Substitution in 1 Corinthians 15:3 – an Excerpt from Defending Substitution

The following is an excerpt from Defending Substitution, by Simon Gathercole.


Thus far we have seen the standard model, the norm according to which a person dies for his or her own sin(s). Alongside that, however, is the “aberration” that departs from the rule, namely, that of the suffering servant who dies for the sins of others. This aberration is picked up in Paul. There are two stages in the logic here: (1) Jesus died because of the sins of others, and (2) because he has done that, he thereby saves others from the consequence of sin.

Cover ArtReturning to Isaiah 53 and its connection with Paul, we have already begun to note that 1 Corinthians 15:3 is so similar to Isaiah 53 in various ways that it is easy to see a continuity of ideas. Like the servant, Christ died for the sins of others. The point in 1 Corinthians 15:3 is not that the death of Jesus was historically or legally caused by the sins of others in the sense that they killed him through their persecution. Paul includes the Corinthians in the “our” here, and so any sense in which the formula may have contained, in a Jewish-Christian context, an acknowledgment of legal responsibility for the death of Jesus is now absent.

Jesus’s death is for Paul a theological consequence of sins rather than a straightforwardly historical one. By “theological” here I mean something that cannot be explained merely in terms of historical causation, for instance, Jesus dying as the result of the judicial verdicts of Herod, Pilate, and others. It is caused by others in another sense, however. Christ’s death for sins is theological because the divinely ordained consequence of sins is always death.

….Clearly the sins in question are not Christ’s own but those of others. As a result, his death is clearly one that comes through his standing in the place of others. This comes out again in the alternation of the third-person singular with the first-person plural: “he died for our sins.” The default Old Testament position would be “he died for his sins” or “we died for our sins.” The miracle of the gospel, however, is that he died for our sins.

In sum, the death that is the theological consequence of sins came to him in our place. And it is precisely in his death in consequence of our sins that he takes them in our place and thereby deals with them. “For sins,” then, means both as a result of sins and—therefore also—to deal with those sins. Because he has borne sins, we will not; because he has carried our sins and their theological consequence, we will not.

©2015 by Simon Gathercole. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.


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