What is “the doctrine of the Great Exchange”? You may not be familiar with this popular doctrine, but it is based on 2 Corinthians 5:21, which says,
“For He has made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we
might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
The doctrine says that on the cross, there was a legal exchange that happened. Jesus took our sins, and in exchange, when we put our faith in Him, we receive His righteousness. Martin Luther called this “the Great Exchange.”
But the question I have is, “How does this doctrine fit in with the rest of the Bible? Does it agree with Scripture, or is this verse unique in its idea?” Therefore, to examine the verse, I want to break it down into two questions:
- “Did Jesus literally become sin for us?”
- “Do we automatically receive His righteousness?”
So let’s begin with the first question.
“DID JESUS LITERALLY BECOME SIN FOR US?”
I have heard Christians quote this verse, and then say that Jesus literally became sin on the cross. There are several Christian ministers, Bible teachers and evangelists who teach this. Now if we take this verse at face value, this verse would seem to support the idea. After all, it does say, “For He has made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin;…”
However, when we take this back and look at it in the original languages, as well as examine it from a whole Bible perspective, there is a problem with this interpretation. Remember, I have been arguing that we need to view the New Testament from the perspective of the Old Testament, since the Old Testament serves as the primary foundation, framework, and context of Scripture.
WHAT IS “SIN”?
Now in the Old Testament, sin is simply defined as “disobeying God,” or more fully, as “disobeying one or more of God’s commandments.” For example, in the book of Leviticus, we read,
If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and commits any of them. (Leviticus 4:2)
God progresses to apply this same definition to various individuals or groups within His people: the priest, the whole congregation, the ruler, and then the average individual. And then in the next chapter, God reiterates this same definition again:
Now if a person sins and does any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, though he was unaware, still he is guilty, and shall bear his punishment. (Leviticus 5:17)
Notice that sin is not defined based on what society says is right or wrong, or what a denomination, church or even pastor thinks is right or wrong, nor is it based on whether or not you or I think that it is right or wrong, but on what God says is right or wrong. Since even if you don’t realize what you are doing is a sin, God says you are still guilty of it, and you shall bear your punishment for violating His commandments. In other words, “Ignorance is no excuse.”
To help understand this better, let me compare it to our laws in the United States. In the U.S., if a person breaks the law, then the person has committed “a crime,” and people who commits crimes are called “criminals.” In God’s kingdom, if you break His law, you have committed “a sin” (i.e., “a crime”), and those who sin are called “sinners” (i.e., “criminals”). Therefore, in comparing definitions, a sin/crime and sinner/criminal mean the same thing.
CAN YOU BE GUILTY OF MY ACTION?
Now let me ask you a hypothetical question: If I run a red light, can I make you guilty of my action? Logically, the answer would be “No, of course not.” Each person is guilty of their own action or lack of action. This is also true biblically. In Ezekiel 18, God says,
Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die. (Ezekiel 18:5)
This was written over 580 years before Jesus’ conception and birth. Since God owns everyone’s soul, He has the right to determine what happens to it, as well as set the standard of what happens when a soul sins, or what a soul has to do to enter into heaven. And in this statement, God specifically states that “the soul who sins will die.”
God makes this statement because it was being taught in Ezekiel’s day that God was punishing the children for their father’s sins. However, in this chapter, God makes it quite clear that God punishes each individual for their own sins. He says,
The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18:20)
Family members do not inherit our guilt, and are then punished by God for it. So how then does a person atone (or gain forgiveness) for their sins?
WHAT IS “SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT”?
From the beginning, God has taught us in His Word “substitutionary atonement.” This means that when a person sins, something innocent of those sins must die to atone for the actions of the guilty, and throughout the Old Testament, God has used animals to teach us this lesson. Just think, if you were a shepherd, for example, and you had committed a sin against God, then you had to take one of your best lambs that you had been raising and caring for to the priests of the temple where it would die in your place. I think if we knew an animal we loved would have to die because of something we did, we would think more than twice about out actions before doing them.
Also, according to the Scriptures, animals have “a physical soul”; whereas, humans have “a spiritual soul.” Therefore, an animal can only die physically, it cannot die spiritually. So by using animals to teach “substitutionary atonement,” God was also teaching us that although our relationship with Him is broken when we sin, all that was required of the atoning sacrifice was to die physically – a spiritual death was not required. The atoning sacrifice did not have to identify with us to atone for us, it just had to die physically in our place.
