Christ died for Sinners, not Good People! by Jack Kettler
“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32)
Jesus is not saying there are people who are good and that do not need forgiveness. Jesus is calling out the religious leaders of his day, the Scribes and Pharisees, who viewed themselves as self-righteous, but in reality, were hypocrites.
The topic for this study is under the general heading of the atonement of Christ.
The Westminster Confession Chapter 11.3 is a theological paramount description of this:
“iii. Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace might be glorified in the justification of sinners.”
Christ died for us while we were in a state of unbelief, ungodliness, unrepentant and even the very enemies of Christ. In order to better understand the atoning work of Christ, the next passage from Romans will be our starting point.
“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
In order to grasp the significance of this passage in Romans, it will be helpful to see the extent of what the whole of Scriptures declare about mankind being in a state of spiritual death.
To start, the Scriptures declare that man is indeed dead in sin and he has a heart of stone.
“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.” (Genesis 2:17)
The Hebrew word that is used in this passage twice is muwth and the verse uses two different verb tenses, which translate “dying” and “die” and is for doctrinal emphasis. The last part of verse 2:17 can be translated literally as “dying you shall die.” Adam and Eve’s relationship with God was now broken. They died an immediate spiritual death and later physical death, which was passed on to all of their posterity.
“And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)
God declares that thoughts of man were nothing but evil continually. Adam’s posterity inherited his sin and death, yet it was still all of mankind’s very own sinful thoughts and deeds.
“Behold, he putteth no trust in his saints; yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight. How much more abominable and filthy is man which drinketh iniquity like water?” (Job 15:15, 16)
Man, in his corrupt, and unregenerate state is much filthier than the heavens and is said to lust or crave wickedness just as he would drink water when thirsty.
“The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” (Psalms 14:2, 3)
Here we see God speaking through David, describing the degeneracy of man’s nature.
“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalms 51:5)
David is speaking here of inherited sin.
“Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” (Ecclesiastes 8:11)
When justice is delayed, man’s sin is un-curbed. He becomes brazen-faced and bold to sin all the more.
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)
Every one of us have turned to evil ways. We have all gone astray.
“But we are as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)
Our so-called righteous acts are nothing more than filthy rags or quite literally, a “menstruous rags” and because of our sins, the wind sweeps us away.
“Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” (Jeremiah 13:23)
In this passage the prophet speaks clearly of man’s inability to change himself by pointing out two impossible things that parallel man’s condition. If your nature is evil you cannot change.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
Man’s heart is desperately wicked or it can be said, incurable, and even man does not comprehend the magnitude of his own deceitfulness and depravity.
“The good man is perished out of the earth: and there is none upright amongmen: they all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net.That they may do evil with both hands earnestly, the prince asketh, and thejudge asketh for a reward; and the great man, he uttereth his mischievousdesire: so they wrap it up. The best of them is as a brier: the most upright issharper than a thorn hedge: the day of thy watchmen and thy visitationcometh; now shall be their perplexity.” (Micah 7:2-4)
This statement by Micah goes beyond the people of his day and is a general declaration that is in harmony with the apostle Paul when he says; that there is none righteous no not one in Romans 3:10-12.
“And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and menloved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19)
Men loving darkness is the cause of the condemnation, or it can be said to be the reason why men are going to be punished. Man’s desires sin rather than the holiness of God. Men try and hide in the darkness because their deeds are evil.
“Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” (John 6:53)
Outside of Christ, there is no life in man.
“As it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there in none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10-12)
This is undoubtedly, is the most emphatic portion of Scripture when the apostle Paul declares man’s depravity. All mankind is indicted without exception.
“But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:9)
Here the apostle says; “we had the sentence of death in ourselves.” The word rendered “sentence” means a judicial ruling, outcome, or verdict. It not only means that Paul knew that he was condemned to die, it also has broader implications for the rest of mankind and the just condemnation awaiting them short of participating in the resurrection to life in Christ.
“For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.” (Romans 5:7-9)
These passages paint a bleak picture of fallen mankind. When Romans says we are sinners, it should be clear, the cause of Christ’s death for us was not based upon anything worthy in us.
Now back to Romans 5:8 and a look at some exegetical commentary evidence on this passage.
