Matthew 1:21 (ESV):

21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Does the aforementioned verse promise freedom from the bondage of sin or freedom from the penalty of sin? There is a subtle difference between these two readings. The former entails victory over sin (i.e., a life of holiness), while the latter merely entails forgiveness of sins. What exactly is promised in Matthew 1:21?

3 Answers 3


What's in a name

There is a play on words here (in Hebrew) that sheds light on this verse. The play on words does not work in Greek or English, which has caused many to scratch their heads at this verse over the years.

Jesus' name in Hebrew is Yeshua (ישוע--more than one vocalization has been suggested), which derives from "to rescue" or "to deliver". So the angel is telling Mary that her Son will be named a rescuer/deliverer because...that's what He is going to do. This is the same root as יְשׁוּעָה, meaning salvation (see Strong's 3444).

Jesus' name, and the angelic pronouncement of the purpose for the name, then point to the Old Testament promises of salvation, such as:

Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the Lord Jehovah is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. (Isaiah 12:2, note the same root יְשׁוּעָה again )

This background is helpful because it points to the Old Testament context of what the Savior is supposed to do.

Which Savior?

Which Savior? The Savior:

I, even I, am the Lord; and beside me there is no saviour. (Isaiah 43:11)

Penalty of Sin

That the Savior was to bear the penalty of sin is powerfully stated by Isaiah:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

There was a price to be paid, and Jesus paid it. Note that not only did He pay for the wrongs we have done, He paid for the wrongs other people have done. So when someone wrongs me and I feel angry, I think they should be punished, I think there is a price to be paid, I need to remember: that price was already paid.

We do not in vengeance extract a penalty for sin from other people because the Savior has already offered payment in full.

Bondage of sin

That the Messiah was to deliver His people from bondage is all over the Old Testament symbolism. Perhaps most notably through the Passover, Israel's deliverance from physical bondage, which was a type/symbol for the deliverance from bondage to be given by the Messiah.

John is careful to point out that Jesus is the Passover lamb, including:

  • "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." (John 1:29)
  • Showing in his passion narrative that Jesus died on the afternoon of 14 Nisan, as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered.

Jesus is the ultimate deliverer, prophesied directly and through symbols in the Old Testament. He is the Passover lamb who delivers from bondage.

A Bondage Application: Addiction

What does it mean to deliver from bondage? John already told us it involves taking away the sin of the world. Let's look at one other specific application, which I believe has very direct bearing on the OP's question about the bondage of sin and what it sometimes looks like.

Addiction is a powerful force that destroys many lives.

6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

8 Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rearward.

9 Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; (Isaiah 58:6,8,9)

God offers redemption from even the most tightly bound burdens and the heaviest yokes. How does this happen? By coming unto Christ (which fasting is designed to help with):

28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

One of the great bondages of sin is to become trapped in the yoke of addiction. The Savior gives commands to help prevent people from becoming trapped in the first place, and mercifully He also offers the redemptive power to break free when people have fallen in.

My thoughts in greater depth on this bondage--and God's answer to it--can be found in the parable here and its interpretation here.

To make holy

Most definitely Jesus offers freedom from the bondage of sin. When people are freed from addiction they not only have something taken out of their lives, but they are changed (if not they will relapse--true addiction recovery requires a change).

By freeing us from this bondage and purging it from our lives like a refiner's fire, He can make us not only clean (sins remitted), but indeed change our nature--He can make us holy.

That this was the intended symbolism of the Levitical sacrifices and the effect of Jesus' atonement is addressed in Hebrews:

13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh:

14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14)

The word sanctify means "to make holy".

(A much longer version of my thoughts on how His grace makes people holy is found here).


Jesus came in fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies of deliverance from the bondage of sin and the penalty of sin.

If we say that we want God to forgive us of our sins but allow us to continue along exactly as we were before, then we have entirely missed the point. Christ's atoning sacrifice is designed not only to make people clean, but to make them holy.

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    To clarify, I have not tried to dial in on what is meant by "his people"; I do not believe it materially impacts the meaning of the words asked about in the OP. Although the good news would not be rolled out to everyone all at once, eventually it would be. As Paul taught "the gospel of Christ...is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16) Commented May 14, 2021 at 4:23

Your question uses terms that need to be looked at a little closer. You talk about bondage and penalty as two separate aspects. They are not. Let’s look a little closer at your question, and the scripture you used to support your question ...

MAT 1:21 And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

Note “His people”. Who are ‘his people’? Israel. They were his ‘children’. Of which Mary was one. And, why was ‘sin’ an issue for them? Because they were [still, at that time] under the Law. And any violation of that Law = ‘sin’. But more, any violation of that Law demanded a penalty. (Death).

