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Can man be held accountable for his sinful actions, and yet have Christ act as a substitution for his sins?
Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man.
[Jesus Christ] then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many.
2 Corinthians 5:18–19
Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
In Genesis 9:5–6 we read that each man will be held responsible for his actions if he kills another human. It is also clear in Scripture that sin will not be held against those who repent of their sin and trust in Christ’s redemptive work on the Cross. It has been asked how men can be held accountable for their own sins, as murder is, and yet Christ can act as a substitute to remove the consequences of sin. The answer comes as we examine the context.
Man has inherent worth because he is made in the image of God.As God is making His covenant with Noah and his descendants in Genesis 9, the institution of capital punishment is given. Man has inherent worth because he is made in the image of God. The civil law given to the Israelites and other passages of Scripture make it clear that each person is accountable for his own actions and their consequences. God sets up the temporal punishments that accompany the violation of these civil laws. Civil authority is given to punish those who break the laws. In the case of Genesis 9, the authority is being given to mankind to execute capital punishment. This is a temporal consequence for a temporal action. We can place this in the category of civil justice.
The murder of another human is not only an offense against man, but also an offense against God. When King David had sinned by having Uriah killed and committing adultery with Bathsheba, he recognized his sin against God:
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight (Psalm 51:2–4).
Although there was a temporal sin, David recognized that all sins are ultimately an offense against a holy God. In Psalm 7:11 we read that “God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day.”
If a man were to commit murder in our society, he would be violating two laws: the civil law of the government and the holy Law of God (Exodus 20:13). For the act of murder the civil authorities will execute justice through the courts, and the penalty may include capital punishment.
For violating the Law of God, the consequence is much harsher, since the authority is higher. God’s eternal justice demands the penalty of eternal death in hell. Because everyone has sinned against a perfectly holy God (Romans 3:23), every person deserves that just punishment.
However, Jesus Christ died on the Cross, and God’s wrath against sin was poured out on Him. Those who will repent and put their trust in Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the Cross can avoid that judgment and spend an eternity in heaven with God (John 3:16–18). The righteousness of Christ and His sacrifice are imputed to us (credited to our account, though we don’t deserve it), and God’s justice is satisfied (2 Corinthians 5:20–21). There will still be consequences for all who break the civil laws, but those who are in Christ have no fear of the final judgment (1 John 4:17–18).