Whose Sins did Christ Bear?
Whose sins did Christ bear? Did He bear the sins of everyone, or just of those who believe? What is the answer? Perhaps some are already thinking “Does this really matter? Isn’t it just another controversial doctrinal issue?” Definitely not. To get the wrong answer to this question is to nullify the need for faith and make the preaching of the Gospel pointless. Is that of no importance? So did the Lord Jesus bear the sins of “all” or just “many”? What do the Scriptures teach? The matter can be settled by carefully noting how the Spirit of God uses those two words: “many” and “all”.
I say how the Spirit uses them because we can only get the correct meaning of particular words by noting the context in which they are used. For example, take that word “all”. It is used in Rom. 3: 23: “for all have sinned”. Now is that universal, embracing every creature? If you say “Yes”, I will remind you of the angels that have not sinned. But in the context of this Scripture the Spirit of God has only men in view, and without any doubt, all men have sinned. Hence we must take account of the context to get the exact scope of a word.
Now let us look at two passages, one in the OT (Old Testament) and one in the NT (New Testament) where “many” and “all” occur a number of times.
First Isaiah 53. In v6 we read that “Jehovah hath laid upon him the iniquity of us all” but in v12 that “he bore the sins of many”. Do these two clauses contradict one another? Is the “all” of v6 universal? Does it embrace all men, or is its scope more limited? If it embraces all men then there is ground for arguing contradiction or that there is no real difference between “many” and “all”. However, as already said, words must be read in the context in which they are used.
The prophet says in v4 “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” and again in v5 we further read of “our transgressions”, “our iniquities”, and “our peace”. Now clearly these “ours” include Isaiah. But who is he linking with himself? Is he here identifying himself with all men? Verse 6 would seem to suggest this: “All we like sheep have gone astray” (my emphasis) and Jehovah has “laid upon him the iniquity of us all” (my emphasis). However in v8 he says “for the transgression of my people was he stricken” (my emphasis). This cannot be universal, but is clearly limited. Confirmation comes with the commencement of the next verse which begins “And [men] appointed ...” “Men” are in contradistinction to “my people”. Hence the “all”s of verse 6 are limited to “my people”. Thus Isaiah 53 does not teach that Christ bore the sins of all.
Now turn to Rom. 5: 12–19. Here again we find the words “many” and “all” and at first sight they may appear interchangeable, but this is not so. You will notice that when the apostle speaks of “the one man” in v15 and v19 he also speaks of “the many”, but never “all”; yet when he speaks of “one offence” and “one righteousness” in v18 he speaks of “all men” and not “the many”.
“The many” is in contradistinction to “the one man” and when used there are two companies in view. In each case it is how the action of just one man affected many, each company being linked to its respective head, Christ or Adam. Hence the use of the definite articles in front of “one man” and “many”––“the one man” and “the many”.
Now let us justify the above statements by first considering v19. “For as indeed by the disobedience of the one man the many have been constituted sinners, so also by the obedience of the one the many will be constituted righteous”. While it could have been said “all have been constituted sinners” it could not be said, and it is not said, that “all will be constituted righteous”, for all will not be saved. Well then, why does it not say "all have been constituted sinners" and then "many will be constituted righteous"? Because the point being made in this verse is not that Adam's disobedience constituted all men sinners and then through Christ's obedience some of that “all”, some of that same company, will be constituted righteous. If a single company had been in the writer's mind, then “all” would have been used in relation to Adam and “many” in relation to Christ. However Paul uses the “many” in relation to each, proving that two companies are in view, each linked to their respective head. The effect, or end result, of the one man (Adam) was to constitute as sinners the company identified with him as head, while the end result of the obedience of the one man (Christ) is to constitute His associated company righteous.
Now let us look at v15: “For if by the offence of the one the many have died, much rather has the grace of God, and the free gift in grace, which [is] by the one man Jesus Christ, abounded unto the many”. Again we have “the one” and “the many” and again the point is the result of the action of each head on the company identified with him.
