but have not yet attained completely” (as in consummated).  For an exhaustive exegetically presentation I can only recommend to you Max King’s work The Cross and the Parouisa of Christ.

Or, for a small primer see Sam Frost’s book Exgetical Essays on the Resurrection…

Funny you should quote Acts 24:15: “having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will (μέλλειν ἔσεσθαι) be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.

I love this verse because it actually states”that there is about to be (mello) a resurrection”!  An event that was imminent to the writer.  Of course since that doesn’t jive with the theology of the Church (which holds the resurrection as a future to us event) mello is basically ignored throughout the entire NT.

“The wages of sin , is death”;

“Whoever commits sin ,transgresses THE LAW, for SIN IS TRANSGRESSION of the LAW”;

“you know he was manifested to take away OUR sins, and in him is no sin”

“Therefore by the Deeds of THE LAW shall no flesh be justified, for by the law is the KNOWLEDGE of sin”

“For until the law, sin was in the world, but sun is NOT IMPUTED where there IS NO LAW

“it was Simon Peter, who counseled the JEWS, that it was better that ONE man DIE THAN the ENTIRE NATION PERISH

*** 1 man dies = Nation [of Israel] does NOT PERISH.

*** 1 man DOESNT DIE = Entire nation DOES PERISH.


Gentiles were not imputed with sun, because they didn’t have the law, nor did they make a covenant to follow the law. They had the law, agreed to follow it, sin is disobedience to the law the law they agreed to follow, the wages of sun is death, when Israel cut a covenant to follow the law, the punishment for breaking the covenant was death, messiah died so Israel did not have to. Gentikes were never part of the covenant, dmdid NOT agree to keep the law, so sin was NOT imputed to the gentiles!

Not universal or not available universally? There’s something wrong with the invitation then.

In Psalm 106 I note the poet’s request: 

remember me יהוה, in the acceptance of your people, visit me in your salvation to see the good of your chosen, to be glad in the gladness of your nation, to praise with your inheritance - 

then immediately: 
we have sinned with our ancestors, we have been perverse
we are wicked

Who is that first person plural? 

It is a generic problem dealing with you singular and you plural, collective, selective, or corporate. It is selective parochialism to deal with the first person plural. When does it invite, when does it exclude?  And often in the psalms, the singular is a voice for the plural, for the corporate (e.g. 42-43 singular, 44 plural).

There is no explanation for ‘my’ story without the metaphor and the choice of Israel — so Psalm 78:2, cited in Matthew 13 about the parable that Israel is — on behalf of all. These things were written for our learning… that we all might come to the fullness of the stature of the measure of Christ (being ‘in’ the Anointed).

It’s about being governance. Psalm 107 has a curious character — it is about finding the appropriate ‘seat’ of government. Seat/a place to be this governed body, is the only Hebrew root that appears more than 6 times in the poem. Give thanks, loving-kindness get 6 mentions each but words related to ישׁב, get 7 mentions.

Our problem is both salvation and the ability to govern — without exploitation, cronyism, oligarchy, or violence. When will we come before the presence of the living God (to take Psalm 42 out of its context and apply it to our world today).

If the metaphor is exclusive, why bother? The ‘we’ section of Romans is strategically placed among other sections that emphasize other pronouns. It cannot be exclusive, but rather open and invitational, and incoprporating those obedient to its call.

“The wages of sin , is death”;

“Whoever commits sin ,transgresses THE LAW, for SIN IS TRANSGRESSION of the LAW”;

“you know he was manifested to take away OUR sins, and in him is no sin”

“Therefore by the Deeds of THE LAW shall no flesh be justified, for by the law is the KNOWLEDGE of sin”

“For until the law, sin was in the world, but sun is NOT IMPUTED where there IS NOLAW

“it was Simon Peter, who counseled the JEWS, that it was better that ONE man DIETHAN the ENTIRE NATION PERISH

*** 1 man dies = Nation [of Israel] does NOT PERISH.

*** 1 man DOESNT DIE = Entire nation DOES PERISH.


Gentiles were not imputed with sin, because they didn’t have the law, nor did they make a covenant to follow the law. Israel had the law, agreed to follow it, sin is disobedience to the law the law they agreed to follow, the wages of sin is death, when Israel cut a covenant and agreed to follow the law, the punishment for breaking the covenant was death, messiah died so Israel did not have to. (Thought: Did Yashua die, as the other party to the covenant, so that the covenant became void??)

Gentiles were never part of the covenant, did NOT agree to keep the law, so sin was NOT imputed to the gentiles!

Submitted by peter wilkinson on  Wed, 07/16/2014 - 10:30

I don’t want to spoil a closely and carefully argued presentation, but I do have some basic questions about it.

If Isaiah 53 referred to the salvation of Israel through the suffering servant, the wider context is never far away, eg Isaiah 52:10, and Isaiah 49:6 especially, where the same servant figure is in view. Was this “a matter of secondary effect”?

The argument from Romans 3:21-25 seems to me to say the opposite of the “exclusive” view: “The righteousness of God comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference.” — v.22. The argument runs without a break or qualification directly into v.25 - ”God presented him as a hilasterion, through faith in his blood”. This means that the faithfulness of Jesus through which the righteousness of God comes was to all, not just to Jews, that it was based on faith, and that faith was in his blood. There is not the slightest hint that this was for Jews only, and as a secondary matter for gentiles who were convinced by what God did for the Jews.

