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Who Did Jesus Die For?

In 1975 Patti Smith exploded onto the music scene becoming an instant pop culture icon whose popularity, respect, and influence have stood the test of time. You can imagine that she must have made a pretty good first impression, then.

Well, she certainly made a memorable first impression. The opening line of the first song on her debut album begins "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine".

And to a largely Christianised culture, that is one bold, emphatic, and fully considered statement to make! 

But it raises a question, doesn't it? If Jesus didn't die for Patti Smith, who did he die for? Christians certainly like to say things like Jesus died for the sins of the world. Is Patti Smith misguided? Might Jesus have in fact died for her sins?

John's Gospel, specifically chapter three and verse sixteen is perhaps, above all, the most formative, or at least the most foundational place our understanding of an answer to that question would come from.

It reads: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Christians know it well. And it tells us two things which help us to answer our question.

Firstly, we're told that God so loved the world. This is a deep and wonderful truth indeed. It reveals the posture of God toward us, and the inclination of his heart toward us. It articulates his desire to save the whole world, including Patti Smith, and assures us that none fall outside of his desire to see all saved. God does indeed love the whole world. That's why he sent Jesus.


Secondly, that love and that sending of Christ do not ensure the salvation of the whole world. As we read in the second half of the verse, it's only those who believe in Jesus who "shall not perish but have eternal life". Here, we are to understand, that on the cross, as Jesus died, he took only the punishment of those who, throughout history believed in him.

What this means is, that although God has, in his love, desired that all be saved, some are not. Jesus' death is the basis on which God can offer salvation and the forgiveness of sins. But we must accept that offer. God will not force us to repent of our sins, accept his forgiveness or believe in his son. He longs that we do, but will not force us. If we don't want it, we are not worthy of it. There are those who pass from this life without believing that Jesus has died - for them as unique individuals - and therefore have not had their sins forgiven.

So, how do we answer this question? Well, Jesus died for the sins of those who believe that he died for their sins. If you believe that on the cross, Jesus suffered the punishment YOU should have had, then he died for your sins. And at the end of time, we will find out exactly how many people that did believe.

However, Jesus' death two thousand years ago is a once for all event. As long as we can be sure that Jesus did die, we can be sure that as long as we live, the offer to believe is open.

There is still time for Patti Smith's proclamation to be turned upside down. There is still time for her to believe in Jesus and say Jesus died for my sins. For God so loved the world that he sent his only son. We can understand this to mean: in the hope that as many who would do believe, he sent his only son. 

Yet, like everyone who does not believe, Patti Smith's statement serves to remind us that not believing is a choice. When she sings those words, she is not saying God doesn't want to save me, she is saying that she does not want to have her sins forgiven. For God so loved the world means that God does want to save. He longs to in fact. So much so that he sent his one and only son to die to make salvation a posisbility. And so everyone who has not believed has chosen not to accept that offer.

There are many reasons people choose not to believe. Perhaps it's a genuine intellectual problem. Perhaps it's purely emotional. Perhaps it's pride and the inability to acknowledge our need for a saviour. Whatever the reason is, though, and whatever our status before God, we can never say that God doesn't want us to be saved.

And as long as you do so live, there will always be the offer. Ready and waiting for you to accept. Not of the basis of anything you have done, but on the basis of what Jesus has done, 2000 years ago.

Happy Easter 2022.


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