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Time and again we hear that Christ died for our sins, or that Christ died so that we could be saved. But I've never understood how exactly the two are connected? In what way does the death of Christ benefit us, or lead to our salvation?

Update

This may be asking too much, but what I'm really looking for is the rationalization (essentially, God's reasoning) behind it. @Mawia and @Malachi have both offered very good and very thorough answers, but neither really addresses what I'm really looking for (most likely because I haven't explained that well enough).

The answers have provided great references to scripture to show that sinless blood is consistently required to atone for sins, and that man is in a perpetual state of sin, therefore atonement is required. But I get stuck on the first part: why does someone without sin need to be punished in order to atone for another person's sins? I understand Christ sacrificed Himself, He chose to pay for our sins, and that's important because it shows His love for all of us. But it doesn't explain why sacrificing something that is sinless is even acceptable, let alone a suitable payment for sins.

Just to answer @PeterTurner's point: I'm open to any answer from a learned Christian perspective: the important thing to me is that it explains some reasoning behind it, even if that reasoning is not universal among Christians.

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You ought to specify whether you want catholic, protestant, orthodox, etc, answers. This its a great question but there is no generic answer –  Peter Turner Sep 19 '13 at 11:18
    
I hope my answer will give you a clear understanding. If not please let me know and I will explain further as best as I can. –  jlaverde Sep 19 '13 at 13:46
    
Anyone who is NOT sinless, when dying, will be dying for his own sins! –  Steve Sep 27 '13 at 4:23
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6 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I once hear this story that really helped me understand

Do you know why Jesus had to die? Can I tell you a story that might help make it clear? There is a story told about a particular Indian tribe who was suffering from the effects of a severe drought. Food was scarce and the members of the tribe were beginning to steal from each other in order to survive. Well the chief knew that that would be the death of the tribe so he issued a law that the next person caught stealing would be taken to the center of the village, tied to a pole and publicly whipped. The next day, sure enough a thief was caught. Everyone turned up to see who it was and to witness the punishment. To everyone’s shock, the thief turned out to be the Chief’s own mom. What was he going to do. He was a good chief, and could not justly ignore the law he had made the day before. He had to be just. But good grief, this was his mom. She was old, and frail, the beating could very well kill her. And he loved her. How could he cause her to suffer? What do you think he should do? Which should win: His love or his justice? Well, here’s what he does. He orders that her wrists be tied to the pole so the beating can begin. And he calls the punisher to step forward, whip in hand. But before he gives the order to commence, he steps in between his mom and the punisher.

He stretches his broad shoulders across her frail back and with her body completely protected underneath his own, orders that the punishment be carried out. As the cords of the whip fall, they fall on him, and he absorbs the full brunt of her penalty. In that act he was both just, in carrying out the penalty, and loving, by suffering it himself. That is what Jesus did for us. We are guilty of breaking His laws, and we know it. Everyone of us has a list of things we are ashamed of, and things that we can’t stop doing even though we know it’s wrong. The Bible is clear that sin earns a penalty and that God is just. The penalty must be paid. But it’s also clear that God loves us. He wants good things for us. He doesn’t want us to be punished.

So here’s what He did. He declared us guilty and ordered that the penalty be paid. Then He came to earth, became a man, and hung on a cross for us. When Jesus was being crucified, what He was doing was stepping in between us who are guilty, and God the Father who demanded justice. He absorbed the blows of that punishment so we wouldn’t have to.

We all have sinned and deserve death, but Jesus covered our sins by taking the death that belonged to us and paying for it with His life. The debt has been paid, all we have to decide is whether we will accept what He did for us. If we do then we do not sin anymore because we know what a great price was paid for us. If we don't accept it, we will pay with our own life.

A person only has one life. So you cannot pay for someone else's sin, because you yourself are a sinner. But Jesus, who was without sin can cover your sins, and the sins of everyone else because He did not sin and because it was the life of the Creator and not just the life of a created being.

Link to Chief Story

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+1, that's a great parable and a good answer. But I really want to emphasize what I think the point is. At first, I was thinking that this still doesn't make sense: if anything, the chief only demonstrated that you could continue to commit crimes and not be punished, because he would accept the punishment for you. However, the important point is that the people loved him, and do not want to see him whipped. So even if they aren't punished directly, they are deterred from stealing because they don't want to see their beloved chief whipped anymore. –  sh1ftst0rm Sep 19 '13 at 13:53
    
Great story for a sermon. A very good example. –  Mawia Sep 19 '13 at 15:55
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The atonement theology is a complicated one to explain. To the believers, it is a simple acceptance of one's imperfection and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ the perfect one to render us perfect in the eyes of God. To the unbelievers, it is foolishness that God would become human to die for their sins.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18, NIV)

Some facts from the Bible,

  1. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23)
  2. All have sinned (Romans 3:23)
  3. All must die because all have sinned (Romans 5:12)

"Sin entered the world through one man" Sin is like a deadly disease which infected the first man Adam and the effect continued down to all generations. There was no death before the fall of man in the garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden, sin entered the world and death along with it, for the wages of sin is death. Man is now sinful and cannot be with God.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned. (Romans 5:12, NIV)

"The blood of Christ is the remedy for sins" Man cannot create a cure from sin. Man cannot do anything to stop sinning. Only God can cure us from our sickness. The medicine to cure sin and death is the Blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God. Only the blood of Christ can cleanse us from all sins.

