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Second Corinthians 5:21a is the focus of this investigation. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us."[1] This study seeks to answer the question: "What are the implications of a strictly literal interpretation of this verse for cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith?" This paper primarily considers aspects of systematic theology due to assignment constraints and because a "systematic understanding of the Bible contributes to the exegesis of individual passages."[2]

Well-known and respected personalities teach that Jesus Christ, God the Son, became literal sin. This poses a challenge for the student of the Bible. Because the following quotes are not from unknown or uneducated men, a student's natural tendency could be to accept them. It might be uncomfortable standing against what a renowned scholar or gifted writer teaches. However, Grant R. Osborne discourages the mindless acceptance and repetition of others. He writes that Christians should research "critically rather than uncritically."[3] Serious misinterpretations of the Word of God call for serious critique. The doctrine of Christ's atonement is paramount. "There is no salvation without it;" therefore, "on the doctrine of Christ's sacrificial atonement there must be conviction without compromise" (emphasis added).[4] This paper cites prominent personalities with whom the student of the Word must not compromise.

Martin Luther et al

Martin Luther taught that "Christ was made sin itself" and was "the greatest transgressor" (emphasis added).[5] These ideas continue into the present day. Jack Kelly instructs his readers that Jesus became the "physical embodiment of sin" (emphasis added).[6] Max Lucado declares, "The Spotless Lamb was blemished" (emphasis added).[7] He also proclaims that Jesus "became sin, the very object God hates."[8] Speaking at a Conference in 2008, R. C. Sproul shared:

Obscene, obscene. If there ever was an obscenity that violates contemporary community standards, it was Jesus on the cross, because after he became the scapegoat and the Father imputes to him every sin of every one of his people, we see the most intense, dense, concentration of evil ever experienced on this planet. Jesus was the ultimate obscenity. And so what happened? The Bible tells us that God is too holy to even look at sin, and he cannot bear to look at this concentrated, monumental, condensation of evil. And his eyes are averted from his son (emphasis added).[9]

Sproul's sermon so impressed Tim Challies that he wrote about it in his blog the same day. He declared, "It was easily one of the most powerful sermons I've ever heard." He went on to repeat one of Sproul's statements from the same message: "When Jesus was forsaken by God, when He bore the curse, it was as if Jesus heard the words 'God damn you.'"[10]

The student must interpret a biblical passage "in a way that accords with its central teaching."[11] These and related allegations require rebuttal. This paper is a small part of the critical analysis needed. This critique looks at three things: the doctrine of the holiness of God, the concept of the inseparability and inseparable operation of the Trinity, and scriptural mandates regarding Levitical sacrifice.

The Holiness of God

Holiness is one of God's attributes. "Freedom from impurity is the primary idea of the word" (emphasis added).[12] God's inherent holiness cannot change. The Old Testament (Malachi 3:6) and the New Testament (Hebrews 13:8) speak of God's unchangeableness. John Frame points out that God is not only infinite and eternal, he "doesn't change in any of his essential attributes."[13] In fact, not one of the attributes of God "exists without the others. So each attribute has divine attributes."[14] God's holiness is infinite and unchanging. Lewis Sperry Chafer explains that it is "intrinsic, un-created, and untarnishable" (emphasis added).[15]

Wayne Grudem defines sin as the direct "opposite to all that is good in the character of God."[16] This concept of sin stands in stark contradiction to the intrinsic, untarnishable holiness of God.

Jesus is holy because he is God.[17] The law of non-contradiction alone precludes the possibility of God becoming sin. Something cannot be one thing and its opposite at the same time; this is a "first principle and the firmest principle."[18] Jesus cannot be both holy and sin. This is impossible even for a small window of time during his crucifixion.

This paper is too limited to review grammar, syntax, and semantics related to the translation of 2 Corinthians 5:21a. Therefore, it looks at the word in question just briefly. It is true that the Greek word used (hamartia) in the verse means sin. It is also true that the student must look for the simplest sense of a text.[19] However, he should not forget the importance of "enlightened common sense."[20] Adam Clarke explained that hamartia must be translated as sin offering in 2 Corinthians 5:21a. He declared that those who profess Jesus became sin "have confounded sin with the punishment due to sin," and referred to the resulting theories as "blasphemous."[21]

Luther had the solution but rejected it. He wrote that the text "may be properly explained by saying that Christ was made a sacrifice."[22] Pritchard also acknowledges this fact.[23] It is unfortunate that neither chose that option. Jesus was not literal sin; he was the holy, unblemished sin offering. Believers "were redeemed . . . with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (emphasis added, 1 Peter 1:18-19). 