Therefore, in keeping with God’s own word, He will not impose our guilt upon another, but He Himself became a human being for three reasons:
- To be our example of how to live out His commandments in this life;
- To proclaim His Kingdom and the good news that He was inviting people to become an active part of it; and
- To die in our place as our sacrifice for sin, or our “sin offering.”
You see, according to God’s own policy, which He set down in the Bible, Jesus could not become a liar for you, or a murderer for you, or a rapist for you, or any other sin we could list. He could not become the sin we committed; however, He could pay the penalty for our sins. He “who knew no sin” could become our substitute, our “sin offering.”
A LESSON IN LANGUAGES
And when we take this verse back to the original languages, this is exactly what this first part of the verse teaches us. In Hebrew, the word chattâ’âh [H2403] is used for both “sin” and “sin-offering.” Of course, this makes sense to a Hebrew speaker since if you sin, then obviously you will need a sin-offering. For example, in Leviticus 4, we read,
then let him offer to the LORD a bull without defect as a sin offering [Heb. chattâ’âh] for the sin [Heb. chattâ’âh] he had committed. (Leviticus 4:3b)
Since the same word is used for both, the way you know which one is meant is by the context. Now, when God’s law was translated into the Greek language 250 years before the conception and birth of Jesus, the Hebrew word chattâ’âh [H2403] was translated into Greek with the word hamartia [G266]. This means that the Greek word hamartia would have been seen and used the same way as the Hebrew word chattâ’âh.
Now in the countries outside of the land of Israel, where Greek was the dominant language spoken, Paul and the different people who attended the synagogues outside of Israel, would have been used to reading the Greek translation of God’s law, later called the Septuagint. Therefore, they would have known that the Greek word hamartia [G266] was used to mean both “sin” and “sin offering,” depending on the context just like the Hebrew word chattâ’âh.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
The importance of this becomes more evident when we realize that the word “sin” that appears twice in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is the Greek word hamartia [G266].
For He has made Him to be sin [Gk. hamartia] for us, who knew no sin [Gk. hamartia]; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
When I examined this verse in my Greek-English Interlinear New Testament, I discovered that the words “to be” are not in the original Greek text; they were added by the English translators. So literally, the verse says,
For Him who knew not sin [Gk. hamartia] He made sin [Gk. hamartia] for us, that we might become righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
This is how the verse literally looks like in the English. So literally, then, did God make Jesus “sin”? No, but when we remember that the Greek word hamarita was used to mean “sin” or “sin offering,” depending on the context, then it is easy to understand that God did not literally make Him “sin,” but He made Him “a sin offering” for us, which makes complete sense. Now in the literal Greek, the modifying phrase “who knew not sin” is appropriately placed next to what it is modifying; however, in our English translation, it is not appropriately placed since comes after the word “us” instead of the word “Him.” So if the translators would have translated this verse appropriately, keeping in mind the meanings of the word hamartia and the rules of English grammar, then this verse would have been translated as following –
For He has made Him, who knew no sin [Gk. hamartia], a sin offering [Gk. hamartia] for us; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Now this translation would have been consistent with the rest of Scripture. So rather than God literally making Jesus “sin” on the cross, He made Him our “sin offering” instead. And by calling Him our “sin offering,” this would have alluded, for example, to Isaiah 53, where Isaiah prophecies,
Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief: When you shall make his soul AN OFFERING FOR SIN, He shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by His knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53: 10-11)
Isaiah 53, along with Psalm 22, are the two classic prophecies concerning the crucifixion of Jesus, and notice that the Isaiah text does not say that God would make Him “sin,” but that He would make his soul “AN OFFERING FOR SIN” or a “SIN OFFERING.” Therefore, Jesus did not literally become sin for us, but He paid the penalty of our sins as our “sin offering,” by physically dying the worst possible death on the cross.
This is also supported by Dr. Stanley M. Horton, Th.D., a professor at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri. In his article, “‘It is Finished’ – tetelestai” (Pentecostal Evangel, March 31, 1991), Dr. Horton writes,
Shedding His blood involved His death as an offering for sin. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For he [God] hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Since in the Hebrew khattath means both “sin” and “sin offering,” we can take “to be sin” to mean “to be a sin offering,” as in Leviticus 4:24. It undoubtedly refers back to Isaiah 53:10 where the Lord makes His soul (His whole self) an offering for sin. Isaiah 53:6 also says the “Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” It is important to notice that the sins were laid upon Him. They became a load He carried and took away. (11)
Although Dr. Horton pointed out that the Hebrew word khattath [H2403] means “sin” or “sin offering,” He didn’t take this idea to the Greek text to point out, as I have here in this article, that the Greek word hamartia [G266] would have been seen to have the same double meanings.
