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.