Acts 13 is primarily addressing an audience of Jews and gentile God-fearers, but even in the passage you quote, the universal appeal of the proclamation of forgiveness of sins through Jesus is made clear:  ”by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” — v.39. “Everyone” in this instance means just that — Jew and Gentile, because “you”, the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles,   “could not be freed by the law of Moses”. The failure of Jews to find this freedom from the underlying problem of sin through the law of Moses highlights by contrast the success of faith in Jesus to bring the same freedom to everyone who believes.

In Galatians, a misreading of the wider argument produces a misreading of the detail. In 1:15-21, Paul is seeking to convince Gentile believers of the folly of turning to the law, since even Jews such as himself (v.15) were unable to find justification through observing the law (v.16) but only found it through faith in Christ. There was a particular need for Paul as a Jew under the law to find justification, which the law led him to — faith in Christ. The consequence of the process was the same as for anyone — v.20. The universality of this faith in Christ and its consequences, the same for Jew for Gentile, is made clear in 3:1-3. Jesus the Messiah was “clearly portrayed as crucified” to the Gentiles. It was by believing in him, not simply an argument about him, that the Spirit was given — v.2-3. Again in 3:26, the climax of the whole argument, addressing Gentiles as well as Jews, Paul says: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus”. There is nothing here about an exclusively Jewish argument, or that Gentiles came into a Jewish salvation by believing in an argument for and about Jews.

In Romans 4:25, since Paul has been arguing strenuously for a righteousness by faith for Gentiles as well as Jews (Abraham the Gentile and David the Jew), and since he says “He (Abraham) is the father of us all. As it is written: I have made you the father of many nations” — 4:16-17, it is regressive to then say that from v.22 to v.25, Paul suddenly changes direction and says that righteousness through believing that God raised Jesus from the dead was for Jews at that time only.

There is a particular argument about Israel and Jews under the law, and why faith in Christ freed Jews not only from the observance of the law but from the consequences of its non-obsrevance — which was more an issue about loyalty to YHWH than the particulars of observance. But the outcome of the argument is clear: from Israel’s failure arose what might be described as Israel’s greatest achievement, universal salvation which included gentiles through faith in Jesus. Paul never qualifies this salvation except when he is restricting his use of the inclusive 1st person plural, as in Galatians 1:15, where the restriction is explicit in a particular argument. The rest of the time, including 1 Corinthians 15, it is equally clear: “we” means Jews and Gentiles.

Peter, we’ve gone over much of this before, and I’m reluctant to get dragged into a rehearsal of old arguments. So I’ll keep this brief.

I argue that Isaiah 49:6 and 52:10 speak not of the salvation of the nations but of the salvation of Israel seen by the nations. In redeeming Zion YHWH bares his holy arm “before the eyes of all the nations”. In any case, there is no suggestion that the servant of Isaiah 53 suffers for the sins of the nations.

Romans 3 is addressed to Jews or is about the Jews, and hilastērion is inherently a Jewish atonement. What I think Paul is saying is that Jews and Gentiles alike are justified by their belief that God has saved his people through the faithfulness of Jesus.

…but even in the passage you quote, the universal appeal of the proclamation of forgiveness of sins through Jesus is made clear: “by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses”…

If Paul includes the God-fearers in his argument, it still does not amount in context to a proclamation of universal forgiveness. The whole argument is addressed to Israel under the Law and culminates in the warning from Habakkuk that God will punish his people (Acts 13:41). It seems pretty clear to me that Paul speaks only of forgiveness of sins for those who are under the Law.

It’s worth noting that the ESV translation reorders things a little misleadingly. Better:

Let it be known then to you, men, brothers, that through this man to you forgiveness of sins is proclaimed, [and] from everything from which you could not be justified by the Law of Moses by him everyone believing is justified.

“Everyone believing” does not have a universal scope: it is limited contextually to those addressed, men of Israel (perhaps including God-fearers attracted to the Law), who are under the Law. I think my translation makes this a bit clearer.

With respect to Galatians, the same point applies as for Romans 3 and Acts 13: both Jews and Gentiles are saved or justified by faith in the efficacy of Christ’s death for the sins of Israel. Gentiles were never under the curse of the Law, so had no need to be redeemed from it.

You appear to have misunderstood my remarks about Romans 4:25. I am not claiming that Paul “says that righteousness through believing that God raised Jesus from the dead was for Jews at that time only”. I stated in the post:

Those Gentiles who believe this argument about Israel will also be “justified” on the day of God’s wrath (first against the Jew, then against the Greek) and will share in the inheritance.

Jesus’ death was an act of atonement for Israel, redeeming Israel from the curse of the Law. Initially only Jews believed it. Then Gentiles believed it and were justified by God as a result.

Rightly dividing the word, is the key. Much of the NT, was spoken and written by Jews, and only TO Jews. It wasn’t until AFTER the resurrection, that Paul was commissioned to go unto the Gentile nations. BEFORE Yashua’s death,Yashua and his disciples were ONLY seeking “the lost sheep of Israel”.

Rightly dividing the word, is the key. Much of the NT, was spoken and written by Jews, and only TO Jews. It wasn’t until AFTER the resurrection, that Paul was commissioned to go unto the Gentile nations. BEFORE Yashua’s death,Yashua and his disciples were ONLY seeking “the lost sheep of Israel”.