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If Jesus paid the penalty for sin, why do Christians die?

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Published: 21 February 2017 (GMT+10)

In response to my recent feedback article God’s justice, mercy, and creation, multiple people asked variations on the question, “If Jesus died for our sins, why do Christians still die?” If Christ has paid the penalty for our sin, why do we still die, since death was a penalty for sin? This is a question that Christians need to be able to answer.

The Fall introduced death

First, we need to understand what the Fall did. Adam and Eve lived in a perfect paradise. They were perfect people, in a perfect relationship with their Creator. If they had obeyed God, they would have lived forever. When Adam sinned, it didn’t just affect him, but the entire physical creation and all his descendants. The earth was marred by the Curse, and humans would face death as the penalty for sin. This was not only physical death, but also spiritual death—they were separated from God, the source of spiritual life. Even though death is never presented in a positive sense in Scripture, in some ways it would be even worse to live forever physically in a spiritually dead state, with no way of being reconciled back to the Creator. Apart from Christ, human beings face judgment and eternal condemnation in the lake of fire, which God originally created for Satan and the other fallen angels who rebelled with him. We should also keep in mind that if the physical universe is cursed it will be an unsuitable, eternal place for humans to live. This is also why God must create a new Heavens and Earth for righteous believers to eternally dwell.

For the Christian, death is no longer a punishment for sin.

God immediately promised a way of salvation (Genesis 3:15) and began working in history to bring about the fulfillment of this promise—the Incarnation of Christ, God the Son. Jesus lived a perfectly sinless life as a man, meaning that He has a righteousness that can be credited to us. Then He died, taking the penalty for sin even though He had never sinned. As such, His death can pay the penalty for our sin—something we could never do for ourselves. And because He is God, His death is sufficient to pay the penalty for everyone who believes in Him. And as Paul describes, this salvation is given to us freely as an act of grace:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8–9).

Grace is commonly described as ‘unmerited favour’. In short, we got what we did not deserve. Regardless of our offence to God, He Himself, has provided a way for us to be reconciled back to Him, our Creator.

Christ’s sacrifice overcame death

So now when we believe in Christ, what does that do for the Christian? First, we are declared legally innocent—the penalty for our sin is paid. This is called justification (Romans 3:21–26). God looks at us as if we had never committed sin and our sins are removed “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). Second, we are credited with the positive righteousness of Christ (Romans 10:4). Third, we are reconciled with God and adopted as His children (Romans 8:15). Fourth, we are indwelt with the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Fifth, God begins the process of sanctification, bringing us into conformity with the image of His Son (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

This should energize us to share the Gospel, especially with loved ones and friends who have not yet trusted Jesus.

You may have noticed that all of these things have something in common—they’re invisible spiritual realities. When God saves someone, that person doesn’t begin to glow and float around a foot above the ground. They look just like they did before, and even the process of sanctification may take some time to show fruit.

Scripture tells us that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Even though Christ defeated death at Calvary, that victory is not yet fully manifested, and will not be until His return at the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead at that time. But we have the promise that Christ’s victory will be manifested, which entails the resurrection of every person who belongs to Him.

Now, the important difference is for the Christian, death is no longer a punishment for sin, but the way we enter into Christ’s presence. Paul tells us that at the moment of death, the Christian’s soul enters the presence of the Lord in a place of comfort and rest, awaiting the resurrection of the dead. As theologian Wayne Grudem explains:

“Death is not a punishment for Christians. Paul tells us clearly that there is ‘no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 8:1). All the penalty for our sins has been paid. Therefore, even though we know that Christians die, we should not view the death of Christians as a punishment from God or in any way a result of a penalty due to us for our sins. It is true that the penalty for sin is death, but that penalty no longer applies to us—not in terms of physical death, and not in terms of spiritual death or separation from God. All of that has been paid for by Christ.”1

Christians still die because the resurrection of the dead is what we look forward to. That’s why Paul was able to refer to Christians who have died as having “fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thessalonians 4:14–15). The dead body that is buried will be raised, just we lay down to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. But the resurrected body will be free of all the effects of the Curse in a new Creation that is also free from the “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). We won’t age and be subject to injury and disability. Some of our abilities and senses may be heightened, and our minds will function unclouded by sin. We will finally be capable of the full relationship with God that He always intended us to have.

