Christ Died Only for Sinners

Paul’s overriding pastoral aim in his letter to the Roman church(es) is to see them unified as siblings in God’s one new family in Jesus.  Both groups need to see themselves as vitally connected to the other.

He has already argued that both groups share in humanity’s condemnation and both are justified before God on the same basis.  These realities unify them together and eliminate the boasting of any group over another.

In Romans 5:6-8, Paul presses the point more forcefully.  He writes that “while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (v. 6).

This would have offended Jewish Christian presumption about their historically privileged place in God’s people.  The gentiles were “ungodly,” not the Jews!  They were historically God’s people (*ahem*, God’s “favorites”), while gentiles had no connection to the one true God whatsoever.

Paul only intensifies his sarcasm, aiming to unify all in Rome in the category “ungodly,” not only the non-Jewish Christians.  He does this by indicating that in order to be included in the death of Christ, one must confess one’s membership in the group of the “ungodly” and the “sinner.”

In v. 7, Paul notes that “one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.”

It’s as if Paul is asking, “oh, do you not belong in the group of ‘ungodly’?  Perhaps you’re in the group of ‘the righteous’.  If so, why would Christ die for you?  You’re already righteous!  And those of you who belong to ‘the good’ — maybe you can get in on Christ’s death, but there’s really no guarantee.  Again, what need of Christ do you have!?”

It’s humiliating to have to join the group called “ungodly sinners” who are “helpless.”  If you’re trying to establish the superiority of your sub-group in a community, you can’t go around admitting your absolute need before God.  You might not get what you want!  You don’t have any leverage!  Other people are “the needy,” not you!

But if you want to get in on the death of Christ, you must own your identity as “ungodly sinner” and “helpless.”Chr

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (v. 8).

“The righteous” and “the good” have no guarantee of participation in the death of Christ.  Those who claim the identity “ungodly” and “sinner,” however, are assured of God’s love and are guaranteed that they are those for whom Christ died.

Romans 5:6-8 is something of an aside, but it’s another argument whereby Paul unifies all in Rome in one singular group.  Confessing their absolute need before God, they become recipients of the magnanimous love of God poured out in Christ.


5 responses to “Christ Died Only for Sinners

  • Ray Stewart

    I have to disagree with the ‘identity’ factor. He said, “While we WERE [past tense] sinners, Christ died for us.” In fact, if Paul’s trying to do anything in this letter, it’s to get them to ‘change’ their identity (you can see this especially in Ephesians as well). Ro.5-6, as we know, is the comparison/contrast between the ‘old’ us in the ‘first Adam’ versus the ‘new’ us in the ‘Last Adam’. Then he takes them throught their identification with Christ through the death, burial, and resurrection in order to get them to identify with who they are ‘in Christ’ now.

    He goes on to tell them exactly how they’re to think of themselves and then he says in 6:11 for them to “Consider yourselves to be DEAD unto sin, but ALIVE UNTO GOD through Christ Jesus our Lord.” He doesn’t tell them to identify themselves as “ungodly”, but “alive unto God.” He differentiates between what they were in the past versus who they are now. And who they are now is ‘in Christ’. We’re people who walk in “newness of life” and not people who are to identify ourselves as “old sinners, saved by grace.” We WERE old sinners in our pre-Christian days, but not we’re “saved by grace” and now we’re “new Creations in Christ Jesus”.

    “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” Hanging on to that old identity of who we were in our pre-Christian days is what’s keeping us defeated. We must change our identity. That’s not my idea, it’s not the religious ‘norm’ of the day, but it is what the Apostle Paul taught. Every religious bone in a person’s body may fight against it– all in the name of proper humility– but true humility will “humble itself under the mighty hand of God” and part of doing that is humbling ourselves under what the Word says,

    I understand what Paul was doing in the first few chapters of Romans: he was unifying all of them under the heading of “ungodly” PRIOR to their salvation experience and putting the all on the same playing field. He wants to squelch the division in that body of believers. “None” of them were “righteous, no not one”– both Jews and Gentiles needed Jesus equally. But now, they’re ‘in’ the Righteous One, Jesus. And it’s time to change their identity and see themselves as joined into one Spirit now.

    Sorry for such a long post; and I don’t mean to sound disrespectful to you. I’ve read your book on Ephesians and saw some very wonderful things in it. I hope I haven’t understood your direction for this post. If I have, please forgive me. Changing our identity to seeing ourselves ‘in Christ’ is a very important point for me; at least, your post woke me up on a Monday morning 🙂

    Thanks for all you do for the Body of Christ!!! God bless you!!