THE LAW OF THE SIN OFFERING
Now in order for a sin offering to be acceptable to God, He had certain requirements that it had to fulfill. These are likewise found in the book of Leviticus.
First, it must be pure, spotless and without blemish before its death. Whatever animal was used as a sin offering, it had to be “without defect.” We see this requirement repeated over and over again (e.g., Leviticus 4:3, 23, 28, 32).
Next, it must remain pure, spotless and without blemish during its death. In Leviticus 7, we read,
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, This is the law of the sin offering: in the place where the burnt offering is slain the sin offering shall be slain before the LORD; it is MOST HOLY. (Leviticus 7:25).
Notice that the sin offering is not just “holy,” but it is “MOST HOLY.” Obviously, only an animal who was without defect, without spot or without blemish could qualify as something “most holy” to God.
Finally, it must be pure, spotless and without blemish after its death. In the next verse, we read,
The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. It shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting….Every male among the priests may eat of it; it is MOST HOLY. (Leviticus 7:26, 29)
Obviously, if the sacrifice had become tainted in some way during the sacrificial process, then the priests would not be able to eat, especially not in the temple itself, and God would not refer to it as being “MOST HOLY.”
Consequently, then, what the law of the sin offering teaches us is that the sin offering had to be pure and spotless before its death, during its death, and after its death for it to be an acceptable sacrifice unto God.
JESUS – OUR SINLESS SIN OFFERING
So if we apply these same requirements to Jesus, as our sin offering, then He had to be pure, spotless or sinless, before His death, during His death, and after His death, for His sacrifice to be acceptable unto God. And throughout the Scriptures, we see Jesus over and over again being challenged by the Adversary, by the circumstances and even the religious leaders of His day, and yet we continually see Him as being “without sin or blemish.” For example, in Hebrews 9, we read,
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? (Hebrews 9:14; emphasis added)
Jesus then was pure and spotless before His death, and He remained pure and spotless during His death. If He had literally become sin while on the cross, then at that moment, He would have stopped being a suitable sacrifice for you and me, and we would still be on our way to an eternal Lake of fire and brimstone. It is only because He remained pure and spotless during the entire process that you and I can be saved by trusting in what He accomplished for us on the cross.
GOD WAS IN CHRIST
Now some teach that while Jesus on the cross, God had forsaken or abandoned His Son, turning away from Him. However, just three verses earlier than 2 Corinthians 5:21, we read,
Now all these things are from GOD, who RECONCILED US TO HIMSELF THROUGH CHRIST, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that GOD WAS IN CHRIST reconciling the world unto Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19; emphasis added)
According to this passage, who reconciled us to God: God or Jesus? Answer both. It was through the physical suffering of Jesus that God used, while He Himself was in His Son, using the suffering to reconcile the world back to Himself. How could God have forsaken or abandon Jesus on the cross when, according to Paul, He was right there in Jesus reconciling us back to Himself? Obviously, then, if “God was in Christ,” then God did not “abandon” or “forsake” His Son at all.
“MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?”
But this raises another question, “So why then does Jesus cry out on the cross, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). There are a couple of things to look at here.
First, the word “forsaken” here is the English translation of the Hebrew word, azab [H5800], which means “to loosen, i.e., relinquish, permit, etc:- fail, forsake, refuse.” But when we place this verse back into the context of Psalm 22, the best translation seems to be the word “refuse.”
My God, My God, why have you refused (to answer) Me? Far from My deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; and by night, but I have no rest. Yet You are holy, O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel. In You our fathers trusted; They trusted, and You did deliver them. To You they cried out, and were delivered; in You they trusted, and were not disappointed. (Psalm 22:1-5)
From the context of the original passage, the idea here is that Jesus has cried out to God, who has not left Him or abandoned Him, since as Paul states, God is there in Him during His sufferings on the cross, “reconciling the world unto Himself.” But instead of delivering Him from the situation, God is refusing to act, refusing to alleviate His Son’s suffering and pain. This meaning actually fits the original context of the quote much better, since God is not responding to His cries but is allowing His Son to go through all of the suffering and pain for you and me.
THE PROBLEM WITH “IDENTIFICATION ATONEMENT”?