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:7, NIV)

"Christ died for us" Jesus Christ not only poured out His blood but also gave His life. The death penalty of sin was also paid by Jesus by dying on the cross.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8, NIV)

"Christ defeated death" After receiving the death penalty, Jesus again rose from the death to declare victory over death. The resurrection of Christ enables us to share in His resurrection.

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Corinthians 15:14, NIV)

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:5, NIV)

"We will be resurrected like Christ" The main purpose of the death and resurrection of Christ is that, one day we will be resurrected like Christ to live forever with God and there will be no more death. God will cleanse us from all our sins by the blood of Christ and we will be transformed to immortality.

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:51-55, NIV)

"Why does someone without sin need to be punished in order to atone for another person's sins?" It's not only the punishment that plays the main role here.

  1. It's the blood of Christ which can wash away our sins and make us perfect like Jesus Christ.
  2. It's the resurrection of Christ which gives us victory over death.
  3. It's the wounds of Christ which give us healing.
  4. It's the punishments received by Christ which liberates us from the eternal punishment of Hell.

The whole idea is,

"You cannot save yourself from sin and death, you need God to do that for you".

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this is a good question, in the old Testament an animal sacrifice was required to be given to God as an offering to atone for the sins that were committed after the last sacrifice,

I have borrowed the first paragraph from Why did God require animal sacrifices in the Old Testament? a website I found with a quick search on animal sacrifice in the bible.

God required animal sacrifices to provide a temporary covering of sins and to foreshadow the perfect and complete sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Leviticus 4:35, 5:10). Animal sacrifice is an important theme found throughout Scripture because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). When Adam and Eve sinned, animals were killed by God to provide clothing for them (Genesis 3:21). Cain and Abel brought sacrifices to the Lord. Cain's was unacceptable because he brought fruit, while Abel's was acceptable because it was the “firstborn of his flock” (Genesis 4:4-5). After the flood receded, Noah sacrificed animals to God (Genesis 8:20-21).

when Jesus came He was the perfect sacrifice, He was unblemished, as was required of the animal sacrifices. the innocence of the animal covered our "not being innocent"

another Paragraph from the site listed above says it very well.

Why, then, do we no longer offer animal sacrifices today? Animal sacrifices have ended because Jesus Christ was the ultimate and perfect sacrifice. John the Baptist recognized this when he saw Jesus coming to be baptized and said, “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). You may be asking yourself, why animals? What did they do wrong? That is the point—since the animals did no wrong, they died in place of the one performing the sacrifice. Jesus Christ also did no wrong but willingly gave Himself to die for the sins of mankind (1 Timothy 2:6). Jesus Christ took our sin upon Himself and died in our place. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Through faith in what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross, we can receive forgiveness.

Read more: http://www.gotquestions.org/animal-sacrifices.html#ixzz2fHn1afk6

Additional

the Animal had to be YOUR Animal, your BEST Animal, it was a sacrifice that you made, something that you gave up because you wanted to atone for your Sin. God made a Sacrifice by giving us His Only Son to be the Ultimate Sacrifice.

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Thanks, +1 for the very thorough answer. Unfortunately, it doesn't really resolve it for me. It shows that there is consistency in sinless blood being required for forgiveness, but it does not explain why. This sentence in particular: "since the animals did no wrong, they died in place of [the sinner]". There's a non sequitur there: why would the sinless animal be an acceptable replacement? –  sh1ftst0rm Sep 19 '13 at 0:02
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@sh1ftst0rm Why? Because it would prefigure the coming of the sinless one, who would die on the cross. Remember that the OT sacrifices were only a shadow cast by the cross thousands of years later. Jesus Himself is sinless, without blemish; choosing a lamb without blemish was to help the Jew with the typology. –  Steve Sep 27 '13 at 4:21
    
@Steve: When I said "sinless animal" I was including Jesus. In other words, why would someone or something that is without sin be an acceptable payment for your own sins? It's like if I robbed a store and said "well Steve didn't commit any crime, so he'll serve my prison sentence for me." –  sh1ftst0rm Sep 27 '13 at 12:11
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@sh1ftst0rm Perhaps sinlessness was important in order to grant us righteousness. An exchange takes place when we profess Christ: our sin goes to Him and His righteousness is imputed to us. Without His sinless character, God, who is holy and blameless, could not dwell with us. But now having Christ's own righteousness, we can dwell with God as His children, holy and blameless. No such exchange happens with an animal, and no such exchange is possible with another sinner. –  Steve Sep 27 '13 at 13:12
    
the Animal had to be YOUR Animal, your BEST Animal, it was a sacrifice that you made, something that you gave up because you wanted to atone for your Sin. God made a Sacrifice by giving us His Only Son to be the Ultimate Sacrifice. –  Malachi Sep 27 '13 at 13:16
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Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”. This is a spiritual law, it is as certain as any natural law.

