One day some years ago, a fundamentalist Christian tract came through the mail slot. I almost tossed it out. But out of curiosity, I gave it a read-through.
It’s a typical piece. And it pushes an old “Christian belief” that the Bible doesn’t teach. You may be surprised to discover that some the most basic claims of evangelical Christians simply aren’t found in the Bible.
In this case, it’s the idea that Jesus “paid the price” or the “penalty” for our sins. Believe it or not, the Bible simply doesn’t say this! The Bible does say that Jesus died for our sins, and that Jesus takes away our sins. But it never says that he paid the price or the penalty for our sins.
It may seem like a nitpicky point. But in fact, it is very important for understanding what salvation is all about from a Christian perspective.
Let’s take a closer look at the tract, and see exactly where it goes off course.
How to get to heaven?
The cover of the tract asks the question:
Are You 100% Sure?
Sure of what? We are not left in suspense. Here is the very first line once you open up the tract:
Here is how you can be 100% sure that you are going to Heaven . . .
Let’s take a look at how the fundamentalist Christians who published the tract think we can be 100% sure we are going to heaven.
Along the way, perhaps you’ll see how we can gain . . . well . . . perhaps a 95% assurance that we are going to heaven. That 5% uncertainty ought to keep us on our toes and growing spiritually!
All have sinned
The tract offers us six steps to be sure we are going to heaven. Let’s consider them one by one. (All the italics in the quotes are in the tract itself.)
Realize and acknowledge: “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:23.
Yes, all men, including you, have come short of Heaven because of sin.
I don’t have a problem with this statement. All men have sinned. Even all women have sinned!
However, some people might recoil from this statement because “sin” is such a loaded word these days. So let’s put it in common language.
Can you, dear reader, honestly say that you have never in your entire life said or done anything that you knew was wrong—something that was hurtful to someone else or to yourself?
We have all said and done things that we knew were wrong and hurtful. This is the most basic definition of “sin.” And as the tract says, we have all done it.
“The wages of sin is death”
Realize and acknowledge: “the wages of sin is death,” Romans 6:23.
All men die physically, but all men do not die spiritually. You can be born again through Jesus Christ and be saved from the penalty of sin which is an eternal hell, a place of “fire and brimstone, which is the second death,” Revelation 21:8.
Now we have some problems. No, not with the statement from Paul’s letter to the Romans that “the wages of sin is death.” The problem is where the tract goes from there.
First, the Biblical “fire and brimstone” is not meant to be taken literally. Instead, it is a visual image of the fire of hatred, and the brimstone of self-centered love fueling that fire, when we turn away from God and toward our own selfishness and greed. Brimstone is an old word for sulfur, which, as in a match head, ignites with the slightest provocation, and then burns fast and hot.
Saved from the penalty, or saved from the sin?
But there is another, more subtle problem in the tract’s statement. After quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans that “the wages of sin is death,” instead of telling us how we can get rid of the sin so that we no longer draw that wage of death, it tells us that through Jesus Christ we can be saved from the penalty of sin.
At first glance, there may not seem to be much of a difference. An example should make the difference clearer.
Let’s say you or I go bad one day, and we decide that in addition to our day job, we’re going to moonlight as a burglar in order to supplement our income. We study up on the techniques of housebreaking, and soon we have a lucrative side business in stolen electronics, jewelry, and such.
Now, this would be an obvious case of sin. We know that breaking into people’s houses and stealing their belongings is wrong.
For the first few months, nobody finds out who is doing it. The papers are reporting a string of break-ins with a similar modus operandi, but the police have no suspects yet.
However, eventually our crimes catch up with us. One night the police get a tip-off. As we are running from a house, bag in hand, we are arrested, booked, and put into a cell.
The next day, two people visit us in our cell.
One of them says, “I can save you from the penalty for your sin!”
The other says, “I can save you from your sin!”
No. That’s what they would have said if they had been reading religious tracts lately.
Actually, one of them says, “Hey, I can help you beat the rap for this! You won’t have to go to jail, and you won’t have to pay one dime in restitution!”
The other one says, “Look, you have a real problem. I can get you help or counseling for whatever it is that is causing you to resort to crime. You’ll still have to pay the price for the crimes you have committed, but you won’t get into any more trouble because you will get the help you need to straighten out your life.”
This is the difference between being saved from the penalty of sin and being saved from the sin itself.
Consider how the community that was the target of the crimes would react to each. If a skilled lawyer managed to get us off the hook, how would the community feel? It would feel not only cheated, but apprehensive that a known criminal is unpunished and on the loose.
