For he (God) hath made him (Jesus) to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. ~ 2 Corinthians 5:21
Sometimes people interpret this text as, “Jesus became sin with our sinfulness.” This is common among those who interpret the cross solely as the place of substitution rather than sacrifice, and there is a difference.
Part and parcel to the belief that Christ was made sin with our sinfulness is the belief that Christ was rejected and condemned by God as a sinner when he died on the cross.
Because this view is so prevalent, it isn’t uncommon to hear someone describe the atoning work of Christ as substitutionary atonement rather than sacrificial atonement – there is a difference, a huge difference. Consider the meaning of the two words, substitution and sacrifice.
A substitute takes the place of another, and for all intents and purposes it is a replacement. A sacrifice on the other hand is an offering, something of immense value which is given unselfishly and is very costly to the giver.
When a firefighter enters a burning building to rescue another person he is putting his life on the line to save another, and if he dies in the process, we could say he sacrificed his life. We would not describe the firefighter as a substitute, and if we did, our words would likely be considered an insult.
Words do have meaning, and I am convinced that many Christians are missing out on truly understanding the power of the cross, because of this.
Throughout the Old Testament the sacrifices which were types of Christ were offered to God as a sweet fragrance (a sweet savor, or aroma) that God would accept on the behalf of the people, as holy sacrificial offerings (Leviticus 22:20, 21, 25, 27). By virtue of these offerings, the people were sanctified and made holy in the sight of the Lord.
In Philippians 4, Paul draws on the language of the sweet savor offerings when he speaks of the gift of support which the Philippians sent to his aid.
But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God.~ Philippians 4:18
In 2 Corinthians, Paul again draws on the language of the sweet savor offerings when he says the following: Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savor of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish… ~ 2 Corinthians 2:14-15
In both cases (Philippians 4 and 2 Corinthians 2) Paul appeals to the language found in the Old Testament which described the atonement sacrifices foreshadowing the death of Christ.
No one reading Paul’s words in Philippians 4 and 2 Corinthians 2 would think the expression “sweet savor” had any other meaning than that which is pleasing to God. In fact, Paul uses the words “well pleasing” in his Philippians 4 description.
When Christ died on the cross, he paid the ransom for us with his holy life which he offered to God as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Jesus gave himself as a sweet savor offering, well pleasing to God!
This is why holy communion is so important and powerful. It is a memorial of the death of our Lord, for through Jesus’s sacrifice we are consecrated to God and made holy.
And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet – smelling savor. ~ Ephesians 4:32- 5-2
God accepts us because he accepted, not rejected, Jesus when he died on the cross for our sins. Had God rejected Jesus on the cross, we would still be in our sins. Throughout the Old Testament the offerings which foreshadowed Jesus were accepted to make atonement. Those offerings which were rejected did not make atonement.
And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. ~ Leviticus 1:4
Notice the language in the text above: “it shall be accepted for him to mke atonement.” In like manner, Christ was accepted for us. Now consider Leviticus 7:18:
And if any of the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace offerings be eaten at all on the third day, it shall not be accepted, neither shall it be imputed unto him that offereth it: it shall be an abomination, and the soul that eateth of it shall bear his iniquity. ~ Leviticus 7:18
Rejected sacrifices and offerings did not make atonement. Only those which were accepted as a sweet savor did. Yet there is an entire ideology that many have been taught which states that Jesus redeemed us by becoming a substitute rejected by God in our place. This is contrary to the entire narrative of scripture regarding the sacrifices which foreshadowed Jesus, which were offered for atonement. Jesus sacrificed his holy life for us when he died on the cross, and the sacrifice of himself was an offering that was a sweet fragrance to God.
And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savour. ~ Ephesians 5:2
Why then does the Bible say that Jesus was made sin for us, and how should we interpret this verse?
Paul’s reference to Christ being made sin for us is derived from the Old Testament motif of the sin offerings. The sin offerings were offered to make atonement for sin.