So, essentially, we understand that death is separation. In this case, the death spoken of above is separation from God.

Jesus always makes manifest the will of God the Father, yet he was put to death. Christ (who never sinned) suffered death in every way, even unto separation from God the Father. Christ died for sin as the law requires, however, it was not for His own sin, but for the sins of mankind.

Mathematically, this spiritual law is like this: A(life) + B(sin) = C(death)

In Christ it becomes: C(death) – B(sin) = A(life)

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This question is to be answered by examining marriage law and how it provides the framework for both collective and individual salvation. The Mosaic Covenant was essentially a marriage between Jehovah and His "chosen people" Israel. Moses was the instrument in Jehovah's hands who performed the labor of salvation to bring a remnant out of bondage in Egypt and to enable them to become a sovereign nation in the land of promise that Jehovah promised Abraham would be the land where his posterity would be blessed. As is always the case, covenants have conditions. And, unfortunately, Israel was not a faithful "bride" to Jehovah. In due time Israel essentially committed adultery against Jehovah by putting aside the statutes and judgment He ordained for Her and by adopting the corrupted ways of Her neighbors. As a consequence for this adultery, Jehovah had both Israel and the adulterous men who enticed her "stoned to death". This can be seen as the siege and destruction of Samaria by Assyria first and then subsequently the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. And, subsequent to doing their dirty work against Israel and Jerusalem, both Assyria and Babylon were also destroyed. This is the consequence of adultery. Israel became scattered and mixed in among the "Gentiles" as if She was the bits and pieces of a deceased and decomposing corpse with only bones remaining scattered about. While in this state Israel would be subject to many privations and sufferings because She was no longer under the system of governance and protection that She formerly enjoyed. She would not have the ability to rise above the corrupt powers around Her and She would remain in this state until the terms and conditions of the Mosaic Covenant were all fulfilled, every last bit of it. This includes the punitive conditions. Thus, it has been a bit of a mixed blessing and cursing to the Gentiles to have Israel mixed and diffused in among them. They bring the potential of their future blessings and redemption as well as the consequences of their violation of the Mosaic Covenant.

So, if this basic approach is understood, this context also provides the reason someone like Jesus was required to die in order to "save" mankind. The terms in which salvation can be understood is all about being an heir of the Father's Kingdom. Much is spoken about how when the Father's Kingdom comes that those who inherit it are heirs of salvation. This essentially means that there shall come a day when God will establish a new covenant with a new "chosen people" and this people will be purged and refined and ultimately enabled to receive a new "land of promise" where they will be under oath and covenant to have integrity to the statutes and ordinances the Father's Kingdom requires. This is, essentially, a new marriage. However, there's a problem if God is going to marry Israel again. God's marriage law forbids a husband from receiving back a wife that he has formerly puts away. Once she is put away she causes whatever man with whom she marries to commit adultery also with her. There is only one thing that releases a woman from what is called the "law of her husband" and that is if he dies. Once this aspect of Israelite marriage law us clearly understood and it is applied on the level of God and His Bride Israel, the conclusion you naturally come to is in order for Jehovah to establish a new covenant with Israel, He first must die. Once Jehovah dies, Israel is then freed from the restriction and becomes eligible to be remarried to Jehovah. This is also why it is so important that Jehovah be raised from the dead. Otherwise, what would be the point?

So, what I am getting at here is this: Jesus became Jehovah incarnate by receiving within himself the spirit of Jehovah and provided official representation such that on Jehovah's behalf Jesus could suffer death in order to break the bands that prevented Him from being able to receive Israel into a new covenant.

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In order to answer your question, about how Jesus death on the Cross can and does pay for the sins of all men; we must take a look at how we got into this mess to begin with and what God demanded in repentance for sin. These verses from Genesis give us the reasons that is possible. Gen 2:9 And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Gen 2:7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Gen 2:16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: Gen 2:17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. There are two very important points that we must remember; 1. God breathed the breath of life into Man (Adam), but God nowhere breathed life into any other human being. That includes Eve who was made from Adam's rib, this is because life already existed in Adam's rib. 2. God told man (not just Adam alone) that that life would be demanded for his disobedience. Now comes the essential, but hardest part to comprehend' Ready? Everyone from Adam to the newest newborn shares that same breath of life God breathed into the first man. That includes the man Jesus, (but not the Deity Jesus which was alive in the beginning). That was the LIFE that Jesus sacrificed on the Cross! That fulfilled God's demand of life in reparation for SIN.

Salvation comes when we allow our life inherited from Adam to be also sacrificed on the same cross with Jesus. We do this when we ask Jesus to live within us, as Paul said in; Gal_2:20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. This ETRNAL LIFE, is given to us by Christ at Salvation; Joh_17:2 As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.

Some other Scriptures which may help you to understand that sacrifice are; Mat_10:39 He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. Mat_16:25 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Mat_19:17 And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. Mat_20:28 Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. Mat_25:46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. Mar_10:30 But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life. Joh_3:36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. Joh_5:24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Joh_6:27 Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed. Joh_10:17 Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. Joh_17:3 And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. Rom_6:6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.

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