Not long ago, as I was reading through portions of Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians, I came across the following:
“Christ took upon Himself our sins, not by constraint, but of His own good will, in order to bear the punishment and wrath of God: not for the sake of His own person (which was just and invincible, and was not in any way guilty), but for our person. So by means of a joyous substitution, He took upon Himself our sinful person, and gave to us His innocent and victorious person: with which we, being now clothed, are free from the curse of the law. . . . By faith alone therefore we are made righteous, for faith alone lays hold of this victory of Christ.” (Commentary on Gal. 3:13)
John Calvin’s comments on 2 Corinthians 5:21 are similar:
“How can we become righteous before God? In the same way as Christ became a sinner. For He took, as it were, our person, that He might be the offender in our name and thus might be reckoned a sinner, not because of His own offences but because of those of others, since He Himself was pure and free from every fault and bore the penalty that was our due and not His own. Now in the same way we are righteous in Him, not because we have satisfied God’s judgment by our own works, but because we are judged in relation to Christ’s righteousness which we have put on by faith, that it may become our own.” (Commentary on 2 Cor. 5:21)
Those quotations, which underscore the doctrines of substitutionary atonement and Christ’s imputed righteousness, reminded me of an earlier study I had done regarding 2 Corinthians 5:21, specifically with regard to this question:
In what way was Jesus “made sin” on the cross?
Or, to state the question another way: Did Jesus become the literal embodiment of sin, or take on a sin nature, or become a sinner when He died at Calvary?
The heart of the question centers on Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
In what sense did Jesus become “sin on our behalf”? Does that phrase mean that Jesus literally became a sinner on the cross?
There are some today who teach that Jesus became a sinner (or took on a sin nature) at the cross. Benny Hinn is one such advocate. In a TBN broadcast, Hinn exclaimed:
“He [Jesus] who is righteous by choice said, ‘The only way I can stop sin is by me becoming it. I can’t just stop it by letting it touch me; I and it must become one.’ Hear this! He who is the nature of God became the nature of Satan when he became sin!” (Benny Hinn, Trinity Broadcasting Network, December 1, 1990)
Prosperity-preacher Kenneth Copeland echoes those same teachings. In Copeland’s words:
“The righteousness of God was made to be sin. He accepted the sin nature of Satan in His own spirit. And at the moment that He did so, He cried, ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ You don’t know what happened at the cross. Why do you think Moses, upon instruction of God, raised the serpent upon that pole instead of a lamb? That used to bug me. I said, ‘Why in the world would you want to put a snake up there; the sign of Satan? Why didn’t you put a lamb on that pole?’ And the Lord said, ‘Because it was a sign of Satan that was hanging on the cross.’ He said, ‘I accepted, in my own spirit, spiritual death; and the light was turned off.’” (Kenneth Copeland, “What Happened from the Cross to the Throne,” 1990, audiotape #02-0017, side 2)
On another occasion, Copeland reiterates that same teaching:
“How did Jesus then on the cross say, ‘My God’? Because God was not His Father any more. He took upon Himself the nature of Satan.” (Kenneth Copeland, “Believer’s Voice of Victory,” Trinity Broadcasting Network, April 21, 1991)
But do assertions like these accurately reflect Paul’s teaching that “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf”?
To come back to the original question: “Did Jesus become the literal embodiment of sin, or take on a sin nature, or become a sinner when He died at Calvary?” My answer to that question is a resounding no.
Here are five reasons why:
1. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul declares that Jesus “knew no sin.” Whatever the rest of the verse means, it must be interpreted in light of Paul’s statement that Jesus “knew no sin”—meaning He had no personal experiential knowledge of sin in any way. If Jesus became a sinner or took on a sin nature then Paul would have contradicted himself in that very verse.
2. The rest of Scripture makes it clear that the Lord Jesus remained perfectly sinless, righteous, and obedient throughout His entire Passion. At no point did He ever become less than perfectly holy. Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:21 must be interpreted in light of the whole witness of Scripture. Below is a sampling of biblical passages that make this point explicit:
a) Isaiah 53:10–11 – “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities.”
Comment: The Suffering Servant is called the “Righteous One” even in the context of bearing the sin of others.
b) Luke 23:47 – “Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.'”
Comment: The Holy Spirit inspired Luke to record the centurion’s comment. As the centurion rightly understood, Jesus remained innocent throughout His crucifixion.
c) Romans 5:19 – “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”
Comment: Jesus’ death on the cross was an act of obedience, such that His righteousness is imputed to those who believe in Him.
d) Philippians 2:8 – “Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Comment: In His death, Jesus remained perfectly obedient.
e) Hebrews 4:15 – “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.”
Comment: In this passage, the author of Hebrews is focusing on Jesus’ work of redemption (as our great High Priest). Even in the act of redemption, He was always without sin.
f) Hebrews 9:11–14 – “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
Comment: The author of Hebrews emphasizes that, even in His death, Jesus offered Himself to God without blemish.
g) 1 Peter 1:18–19 – “You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.”
