“Jesus Died for Our Sins”
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”
(1 Corinthians 15:3)
The phrase "Jesus died for my sins" comes so readily to our lips but what do we mean by it? Hopefully we mean the same thing the apostle Paul meant when he used the same words. When Paul gives his boiled-down gospel story (1 Cor. 15:1-4) he adds the key phrase, "in accordance with the Scriptures." Now, this doesn't simply mean Paul could find three or four proof texts in the Old Testament that speak of the Messiah dying for our sins, e.g. Isaiah 53. More than that, what "according to the Scriptures" means is that there is an entire biblical narrative that has anticipated his sacrificial death.
This is the grand story of how the Creator God is rescuing the world from sin. This narrative is shaped largely by the history of the nation of Israel; their Exodus from Egypt; formation as a nation at Mt. Sinai; inheritance of the land of Canaan; disobedience to the covenant; their exile and return from Babylon. Israel was to bear God's solution for the world (to "bless all nations" and undue the curse, Gen. 12:3; cf. Ex. 19:5-6) but tragically they became part of the problem. The rescuers needed rescuing! The life boat was sinking!
The Messiah arrived on the scene when Israel had hit rock bottom. He came as an Israelite to deal with the problem of sin once and for all. The biblical authors speak of Jesus "bearing" our sins in his body, particularly while he died on the cross (Isa. 53:4, 11; Mt. 8:17; 1 Pet. 2:24). One of the clearest passages that helps us to wrap our minds around this sacrificial death is Romans 8:3-4:
"For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."
Having said "there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (verse 1), Paul states that God "condemned sin in the flesh". There is no condemnation for those who are "in Christ" because God has passed that sentence of "codemnation" onto "sin" itself. Interestingly, Paul doesn't say God "condemned Jesus" but rather God "condemned sin in the flesh" or body of Jesus.
This makes sense in light of the previous chapter, Romans 7, where Paul sees God giving the law of Moses in order to lure sin into one place where it could be condemned. That place is the body of Israel's representative, who is also humanity's representative, Jesus.
The body of Jesus, the only Israelite who perfectly kept the law (Rom. 8:3-4) and the only human who properly reflected the image of God (Heb. 1:3; 2:14-18) was a trap for the raging cosmic beast of sin (Gen. 4:7). He took sin and all of its death-dealing power to the grave in his body. Then, to circle back to Paul's summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, after "he was buried" Jesus was "raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (again, the story of the Scriptures anticipated this resurrection) opening up the eternal future of God's good purposes for creation. In the resurrection, Jesus came back to life but he left sin in the grave forever.
In Romans 6, Paul links our unification with Jesus in the act of baptism to this great story of the Scriptures. "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Rom. 6:4) Through reenacting Jesus' death, burial and resurrection in baptism, we enter into God's new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) having "died to sin" once for all (Rom. 6:1) and cleared of all codemnation to be set free from our sins (Rom. 8:1-2).
That's what we should mean when we say, "Jesus died for my sins."