I appreciate that some may want to read a wider definition into ‘his people’, to ‘fit’ other doctrines, but if you stay in context, and also stay ‘in line’ with the Old Testament, you can’t. Actually, ‘technically’, chapter one of Matthew still is Old Testament - but that discussion is outside of this focus.

So ‘the ‘sin’ Jesus came to save his people from both had a penalty and as long as they were under this covenant, held them in ‘bondage’ to it. So you asked which of the two did Jesus come to ‘save’ them from? - one or the other, but the answer to your question is actually both. Both, because they are related and inseparable.

But, you also seem to somehow relate ‘holiness’ with ‘bondage of sin’. I’d like to discuss this, but as it does not relate to your question, I’ll just leave that for now.


Salvation or saving people from their sins entails both the forgiveness-atonement and the freedom from the bondage of sin, these are the two sides of the same coin. The whole theme of the Mosaic law, the foundation of the religion, is based on the theme of freedom from slavery. As Matt 1:21 and many others states, God saves the sinners not just from the punishment of sin (i.e. death/hell) with forgiveness, but from the bondage of sin, from sin itself, and the mission of the Messiah was to destroy the works of the devil (1 Jn 3:8) to save those who are in slavery of sin, under Satan. If God saves from the penalty of sin while allowing us to live in transgression or lawlessness, then there would be no difference between God and Satan, because there would be no real transgression or lawlessness. Every one that committeth sin is the bondservant of sin (John 8:34). Forgiveness implies repentance, which results in sanctification.

[NET Luke 24:46-47] and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

God is grieved over the death of sinners, he does not take pleasure in the death of wicked, this is why he came to take matters into his own hand. 1John 4:9-14; Eze 18; Matt 21 Parable of the wicked tenants.

[WEB Matt 9:12-13] When Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. But you go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (cf. Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:8, Luke 4:18-19, Luke 15)

[WEB Luke 15:4-10] “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. Or what woman, if she had ten drachma coins, if she lost one drachma coin, wouldn’t light a lamp, sweep the house, and seek diligently until she found it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma which I had lost.’ Even so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner repenting.”

Those who lean overly towards atonement being strictly legal, tend to undermine the moral reality, as Martin Luther encouraged others to sin to suppress guilt consciousness (Letter to Jerome Weller), and that no sin can separate us from God, therefore we should sin boldly so that grace may abound, God would never count your sins, that now, justification is the wrongful overlooking of justice or the cancellation of justice itself.

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness, but, as Peter says, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. Do you think that the purchase price that was paid for the redemption of our sins by so great a Lamb is too small? Pray boldly—you too are a mighty sinner. (Letter to Melanchthon, August 1, 1521, American Edition, Luther’s Works, vol. 48, pp. 281-82)

[WEB 2Pet 2:18-22] For, uttering great swelling words of emptiness, they entice in the lusts of the flesh, by licentiousness, those who are indeed escaping from those who live in error; promising them liberty, while they themselves are bondservants of corruption; for a man is brought into bondage by whoever overcomes him. For if, after they have escaped the defilement of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in it and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb, “The dog turns to his own vomit again,” and “the sow that has washed to wallowing in the mire.” (Cf. Heb 10:26; Jude 1:4; 2Pet 3:16-17)

The pervasiveness of the reformed theology lead to some people turning towards the moral realism and immutable justice of God, some of their views are regarded as the Moral governmental view that puts the emphasis on the freedom from sin into sanctification/purification and holiness, as the law of God commands. Daniel Fiske explains the governmental theory of atonement:

“The penal sanction, or threatened punishment, must have the same benevolent design with the promissory sanction, and with the preceptive part of the law itself.

To answer this benevolent design, the penalty must be:

(a) suffering; (b) suffering to be inflicted by the lawgiver; (c) suffering to be inflicted, by the lawgiver, upon the violator of law, and for the violation of law; (d) suffering to be inflicted, by the lawgiver, upon the sinner, proportioned to the degree of his sinfulness; (e) suffering to be thus inflicted, by the lawgiver, as an expression of his hatred of sin and estimate of its intrinsic ill desert. Such a penalty is an essential part of the moral law; and, without it, law would be, not law, but mere unauthoritative advice. It is just as important as the precept itself; just as necessary as moral government is; unless there can be found a substitute which will be equally efficacious as a sanction of law. For the sole function of penalty is that of a legal sanction. Its sole value is its efficacy to enforce the law and maintain its authority, and so ultimately help promote the great benevolent ends of moral government.”

– Rev. Daniel Taggart Fiske, The Necessity of The Atonement, The Governmental Theory

[WEB James 5:19-20] Brothers, if any among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins.

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