Barnes’ Notes on the Bible
But God commendeth … – God has exhibited or showed his love in this unusual and remarkable manner.
His love – His kind feeling; his beneficence; his willingness to submit to sacrifice to do good to others.
While we were yet sinners – And of course his enemies. In this, his love surpasses all that has ever been manifested among people.
Christ died for us – In our stead; to save us from death. He took our place; and by dying himself on the cross, saved us from dying eternally in hell. (1)
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
8. But God commendeth—”setteth off,” “displayeth”—in glorious contrast with all that men will do for each other.
his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners—that is, in a state not of positive “goodness,” nor even of negative “righteousness,” but on the contrary, “sinners,” a state which His soul hateth.
Christ died for us—Now comes the overpowering inference, emphatically redoubled. (2)
Matthew Poole’s Commentary
God commendeth his love toward us; i.e. he declareth or confirmeth it by this, as a most certain sign, he makes it most conspicuous or illustrious: see John 3:16 1Jo 4:9,10.
In that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us; i.e. in a state of sin, and under the guilt and power of sin. Believers in some sense are still sinners, 1Jo 1:8, but their sins being pardoned and subdued, they go no longer under that denomination. Sinners in Scripture are said to be those in whom sin dwells and reigns; see John 9:31. Such we were by nature. Yea, we were not only sinners, but enemies to God, which further commendeth the love of Christ in dying for us: there is no greater love amongst men, than when one layeth down his life for his friends; but herein Christ’s love excelled, that he gave his life for his enemies. (3)
Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible
But God commendeth his love towards us,…. That is, he hath manifested it, which was before hid in his heart; he has given clear evidence of it, a full proof and demonstration of it; he has so confirmed it by this instance, that there is no room nor reason to doubt of it; he has illustrated and set it off with the greater lustre by this circumstance of it,
in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. God’s elect were sinners in Adam, in whom they were naturally and federally, as all mankind were; hence polluted and guilty; and so they are in their own persons whilst unregenerate: they are dead in sin, and live in it, commit it, are slaves unto it, and are under the power and dominion of it; and many of them are the chief and vilest of sinners; and such they were considered when Christ died for them: but are not God’s people sinners after conversion? yes; but sin has not the dominion over them; their life is not a course of sinning, as before; and besides, they are openly justified and pardoned, as well as renewed, and sanctified, and live in newness of life; so that their characters now are taken, not from their worse, but better part. And that before conversion is particularly mentioned here, to illustrate the love of God to them, notwithstanding this their character and condition; and to show that the love of God to them was very early; it anteceded their conversion; it was before the death of Christ for them; yea, it was from everlasting: and also to express the freeness of it, and to make it appear, that it did not arise from any loveliness in them; or from any love in them to him; nor from any works of righteousness done by them, but from his own sovereign will and pleasure. (4)
William Hendriksen’s New Testament Commentary
6–8. For while we were still powerless, at the appointed time Christ died for the ungodly. Now a man will scarcely die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this, that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
In this passage Paul states the reason for saying that God poured his love into the hearts of sinners. He tells us that he was justified in making this assertion because “while we were still powerless,” that is, helpless, totally unable to rescue ourselves from the effects of the fall, Christ, motivated by sovereign love and not by any human merit or accomplishment, died for us, the ungodly.
The unique character of this love becomes apparent when we consider the fact that while for a righteous person a man will scarcely die—though, by rare exception, it might after all happen that for such a good person someone would dare to die, God, on the other hand, demonstrates his own love in this remarkable way, namely, that while we were still in our helpless and sinful state Christ died for us.
In connection with this explanation note the following:
a. The “ungodly” people of verse 6 are the “sinners” of verse 8, namely, those sinners for whom Christ died, the “beloved of God, saints” of 1:7.
b. The distinction between “a righteous person” and “a good person” should not be pressed, as if the apostle were saying that for a person who is merely “righteous” it would be almost impossible to find someone who would die, but for a “good” person, or benefactor, it might under exceptional conditions be possible to find a substitute who would be willing to offer his life. This is over-interpretation. We should adhere to the one basic point Paul is making, and not obscure the thought by introducing unwarranted distinctions. Room should be left for stylistic variation.
c. What Paul is saying is that God’s love, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is both unprecedented and unparalleled. No merit from our side could have moved Christ to die for us, for he died for us “while we were still sinners.” Moreover, he died for us “at the appointed time,” that is, at the time appointed by God (cf. Mark 1:15; Gal. 4:4), not by us.