Life in light of our eternal destiny

This reality should shape how we think about death. First, when we mourn for Christian loved ones who have died, we can realize that even though we have been separated from them for a while, we will be reunited in the presence of Christ. We can even be glad for them, knowing how happy they must be in Paradise. We can look forward to the day we join them.

Second, this should cause us to consider that we could face death at any time, and to make sure that we have the assurance that Christ has covered our sins so we can be confident of our eternal destiny. Scripture often speaks about the briefness of life, and the need to consider eternity.

Third, this should shape how we spend this life. So many people are in the pursuit of physical possessions as if we get to keep them for more than several decades at most. Jesus told us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Yet many people think more about where they will spend their next vacation than where they will spend eternity!

Fourth, this should energize us to share the Gospel, especially with loved ones and friends who have not yet trusted Jesus. Christ gave His church the Great Commission:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This should give us tremendous encouragement as we evangelize, because Jesus tell us that He has been given all authority, and that He is always with us. So, He can give us the ability to carry out the Great Commission as we seek to spread the Gospel. There is nothing from this physical realm that we are taking with us to Heaven—only the ones who we lead to Christ will join us there.

In short, Christians still die because Christ’s victory over death, won at Calvary, has not yet been completely manifested, because God is giving people time to repent and believe in Jesus. And when we see this reality as part of the grand narrative of Creation-Fall-Restoration revealed in Scripture, it gives us a framework that allows us to share the Gospel with clarity and confidence.

