5 minutes

Jesus Became Sin?

I often hear pastors and teachers, along with those who have been taught by them, say that Jesus became sin for us so that we can become the righteousness of God. They are, of course, quoting 2 Corinthians 5:21:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Is this right? Did Jesus become sin? First, we need to go back to the Old Testament.

The Old Testament Sacrifices

In the Old Testament, the Book of Leviticus prescribes five different sacrificial offerings that could be made at the altar in the Tabernacle, and later the Temple. These are the Burnt Offering, the Grain Offering, the Fellowship Offering (or Peace Offering), the Sin Offering and the Guilt Offering. Of these, only the Grain Offering did not include an animal sacrifice. The other four required the animal sacrificed to be “without defect”, which means perfect with no blemishes.

Only the first three are allowed at a freestanding altar, outside the Tabernacle. Those three sacrifices existed prior to the Sacrificial System prescribed by God. Abel offered an animal sacrifice. Cain offered a grain sacrifice.[1] Noah offered a burnt sacrifice. They also continued after the Tabernacle was built. Gideon performed a sacrifice at an altar (Judges 6:24-27). Samuel also did so (1 Samuel 7:8-10). Elijah’s might be the most well-known (1 Kings 18:30-38).

However, the Sin and Guilt Offerings must be done at the Temple. These two are the same basic sacrifices except that the Sin Offering was for sins that could not be repaid while the Guilt Offering was for those that could be repaid. Hence, the Guilt Offering would require restitution and a 20-percent penalty upon the offering (Leviticus 5:16).

Jesus as a Sin Offering

Now, we come back to our verse in 2 Corinthians. An interesting footnote appears in the NIV. It says, “Or be a sin offering”. Now we get to some good meat.

First, let’s think this out logically. Can Jesus be sin? Is the entire Person of Christ sin? Or just the God-Nature of Jesus? Maybe the Man-Nature of Jesus?

If the Man-Nature of Jesus became sin, then his sacrifice is no longer propitious. For His sacrifice to be acceptable to God, it must come from a perfect Man, just as any animal sacrifice to God must be perfect. Hence, we read that Jesus was Perfect (1 Peter 1:19, Hebrews 9:14, Hebrews 5:8-9) and Sinless (1 Peter 2:22, Hebrews 4:15, 1 John 3:5 – and of course, our verse above). Therefore, it could not be Jesus, the Man, who became sin.

If the God-Nature of Jesus became sin, then all hell breaks loose – literally. For if the Second Person of the Trinity has become sin, then God has changed and He is no longer God for He is no longer Holy. If we insist that God did not become sin, only the Son, then we break the Trinity and God is no longer God.

If neither the God-Nature nor the Man-Nature of Christ has become sin, then the Person of Christ cannot be sin. The Person of Christ consists of the Two-Natures. If both natures cannot be sin, then neither can the entire Person.

This is simple logic and no one would debate it if this fallacy hadn’t been taught so often and so incorrectly in the modern day church. Jesus could never become sin. He is God. God is Holy. If we recognize, as the Church has throughout the prior ages[2], that 2 Corinthians 5:21 is talking about Jesus becoming a sin offering for us, then we are presenting ourselves approved by properly handing the word of God (2 Timothy 2:15).

Regarding the Transference of Sin

The reason many teachers and pastors teach this verse as meaning that Jesus became sin is because they want to force the transference of sins from ourselves onto Him. Of course, we’ve just been reminded that Jesus cannot become sin. Additionally, we never see transference of sin from the sinner to the sin offering in the Bible.

The altar is holy. The Temple and Tabernacle are holy. These things cannot come in contact with something that is unholy. This is why a perfect animal or fine flour must be burnt upon the altar. We do see the guilty man place his hands upon the head of the sacrifice (i.e.: Leviticus 1:4) but this is to show ownership (i.e.: “this is my sacrifice”) and not to transfer sin.

The only time sin is transferred to an animal is in the case of the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. However, the scapegoat is not sacrificed, but presented living to God (Leviticus 16:20-22). The idea of sin transference to a sin offering is not Biblical.

How Does the Bible Use “Sin” and “Sin Offering”?

Our first example comes from the Old Testament. In Exodus 29:14 we read:

But the flesh of the bull and its hide and its refuse, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering.

The Hebrew word used here for “sin offering” is the same word for “sin”. In fact, it is used 182 times as “sin” and 166 times as “sin offering”. In other words, the Hebrew word “sin” often stands for the idea of “sin offering”.

We see the same thing in the New Testament. In Romans 8:3, we read:

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh,

The word “offering” is not in the Greek, only the word “hamartia”, which is Greek for “sin”. In other words, Paul has used the Greek word for “sin” in the same way the Old Testament writers did: substituting the single word “sin” for the concept of “sin offering” (for more information regarding metonymy, read here). If we were to be consistent, we should have 2 Corinthians 5:12 and Romans 8:3 coincide. Either:

sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, – Romans 8:3
God made him who had no sin to be an offering for sin for us – 2 Corinthians 5:21

Or

sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin – Romans 8:3
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us – 2 Corinthians 5:21

Whichever way you choose, the bottom line is the meaning of the passage, not the English translation. Quite clearly, Jesus could not become sin. Nor did God send His own Son…for sin. Therefore, it makes sense that Paul is saying that Jesus became a sin offering, taking on the role of the Old Testament sacrifice of atonement  – the Sin Offering (John 1:29, Romans 3:24-25, 1 John 2:2).

 

[1] Often we hear that Cain’s sacrifice was rejected by God because it was bloodless. This is not true. A Grain Offering was pleasing to God. Cain’s was rejected because it was not perfect. Nor was it of the first fruits. In other words, he did not give God his best nor his first but simply whatever was leftover.

[2] “The Word was made flesh” seems to me to be equivalent to that in which it is said that he was made sin or a curse for us; not that the Lord was transformed into either of these—how could he be? But because by taking them upon him he took away our sins and bore our iniquities. – Gregory of Nazianzus, Letters on the Apollinarian Controversy, To Cledonius (101)

So, was the Lord turned into sin? Not so, but since he assumed our sins, he is called sin. For the Lord is also called an accursed thing, not because the Lord was turned into an accursed thing but because he himself took on our curse. – Ambrose, The Sacrament of the Incarnation of Our Lord, 6.60, in Fathers of the Church, Volume 44

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