    • timgombis

      Thanks for this, Ray. I agree that Paul is reconfiguring their identity, but I think that what needs to be jettisoned is the “us vs. them” approach and what needs to be cultivated is a “we’re all one in Christ” approach. And I agree that Paul wants them all to see themselves as ALL in Christ, not just some of them.

      But I’m not so sure that part of what needs to be jettisoned is their identity as “sinner,” “helpless,” and “ungodly.” The past tense has to do more with when Christ died than with when that identity was true of them.

      It seems that identity isn’t as easily bifurcated for Paul between “then” and “now.” He can stress various aspects of identity depending on what is needed. So, for the Corinthians, he stresses that they formerly were such and such, but now they are sanctified (1 Cor. 6:11). But he can also own as a current identity that he is the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).

      I admit that these identities can be manipulated badly in many ways, either to lay false guilt or to excuse bad practices, among other things. But the range of identities can also be used for good, to exhort according to the need of the moment. In Romans, it seems that Paul gathers them ALL (even the reluctant Jewish Christians) under these identities, because only then, they can all claim the most wonderful identity marker of all–“LOVED BY GOD IN CHRIST.”

  • Ray Stewart

    Thanks for responding, Tim. The passage in 1 Timothy often comes up in the ‘identity’ question of Christians. I’d like to take a few lines just to walk through it and show you what I’m seeing there as I read it (thank you for your patience with me).

    1 Ti.1:12-13 And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was FORMERLY a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; BUT I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly and in unbelief.

    *I think the key words here are “formerly” and “but”. He’s describing his old identity as Saul of Tarsus not Paul the apostle.

    v.14-15 And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus, This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world of sinners, of which I am chief.

    *Paul is again commenting on the fact that salvation came to save “the world of sinners” and the man he had been (Saul) “FORMERLY a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man.” This was a “former” life that he had lived. And when he says “a world of sinners, of whom I am chief” he’s referring to what he was WHEN HE WAS ‘IN’ that former condition.

    Here’s why I say that. Because he goes on to say in the very next verse v.16 HOWEVER, FOR THIS REASON [For what reason? Because of the fact that he was the “chiefest of sinners” when he ran head-long into Jesus] I OBTAINED MERCY, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going on to believe on Him for everlasting life.

    In other words, he’s saying: This is the kind of life I lived prior to contacting God’s grace in Jesus Christ and if you’re going to look at whether or not a man could be saved then look at me, because IN THE NATURAL you could judge me as the “chiefest of sinners.”

    But the Apostle Paul’s perspective of how to view oneself after salvation– including viewing ‘himself’– CHANGED. He wrote the Corinthians and said that he “no longer” made an estimate of people according to an outward view; but that when “anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Co.5:16-17)

    If a person is “in Christ” and they’re a “new creation”, then, in my understanding of Paul’s writings and theology, they are to reorient their view of themselves and other people.

    If I try to hold on to an ‘old’ identity from my pre-Christian days, AND grab onto my ‘new’ indentity “in Christ”, it’s bound to create internal conflict (a sort of ‘spiritual schizophrenia’). And I’m concerned that it would affect the practical outworking of my Christian life that could be powerfully affected by my ‘feelings’ of the moment (leading me away from ‘faith’ and back into an experience of walking by the thoughts/emotions of that day; depending on just how ‘frail’ and ‘human’ in those instances).

    But if I see myself “in Christ” as the constant identity (which is the way I believe Paul saw himself), then the conflict of what ‘was’ and what ‘is’ is removed. I’m a man “in Christ”, in the process of sanctification, transformation, and restoring of the image of God back into God’s original plan for me, and I’m forever OUT of the “first Adam” and now enjoy life in the “Last Adam”. If I identify myself as a man in BOTH Adams, then suddenly I become a ‘joining link’ between the two Adams. But Paul is clear: I [the old “I”] HAVE BEEN [past tense] crucified with Christ,; it is NO LONGER I [the old “I” who was the chiefest of sinners] who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I NOW live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved, me and gave Himself for me.

    I’m sorry that this post has extended out so long. I certainly don’t want yout to think that I’m being argumentative. I only have a respectful disagreement on this point of ‘identity’ and I hope that what I’m saying is coming across in the right spirit. I don’t want to hyjack your blog and I’m sorry if it seems like I already have. I really enjoy reading what you have to write. Thank you for your time.

    • timgombis

      Thanks, Ray, for this, and for your engaging spirit! I intended to follow up this post with some thoughts along this line, and will have to give some thought to what you’ve written before rolling that out. Thanks for laying it out so clearly . . . good food for thought!

  • Warp and Woof (2.8.13) | Cataclysmic

    […] Sinners – Tim Gombis writes on one way Paul finds unity between Jews and Gentiles in Romans. By the way, his blog is quickly becoming a favorite: regular posting, insightful posts, and engages with commenters. […]

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