II Cor. 5:21, Jesus "made to be sin"

Paul has one Scripture that some believe teaches that Christ took our sins and was punished for them by being our substitute, although it does not explicitly state that Christ took upon Himself man's sins. Paul wrote that God "made [Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin" (II Corinthians 5:21). The statement that Jesus was made "to be sin for us" is difficult to understand. There are two interpretations of this verse. One interpretation holds that God made Christ to be "sin" by imputing man sin's to Him. The second interpretation is that "to be sin" refers to an alternate meaning of hamartia found in the Greek Old Testament the apostles and early church used, that means Christ's death was a "sin-offering." We will discuss the first interpretation below, and the second in the next section.

The first interpretation is held by those who hold to the Punishment Theory (also known as Penal Substitution) and is a legal-based theory advanced first by Augustine and made popular during the reformation by John Calvin. This theory holds that man, because of his sins, deserves the wrath and curse of God. Because of His holy and just nature, God must punish men as they deserve. To satisfy the righteous judgment of God, His Son assumed man's nature, lived under the law and fulfilled all righteousness. Man's sins were imputed to the otherwise sinless Christ (He was made "to be sin"), and He was punished for our sins when He died on the cross. His death fulfilled the demands of God's law, removing the death penalty man faced for his sins, so man could be redeemed.

This theory means that God made Jesus "sin." Obviously God the Father could not literally make His Son "sin." God is never portrayed as the source of sin. Because of this, some have softened this theory by saying that God did not literally make Jesus "sin," but Jesus can be considered as the personification of sin in a metaphorical way; namely, He became sin for us. In a symbolic sense and in a substitutionary way, sin was judged on the cross by being borne by and identified with Christ. Our sins were dealt with on the cross when Christ died for us, in our place.

There are several difficulties with the above "sin" interpretation. First it is not taught in the Greek New Testament or supported by the Hebrew Old Testament. The New Testament does not teach anything about the transfer of man's sins or guilt to Christ. As mentioned earlier, if He bore the guilt of man's sins, He would have been punished. Another difficulty is it distorts what Christ did on the cross. If all our sins (past, present, and future) were transferred to Christ and He was punished for them, man cannot be punished again for them. This leads either to all men being saved, which is contrary to Scripture (obviously not all are saved), or by some unknown reason, God chose only particular men to be saved. This means that some must be predestined to eternal life and some to damnation, and the elect are eternally secure regardless of what they do. Neither of these things are taught in Scripture.

In the author's opinion, the second interpretation of II Corinthians 5:21 mentioned in the preceding section [see the book], that Jesus was made "to be a sin-offering for us," is correct. Sin-offering is an alternate meaning of hamartia found in the Greek Old Testament. Since the apostles and the church at Corinth mainly used the Septuagint, they undoubtedly understood that hamartia could mean a sin-offering. This was not an ambiguous, obscure, or hard to understand passage for those Greek Christians who received this letter, or other early Christians who read it later.

Clarke supports the view that hamartia should be translated "sin-offering" here. He wrote that this "answers to the chattach and chattath of the Hebrew text; which signifies both sin and sin-offering in a great variety of places in the Pentateuch. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew by hamartia in ninety-four places in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, where a sin-offering is meant; and where our version translates the word not sin, but an offering for sin" (see his comments in loc.). This translation is supported by the Isaiah 53 prophecy: "he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin" (v. 10).

Others also support the sin-offering interpretation. Arndt and Gingrich wrote, "amartia [hamartia] may equal sin-offering here, as Lev. 4:24." A. A. Hodge, a Presbyterian and Calvinist theologian who taught at Princeton Theological Seminary, also supports the sin-offering interpretation. He wrote, "God 'hath made him [Christ], who knew no sin, to be a sin-offering for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.'"

The sin offering translation is supported by Paul's use of hamartia in Romans 8:3: Christ came "for sin [hamartias], condemned sin in the flesh." "For sin" is translated in the NIV as "to be a sin offering" (cf. NAB, also ASV, NASV, and RSV footnotes); and in the NEB "as a sacrifice for sin." Arndt supports these translation, as do several commentartors (cf. Wm. Black, F. F. Bruce, Adam Clarke, Wm. Newell, J. C. Wenger, et al.). It is also supported by Hebrews 9:28: Christ shall "appear the second time without sin [hamartias] unto salvation." Here hamartias implies sin-offering, otherwise it would imply Christ came the first time with sin, which of course is not true. This verse could read, "appear the second time without a sin-offering."

Obviously sin-offering is a metaphorical usage because Paul used a different Greek word in II Corinthians 5:21, hamartia. Jesus never literally became a lamb or a bullock. This interpretation places Christ's sacrificial death at the center of His work, as several other New Testament Scriptures do. As the author of Hebrews wrote, under the law, "without shedding of blood [there] is no remission" of sins (9:22). Because of this, Christ "appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (v. 26; cf. v. 28; 10:12, 14). John the Baptist spoke of Jesus in the symbolism of the Old Testament's sacrifice, as "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Paul wrote that Christ gave "himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour" (Ephesians 5:2). Peter wrote that Christians were redeemed "with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot" (I Peter 1:19). Thus the sin-offering and sacrifice interpretation is not unusual as "made to be sin" would be.

The underlying idea behind the sin-offering interpretation is known as the Governmental theory. This theory was advanced by James Arminius and his student, Hugo Grotius, during the Reformation Period. It emphasizes that God brought judgment on sin when the sinless Christ in love gave His life on the cross as a sacrifice or sin-offering so His suffering would satisfy the demands of a Holy God. This enabled God to forgive sins in a manner that would not just be over-looking them. "The central idea of this theory is, that God is not to be regarded merely as an offended party, but as the Moral Governor of the universe. He must therefore uphold the authority of His government in the interests of the general good. Consequently the sufferings of Christ are to be regarded, not as the exact equivalent of our punishment, but only in the sense that the dignity of the government was thereby upheld and vindicated as effectively as it would have been, if we had received the punishment we deserved." Thus Christ's death was not only substitutional but also vicarious, that is, He did something on behalf of us as was mentioned earlier. Christ's work not only enabled God to forgive sin but also defeated the powers of evil and enables all who repent and believe to live a righteous life. "He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again" (II Corinthians 5:15).

A difficulty with the sin-offering interpretation is that the word "sin" would have to have two different meanings in one verse, separated by only two words in the Greek: God "made him [to be] sin for us, who knew no sin" (II Corinthians 5:21). This is not a major problem since we have an example of the same word having two different meanings in the same chapter. In the Septuagint there are many examples in the Law were hamartia is used in close proximity in sin and sin-offering senses. Another example is Christ's use of "sanctify" in two different senses in His prayer in John 17:17 and 19 (i.e., sanctification and consecration senses). Brunk wrote, "We have a similar example in the word passoveržin Luke 22:1 the word means a feast, and in the 7th verse of the same chapter the same word means the passover-offering."

In summary, let us keep in focus what Paul wrote before the "sin" statement. "All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ . . . God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them . . . For he hath made him to be a [sin-offering], who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (II Corinthians 5:18, 19, 21).


From Redemption Realized Through Christ by Leland M. Haines, Copyright 2000 by Leland M. Haines, Northville, Michigan. All rights reserved. You are welcome to make copies of the above article provided your shown the copyright information and bibleviews.com source.


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