The Trinity: Inseparability and Inseparable Operation

The doctrine of the Trinity is central to the Christian's understanding of God. Jesus, God the Son, is the Second Person of the Trinity. "God is three persons. Each person is fully God. There is one God."[24]  In a review of Augustine's De Trinitate, Michael Ovey uses great care to explain the concept of inseparability and inseparable operation within the Trinity:

Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are inseparable, so do they work inseparably. This is how they are and this is how they work. They’re inseparable yet distinct in the way they are; so they are inseparable yet distinct in the way that they work. . . . Divine persons who relate as distinct yet inseparable in eternity, act distinctly but inseparably in time and space.[25]

Augustine's conclusion and Ovey's summary of it are vital. Because the persons of the Godhead are distinct but inseparable, any intrinsic characteristic of one is true of the others. It is true that the Father is not the Son. The Son was crucified; the Father was not. This demonstrates their distinction.[26] However, they are also eternally inseparable as Ovey explained. Holiness is an attribute of God. The Godhead is holy. If Jesus were to become sin, he would be unholy. If Jesus were to become unholy, then the Godhead would be unholy. That is clearly impossible.  God works inseparably. "There is fundamental unity in their actions that mirrors the fundamental union of their persons."[27] This truth escapes proponents of the theory that Jesus became sin. Pritchard proclaims that when Jesus "became sin," God the Father forsook him. With deep emotion, he references the duty of a father to care for his children. He speculates about what could have happened to cause the Father to forsake Jesus. He then impugns the character of God by insisting that God the Father did something an earthly father would not do.

I ask you, then, what would cause a father to forsake his own son? Can you explain it? Is that not a breach of a father's chief duty? As I ponder the question, I cannot even imagine the answer. But that is what God did when Jesus died on the cross. . . . He abandoned his own Son. He turned his back, he disowned him, he rejected the One who was called his "only begotten Son."[28] 

Lucado echoes Pritchard's sentiments: "The two who have been one are now two. Jesus who had been with God from eternity, who was an expression of God, is abandoned. The trinity is dismantled. The Godhead disjointed. The unity dissolved."[29]  

The implications of this false doctrine upon the Trinity are significant because they bear upon the very nature of God. If true, there would be no eternal Trinity. Distinction and inseparability exists within the Godhead eternally and in time. The Godhead enjoys eternal unity; no dissolution ever occurred. Grudem asserts, "God necessarily exists as a Trinity—he cannot be other than he is."[30] The student must carefully consider that "the fact that the Father exacts a punishment borne by the Son does not mean that the members of the Trinity acted independently. Rather, they are inseparably engaged in two aspects of the same action."[31] Athanasius insisted that "we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance" (emphasis added).[32] Today's student needs to be just as adamant.

Levitical Sacrifice

       Having an unacceptable sacrifice is another implication of a woodenly literal interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21a. The Old Testament repeatedly explains the qualifications for sacrificial animals. God instructed the Israelites that the "lamb shall be without blemish" (emphasis added, Exodus 12:5, English Standard Version, ESV). This directive is repeatedly stated. In fact, Leviticus 6:25-27 shows that the animal was holy during all stages of the sacrificial process. The passage declares: (1) the sacrifice was most holy, (2) it had to be eaten in a holy place, (3) whatever touched it became holy, and (4) if the blood spattered on a garment, that garment had to be washed in a holy place. Even the ashes left over from the burnt offering had to be taken "outside the camp to a clean place" (emphasis added, Leviticus 6:11, ESV). A blemished sacrifice is an unholy sacrifice. An unholy sacrifice is unacceptable. "You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable for you" (Leviticus 22:20, ESV).   

       Both testaments of the Bible are a unitary whole. The things taught in the Old Testament mesh perfectly with the things taught in the New Testament. "All is consistent. One part cannot contradict another. Each part must be interpreted so as to bring it in harmony with the whole."[33] When the New Testament speaks of Jesus' crucifixion, the foundational context is the Old Testament sacrificial system. That system—that context—speaks of Christ.[34] That context demands an unblemished sacrifice on the sinner's behalf.


