There’s a dominant teaching in Christianity that there was a great exchange that happened on the cross: Jesus took our sins upon Himself, and we received His righteousness. But on what is this teaching based? It’s actually based on only one verse of Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:21.
He [God] made Him [Jesus Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
On the surface, this looks like Christianity’s interpretation seems to be correct; however, if we place this idea back into context with the rest of Scripture, there are some major flaws with this doctrine. However, in saying that, I’m not saying Paul was wrong, but our interpretation and translation of what Paul said is problematic.
A MODERN COMPARISON
Can a person who is innocent and not guilty of anything becomes a criminal without committing any crime? In our culture, when you break the law, you’ve committed a crime, and a person who commits a crime is called a criminal. But in God’s Kingdom, if you break one of His laws, you’ve committed “a sin” [crime] and a person who commits a “sin” is called “a sinner” [criminal]. But in this traditional Christian interpretation, our sins [crimes] has been transferred to Him, and His innocence has been transferred to us who are guilty.
But when Jesus was on the cross, did He literally become an idolator for us? Did He become a murderer? An adulterer? A thief? Did He become a homosexual? Is that what we are saying? If Jesus had to identify with us in everything to atone for us, then does that mean He cannot heal broken bones since “not one of His bones were broken”?
CERTAINTY OR CHANCE?
In examining this, let’s look at the least significant evidences first. To begin, the infinitive “to be” in the above phrase was added by translators, it’s not in the original Greek text. This is why it is italicized in many English translations, including the King James Version.
Next, the phrase “might become” does not mean what many Christians communicate by this doctrine. They use it to indicate that there was a transference that happened here, “Jesus became sin for us” and we became the righteousness of God in Him.” However, the problem here is that the word “might” does not indicate certainty at all, but only a possibility or chance of. I mean, when we say that something “might happen,” we are not saying “it will happen,” but that there’s a possibility or chance that it could happen. If Paul was saying that this “transference” was a certainty, he would’ve said that “we shall become the righteousness of God” or “we will becomes the righteousness of God,” but that’s not what he wrote. He wrote that we “MIGHT become the righteousness of God in Him.” Although this raises many questions, the next two points are the most important.
SIN OR SIN-OFFERING?
Throughout the Old Testament Scriptures, the Hebrew word, chatt’ah (Strong’s #2403), and it’s Greek equivalent Hamartia (Strong’s #266), is used for “sin, transgression, sin-offering, and punishment.” In the Hebrew mind, of course, this was completely logical, since if you “sinned” or “transgressed God’s commandments,” then you automatically fall under the “punishment” for sin and need “a sin-offering.” And in the Greek translation of the Pentateuch, Greek speakers would’ve understood that hamartia was used for both “sin” and “sin-offering,” and that context was how they determined which one was meant. And it is the same Greek word for “sin” and “sin-offering” that’s used here in 2 Corinthians 5:21.
WHY IS THIS DISTINCTION IMPORTANT?
This distinction is important because in Leviticus 4-6, God establishes His instructions and laws on what would constitute a valid sacrifice for sin. In these various sacrifices, God instructs us that the sacrifice must be without spot or blemish prior to its death (Leviticus 3:1; 4:3, 28, 32; 5:15); in fact, in “the law of the sin offering,” that the sin-offering is “most holy” (Leviticus 6:25).
But not only must it remain spotless or blemishless before its death, but it can’t be tainted, blemished or made unclean while its dying, because after its death and sacrifice, the priests are to eat a portion of it (Leviticus 6:26, 29). In fact, 6:29 says, “All the males among the priests shall eat thereof: it is MOST HOLY” (Emphasis Mine).
Therefore, in order for the sacrifice to be acceptable to God, it had to remain spotless, blemishless and holy BEFORE ITS DEATH, DURING ITS DEATH, and AFTER ITS DEATH, for it became blemished, tainted, or unholy, or unclean anytime during the process, then it was no longer an acceptable sacrifice for sin. Consequently, then, if Jesus literally became sin on the cross for us, as many Christians teach, then at that moment, He ceased being an acceptable sacrifice for sin, and we are all still damned and going to Hell.
However, if He didn’t literally become sin, but a SIN-OFFERING, remaining pure, blemishless, spotless and holy BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER His death, then His sacrifice does fit the biblical pattern, and He remains an acceptable sacrifice for sin, and our sins are not only forgiven, but we’ve been liberated from their power and control over us, by us putting our faith in Him, and therefore, we can now go to heaven when we die.
So does the distinction matter? Absolutely!!
WHERE WAS GOD AT THIS TIME?
There are those who claim that God abandoned and turned His back on Jesus while He was on the cross. They base this on one of the seven statements that Jesus makes while on the cross: “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46; quoting Psalm 22:1). However, there’s again a problem with this view.
In 2 Corinthians 5:19, just two verses before 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul writes,
To wit, that God was IN CHRIST, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
How could God have abandoned and turned His back on Christ, while at the same time, being “IN CHRIST reconciling the world unto Himself”? A more reasonable explanation for His statement is that the Hebrew word, ‘azav’tani, whose root means “to loosen, relinquish, and permit,” so the question “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me?” could be translated to mean “My God, My God, Why have you loosened and relinquished Me, permitting this to happen to Me?”
“God is there in Christ” during His suffering and torment while on the cross, but instead of acting to defend Him, to come against those who have caused Him such suffering, God does not act. We can tell that this is the intended meaning, since the very next lines are the following:
Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, but Thou dost not answer; and by night, but I have no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2)
Then in the next section of voices, David contrasts how the fathers cried out and God came to their rescue, but God was not coming to his (Psalm 22:4-5). And what is true for David is likewise true for David’s greater son, Jesus, the son of David.