References and notes

  1. Grudem, W., Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1994), p. 810. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Benjamin L.
Death is separation. If a person dies physical, the body goes to the grave and soul and spirit depart. The one that dies in Christ goes to Heaven, the second death has no power over them. The other go into the earth, into sheol or the sinners into hell. In the second resurrection they will be judged according their works and they that are not found in the book of life are cast into the lake of fire.
This world is the dressing room for eternity and we should live accordingly. The creation is still under the powers of corruption and waits for the redemption, the return of Jesus Christ and the creation of new Heaven and earth, were there will be righteousness, peace and everlasting life in the presence of God.
James R.
I view the verses Phil 1:23 and similar ones from 2 Cor 5:1-10 differently. In the first Paul is saying that the gain is not death so he could be with Christ but gain for the spreading of the gospel. He cannot choose between living and dying but would prefer a third path which should properly be understood as the return of Jesus, not his own departure.
In 2 Cor 5 Paul is more interested in Jesus return again which is when he knows he'll get his new body. The thing about death is that it is still to be overcome and is still an enemy, not a friend of the believer. The joy we have as believers is that we have a promise of being resurrected to eternal life.
If Jesus had not risen we would instead be facing eternal death in the grave with no hope of ever living again. As it is we have that blessed hope although the prospect for the unbeliever after their resurrection and judgement is a second death, with no chance of revival.
Bob N.
Death was totally defeated at the cross and no longer carries the curse for believing Christians. Just as we have already by faith passed from death into eternal life, so when our bodies die our spirits are immediately ushered into the presence of the Lord. There is no waiting to get into heaven. No purgatory. Heaven is our reward, we are in Christ who sits enthroned at God's right hand. Judgement has already taken place and Christ took our due punishment. As Christians we will receive crowns based on our faithful service and this takes place in heaven. As the apostle John found, heaven is already filled with saints, elders and angels and thousands arrive daily. It is unbelievers who must wait with fear for the Judgement Seat of Christ. Absent from the body and present with the Lord. Sleep is how we should view our physical bodies because our very flesh and blood will one day be restored through resurrection. Even the Greek word for 'cemetery' represents a sleeping place (koimeterion). Ultimately there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Heaven's city of God and all her inhabitants will descend to that new earth. I love this quote from Dr. Billy Graham: The moment we take our last breath on earth, we take our first in heaven.
Gordon H.
Dear folks, I think this article is somewhat missing the point. The issue revealed in Genesis is not about physical death, its about spiritual death - ie separation from God. The story clearly shows that. God says 'when you eat of it, you will surely die'. When they ate from the tree, they were banished from the garden, and God's presence, i.e. they 'died in spirit'. The death and resurrection of Christ countermands that, and reinstates our spiritual life in God. Regards, Gordon Halford
Lita Cosner
This is a very common misunderstanding. The Hebrew actually says "dying you shall die", implying a process that ends in death. This is the standard meaning of the word, and so one would need to defend a non-standard usage in this context. Adam indeed died spiritually--his relationship with God, the source of life, was broken--but he began the long process of aging and death which would culminate 930 years later.
Lawrence P.
In addition to your explanation based on God's patience, you can also consider it a timing issue. Just as Adam didn't fully die immediately upon eating the forbidden fruit (Gen 1:17, Gen 5:5), the end of death isn't going to take place until the events of Rev 20:14. Nevertheless, just as Adam did eventually die, we can also be sure that death will eventually be done away with.
David M.
Thank you Lita for this article discussing the question about the Christian’s presently continuing mortality. I noted in paragraph 2 that you wrote “Even though death is never presented in a positive sense in Scripture…” and it made me think about the Apostle Paul and what he wrote in Phil 1:21-23 some of which has already been mentioned by another commenter. I am finding it hard to think of other scriptures which clearly speak of death in a positive light but if Paul writing to the Philippians says, that “to die is gain” and “to depart and be with Christ is far better”, it seems to me that at least here the scriptures are speaking positively about the Christian’s physical death. Also you seem to suggest this with your statement later on in the article "Now, the important difference is for the Christian, death is no longer a punishment for sin, but the way we enter into Christ’s presence". Maybe it is a bit like James 1:2-3 "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials..." admittedly not my natural reaction!
David G.
The Heidelberg Catechism - one of the first expressions of that recovery of biblical truth for the church we call the Reformation - asks and answers this very issue at question 42: "Since then Christ died for us, why must we also die? ANS. Our death is not a reparation for our sins but a [final] dying to sin and a [more complete] entering into eternal life." A believer's greatest fear should be of sinning against his/her beloved Lord Jesus. Physical death ends forever that possibility and brings the soul, now perfect in holiness, into Christ's very presence. "To die is gain."
M. W.
Thanks, Lita. The Heidelberg Catechism (LD16, Q/A 42) confesses that, since Christ died for our sins, our death is no longer a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life. Isn't that amazing! Our Lord has taken our last enemy (death) and changed it into a benefit for us! I agree with Gian about having something to look forward to over this life. Just remember, the Lord has given us exactly the number of days as fit His plan; so we can be instruments to His service.
Palmer L S.
If you believe in an eternally burning hell. Then you believe that God says to all his children on this planet. "You either love me and do things my way or I'm going to Torture through out eternity" I could never love a God who would do that! You should consider reading Edward Fudge's book, "The Fire that Consumes" God Bless! Palmer
Bernard P.
Excellent explanation.. saved it to incorporate into a future homily... perhaps at a funeral as well as catechesis... great job!
Gary T.
We die because our bodies are still subject to the ravages of God's curse on this world. We die because we still sin, and the price of sin is still death. We are still subject to the temporal consequences of sin — if I steal, I will still pay the penalty for my theft; if I murder, I will stay pay the penalty for my murder; if I behave irresponsibly on the ski slopes, I'll still come away with a broken leg). But through Christ we are exempted from the *eternal* consequences of it. We are still sons of Adam, although we are now adopted sons of God. Some have said that this makes this world God's training ground for heaven. This world is kindergarten all the way through to a PhD, but not everyone gets to the same level (thus why different people get different rewards, although, ultimately, we all also get the same reward — eternal life). Death, therefore, is graduation day.
Lester V.
Another factor in looking at physical death is that the Bible doesn't view it as a "real" death. In Revelation 21:8, the Bible refers to "the second death" as being eternally separated from God in hell. If that's the "second death" then what is the "first death"? I believe the "first death" (also a separation from God) took place in the Garden of Eden when Adam sinned. Romans 5:12 says that death entered the world because of Adam's sin. In that light, "real" death is separation from God, not separation from our physical bodies. In fact, to exist in eternity (whether in heaven or in hell) we will need new bodies. Just as the astronauts had to wear "space suits" to function in space, man will need "eternity suits" to function in eternity. In physical death, we simply take off our "earth suit" in preparation for putting on our "eternity suit" at the resurrection from the dead. Since our new bodies will be different from our old ones (not subject to aging, decay, disease, etc.), we can't have both on at the same time. God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden so they wouldn't eat of the Tree of Life, and live forever in their corrupt "earth suits" (Genesis 3:22-24). It was His loving grace and mercy that required that they die physically, to release them from the confines of their mortal bodies, so that they could be ready to receive their resurrection bodies in due time.
Mike A.
Thanks again Lita. I really appreciate your contributions to CMI. I am left with questions still. How do we know that our eternal state still exists within time? Can only God exist outside of time? If so, why? I see in Isaiah 65, for example, that the old things will not be remembered. Jesus talks about marriage not existing etc. However, I haven't found any verses indicating anything about us existing in time (or outside of it either for that matter), so I just wonder if it is a possibility. It's just a matter of curiosity, really. If you have time to respond that would be very much appreciated. I have done some cursory research into this question on CMI's website and haven't found anything, but that could simply be that I don't know how to 'ask' my questions in the search bar! Thanks again!
Lita Cosner
God exists independently of time. However, as created being we began to exist in time and we will continue to exist within time, in the sense of experiencing one event after another. How that time will be measured in light of the reality of eternal life may be different; we can't know that part.
Gian Carlo B.
Thanks for the response Lita. Expected from you as always, I will forever have respect for you. Regarding the last paragraphs, I sometimes tend to think where I'll spend my next vacation, but when I put Christ in my mind, I quickly worry how I will spend my eternity life. I always look forward for the eternal life State than here because honestly, the current life stinks. So much that I start caring more about the afterlife than here because herenis horrible, lol. Thanks for the article anyways. Christ with you, Lita :)
Mike A.
Thanks for this article. I have been talking about this very thing with fellow Christians lately. I do have a question that follows philosophical lines. When someone 'falls asleep' do they exist outside of time since they are in God's presence? If so, then are they aware of the passage of time? If they become timeless like God, then the amount of time they exist in this inbetween period is irrelevant maybe? Since their true eternal state is in their resurrected bodies the waiting period no matter if it is 1000 years as compared to Earth or one day, it doesn't matter. I ask these questions/test these ideas after hearing how critical N.T. Wright is of people who believe that people immediately go to heaven when they die. Although, I think he (and you) are correct about the idea of being asleep, then resurrected into our new bodies to take our place in the new creation, I just wonder if Wright's criticism is unwarranted. After all, if we 'fall asleep' and then awake into the new creation it is as if we die and go right to heaven.... thanks!
Lita Cosner
When someone is asleep, they still exist in time; they are simply unconscious. In fact, as created beings with a starting point in time, we are 'time bound' and will always experience reality within time, i.e. one event after another.