      The implications of a strictly literal interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21a for cardinal doctrines are clear. If Jesus were literal sin, God would not be holy and there would be no eternal Trinity. If he were blemished, humanity would have no redemption. The only acceptable substitute for sinners is one that is holy, pure, and without blemish. God expresses his attitude about blemished sacrifices in Malachi 1:14. "Cursed is the cheat who . . . sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord." Kaiser and Silva point out the need of "theological commitments" that "inevitably affect the process of exegesis."[35] The Christian's theological commitments should include holding to the eternal holiness and unity of all three persons of the Trinity.


[1]Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is from the New International Version (Zondervan Publishing Company, Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984).

[2]Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., and Moisés Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: the Search For Meaning (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), p. 262.

[3]Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: a Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. and expanded, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), p. 30.

[4]Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes, Conviction Without Compromise Standing Strong in the Core Beliefs of the Christian Faith (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2008), p. 108.

[5]Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians--Chapter 3, in the Literature Network, (accessed April 8, 2012).


[6]Jack Kelly, "He Who Was Without Sin Became Sin," GraceThruFaith, (accessed April 20, 2012).


[7]Max Lucado, Six Hours One Friday: Living the Power of the Cross (The Bestseller Collection) (Thomas Nelson, 2009), p. 74.


[8]Max Lucado, When Christ Comes: the Beginning of the Very Best (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999), p. 124.

[9]R. C. Sproul, "Curse Motif of the Atonement," Together for the Gospel 2008, (accessed April 16, 2012).


 [10]Tim Challies, "T4G-R. C. Sproul," Informing The Reforming, entry posted April 16, 2008, (accessed April 22, 2012).


 [11]Osborne, p. 24.


[12]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (3-Volumes, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), Vol 1: p. 413.


[13]John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2002), pp. 27-28.


[14]Ibid., pp. 219-220, 226.


[15]Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1976), Vol 1: p. 202.


[16]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), pp. 490-492.


[17]Ibid., p. 226.


[18]Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. "Aristotle On Non-Contradiction," (accessed April 22, 2012).


[19]Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), p. 21.




[21]The Adam Clarke Commentary, in the Study Light, April 12, 2012).




[23]Ray Pritchard, "He Became Sin for Us: What the Cross Meant to Christ," Keep Believing Ministries, (accessed April 6, 2012).


[24]Grudem, p. 231.


[25]Michael J. Ovey, "Inseparable Operation The Trinity Working Together" (lecture, Oak Hill Theological College, London, England, 2002), Mp3 Audio file, (accessed April 21, 2012).




 [27]Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced For Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p. 284.


 [28]Ray Pritchard, "The Forsaken Christ," Keep Believing Ministries, (accessed April 6, 2012).


[29]Max Lucado, No Wonder They Call Him the Savior: Experiencing the Truth of the Cross (The Bestseller Collection), (Thomas Nelson, 2009), p. 27.


[30]Grudem, p. 241.


[31]Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach, p. 285.


[32]Athanasius, Athanasian Creed, in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, (accessed April 23, 2012).


[33]Hodge, Vol 1: p. 113.


[34]John F. Walvoord, "The Person and Work of Christ—part XI: Character and Results of Propitiation," John F. Walvoord Theologian, Educator, Author, (accessed April 27, 2012).


[35]Kaiser and Silva, p. 250.


Views: 4635

Tags: Crucifixion, Sin

Comment by CJ Brake on June 10, 2012 at 8:04pm

the text isn't saying that Christ was literally sinful, it was saying that God had accounted him the sinner for me and you. That is why he poured on him the wrath of us all. That is all this verse is saying, it is not saying Jesus wasn't pure and righteous, it is simply saying God judged him.

Comment by E. A. Johnston on June 11, 2012 at 2:12am
You are right, CJ. It does not say He was sinful (or sin). It is saying He was our sin offering. But some go beyond what is intended.
Comment by Alex Guggenheim on June 11, 2012 at 6:53am

I am much more certain of the position you take here on Christ and his relational position as becoming our sin meaning our sacrifice. But I am not convinced that the essence and relationship of the Trinity preclude the Son being separated from the Father since it is not merely physical but really or essentially spiritual death (separation from God the Father) which is the price we must pay. Hence it is doctrinally reasonable if not quite forceful to understand this necessity by Christ in his atonement. Your discipline, again in this area, is a pleasant source of edification.
Comment by Marv on June 11, 2012 at 10:57am

E.A., if I understand from previous conversations, your thinking in regard to 2 Cor. 5:21 is as follows:


Since in Hebrew, the word hatta'ah "sin" is used to refer both to the "sin" (the problem), and also to the "sin offering" (the solution):


It is your opinion that hamartia in 2 Cor. 5:21 has the meaning "sin offering" and not "sin." So that you understand the verse as reading:


For our sake he made him to be a sin offering who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)


I think this is very attractive and nicely-reasoned understanding. I just don't think it is correct.


