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

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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.

Published: 21 February 2017

References and notes

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

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