This death was unparalleled with respect to the marvel of the implied condescending and pardoning grace. Christ died for those who were bad, bad, bad! In them there was no goodness that could have attracted this love. In the death of Jesus for sinners God demonstrates “his own” sovereign love. See Isa. 1:18; 53:6; 57:15; Dan. 9:17–19; 1 John 4:10.
d. Note the word “demonstrates,” present tense. Although it is true that for Paul, at the time he wrote this letter, as well as for us today, the death of Christ was an event that had occurred in the past, its lesson remains an ever present and glorious reality.
e. Note “his own love for us.”
f. Though it is true that no less than four times in these three verses Paul uses a preposition (ὑπέρ) which has a very wide range of meaning, stretching all the way from about or concerning (cf. περί) to in the place of (cf. ἀντί), and which frequently means “for,” “in behalf of,” “for the sake of,” “in the interest of,” it would seem that here in Rom. 5:6–8 this little word, though not by itself meaning “in the place of” implies as much. Does not the context (see verses 9, 10) indicate that by means of the shedding of his blood Christ removed from us God’s wrath? See also on Galatians, p. 130; on Philippians, pp. 82, 83; and on 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, pp. 375, 376. (5)
Christ died for sinners! Let that sink in? We the redeemed of the Lord, were unrepentant sinners when Christ died for us. Surely, we must have done something to deserve this. No, we have not! In contrast, humanism holds to the concept of performing works to obtain grace. Grace is not “grace” within a system such as this. This is not unmerited favor, it is works. Grace is God’s unmerited favor.
God’s mercy is withholding from us what we justly deserve. And these Scriptures, Genesis 2:17; Genesis 6:5; Job 15:15, 16; Psalms 14:2, 3; Psalms 51:5; Ecclesiastes 8:11; Isaiah 53:6; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 13:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Micah 7:2-4; John 3:19; John 6:53; Romans 3:10-12; 2 Corinthians 1:9 that we considered above make it clear that as sinners we did nothing to cause or deserve Christ dying for us. Christ died for unworthy sinners. Christ’s substitutionary death magnifies the glory of God so that we can agree with the apostle, “to the praise (ἔπαινον epainos)  of his glory, (δόξης doxa)  who first trusted in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:12)
Consider the great Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s thoughts on the believer’s undeserved salvation:
Join with me in prayer at this moment, I entreat you. Join with me while I put words into your mouths, and speak them on your behalf: “Lord, I am guilty, I deserve thy wrath. Lord, I cannot save myself. Lord, I would have a new heart and a right spirit, but what can I do? Lord, I can do nothing, come and work in me to will and to do thy good pleasure.
Thou alone hast power, I know,
To save a wretch like me;
To whom, or whither should I go
If I should run from thee?
But I now do from my very soul call upon thy name. Trembling, yet believing, I cast myself wholly upon thee, O Lord. I trust the blood and righteousness of thy dear Son…Lord, save me tonight, for Jesus’ sake.” (6)
Agreeing with Spurgeon’s prayer and in closing we can say by the Grace of God:
“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5)
“To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
1. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Romans, p.2112.
2. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1977) p. 1149.
3. Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, Romans, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p. 494.
4. John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, Romans, 9 Volumes, Romans, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, pp. 106-107.
5. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Romans, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1984), pp. 172-173.
6. From Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), p. 101.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For addition study:
The Atonement by Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield: http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/warfield/warfield_atonement.html
The Atonement by John Murray: http://www.the-highway.com/atonement_murray.html
The Atonement by John Owen: http://www.the-highway.com/atonement_Owen.html
The Atonement by J. Gresham Machen: http://www.westminsterconfession.org/introduction-to-the-christian-faith/the-atonement.php
Additional Bible Study Resources: http://www.undergroundnotes.com/Resourses.html
Christ died for Sinners, not Good People! by Jack Kettler