(1) Because the homonymy (or ambiguity) exists in Hebrew, are we do read it into Greek expressions??? I think the Don must have something to say about this. The LXX seems to use peri hamartias for this, or something like that, instead of harmartia itself.


Okay, this is Wikipedia, sorry took a short cut, but it cites BAG on this:


More often the Greek paraphrases the Hebrew with expressions such as "that which is for sin" (peri hamartias περὶ ἁμαρτίας) or "for sins" (hyper hamartion ὑπὲρ ἁμαρτιῶν)- since the Greek noun hamartia does not have the double meaning of the noun khatta'at in Hebrew. (emphasis mine)


This is my impression also. I frankly don't think Paul could have hoped to make himself understood using these words, if he meant what you take him to mean. Even if he did, people would (mis)understand it as some of us to, almost inevitably.


(2) It doesn't work in the parallel exchange which Paul describes:


Jesus is not personally guilty of sin, but He "became" X for us.

We are personally guilty of sin, and we "become" Y in Him."


If X = "sin" and Y = righteousness, it is a parallel exchange.


If X = "sin offering" and Y = righteousness, well, it's still a good verse, but the logic of the parallel disappears. One wonders if we've reconstructed Paul's meaning quite right here.


(3) You are concerned about "literally" becoming sin. Yes, we have to see there is a figure of some kind here. Paul is using "become" in a sense that is striking but somewhat skewed from a totally straightforward and literal use. Consider a parallel: "Love is patient..." Um, no, "love" cannot itself be patient, only personal beings can. But we get the point. I've seen this called "Pauline predication." It's a way language works, not like a mathematical formula. But we are able to process it as language users.


So we end up understanding imputation: Our sin is IMPUTED to Him and His righteousness is IMPUTED to us. After all, even if after our glorification we become in ourselves personally righteous, we are still not "righteousNESS." It is a way of speaking.


So Christ never Himself sinned or became a sinner or was Himself guilty, all our sins were taken off our account and placed in His. And this involved SOMEHOW His carrying these IN HIS BODY. So that in dying on the cross, they are done away with.

Comment by Marv on June 11, 2012 at 4:11pm

Interestingly, E.A. in all your citing the Don, I don't know what he'd precisely make of your assertions of these fallacies, but to the theological point he says (here about 0:58):


...and it is this darkness that precipitates Christ's anguished cry. Darkness fell on the land and Jesus cried. In the light of everything that has been said, everything that has been spelled out, teh darkness can only signal--somehow--the absence of God: the Father's judicial frown--even though this entire sacrifice is the Father's indescribably wonderful plan--as the weight of sin and guilt crushes down on Jesus, who bears the penalty--alone.


And in His desperate aloneness HE cries, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" We hover breathless at the edge of the mystery of the Trinity. As the triune God's matchless love is displayed in this sacrifice of the cross.


He doesn't mention Habakkuk. But it would seem he rather agrees with Sproul et al.--not surprisingly. So I wonder what he would make of the exegetical points.

Comment by E. A. Johnston on June 12, 2012 at 5:20pm

Marv, as you are well aware, I am not educated in Greek. However, I have researched this within the limits I have. Here are a few of the things I have found.

1.) I wrote the following question to Rod Decker, ThD, Professor of NT at Baptist Bible Seminary

I wrote:

I believe that "hamartia" should (could) be translated as sin offering. I base this on systematic theology, not on the language. It also seems feasible since the NIV gives "sin-offering" as an alternate reading, and many translations translate the same Greek words as sin offering in Rom. 8:3 and Heb. 10:5-6.
Does your understanding of the semantic range, especially in light of how the LXX translators handled the Hebrew words for sin/sin offering, confirm or refute my take on this?

This is his reply (I added the emphasis.)

