It’s Easter time when Christians direct their attentions to the Cross and meditate on the redemptive work of Christ. As I listen to young preachers deliver their messages this Easter season, it has come to my attention, and is increasingly obvious to me, that many do not seem to have a firm footing in Orthodox theology and do not appear to have a firm grasp of the doctrine of atonement and the implications surrounding the redemptive work of Christ. They simply have not studied enough or meditated on the implications of the event.
What seems to be the cause of confusion for many unstudied preachers is Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:21 which states:
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
–2 Corinthians 5:211
On the surface, the English translation of this ancient text appears to say that Christ actually became sin for us. One young preacher actually suggested that “Jesus took on all of the evil of humanity…[and] took upon Himself our sin like a disease allowing Himself to be infected so he could be our cure.”
So, here’s the question, “Did Christ actually bear in His body the sins of humanity on the cross?” This is the question this article will venture to answer. What we will find is that when we apply the appropriate hermeneutical concerns, we find this verse says something quite different from what we may have originally believed it to say.
Scripture Asserting the Sinless Nature of Jesus Christ
The Scriptures assert the absolute purity and holiness of God’s anointed Messiah, the Christ. Moreover, the biblical writers of the New Testament maintain the sinless nature of Jesus Christ, as it was necessary for the lamb to be slain for the sins of the world to be spotless, blameless and without sin.
Scriptures asserting the sinless nature of Jesus Christ are:
You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.
–1 John 3:5
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever.
The New Testament writers, upholding the deity of Christ, were in agreement about the sinlessness of Christ and His pure and holy nature. Even so, Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21, asserts the sinless nature of Christ, and the same with the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 1:19. The concept of a sinless messiah also appears in other extant texts such as the Psalms of Solomon (17:36) and Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (T. Jud. 24:1; T. Benj. 3:8).2
Paul held the Christ to be the image and glory of God. And through the epithet “Lord” in the primitive confession of the early Jesus movement, Jesus Christ is associated with the divine name found in the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh (yhwh, יהוה) the proper name of Israel’s deity, and the Septuagint, kyrios (κύριος) master, and Lord (deity).3
With this, it is surprising to find a rising number of “next generation” preachers who based on their misinterpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21, forcefully assert that Jesus “took on the evil of humanity” and like a disease allowing Himself to be infected with sin. On the surface without much study, one may believe these conclusions to be accurate; however, we must ask ourselves when drawing these conclusions, Does this make sense intertextually with the whole of Scripture? Is this what the volume of the book, the Bible, tells us about Christ?
Did Jesus Take Upon Himself the Evil of Humanity?
The Bible does not set out to explain evil, nor is it interested in philosophical answers to the problem of evil. When we are faced with evil, or suffering, or pain, or injustice, what most of us want is not clever arguments, but action. And this is the approach the Bible takes. It sets out to tell us not so much what God says about evil, but what God has done about evil.
The Bible tells the story of the one event in history where these themes all converged. It is the story how God sent his son, Jesus Christ, and how the powers of evil did their worst to him on a cross hanging on a Judean hillside. Because of his great love for us, Jesus chose to submit to the worst that evil could do to him. Suffering and pain led to death. In the death of Jesus, God condemned evil and passed sentence on it (Romans 8:3). Evil did its worst to Jesus and was exhausted, death had no more power (1 Cor 15:54). This is why Jesus rose from the dead (2 Tim 1:10). Jesus’ resurrection was no random miracle. The resurrection happened because evil had been defeated, sin forgiven, and forgiveness and freedom made possible.4
Through Christ’s atonement on the cross, evil was exhausted, but at no time did evil enter into the body or nature of Christ. Evil was judged on the cross but did not enter into Jesus. If Christ had taken upon Himself the evil of humanity, He would have been disqualified from the position of Messiah, the sacrificial paschal lamb (the lamb sacrificed at Passover), as He would have been an unworthy sacrifice.
