Question: What does it mean that Jesus became sin?
Answer: We Christians generally understand that Jesus bore our sins on the cross. In fact, whether or not we are biblically conversant, we are likely comfortable with that notion because we understand it to some degree. But what does it mean that Jesus became sin? That concept is neither easy nor comfortable! So let us begin with the Apostle Paul’s singular use of this term in 2 Corinthians chapter 5.
“Therefore, if anyone 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, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore 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.” (2 Corinthians 5:17–21, ESV)
As you can see, Paul made this statement in the context of teaching about reconciliation. This is a broader topic, but one we must consider to answer our question honestly. Reconciliation requires that two transfers be accomplished. First, it transfers the righteousness of Jesus Christ onto us—and this is wonderful! Second, (and more germane to today’s discussion) reconciliation requires the transfer of our sins onto the person of Jesus Christ. This too is wonderful…yet gravely so, because to accomplish this, Jesus had to offer himself up to be sacrificed. His blood would be shed just as surely as that of the sacrificial animals of old, yet with perfect efficacy in atonement, and therefore, never to be repeated (Heb. 6:4-6). These concepts are broadly accepted. But this is not true concerning 2 Corinthians 5:21 where we have a great theological divide. Is Paul saying that Jesus became literal sin, that is, sin itself? Or was he reaffirming that Jesus was a sin offering and not sin itself?
Those who support the literal rendering must answer to its apparent violations of God’s holiness—especially as it relates to Christ’s position in the Trinity, while those who believe that Paul meant sin offering and not sin itself must explain their way around the syntax, because the Greek plainly says sin and not sin offering. Syntax notwithstanding, this latter is my opinion…and here I fight giants. So please consider the following to be a personal opinion only.
My first thought is not theological. It is that of a simple man just reading the passage in English, and it is this: If Paul were to teach a new doctrine (and, unless you’ve heard of this someplace else in the Bible, that is what this is) he would be ill advised to do it by introducing a new phrase, limiting that phrase to a single mention and placing the phrase in a spot that is beyond its passage’s conclusion. If his intention was to show us something new, then Paul—the preeminent expounder of doctrine—failed. That would be singular…and that would be unlikely. I find it more plausible that Paul used this new phrase casually and stylistically, balancing one “being” against the other: Jesus became sin, we became righteous. He used parallel terms to describe an existing orthodoxy, that Jesus was the ultimate atonement for the sins of humankind. He was not forging a new doctrine.
My second thought is also not theological—just logical. This extreme concept, the one of Jesus becoming sin itself, does not match its purported purpose. Becoming sin does not atone for sin; the shedding of blood does (Heb. 9:22). If we humans were also sin itself, then I could see some sense to Jesus also becoming sin. But we are not. Yes, we humans are intrinsically sinful, but we are not intrinsically sin. And since reconciling humanity is the overarching reason for Jesus’ sacrifice (Tit. 2:14), I see no reason for a methodology that allows a mismatch between the benefactor and the blessed.
My third thought is a little more theological. The Levitical law required that the offender place his hand upon the head of the sacrifice thereby transferring his guilt and sin onto the animal. We believers do this to Jesus the moment that we place our faith in him. However, we do not transfer our personal characteristics onto him, just our guilt and sin—our load! And to address that load, Jesus’ action must match our action. We transfer, he bears…but he does not become. It is not reasonable to me that the Eternal Redeemer, sharing immutability with all the members of the Godhead, would change—and do it in such a way as to become sin. I find it equally unreasonable that he would have been sin itself for all eternity. If the Levitical sacrifices do not connect with Jesus Christ, then the Bible lies! And what is the nature of this connection? It is blood for blood—the transference of guilt—not of character.
“He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” (Leviticus 1:4, ESV)
“he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12, ESV)
My fourth reason is overtly theological. Jesus becoming sin rubs against some rock solid doctrines. It violates the Trinity. In effect, it kicks Jesus out! There is a huge difference between the Father “turning his back” on Jesus as he took the penalty for sin (Mat. 27:46), and the Father being in the presence of sin itself (Hab. 1:13; 1 John 1:5), and this is what would happen within the Trinity if Jesus became sin as some understand it. Such a construct would violate God’s holiness. We must understand that the Godhead, although identifiable by certain distinctions, never ceases to be a unity. The assets of one are the assets of all, and the Godhead is, in the whole as well as in its distinctions, holy. But just as all the persons in the Godhead share their assets, they would also share their deficiencies…except, of course…they have none! (This by definition.) If Jesus became sin intrinsically, he would bring sin itself into the Godhead, and this would violate God’s holiness. Additionally, such a construct runs counter to long-established Trinitarian orthodoxies, and we are all (on some level) the gatekeepers of orthodoxy. This is why I protest against Jesus becoming sin.
Dealing with the immediate text is our first responsibility as Bible interpreters, but, as you can see, we have left the text itself and have made its interpretation subject to doctrine. Be warned: much mayhem befalls exegesis when we force interpretations through already set notions! That being said, we cannot interpret every biblical utterance independently. But rather, we must consider every other utterance also, and we must determine how they all fit together to form a whole work. This process is called synergy, and it underpins every piece of writing. What does this mean for Bible interpretation? The synergy of the Scriptures demands that no single part may impugn the whole, and I feel that Jesus becoming sin does just that.
In a complex work like the Bible we often express the results of synergy as doctrines, statements of faith, confessions and the like. These concentrate the Bible’s essence into manageable forms. But these are mere tools; they are not the Bible itself, and they should not supplant its study. But if these are carefully and prayerfully crafted, we can use them to keep at abeyance any notions that stray too far away from the heart of Scripture, and that is what I do with this notion of Jesus becoming sin. For me, it simply violates too many time-tested doctrines. Combining this with its singular mention in Scripture, I find that it is too fragile to be absorbed into orthodoxy.
Let us look at biblical typology as my fifth and final consideration. Typology does not solve every issue, but those who support positions that oppose it must answer to it. A type is specialized symbol that connects an Old Testament element with its New Testament referent, called the antitype. If Jesus were to be made sin itself, he would violate some of the Bible’s strongest typology. The Levitical law required that a sacrificial lamb be without blemish or spot (Lev. 22:20), and few would argue that this purity points to the sinlessness of Jesus Christ. Now, this typology would crumble if Jesus, the antitype, was a spotted or blemished Lamb—but a bigger problem looms. He would be the spot itself! And I cannot abide this.
“knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18–19, ESV)
Is it important to differentiate between Jesus being a sin sacrifice and being sin itself? Yes and no. I’ve made arguments in this document that say that it is indeed important. However, it is more important to understand the fact of the atonement rather than the particulars of the atonement. Salvation depends on the person of Jesus Christ…not on the arguments about him. This we know: He took our sin to the cross, and we who believe on him are thereby free from sin’s condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Frankly, it doesn’t matter how he did it. That he did it is everything.
I thank God for his patience—both with sinners and with theologians (who are not different by category). Come soon Lord Jesus.