Your question cannot be proved by knowing Greek since it technically allows either explanation. It is a theological question and must be answered theologically: which interpretation best coheres with the tenor of Scripture regarding Jesus'sacrificial death? He certainly was a sin offering. But he also bore our sin (Isa 53).

2.) The LXX translated the Hebrew for sin and sin offering as hamartia. Here is a list for you to check; it is from Adam Clarke’s commentary.

“But that it may be plainly seen that sin-offering, not sin, is the meaning of the word in this verse, I shall set down the places from the Septuagint where the word occurs; and where it answers to the Hebrew words already quoted; and where our translators have rendered correctly what they render here incorrectly. In Exodus, Exo_29:14, Exo_29:36 : Leviticus, Lev_4:3, Lev_4:8, Lev_4:20, Lev_4:21, Lev_4:24, Lev_4:25, Lev_4:29, Lev_4:32-34; Lev_5:6, Lev_5:7, Lev_5:8, Lev_5:9, Lev_5:11, Lev_5:12; Lev_6:17, Lev_6:25, Lev_6:30; Lev_7:7, Lev_7:37; Lev_8:2, Lev_8:14; Lev_9:2, Lev_9:3, Lev_9:7, Lev_9:8, Lev_9:10, Lev_9:15, Lev_9:22; Lev_10:16, Lev_10:17, Lev_10:19; Lev_12:6, Lev_12:8; Lev_14:13, Lev_14:19, Lev_14:22, Lev_14:31; Lev_15:15, Lev_15:30; Lev_16:3, Lev_16:5, Lev_16:6, Lev_16:9, Lev_16:11, Lev_16:15, Lev_16:25, Lev_16:27; Lev_23:19 : Numbers, Num_6:11, Num_6:14, Num_6:16; Num_7:16, Num_7:22, Num_7:28, Num_7:34, Num_7:40, Num_7:46, Num_7:52, Num_7:58, Num_7:70, Num_7:76, Num_7:82, Num_7:87; Num_8:8, Num_8:12; Num_15:24, Num_15:25, Num_15:27; Num_18:9; Num_28:15, Num_28:22; Num_29:5, Num_29:11, Num_29:16, Num_29:22, Num_29:25, Num_29:28, Num_29:31, Num_29:34, Num_29:38.”

Clarke explained that hamartia must be translated as sin offering in 2 Corinthians 5:21a. He declared that those who profess Jesus became sin "have confounded sin with the punishment due to sin," and referred to the resulting theories as "blasphemous."

(The Adam Clarke Commentary, in the Study Light, April 12, 2012).

3.) Even  Luther, who taught the same thing as Sproul wrote that the text "may be properly explained by saying that Christ was made a sacrifice."


(Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians--Chapter 3, in the Literature Network, (accessed April 8, 2012).


4.) E. W. Bullinger gives this possible interpretation:

harmartia = a failing to hit the mark; aberration from prescribed law (connected with and resulting from the above). In New Testament always in a moral sense = a sin, whether by omission or commission, in thought, word or deed. Also used in connection with the sin-offering (Hebrews 10:6, 8, 18; 13:11, as in Psalm 40:6, compare Leviticus 5:8).

E. W. Bullinger, The Synonymous Words Used for “Sin”, “Wickedness”, “Evil”, “Ungodliness”, “Disobedience”, “Transgression”, etc., in the David Cox Library, 



I also found this video this morning:

Below are two things he says on the subject.

Regarding 2 Corinthians 5:21, F. F. Bruce wrote, “This remarkable expression can best be understood on the assumption that Paul had in his mind the Hebrew idiom, in which certain words for sin mean not only sin but sin offering.”


Re: Charles Williams’ translation of the New Testament Julius Mantey and H. E. Dana (A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament) assert: “We conclude that it is the best New Testament in the English language.” That Bible translates 2 Corinthians 5:21 thus, “He made him who personally knew nothing of sin to be a sin offering for us, so that through union with him, we might come into right standing with God.”




Comment by Marv on June 13, 2012 at 3:24pm

BTW, E.A., I'm working on it.

Comment by E. A. Johnston on June 13, 2012 at 4:04pm
Thanks, Marv. I was starting to think you did not want to play anymore. Lol.
Comment by Marv on June 13, 2012 at 4:05pm

No, no, I'm hot on the trail. Prolly be tomorrow at this point.

Comment by E. A. Johnston on June 13, 2012 at 5:53pm
Just concede the point. It is so much easier! :)


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