Throughout the Old Testament the word atonement was used to convey the idea of reconciliation, sanctification, consecration, and forgiveness. This is the context which surrounds Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5.
Literally, Paul is telling us that Christ was made to be the offering for our sins, and that is how we are reconciled to God. Christ was made to be our sin offering not our literal sin.
Throughout the Old Testament the words sin and sin offering are translated from the same Hebrew word “chattath”. One writer pointed out that chattath is translated as sin offering 118 times, and translated as sin 168 times. We determine which is being spoken of based on the context.
In Hebrews 10:6, the writer of Hebrews is quoting from Psalms 40:6 which says, Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.
It is clear that the Psalmist is referring to the sacrifices and offerings and not talking about sin. In Hebrews 10:6, the author of Hebrews cites this text in reference to Jesus, saying, In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. The words “sacrifices for” have been added by the translators of the KJV for clarity, because the context is the sacrifices for sin. Without this clarification, the text could have read, In burnt offerings and sin thou hast had no pleasure.
The Greek word “hamartia” which is used in Hebrews 10:6 in reference to the sin offering, is also used in 2 Corinthians 5:21 in reference to Christ being made sin for us. So we must determine from the context if Paul is saying Jesus was made to be our literal sin, or our sin offering.
It should be of importance to us that the apostle Paul was a Jew who had come to know Christ. The things which Paul taught about Jesus were rooted in his scholarly understanding of the scriptures. Paul most assuredly would have thought through the scriptures as a Jewish scholar and would have understood Christ’s death and resurrection in view of the scriptures. Paul tells the Corinthians the following:
I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures… ~ 1 Corinthians 15:3-4
Paul certainly understood Christ’s death in view of the Old Testament scriptures and would not have taught anything contrary to the Old Testament’s motif when he speaks of Christ dying for our sins. Paul spoke of Christ’s death in view of the precedent set forth within the sacrificial system because those sacrifices foreshadowed Christ.
Jesus is our Redeemer, and he died for our sins as one who was pure and holy. There is no precedent anywhere in scripture which would indicate that the offerings for sin were made sinful with the sins of the people, which is how 2 Corinthians has been interpreted by some. Instead they were to be offered as unblemished sacrifices which were holy to the Lord.
Leviticus 6:25 says, “Speak unto Aaron and to his sons, saying, this is the law of the sin offering: In the place where the burnt offering is killed shall the sin offering be killed before the LORD: it is most holy.”
Christ was a most holy offering for our sins when he died on the cross. He was not morphed into a condemned sinner. He wasn’t a sin infested replacement. He was pure, holy, and righteous.
Leviticus 22:21 tells us that the sacrifices which foreshadowed Christ had to be perfect in order to be accepted – And whosoever offereth a sacrifice of peace offerings unto the Lord to accomplish his vow, or a freewill offering in beeves or sheep, it shall be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no blemish therein.Christ was perfect, He was without sin: he knew no sin. Jesus Christ died as an unblemished lamb whose blood is pure and holy. The scripture says we were not redeemed with corruptible things, instead we were redeemed with the precious blood of Jesus Christ as from a lamb without spot or blemish (See 1 Peter 1:18-19).
Notice that Peter refers to the blood of Christ as precious blood because Jesus was without spot or blemish. Jesus’s blood redeemed us because Jesus was without any spot or blemish when he died on the cross. Jesus did not become a corrupted, sin infused replacement when he died on the cross. He was a holy sacrifice unto God and in that holy sacrifice of himself we are accepted, made holy, and have access to God.
The teaching of the Bible is that our redemption is by virtue of the blood of Jesus. Jesus is, was, and always will be holy, pure, and just. The apostle Peter declared that he is the holy and just One which the people rejected (Acts 3:14). Peter also declared that he is the prince of life and that the grave could not hold him because God would not allow his holy one to see corruption. (See Acts 2:24, 27; 3:15)
Christ was our sin offering and not our literal sin when he died on the cross.