The major problem with Identification Atonement – that is, the idea that Jesus had to identify with us in everything in order to atone for us – is that the Bible does not teach this concept at all. In speaking to this Dr. Horton writes,
Some have misinterpreted 2 Corinthians 5:21 to make it mean that God took the sinless Christ and poured into Him our sins so that Jesus became a “sinner” and some further work had to be done. But this is contrary to everything else the Bible teaches. Jesus remained the spotless Lamb of God, the High Priest who was touched with the feeling of our infirmities, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). In no sense did He become a “sinner.” On the cross He was our once-for-all sin offering. (11)
Those who teach “Identification Atonement” believe that Jesus literally became sin on the cross, and that when He died, He went to hell, where He was tortured and tormented for three days and three nights. But then, after those three days and nights, God yelled down, “That was enough!” Jesus then was “born again” in the pit of hell, and He grabbed the keys of hell and the grave away from satan, and then freed those who had been trapped in hell, taking them all up to heaven. It really is an emotionally moving message, but the problem is that it is not based on the Bible at all.
As Dr. Horton states, Jesus did not become a “sinner” on the cross, nor as he says here did Jesus have to do anything further for our salvation than His death on the cross.
The form of “it is finished” is a Greek perfect passive. It indicates that the work was done and the results would continue. Not only was it finished, but all who believe can continue to draw on the work accomplished at Calvary. Neither Jesus nor God the Father needed to add anything to the work forever fulfilled and finished on the cross of Calvary. Neither can we add to it in any way. (11)
So, in conclusion, as we can see, Jesus did not literally become sin for us, but He became our sin offering, and paid the penalty for our sins. And when we confess our faith and trust in what God and Him did for us on the cross, then our sins are “forgiven,” “pardoned” or “expunged” or wiped clean by God. They are no longer written down in God’s books in heaven.
DO WE AUTOMATICALLY BECOME “THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD”?
This brings us to our second question: “Do we automatically become the righteousness of God?” Now there’s a couple of things that make me question this idea.
First is the wording of 2 Corinthians 5:21. In the last part of the verse, it says, “that we MIGHT BE made the righteousness of God in Him” (emphasis added). The problematic phrase for me is the phrase “might be.” If this was definitively guaranteed, then in English we would use “will be” or “shall be,” but “might be” does not mean that this is a guaranteed result, but only that it is possible result. I did check the Greek, and the word “might be” is there in the Greek text. So in presenting as a guarantee, are we assuming that this will be the result, rather than this being specifically stated in the text?
Another question I have is, “If we are automatically made the righteousness of God, as soon as we put our faith and trust in Christ, then why do we need to sanctify ourselves throughout our lives?” For example, Paul states in 2 Corinthians 7:1,
Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
Again, if “the righteousness of God” is an automatic, then what is the point of this? However, if what God did working through Christ on the cross made it possible for our sins to be forgiven and for us to receive the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit could work in and through us to cleanse all the sins out of our lives (“sanctification”), then there’s more to our cleansing and sanctification than us saying the “sinner’s prayer,” so that we will be ready to enter God’s Presence when we die.
A third question I have is actually based on I John. In this passage, we need to remember that John is not writing to unbelievers but to fellow Christians, and in this epistle John says,
And this is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. (I John 1:5-7)
What this seems to suggest to me is that as long as we are walking “in the light” (i.e., living a sanctified, holy life), we have fellowship with God and Christ’s blood cleanses us from sin,” but if we are walking in darkness (i.e., living in sin), then this is no longer the case. Consequently, can someone be a Christian, live in sin, and yet still have an intimate relationship with God? This passage seems to say, “No, this is not possible.”
Consequently, it is important for us to not just rely on what people tell us what the Bible says, but it is important for us to study the word for ourselves. After all, the Bible is what God is going to use to judge you and me, according to Jesus, so obviously, it is to our advantage to know what it teaches.
Jesus did not literally become sin for us on the cross, nor did He become a “sinner” on the cross or have to do anything more than suffer for us on the cross to redeem and reconcile us back to God. Those who teach “Identification Atonement” are basically arguing that the cross was not enough, which is a clear violation of Scripture and a profaning of God and His Word.
Finally, based on the wording of 2 Corinthians 5:21 and some other teachings in the New Testament, there’s at least reason to call into question the idea that when we do put our faith and trust in Christ, we are “automatically made the righteousness of God.” Rather than an automatic, it seems more likely that our faith and trust in Christ opens the way so that we can develop a relationship with God, and at the same time, we can work with the Holy Spirit in the process of cleansing and sanctifying our lives.
In this day and age we live, we need to be more like the ancient Bereans, who “searched the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).