When a Christian dies, Paul can use the imagery of sleep to describe the body that is buried because it will be raised in the resurrection, just as we lay down to sleep at night and wake in the morning. But the spirit of the Christian goes immediately to the presence of Christ in Paradise, which is why Christ can promise that the thief who believed in Him would join Him in Paradise that very day (Luke 23:43).
Ferdinandt P.
Being a Christian for a long time now, I find it a bit strange that people still ask such a question, but I guess it's because of the meaning they attach to the term "destroyed". Perhaps this has caused some of them to doubt Scripture, but it should be clear and obvious to everyone that we're still living in a Fallen world and that it would be foolish to disregard the consequences thereof.

On a different note, I completely understand and agree with what Paul meant when he said "For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better" (Philippians 1:23 NKJV). It truly is far better for a person to be with Christ, but as long as I'm here, I have a task to complete. I have even developed an entirely different way of thinking about reality and my life on earth. I can die at any moment, with a greater possibility of death existing in some moments more than in others, and an ever increasing possibility of death with age, but because I believe in eternal life and because I look forward to being with Christ, my desire here is to live as honorably as I can so that I would die knowing I've given my best. I'm not afraid of death and that's why I think death has lost its sting.

Great article and thanks
P. T.
Hi Lita
as anticipated your response on this interesting question is most adequately answered. Thank you very much. I will take some time to add to it further relevant scriptures that support a variety of your statements. I look forward to passing copies of your response to a number of friends/family at the right time. Blessings for you and thanks to our Lord for His grace revealed in this article. Kind regards, P.T.

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