So did God abandon His Son? No, He was there within Him the whole time, but He did not act or prevent His suffering. And haven’t we all had those moments in our times of suffering when we wondered why God didn’t act on our behalf? Where was He? Jesus knew where He was, and that was His suffering.
JESUS’ DEATH OPENED THE WAY
Through His death on the cross, Jesus liberated us from the power and control of sin in our lives so that we can walk in obedience to God through the power of His Spirit.
In Romans 6-8, this section answers the question found in Romans 6:1, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” In this section, Paul responds by saying absolutely not! He says, “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer there?” (Romans 6:2). He continues to elaborate on this throughout the rest of chapter 6, and then in chapter 7, He uses marriage as an illustration of how we’ve been freed from the control and power of sin, because we’ve died to it in Christ. And then, Paul completes the argument in Romans 8. So contrary to traditional Christian interpretation, Paul in this section is NOT arguing that Jesus brought the law of God to an end, but the law of sin and death.
OBEDIENCE LEADS TO RIGHTEOUSNESS
By Jesus dying to set us free from the law of sin and death, Jesus opens the way for us to live our lives in obedience to God, as “servants of righteousness,” which then results in “righteousness:”
For SIN shall not have DOMINION [rulership and control] over you: for you are not under the law [of sin and death], but under grace. What then? Shall we sin, because we’re not under the law [of sin and death], but under grace? God forbid. Know you not, that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are to whom you obey; whether of SIN AND DEATH, or of OBEDIENCE unto RIGHTEOUSNESS. But God be thanked, that you WERE the SERVANTS OF SIN, but you have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered [to] you. Being then MADE FREE FROM SIN, you became the SERVANTS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS. (Romans 6:14-18)
Although the word “law” is not explicitly identified as “the law of sin” or “the law of sin and death,” it’s understood here by the context and content of chapter 6:1-13, but by the end of chapter 7 and in chapter 8, that context is explicitly identified and made.
In this passage, Paul makes it clear that it is SIN that will not have DOMINION (or rulership and control) over us. There’s no mention of God’s law anywhere in Romans 6:1-13, so why would 6:14 suddenly be about the law of God when Paul had not been discussing it in the previous thirteen verses? Those who believe that 6:14 is about the law of God demonstrate their lack of skill and understanding that things must be interpreted within their given context.
RIGHTEOUSNESS LEADS TO HOLINESS
In Romans 6:19, Paul continues the next phase of the process:
I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity [weakness] of your flesh: for as you have yielded your members [of your body] servants to uncleanness and to iniquity [sin] unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants unto holiness.
Paul makes it quite clear here that since Jesus has died and freed us from the power and control of sin, that we now can choose to live in obedience to God and His Word, and it is our new obedience to God that results in RIGHTEOUSNESS, and by us continuing to be servants of RIGHTEOUSNESS that this, in fact, is yielding ourselves to being “servants unto HOLINESS.”
Then in verses 20-21, Paul reminds us that before we were “servants” [lit. “slaves”] to sin, and as a result, we willingly yielded our members to sin; however, now we need to yield our members to holiness [God and His Word] instead.
For when you were the servants of sin, you were free from righteousness [you didn’t do righteous things]. What fruit had you then in those things where you are now ashamed? for the end [result] of those things is death.
HOLINESS RESULTS IN ETERNAL LIFE
And now in verse 22, we come to the conclusion of the process.
But now BEING MADE FREE FROM SIN, and become SERVANTS TO GOD, you have your fruit unto HOLINESS, and the end EVERLASTING LIFE.
Notice that Paul is again telling us that through Christ’s death that we have been MADE FREE FROM SIN, not from God’s laws, but SIN and its POWER AND CONTROL over our lives. SIN is no longer a “have-to;” instead, if we SIN, it’s because we’ve chosen to do it. And now that we are FREE FROM SIN, we can now live our lives as SERVANTS TO GOD, living SANCTIFIED, HOLY LIVES, and what will be the end result of our lives in service to Him: EVERLASTING (or ETERNAL) LIFE.
And it is at the end of discussing this life-long process that Paul summarizes it all up with Romans 6:23, which is often quoted, again, apart from its context:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So just as the end result of sin is death, so the end result of God’s gift of Christ’s death that opens the way for us to journey this process is eternal life. It’s at the altar that we begin the first step on that journey by repenting, confessing our sins, asking God to forgive us of our sins and asking Jesus to be our Lord and Savior. Again, this is STEP 1 of the journey that Paul discusses and describes in Romans 6-8.
So did Jesus become “a sin” for us on the cross? No, He didn’t. He came our “sin-offering” on the cross, and since He paid the penalty for our sins in our stead, then we are no longer under punishment for those sins. The price has been paid, and as a result, our sins has been expunged from our heavenly record.
And because of His death, we have been liberated from THE LAW OF SIN AND DEATH, and SIN NO LONGER HAS ANY POWER OR CONTROL OVER OUR LIVES; therefore, the way has been opened so that we can begin the process of living in obedience to God, including to His commandments and laws, which results in RIGHTEOUSNESS (that we might become, as stated in 2 Corinthians 5:21), and as servants to RIGHTEOUSNESS it then leads us to HOLINESS, and then the fruit and end result of HOLINESS in our lives is ETERNAL LIFE. And this is in agreement with Hebrews 12:14,
Follow peace with all men, and HOLINESS, WITHOUT WHICH NO MAN SHALL SEE THE LORD.
His death liberated us from sin and the law of sin and death, and the Spirit, which we receive because of His death and resurrection, empowers us to be able to walk this journey of obedience to righteousness to holiness to the end result, eternal life.