In our subject text, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul begins with “the One who has never known sin.” The verb “known” connotes knowledge that has been acquired by personal participation; while the expression presents a timeless truth, the emphasis rests on Christ’s sinlessness in his incarnation.5 Presented another way, Christ did not know sin—He had not experienced it or committed any sin—of any kind. The significance of this fact for the present verse has to do with Christ being a fit, an “unblemished,” substitutionary sacrifice for sins. If Christ had been imbued with the evil of humanity, it would have disqualified him from being “the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” (Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29; 1 Peter 1:19). The quality prerequisite for the paschal lamb sacrifice was to be spotless and without blemish of any kind (Lev 5:18; Numbers 6:14; Ezekiel 46:4, 6; cf. Colossians 1:22). It simply would not make sense, and is a gross overstatement, to say that Jesus Christ took upon Himself the evil of humanity.
Did Jesus Take Our Sin Upon Himself like a Disease Allowing Himself to be Infected?
Did Jesus take our sins upon Himself like one is infected by disease?
What Paul stresses is that God made this sinless one to be sin for our sake. Various interpretations have been suggested for this profound statement:
(a) Christ was made a sinner,
(b) Christ was made a sin-offering,
(c) Christ was made to bear the consequences of our sins.
The first suggestion is rightly rejected from the onset for the above reasons. The second proposal can be supported by appeal to Paul’s use of sacrificial terminology elsewhere to bring out the significance of Christ’s death (e.g. Rom. 3:25; 1 Cor. 5:7). It has also been pointed out that in Leviticus 4:24 and 5:12 (LXX) the same word, ‘sin’ (hamartia), is used to mean ‘sin-offering’. However, with only one possible exception (Rom. 8:3), the word is never used in this way in the New Testament, and it is doubtful whether it carries that meaning here.
According to Colin Kruse in his commentary on 2 Corinthians, “The understanding of Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sin is certainly Pauline, but it is probably not the best way of understanding the present statement.”6 Kruse goes on in support of the third proposal in which Christ was made to bear the consequences of the sins of humanity. Kruse states:
That Christ was made to bear the consequences of the sins of humanity is to be preferred and is supported by the fact that Paul in Galatians 3:13 interprets the work of Christ in terms of his bearing the consequences of our sins: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed be every one who hangs on tree” ’. This interpretation is further supported by the fact that the statement, he made him to be sin who knew no sin (v. 21a) is balanced in antithetical parallelism by the words, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. We must construe the former in such a way that the latter is understood as its antithetical counterpart.
Christians are no more, literally speaking, the righteousness of God than Jesus literally became the sins of humanity. When one believes In Christ as their savior they are credited Christ’s righteousness to their account (Phil 3:9), but they do not receive His righteousness in such a way that it is coursing through their veins. When I first heard a young preacher explain the imputation of sin on Christ, as if Jesus was actually infected by disease, it was startling and very troubling indeed. While there are a number of Scriptures that on the surface appear to support the concept of Christ being saturated by the sins of the world, the idea simply cannot be sustained when applying the correct interpretive principles.
Scripture frequently says that our sins were put on Christ: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6), and “He bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). John the Baptist calls Jesus “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Paul declares that God made Christ “to be sin” (2 Cor. 5:21) and that Christ became “a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). The author of Hebrews says that Christ was “offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28). And Peter says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). The passage from 2 Corinthians quoted above, together with the verses from Isaiah, indicate that it was God the Father who put our sins on Christ. But how could this be?
The Grammatical Metonymy
1 Peter 2:24 affirms that Christ “his own self bears our sins in his body upon the tree.” But Peter’s declaration can hardly mean that the Lord became infected with sin while upon the cross. The apostle already had declared that Jesus died as “a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:19). If the Lord died, having absorbed sin, Peter’s previous language becomes meaningless. What, then, is the explanation of these passages?
They involve a common biblical figure of speech known as metonymy.7 William Shedd in his Dogmatic Theology defines a metonymy as, “a figure of speech in which one part of something is put in place of another. For example, soul may be referenced when actually body is in view.”8 In this figure, a subject is named when in reality something associated with the subject is intended. Any good textbook on hermeneutics (the science of Bible interpretation) will provide plenty of illustrations for this figure of speech.
There are a number of instances of this grammatical device used by the biblical writers of the New Testament. Since figurative language and typology are not the topic of this article, only a few instances of these will be mentioned.