But what if we went through a rehabilitation program that actually worked for us? What if we changed our mind and once again became an honest, hard-working member of our community? Then the community could begin to relax, and even to rejoice that someone who was headed in the wrong direction has turned around.
What the tract says vs. what the Bible says
Is the tract really saying that Christ came to pay for the penalty of our sin, rather than what the Bible says—that Christ died for the sins themselves?
Now that we’ve looked at the difference between taking away sin and taking away the penalty for sin, the difference between the quotations from the Bible and the tract’s explanation of them should be clearer.
Realize and acknowledge: “Christ died for our sins,” 1 Corinthians 15:3.
Jesus Christ paid the entire price on the cross for your sin. God set the price on sin, which was a perfect sacrifice, and then God himself gave his own Son to pay the price.
Notice that the quote from 1 Corinthians says that Christ died for our sins. Not to pay the penalty or price for our sin.
- What Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians is like the person who wanted to take away the criminal’s “sin” (criminal offenses) by helping the criminal to reform and start a new life, free of dishonesty and crime.
- The tract’s commentary focuses on the price of sin, stating that God set that price, and then gave his Son to pay it—something that the Bible never says.
By now, the difference between the tract and the Bible should be clear:
- The tract focuses on the penalty for sin.
- The Bible focuses on correcting the sin itself, thus taking it away.
The fact of the matter is, the Bible never says that Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins. I once spent several hours searching for such a passage with every keyword I could think of, and it simply wasn’t there. Read the entire New Testament for yourself. You will not find a single passage saying that Jesus paid the penalty or the price for our sins.
Instead, the Bible says that Jesus came to take away our sins (John 1:29), so that we would no longer be sinners. And of course, if we stop sinning, the price of sin becomes irrelevant because we are no longer buying.
Saved by mere belief, or saved by belief and action?
The next two steps are similar, so we will consider them together. We are now coming to a focus on what actually does lead us toward heaven. As you read these next two steps, consider this question: Are we saved by what we believe or by what we do?
Realize and acknowledge: “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” Romans 6:23.
God offers you freely His gift of eternal life. This gift is yours by believing in a risen Christ who arose on the third day and is alive forever more.
Realize and acknowledge: “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” Romans 10:13.
Whosoever means you. If you by simple faith will trust in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for your soul’s salvation, you can be 100% sure that you are going to Heaven. Nothing else will do . . . not church membership, not baptism, not confirmation, not communion. None of these things can save us from sin. Only Jesus Christ.
(Step 6 is a prayer for salvation, which we will pass over.)
The focus in the tract’s commentary is on belief—even though the passages quoted from the Bible do not particularly specify belief as the way to be saved. One passage simply says, “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It does not say how we receive that eternal life. The other passage says, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” This sounds more like prayer than simple belief.
Now, just to give the writers of the tract a bit of slack, belief is the first step toward being saved. It’s just that we can’t stop there. As is clear from many statements in the Bible, belief is only the beginning of the life that leads to heaven. The rest requires us to love God and love our fellow human beings (“the neighbor,” in Bible terms), and show that love by doing good things for other people according to our belief and our conscience.
What does the Lord require of us?
This is put beautifully in Micah 6:6–8.
First, Micah puts to rest the idea that what God wants from us is piety and religious rituals:
With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil? (Micah 6:6–7)
Then the Lord through Micah asks a question that should forever lay to rest the idea that Christ’s death on the cross could, in itself, save us from sin:
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:7)
No physical death—even the physical death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ—can take away our sin. Only showing our belief in Jesus Christ through our life can do that.
How do we show our belief in Jesus?
By following what he taught.
First, in the traditional language of the Bible, we must repent from our sins. (See, for example, Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:4.) In other words, we must stop doing the wrong, hurtful, selfish, and greedy things that cause so much harm to others and to ourselves.
Second, Jesus teaches us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36–40). This doesn’t mean just having loving feelings toward others. It means actively serving their needs and taking care of them. See Matthew 25:31–46, where Jesus himself tells us that this, and not mere belief, is how we reach the eternal life of heaven.
Yes, those of us who are Christians must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. But that is so that we will follow the teachings of Jesus Christ in our lives. In the words of Jesus himself:
Whoever breaks the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)
Or, to finish Micah’s beautiful speech,
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
This article is edited from a talk titled “The Life that Leads to Heaven” that was originally delivered on October 6, 1996.
For further reading:
- The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 5: Jesus Paid the Penalty For Our Sins?
- Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does
- Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?
- Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?
- How Do I Love My Neighbor?
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?