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What Is the "Sin" Of 2 Corinthians 5:21?

There are several expressions Scripturally applied to Christ which seem to cause some brethren unusual difficulty. Perhaps one reason for this is that, in recent years, parts of our community have consistently downplayed and undercut the idea that Christ in fact needed to offer, and did offer, "first for himself". One of the Scriptural expressions is: "made... sin" (2Co 5:21).

We shall consider this phrase as it occurs in the Revised Version, along with another very relevant passage (Rom 8:3):

"God, sending His own Son in the likeness of flesh of sin and as an offering for sin, condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom 8:3, RV and margin);

"Him who knew no sin He made to he sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him" (2Co 5:21, RV).
From these short passages may he deduced the following doctrines:

  1. that "sin" is a constituent of the flesh;
  2. that our Lord was flesh, constituted as to his physical nature in our likeness (cp 1Co 15:49);
  3. that he was sent to be a sin offering: and
  4. that since this sacrifice was of a Holy One who did no sin yet "died unto sin" (Rom 6:10), sin became condemned in human nature, and so could be taken away from it -- in the person of the risen Saviour -- with full satisfaction to the justice of God.
Correct translations

While 'sin' and 'sin offering' are the same in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, it is erroneous to assume that the same rule applies to the Greek of the New Testament. The Greek for 'sin' is "hamartias". The translators of the Septuagint, faced with the need to render clearly in Greek what might be doubtful if translated literally, used the phrase "peri hamartias" (ie, 'concerning sin') to indicate 'sin offering'. Consequently, where they did not use this phrase, but rendered the Hebrew "hamartias", they made it clear that in such passages 'sin' was meant.

From its use in the Septuagint "peri hamartias" became the current and proper expression in Greek, just as 'sin offering' is in English, while "hamartias" (standing alone) continued to be used for 'sin'. The revisers were therefore justified in changing "for sin" to "as an offering for sin" in Rom 8:3, and wherever else "peri hamartias" is found. Examples of this phrase in the LXX are found in Num 7:16 and Psa 40:6; and in the Greek New Testament in Gal 1:4 and Heb 10:6.8,18.26 -- as well as Rom 8:3. (Cp WJ Young, "Sin and Sin-Offering", Xd 50:531.)

Erroneous translations

Some translators and expositors have not been as consistent as, or lacked the knowledge of the revisers, and have inserted "sin offering" in quite a number of passages where the original does not warrant it. Thus in effect they deny (or seem to deny) that sin was (or needed to be) a constituent of Christ's nature. The attempt, then, to force upon "hamartias" a meaning which it will not bear should be resisted. Here are two examples:

Heb 9:28: "...and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second lime without sin unto salvation." The AV is surely correct here, since the Greek is "hamartias". But notice how modern versions distort and twist this:

NIV, NASB: "not to bear sin" (as though sin were only something that Jesus bore, in an unreal, ceremonial, ritual sense);

RSV: "not to deal with sin" (as though it were impossible that sin could ever have been part of Christ, but was always outside of him -- something to he 'dealt with');

Even the Diaglott falls into this same trap, and worse, when it translates, "without a sin-offering", altogether inconsistent with the rule described above.

By contrast, John Carter's exposition of this passage is clear, unambiguous and correct: "As the high priest came out of the tabernacle to bless a waiting, expectant Israel, so Christ will appear a second time. He will come 'apart from sin' himself, for the old nature, sin nature that he bore, has been changed to 'a body of glory'. The past years were 'the days of his flesh' when he 'was made sin', though he knew no sin'. He will come for the salvation of those who wait for him, to change their bodies and make them like unto the body of his glory" (CHeb 109). He clearly has no qualms about attaching the word 'sin' to Jesus.

To imply (as Heb 9:28 plainly does) that Jesus in his first coming was 'with sin' is to say nothing else than that he partook of our sin-prone nature:

  1. Gal 4:4: "made of a woman, made under the law."
  2. Heb 2:14: "he also himself likewise partook (RSV) of the same (flesh and blood)."
  3. 1Pe 2:24: "(he) bare our sins in his own body on the tree."
  4. 1Jo 4:2: "Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God."
It was only by partaking of our nature of sin (hat Jesus could "put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb 9:26).

2Co 5:21: "For He (God) hath made him (Christ) to be sin for us, who (Christ) knew no sin". Again, the AV is correct, since the original is "hamartias", not "peri hamartias". But, also again, the correct rendering is lost sight of by some modern translations, that is:

NIV margin. NEB margin: "a sin offering":

The Diaglott also renders "a sin-offering" -- adding as well a quite erroneous and misleading footnote.

The word "hamartias" occurs twice in the one phrase of 2Co 5:21; it cannot possibly he rendered both times by 'sin offering', since who would he so foolish as to say: "Christ was made a sin offering, who himself knew no sin offering"?

The whole force of this passage lies in the antithesis between sin and righteousness: that Jesus was, though sinless as to character, nevertheless constituted of our sinful nature (called Scripturally "sin"). This was in order that, through Jesus, we -- who have no righteousness of our own -- may be constituted righteous in him. The erroneous rendering, "made a sin offering", obscures the antithesis and weakens (if not destroys) the passage as a testimony to our Lord's nature.

The next article will present the historical Christadelphian understanding of 2Co 5:21, Rom 8:3, and related passages.
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