Luke provides us with Jesus’ telling of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. If you recall, at the end of the story we read Abraham saying, “‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them’” (Luke 16:29). Now, the people did not have Moses with them, or even his bones, nor did they have the prophets literally with them. But here the name “Moses” (the author of the Pentateuch) clearly serves as a metonymy for the writings he produced. Therefore, this was simply a figure of speech used by Jesus calling them to remember the traditions of Moses and the Prophets (Plummer, 2010, p. 229).
Similarly, Paul in his letters would sometimes use, “the cross” as a metonymy for the atoning death of Jesus. In Galatians 6:14, Paul writes, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” Now, we know the cross had no intrinsic value in and of itself, but value was attributed to it because of the one, Jesus Christ, and His atoning work performed on the cross. But rather than say all of that, Paul simply refers to the “the cross.” Again, a metonymy—he says one thing, referring to another more detailed concept. Paul does the same thing in Philippians 3:18 where talks about “enemies of the cross of Christ.” We know they are not merely enemies of “the cross,” an inanimate thing, but they are enemies of what it stands for, the atoning work of Christ.
Paul, uses the same grammatical device in Ephesians 6:17 referring to “the sword of the Spirit.” The term and theme of the “sword of the Spirit” has deep roots in Scripture. In Isaiah the prophet writes concerning the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, who has a “mouth like a sharp sword.” In Hosea 6:5, the prophet, speaking for God, says “…I have slain them by the words of My mouth.” In Revelation 1:16, out of the mouth of the Son of Man “came a sharp two-edged sword…” In each reference a metonymy was employed when the sword is used figuratively to refer to the Word of God. Christians employ the metonymy when they refer to their Bibles as “swords.” Although this term draws from the Scriptural reference in Hebrews 4:12, “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword…” Nevertheless, modern-day Christians evoke the same grammatical rule today.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard Christ referred to as a “firm foundation,” an “anchor,” or “a rock” (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:4). Each one being grounded in church tradition and referring back to Jesus Christ Himself. Most interpreters are in agreement “the rock” (1 Cor 10:4; cf. Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:11) comes from a long line of Jewish tradition (see the works of Philo: see Alleg. Interp. 2.86; Worse is Wont to Attack the Better, 118).
Concerning “the rock,” the majority of interpreters see Paul pointing to Christ’s pre-existence prior to His incarnation and showing how Christ served as a source of life for the Israelites in the wilderness. While the water from the rock was no doubt a miraculous work of God, most interpreters view Paul’s comments about the rock to be figurative as “the rock” foreshadowed and pointed to Christ. Even Paul, when he writes says it was a “spiritual drink” from a “spiritual rock” (1 Cor 10:4). Christ Himself did not appear in the form of a rock to provide water to Israel. Although interpretation was varied among earlier interpreters, Augustine provides the clearest statement concerning the substance of the rock. In his City of God, St. Augustine writes, “All symbols seem in some way to personify the realities of which they are symbols. So, St. Paul says, “The rock was Christ,” because the rock in question symbolized Christ” (City of God 18.46.)
According to Spiros Zodhiates, when Peter writes about Jesus bearing our sins in His body, which is a near exact quote of Isaiah 53:6 from the Septuagint, Peter’s intent and meaning of what he is saying is that Jesus was being treated as if He were a sinner.9 Peter’s statement, that the Savior “bore our sins” (1 Pet. 2:24), does not suggest that the Lord carried the “guilt” of human sin in his body personally. Here the term “sins” conveys the sense of the penalty of sin that we justly deserved. Dr. Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology explains it in this way:
In the same way in which Adam’s sins were imputed to us, so God imputed our sins to Christ; that is, he thought of them as belonging to Christ and, since God is the ultimate judge and definer of what really is in the universe, when God thought of our sins as belonging to Christ then in fact they actually did belong to Christ. This does not mean that God thought that Christ had himself committed the sins, or that Christ himself actually had a sinful nature, but rather that the guilt for our sins (that is, the liability to punishment) was thought of by God as belonging to Christ rather than to us.”10
The sin with which Christ totally identified himself was extrinsic to him, not intrinsic. He was without any acquaintance with sin that might have come through his ever having a sinful attitude or doing a sinful act. Both inwardly and outwardly he was impeccable.
