Question: "What does it mean that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)?"
Answer: Someone who is willing to sacrifice his own life to save another person is considered a hero. But who would be ready to die for an enemy? Jesus Christ proved Himself to be the ultimate Hero by dying to save His enemies: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6–8, ESV).
Before a person receives salvation in Jesus, he is a sinner and enemy of God (Romans 5:10; James 4:4). Sinner means “one who falls short of God’s standard or misses the target.” Instead of loving God as Creator and Father, the sinner rebels against Him. With a sinful nature, the ungodly person is hostile toward God (Romans 8:7).
The apostle Paul paints a dreadful picture, saying that the ungodly are utterly powerless to help themselves. The ESV’s “while we were still weak” is rendered “when we were utterly helpless” in the New Living Translation and “when we were still powerless” in the New International Version. As sinners, we were like prisoners bound in chains, strapped to the guillotine, and guilty as charged. We were God’s enemies, about to be put to death, when Jesus Christ stepped in to die in our place. By this act of sending His Son to die for us, God proved how much He loved us. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Many people miss the truth implied by the fact that Christ died for us while we were still sinners. The chronology is important. Christ did not wait for us to “clean up our act”; He sacrificed Himself while we were still actively opposed to Him. Salvation does not depend on our meeting God halfway, keeping the commandments, or trying to be as good as we can. No, God completed the work of our salvation when we were in a state of open rebellion against Him. That’s grace.
In Romans 5, Paul is teaching the Roman believers how to endure through suffering. He encourages them to rejoice in suffering, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3–4, ESV). Suffering contributes to spiritual growth, which leads to Christian maturity. In the end, suffering allows believers to share in Christ’s glory (Romans 8:17; 1 Peter 4:12–14). But how does suffering produce hope?
Paul explains, “And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love” (Romans 5:5, NLT). The ultimate foundation of our Christian hope is the unwavering love of God. Our hope will never disappoint us no matter what we endure because we know that God loves us and will never let us down. His perfect love never gives up on us (1 Corinthians 13:7). Because of His steadfast love, while we were still sinners—sworn adversaries of God—Christ died for us. The apostle John said something similar: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16).
The essence of God’s love is apprehended in His giving: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV). Elsewhere, John says, “This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins” (1 John 4:10, NLT). And Paul affirms that the Son of God “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, NLT).
The love of God in Jesus Christ is unprecedented. No other love has ever been more costly to its giver and less deserving in its recipient. When God the Father gave His Son, Jesus, to die for us while we were still sinners, He gave everything—His own self—to rescue those who deserved nothing but judgment from Him. In giving His Son, God gave Himself, the costliest gift of all. He paid the supreme price so that we might receive the greatest love.