Comment: Speaking of Christ’s death, Peter emphasizes that He was the spotless Lamb (cf. John 1:29). There was no sinful blemish in Him at any point.
h) 1 Peter 3:18 – “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”
Comment: Peter explicitly states that Christ (the just) died for sinners (the unjust). If Jesus became a sinner, how could He still be called “just” or “righteous”?
i) 1 John 3:5 – “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.”
Comment: It is difficult to see how anyone could force John’s statement in this verse to fit the notion that Jesus became a sinner on the cross. Even in the act of taking away sin, there was still no sin in Him.
Based on the above passages, we can safely determine what 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not mean. It cannot mean that Jesus became unrighteous, or that He became a sinner, or that He took on a sin nature, or that He literally embodied sin.
So, then what does it mean? This brings us to our third point.
3. The best way to understand Paul’s statement (that Jesus became sin on our behalf) is in terms of imputation. Our sin was imputed to Christ, such that He became a substitutionary sacrifice or sin offering for all who would believe in Him.
As John MacArthur explains in The MacArthur Study Bible:
“God the Father using the principle of imputation, treated Christ as if He were a sinner though He was not, and had Him die as a substitute to pay the penalty for the sins of those who believe in Him (Cf. Is. 53:4–6; Gal. 3:10–13; 1 Pet. 2:24). On the cross, He did not become a sinner (as some suggest), but remained as holy as ever. He was treated as if He were guilty of all the sins ever committed by all who would ever believe, though He committed none. The wrath of God was exhausted on Him and the just requirement of God’s law met for those for whom He died.”
Martin Chemnitz, the second-generation Lutheran Reformer, explained that same truth this way: “How was Christ made sin? Certainly by imputation. And thus we are made the righteousness of God in Him” (Examination of the Council of Trent, “Concerning Justification,” 1.7.6.)
This view explains Paul’s use of the Greek word hamartia (“sin”) which was sometimes used in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) to mean “sin offering.”
Furthermore, this view fits with what the rest of the Scriptures teach about Christ’s death and the doctrine of imputation. Here are a few more biblical passages to make the point.
a. Isaiah 53:6 – “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”
Comment: This verse does not teach that the Suffering Servant would become a sinner; but rather that that sins of others would be imputed to Him.
b. Ephesians 5:2 – “Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”
Comment: Jesus’ death was a “fragrant aroma” to God. The idea here points back to the Old Testament concept of a sin offering (cf. Lev. 4:7–10).
c. Hebrews 9:28 – “Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.”
Comment: The author of Hebrews describes the fact that Jesus Christ bore our sins, meaning they were imputed to His account. He did not become a sinner, rather He bore the sins of those who were sinners.
d. Hebrews 10:10 – “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Comment: In referring to Jesus’ death, the author of Hebrews points back to the Old Testament sin offering. (See Hebrews 10:8, just two verses earlier, where the author specifically references “sin offerings.”)
e. 1 Peter 2:22–24 – “He committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”
Comment: Peter again expresses the point that Jesus was sinless, even in His Passion. Moreover, Peter articulates the fact that on the cross Jesus bore our sins as our substitutionary sacrifice.
Based both on Paul’s use of the Septuagint, and on other passages that describe the death of Christ, it is best to understand Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:21 as a reference to the imputation of our sin to Christ, such that He bore our sins as a substitutionary sacrifice on the cross.
4. It is should be noted that, if Jesus took on a sin nature or became a sinner on the cross, He would no longer have been an acceptable sacrifice for sin, since He would have been blemished by sin at the very moment of His death.
In the Old Testament, only a spotless lamb could be offered as an acceptable sacrifice. As Moses recorded in Leviticus 22:20 – “Whatever has a defect, you shall not offer, for it will not be accepted for you.” The analogy, fulfilled perfectly in the Lamb of God, necessitates that Jesus remained spotless even in His sacrificial death.
5. Finally, on a theological level, the idea that God the Son even temporarily became a sinner, or the literal embodiment of sin, raises serious questions about the unchangeableness of His holy character and perfect nature. Those who would twist 2 Corinthians 5:21 to claim that Jesus’ perfect nature was momentarily replaced by a sin nature immediately raise unanswerable theological questions about the immutability of Jesus Christ.
Bonus: Just for fun, I should add that understanding 2 Corinthians 5:21 in the sense of a substitutionary sacrifice is the way that Christians throughout church history have interpreted this verse. I’ll conclude our post with just three citations from the church fathers to make the point:
Cyril of Alexandria: “We do not say that Christ became a sinner, far from it, but being righteous (or rather righteousness, because He did not know sin at all), the Father made Him a victim for the sins of the world.” (Letter 41.10)
John Chrysostom: “God allowed His Son to suffer as if a condemned sinner, so that we might be delivered from the penalty of our sins. This is God’s righteousness, that we are not justified by works (for then they would have to be perfect, which is impossible), but by grace, in which case all our sin is removed” (Homily on 1 Cor 11:5)
Ambrosiaster: “It was only because all flesh was subject to sin that He was made sin for us. 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.‘ (Commentary on Paul’s Epistles, cf. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 7:252)