Dr. Murray Harris, writing about the imputation of sin and righteousness states:
The one who was devoid of sin took the place of those who were devoid of righteousness when he bore the consequences of their sin. As a result, they gain the right standing before God that they lacked. The purpose and result of God’s causing Christ “to be sin” was that in Christ believers “might become the righteousness of God,” i.e., might become justified or righteous in the sight of God by being in Christ, who is their righteousness (1 Co 1:30).11
According to Harris, the imputation of our sins onto Christ and His righteousness imputed onto us is a judicial declaration and not an actual infusing of these characteristics.
Bullinger, interpreting 2 Corinthians 5:21, applying the grammatical function of metonymy, interprets the passage to read, “Christ became a ‘sin offering for us.’”12 Christ could not be sin; He was wholly without sin; and the only way for the language to be true is by the use of this form of metonymy. He became a sin-offering for us.
Gregory of Nazianzus in his Theological Orations 5 put it this way:
But look at it in this manner; that as for my sake he was called a curse who destroyed my curse, and sin who takes away the sin of the world, and became a new Adam to take the place of the old, just so he makes my disobedience his own as head of the whole body.13
My mentors, Drs. Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes, who are both highly respected biblical scholars, both concur:
Jesus was always without sin actually, but He was made to be sin for us judicially. That is, by His death on the cross, He paid the penalty for our sins and thereby cancelled the debt of sin against us. So, while Jesus never committed a sin personally, He was made to be sin for us substitutionally.14
Simply stated, the Scriptures do not teach that Christ died as a sinner or that he in any sense had absorbed the evil of humanity and sin or was infected by it. That theory is an error that results from sectarian theology and incorrect interpretive techniques that fail to properly identify the figurative language used by the biblical writers.
- All Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.
- James A. Waddell, The Messiah: A Comparative Study of the Enochic Son of Man and the Pauline Kyrios, ed. James H. Charlesworth, vol. 10, Jewish and Christian Texts in Contexts and Related Studies Series (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 142.
- Jonathan Lo, “Deity,” ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).
- Andy Bannister, “‘Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?,’” ed. Wayne A. Detzler, Christian Apologetics Journal 9, no. 2 (2011): 75.
- George H. Guthrie, 2 Corinthians. Edited by Robert W. Yarbrough and Robert H. Stein. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015, p. 313.
- Colin G. Kruse, 2 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 8. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987, p. 127).
- See Wayne Jackson, “Did Christ Literally Bear Our Sins on the Cross?” ChristianCourier.com, access date: April 11, 2020, https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1512-did-christ-literally-bear-our-sins-on-the-cross
- William Greenough Thayer Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed. Alan W. Gomes, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 2003), 957.
- Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000).
- Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004, 573-574.
- Murray J. Harris, “2 Corinthians.” In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition), edited by Tremper Longman III & Garland, David E. Vol. 11. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008, p. 482
- Ethelbert William Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. London; New York: Eyre & Spottiswoode; E. & J. B. Young & Co., 1898, 584.
- Gregory of Nazianzus, “Theological Oration 5,” in Gerald Lewis Bray, ed., 1–2 Corinthians, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 253.
- See Ron Rhodes, “How Was Jesus ‘Made’ Sin?” CRI: Christian Research Institute (Oct 8, 2010, accessed on April 10, 2020, https://www.equip.org/article/how-was-jesus-made-sin/ and Norman L. Geisler, Thomas Howe, Thomas Howe, and Norman L. Geisler. Making Sense of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009, 2 Corinthians 5:21.
For Further Reading
Ron Rhodes, “How Was Jesus ‘Made’ Sin?” CRI: Christian Research Institute (Oct 8, 2010, accessed on April 10, 2020, https://www.equip.org/article/how-was-jesus-made-sin/
Kendell Easley, “Jesus Was Not a Sinner But Became Sin,” The Gospel Coalition, Feb 17, 2014, accessed on April 11, 2020, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/jesus-was-not-a-sinner-but-became-sin/
Wayne Jackson, “Did Christ Literally Bear Our Sins on the Cross?” ChristianCourier.com, access date: April 11, 2020. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1512-did-christ-literally-bear-our-sins-on-the-cross
Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible. Edited by Benjamin L. Merkle. 40 Questions Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2010).