St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5 has an odd expression, in which he says that God the Father made Christ, who knew no sin, “to be sin.” What on earth does that mean? Here’s the context (2 Cor. 5:17-21):
Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
I. What Christ Becoming Sin Means
If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: “sin” is the term that the Jews used for sin offerings. The Hebrew word חַטָּאָת (chatta’ath) means both “sin” and “sin offering.” In the KJV, it’s translated as “sin” 182 times, and as “sin offering” 116 times. Just in case you’re not inclined to click that link to Strong’s Concordance, here’s the most important part:
So another way of making St. Paul’s point is to say that Christ, who is sinless, was made our sin offering.
So Paul’s not calling Christ evil. That’s crucial. Sin is evil, and so calling Christ “sin” (in the way we use the word) would be calling Him evil, an obvious heresy (particularly since Paul just said that Christ is sinless). Calling Him our sin offering, on the other hand, is completely orthodox. Christ died for our sins: that’s the foundation of Christian theology.
The Church Fathers knew this, by the way. The 4th-century Ambrosiaster points out that “in view of the fact that he was made an offering for sins, it is not wrong for him to be said to have been made ‘sin,’ because in the law the sacrifice which was offered for sins used to be called a ‘sin.’” And since Latin, like Hebrew, uses the same word for a sin and a sin offering, they weren’t prone to misunderstand the verse in the same way we English-speakers are.
The second most important point to remember: Not only was the sin offering not rejected by God, it was one of extremely few things permitted in the Holy of Holies. Moses scolds Eleazar and Ithamar in Leviticus 10:17-18 for not eating the sin offering in the innermost part of the sanctuary, on account of its holiness:
“Why have you not eaten the sin offering in the place of the sanctuary, since it is a thing most holy and has been given to you that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord? Behold, its blood was not brought into the inner part of the sanctuary. You certainly ought to have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.”
Even the high priest Aaron was only allowed to come before the Ark of the Covenant once a year (Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement) with a sin offering (Lev. 16:2-3, 34). Centuries later, Ezekiel would see a prophetic vision of the coming Temple, in which the sin offering retains its place of holiness (Ez. 42:13-14):
Then he said to me, “The north chambers and the south chambers opposite the yard are the holy chambers, where the priests who approach the Lord shall eat the most holy offerings; there they shall put the most holy offerings—the cereal offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering, for the place is holy. When the priests enter the holy place, they shall not go out of it into the outer court without laying there the garments in which they minister, for these are holy; they shall put on other garments before they go near to that which is for the people.”
So Jesus is being equated to the sacred sin offering, the holiest sacrifice that the Jews offered. And this sacrificial offering was pleasing to God, so much so that He permitted into the innermost sanctum, before the Holy of Holies.
II. What Christ Becoming Sin Doesn’t Mean
So the last two points were pretty straightforward, but require understanding the odd way that Jews would use “sin” to mean both sin itself, and the payment for it. The closest English analogies that I can think of are to terms like “check” and “bill,” which each mean both a debt and a payment for a debt. When theologians don’t know this, they produce disastrous theologies. Let me give you a few examples:
Jeremy Myers of Redeeming God misunderstands the verse this way:
On the cross, Jesus is both the most beautiful thing the world has ever seen, and the most loathsome. Jesus is the most righteous and the most sinful. The cross of Jesus is full of love and horror.
Love, because of what Jesus did, but horror, because of what Jesus became: He became sin. This is the truth of 2 Corinthians 5:21. Jesus became sin for us. God made Him to be sin. Jesus was despised, rejected, and loathed (Isa 53:2-6). People looked upon Him with revulsion. Even God rejected Him (Matt 27:46).
Yikes! Obviously, such a statement misunderstands 2 Corinthians 5:21. It views Jesus as becoming the offense of sin, rather than the sin offering, and it view Jesus as rejected by God. when He is the Beloved Son (2 Peter 1:17) and also is God (John 1:1). So no, God didn’t reject Himself, nor did the Holy Trinity tear Itself apart.
Ron Rhodes of Christian Research Institute gives other examples of Protestants who interpret this verse heretically:
Based on this verse, for example, the Christadelphians argue that Jesus had to engage in self-redemption before seeking to redeem the rest of humanity: “He himself required a sin offering”; He “saved himself in order to save us.”
Word-Faith leaders take a different—though even more heretical—spin on the verse. Kenneth Copeland, for example, asserts that Jesus “had to give up His righteousness” and “accepted the sin nature of Satan.” Benny Hinn likewise declares that Jesus “did not take my sin; He became my sin….He became one with the nature of Satan.”
