This post is an excerpt from the book review of Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
Owen’s Argument 15:
P1: The biblical expression “Christ died for us” means Christ’s death substituted for the death others should have died
P2: Both Christ and a person cannot die for the same sins
P3: Some die for their sins
C1: Therefore, Christ didn’t die for all
Scriptures Cited by Owen
Hebrews 2:9 “That he by the grace of God should taste death for every man,”
Romans 5:7-8: For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: for peradventure for the good man some one would even dare to die. 8But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
What does Christ died for our sins mean?
The expression “Christ died for us” is equivocal. “For” can either mean on behalf of or it can mean in place of. When an athlete says that I ran this race for my mom, he doesn’t mean his mom was going to run it. Rather, he was thinking of his mom and intended his performance to make her proud. But on the other hand, if an athlete goes into a basketball game for another payer, he is a substitute. So “for” can either relate to intention or substitution. P1 assumes the expression Christ died for us always means substitution, never intention.
The expression “Christ died for us” sometimes means substitution, as is the case in Romans 5:7-8. However, it also sometimes means intention. Perhaps the clearest way to demonstrate this is by a passage that doesn’t say “Christ died for us”. Rather, 1 Corinthians 15:3 says Christ died for our sin. Christ died with the intention of fixing our sin problem. He didn’t die in the place of the death our sins had to die. We, not our sins, have to die. This demonstrates the point that sometimes Christ dying for something doesn’t mean substitution, but rather means intention.
But it does sometimes mean substitution. So P1 is true in some cases.
Christ’s death can be, and was intended to be, a substitute for everyone. But it’s not actually as substitute for everyone. So passages which are talking about substitution, which say Christ died for everyone, mean Christ death can be and was intended to be a substitute for everyone.
When talking about substitution, the difference between a debt and crime makes a big difference. If I owed someone 100 bucks and someone else paid the 100 for me, the one who was owed the 100 dollars doesn’t have any right to demand 100 from me. If substitution is understood in this sense, God no longer forgives sin. It’s justice without mercy. But substitution doesn’t work that way. It’s more like a criminal killing someone. Let’s say I killed someone and in court, just before sentencing, my brother yelled out, don’t kill him, kill me instead. Does the judge have to accept it? Nope. I am the murderer. The judge has every right to punish me not him.
Christ isn’t the soul that sins. The Father forgives sins. With these two facts squarely in view, we understand that the Father mercifully accepts Christ’s work as a penal substitute. He doesn’t have to, but He does anyway. It’s not like the debt example above.
So generally, we say that Christ died for all, meaning He intended to be and can be a substitute for all. However, the Father doesn’t mercifully accept His death as a substitute for all. The Father does however, accept Christ’s death as a substitute if Christ asks Him to. But Christ intercedes for believers alone.