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Wait, Jesus Became SIN??

Joe Heschmeyer

There’s a baffling line at the end of 2 Corinthians 5, where St. Paul writes “we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (vv. 20-21).

How could God make Christ “to be sin”? Many modern Protestants interpret this very literally, leading to heretical conclusions. For instance, Kenneth Copeland claims:

Scripture says He was made to be sin for us. Why? So that we could be made righteous, or have “right-standing” with God. The nature of sin that Jesus took on for us did not just affect His physical body, but also His spirit. Because of this, Jesus died spiritually (became spiritually separated from His Father) and went to hell.

He’s taking the Protestant idea of “imputation” (that God the Father treats Jesus as guilty, even though he’s innocent) and taking it to its logical conclusion: that the Second Person of the Trinity somehow becomes spiritually separated from the First Person of the Trinity. But that idea is contrary to both the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (in which there’s an eternal communion of Father, Son, and Spirit that neither is, nor can be, interrupted) and the doctrine of the Incarnation (in which Christ is a divine person with both human and divine natures). What’s more, it makes God immoral: to save the unjust, he damns the just. It’s also not grammatically convincing. If Paul wanted to say that Christ became a sinner, or that he (although just) was treated as a sinner, why would he say he “became sin”?

Fortunately, St. Paul isn’t saying anything like this. In Hebrew, the word ḥāṭā’ means both “sin” and “a sin offering.” In technical terms, this is what’s called a “contranym.” We’ve got plenty in English: “cleave” can mean to separate (like a meat cleaver does) or to join together (cleave to your wife). “Dusting” can mean remove dust (like dusting the furniture) or adding dust (like dusting a cake). “Oversight” might mean that you’re paying careful attention, or that you’re not. So it is with ḥāṭā’. In Genesis 4:7 and many other places, it means “sin.” In Exodus 29:14 and many other places, it means “sin offering.” In Leviticus 4, we see it used in both ways: the same word to describe the people’s sin (Lev. 4:14) and the sacrificial offering made in response to that sin (Lev. 4:20).

In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, ḥāṭā’ gets translated as the Greek word hamartia. Likewise, when Hebrews 10 mentions sin offerings, it simply says peri hamartia, “for sin.” The word “offering” is implicit in the context, but not actually there in the Greek. So to say that Christ “became hamartia,” as St. Paul does in 2 Corinthians 5, is to say that Christ became our sin offering, so that “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). This isn’t the language of Protestant imputation. This is the language of Jewish sacrifice.

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