But when folks like Kenneth Copeland claim that 2 Corinthians 5:21 means that Jesus “had to give up His righteousness,” they’re standing in an older (still very wrong) Protestant tradition. Charles Spurgeon (1834-92), one of the most famous 19th century Protestant preachers and theologians, thought that the verse meant that:
God lays upon the spotless Savior, the sin of the guilty, so that He becomes, in the expressive language of the text, sin. Then He takes off from the innocent Savior His righteousness and puts that to the account of the once guilty sinners, so that the sinners become righteousness—righteousness of the highest and most divine source—the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.
Leave aside for a moment the fact that it’s impossible for Jesus Christ to lay aside (or have stripped from Him) His righteousness, being perfectly God and man. A Christ stripped of righteousness wouldn’t be capable of atoning for our sins. The whole point is that the sin offering is something wonderful and acceptable (even pleasing!) to God, not something God hates.
This also explains why Kendall Easley of The Gospel Coalition is wrong in claiming that “God treated Jesus as if he were sin itself.” But no, the whole point of the sin offering is that it was holy, extremely holy, and could therefore be in the presence of the Holy of Holies. That’s not how sin is treated. This is why Scripture repeatedly emphasizes that the sin offering has to be unblemished (Leviticus 4:3, 4:32, 9:2-3, Numbers 6:14, Ezekiel 43:22, etc.). The sin offering is externally pure as a sign of its holiness, and as a prefigurement of the perfect, sinless sin offering, Jesus Christ. So claiming that Jesus is treated as sin is 100% wrong.
Speaking of Kenneth Copeland, it’s worth reading the relevant portion of his sermon on the subject, just to see the danger of bad theology:
He Who knew no sin was made to be sin. He did the same thing that Adam did in the Garden of Eden! He made Himself obedient to death and put Himself into the hands of God’s enemy, Satan. Only He did it—He committed this act not by treason, but by choice. He did it in order to pay the price for Adam’s treason.
He put Himself and made Himself obedient unto death, and the same thing happened to Him that happened to Adam—spiritual death!
Now, listen. If it had been a physical death only, it wouldn’t have worked. And if He hadn’t died spiritually, that body never would have died.
He’s accusing Jesus of committing the sin of Adam, and dying a spiritual death, making Himself obedient to Satan. Without wanting to throw the word around lightly, that’s seriously heretical.
But here again, the heretical claim is actually rooted in an older Protestant tradition. Here we find the Reformer John Calvin likewise claiming that Jesus died spiritually, in order to feel the weight of (His own??) divine vengeance:
Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death. We lately quoted from the Prophet, that the “chastisement of our peace was laid upon him” that he “was bruised for our iniquities” that he “bore our infirmities;” expressions which intimate, that, like a sponsor and surety for the guilty, and, as it were, subjected to condemnation, he undertook and paid all the penalties which must have been exacted from them, the only exception being, that the pains of death could not hold him. Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God.
Most of the Protestant theologians in question are simply ignorant, having inherited bad theology and having encountered an admittedly-baffling (and shocking) expression in 2 Corinthians 5:21. But Calvin is actually consciously breaking with tradition on this point. He writes in his commentary on the passage:
It is commonly remarked, that sin here denotes an expiatory sacrifice for sin, and in the same way the Latin’s term it, piaculum. Paul, too, has in this, and other passages, borrowed this phrase from the Hebrews, among whom ‘sm (asham) denotes an expiatory sacrifice, as well as an offense or crime. But the signification of this word, as well as the entire statement, will be better understood from a comparison of both parts of the antithesis. […] What, on the other hand, is denoted by sin? It is the guilt, on account of which we are arraigned at the bar of God. As, however, the curse of the individual was of old cast upon the victim, so Christ’s condemnation was our absolution, and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5.)
In other words, he recognizes that the normal reading of “made sin” for those familiar with Hebrew idioms, is to be made a sin offering. But Calvin thinks he knows better, and that we should read it as Christ’s condemnation. So Calvin actually breaks with the common Christian view before the Reformation (the view of the Fathers, and the view of those familiar with Jewish idioms), and he imposes a new interpretation of the passage that requires Christ’s condemnation to Hell. And we find this heretical view springing up in Protestant theology ever since.
Jesus became our sin offering, which is what St. Paul meant by the phrase “becoming sin.” As a sin offering, He was, is, and always shall be (a) without blemish, (b) unspeakably holy, (c) beloved by His Father, (d) acceptable and pleasing within His sight, and (e) able to go within the Holy of Holies. The Church Fathers got this.
Unfortunately, many Protestants, from Calvin and Spurgeon to Copeland and The Gospel Coalition, have screwed this up and come to heretical conclusions, thinking that Jesus being made sin means He was stripped of His righteousness (the very thing that gives His Sacrifice value), became repugnant to the Father, or even that He took on a sinful nature and/or suffered spiritual death. Such views are incompatible with any remotely-orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity, of Christ’s sinlessness, and of His unmingled divine and human natures.