Now v18: “So then as [it was] by one offence towards all men to condemnation, so by one righteousness towards all men for justification of life”. Here “the one man” is not mentioned and only one company is in view and thus the term is “all men”. What we have in his verse is the bearing of an action, not the end result of that action. The sense is that on the one hand “all men” were threatened with condemnation by the “one offence”, while on the other the “one righteousness” opened the door to “justification of life”. It is towards (Greek: eis) “all men”. It is not the actual result, but rather the scope or the bearing of the action, hence “towards”. So Adam's “one offence” was towards “all men to condemnation” just as Christ’s “one righteousness” was towards “all men for justification of life”. The apostle does not say all men have justification of life, but only its outlook is towards all.
So in these verses when it is the bearing or aspect, it is universal; when the positive effect and end result, it is restricted to those who believe. When it is “all men” the aim is to show the outlook; when “the many”, the definite effect.
Perhaps this distinction can be made clearer by noticing that the same construction is used in Romans 3: 22 where we read of “righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ towards (Greek: eis) all”. But then the apostle makes a distinction when he goes on to say “and upon (Greek: epi) all those who believe.” The “towards” of the first phrase is universal having its bearing towards all men but the application and effect is distinctly limited to “all those who believe”. The universal aspect of the Gospel is that it goes out to every man, but the positive effect is limited to those that believe. Thus Romans chapter 5 does not teach that Christ bore the sins of all.
Now let us look elsewhere in the NT. When Scripture speaks of the Lord Jesus as suffering for sins it is without exception limited to His own. Peter writing to believers says “who himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2: 28) and Paul says: “Thus the Christ also, having been once offered to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9: 28, my emphasis). John says “he has been manifested that he might take away our sins” (1 John 3: 5). None of this is universal, it is strictly limited to believers.
But has the death of the Lord Jesus no universal bearing at all? Yes of course it has. In John 1: 29 we read of the Lord Jesus as the Lamb of God “who takes away the sin of the world”––often misquoted as “who takes away the sins of the world”. It is sin in this verse and not sins. Certainly Christ is the only one who will ultimately, on the basis of His sacrificial work, remove sin entirely from this scene, but that is not the same as taking away the sins of the world! If it were so man would no longer be accountable to God. Similar verses are Heb. 2: 9: “he should taste death for every thing” and Heb. 9: 26: “he has been manifested for [the] putting away of sin by his sacrifice”.
Finally let us look at two verses that appear to show that there is no difference between “many” and “all”. In Matt. 20: 28 we read that the Son of Man came "to give his life a ransom for many" but in 1 Tim. 2: 6 we read “Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all”. However the English translation masks what the Scripture actually says because of the use of the word “for” in both verses to translate two different Greek words. In the passage in Matthew the word is anti and has the meaning of “for” in the sense of “instead of”; in the passage in Timothy the word is uper and has the meaning of “for” in the sense of “on behalf of”. So in Matthew the Lord Jesus gave His life a ransom instead of many. He paid the ransom with His life as the great substitute for many, BUT NOT ALL. Paul in the passage in Timothy says that Christ Jesus gave Himself on behalf of all. That is universal: His ransom is available for all. Again that Scripture already quoted, (Heb. 2:9), “he should taste death for every thing” uses uper “on behalf of” and not anti “instead of” because it is the universal character of the Lord’s death.
So I conclude that the Lord Jesus bore the sins of many but never of all. To say that He bore the sins of all is not right. Well how important is all this? Consider an example: A man is in serious debt and his creditor is threatening to take him to court unless immediate payment is made. His best friend, learning of the matter, goes to the creditor and pays the debt in full and then tells his friend that the debt has been paid to the satisfaction of the creditor. However, the man who was in debt refuses to believe that he is no longer in debt. Can the creditor still rightly take him to court? No! the debt has been paid. Does the man's unbelief in any way affect the matter? No! The debt has been paid whether he believes it or not. Hence how can God judge men if Christ has born the sins of all? How can God send men to Hell if Christ has born their sins? If Christ bore the sins of all, then where is the need for faith? It is made redundant, and our preaching is vain. (see 1 Cor.15: 14) Such is the gravity of the error! I can tell a man that Christ died for (on behalf of) the ungodly, and then if he believes I can tell him more, namely that Christ bore his sins on the cross,––but not until then.
Well, my reader you are certainly one of “the all” for whom Christ died, but are you one of “the many” whose sins He bore?