Sunday, June 24, 2018

Was Christ Made Sin?

Patience ... all will become apparent ...
Sometimes a verse that isn’t terribly controversial can help us understand others that are. For example, Paul was writing of Christ when he wrote this in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor.”

I’ve never had even a remotely heated discussion about this verse with anyone else. It may provoke arguments in some quarters, but not many. Still, it’s worth considering for a moment what Paul is actually saying here as it may help us elsewhere.

Becoming Poor

Poverty is not usually inexplicable to us. All the poorest people I have met are not willingly impoverished; instead it is usually the case that circumstances have come together in such a way that the poor simply do not have access to the resources needed to acquire shelter, food or clothing — and if they had the resources at hand, they would use them to meet their needs. No one of my acquaintance is willingly poor.

But here Paul writes of the Lord Jesus as exactly that: willingly poor. Paul is telling us that, unlike beggars of our experience, Christ chose to set aside the ownership of all things we have ever seen or considered and far more beyond that. Christ walked this earth as “God made flesh”.

This would be the very same God who told an Old Testament psalmist that “If I were hungry, I wouldn’t tell YOU.” Yet Christ DID tell us. He was tired, he was hungry, he was without even a commoner’s home. He was unspeakably wealthy and did not need to know even a moment of want of any sort — yet he willingly set it all aside for a time.

Not a Lack of Resources

We cannot possibly conclude that Christ in his humanity somehow lacked access to resources — for he most demonstrably did not. He could (and did) make wine from water, heal the sick, raise the dead, feed the hungry, control the elements and so forth. These abilities invariably were exercised for the benefit of others, never for himself. But from that we can conclude with abundant proof that Christ never needed to himself be hungry, or thirsty, or in pain or lacking anything at all. He certainly wasn’t forced by adverse circumstance to endure death on a cross. Yet all these things he did willingly.

So he was never “poor” in quite the same way we casually use the term — for he was never unable through lack of resource to extricate himself from a painful circumstance if he wished. Yet he did not. Paul tells us that he chose poverty for us so that we, through his poverty, might be made rich. In a very real sense, the external view of Christ’s life told a consistent story of the lowest sort of poverty but a deeper look to the inside revealed that Christ had always been — and remained always — creator and rightful owner of all we see.

Let’s just be very clear on this point then, as Paul makes it: Christ’s poverty is very different from any other poverty we have ever seen or been familiar with. For Christ “became” poor as a matter of choice. He never actually was poor in the same way we see beggars on the street who cannot lift themselves out of their troubles. He could have — up to the very moment of his death — accessed the resources of heaven in an instant, but did not do so.

I take it, gentle reader, you’re with me thus far and have not raised a serious objection? Good, let’s go on then and cause a bit of trouble; at least in some quarters.

Christ “Becoming” Sin

2 Corinthians 5:21 stirs up a bit more trouble. Here’s how the KJV has that verse:
“For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Let’s just pause for a moment and remember our earlier verse, for here we are dealing with the same author (Paul), the same book (2 Corinthians) and even the same thought/verse construction. And here I’ll suggest that a verse we easily understand will help us deal with a verse that is frequently the source of confusion.

I have heard the phrase again and again that Christ was “made sin for us”. It’s a biblical phrase (at least in many translations) but a rather unfortunate choice. I don’t always ask the speaker or writer what they mean by that term. But what some very public and well-known preachers are suggesting on the basis of that verse is that Christ actually himself became sinful for our sakes. Perhaps to the speaker this thought seems very precious — the idea that Christ would be actually transmuted from that which was unutterably holy to the very embodiment of all human sin — and that before he ever redeemed mankind, Christ had to redeem himself.

Personally I hesitate to even type the notion. It flies in the face of any number of passages and builds a rather troubling idea on a single verse — which is usually the way these things go.

Think again about our earlier, easier example of Christ’s poverty. He was never truly poor but rather took on all the consequences of poverty while yet retaining full authority over more resources than we can imagine. In the same way and with the same author and construction of thought, 2 Corinthians 5:21 is talking about Christ being treated as if he were guilty, not suggesting he actually became guilty of sin personally or somehow changed in substance into the very embodiment of sin.

Christ was treated as if he were guilty but he always remained unstained.

An Illustration

Again, perhaps an illustration of that idea might help. I speed when I drive. I do it repeatedly and I get caught. The police make plain the penalty: I must pay the fine written on the tickets I’ve been given and the government will extract that fine from me whether I wish to pay it or not. But suppose on the day of my trial for repeatedly speeding, my kindly uncle arrives and reaches into his wallet. There’s a LOT of money in there and he pulls from it the exact amount of my fine. When the guilty verdict is read out and the fine is assessed, he pays it.

Is justice served as far as the court and the government’s interest is concerned? Yes, absolutely — as it must be.

Is justice served as far as my uncle is concerned? No, he suffers a loss for my benefit.

Is justice served as far as I see it? No, I see only undeserved grace that I receive from another.

In the same way Christ died — the just for the unjust — he paid the penalty my sin demands. He paid it for your sin too. But he never “became” sin in the sense that he never personally changed in nature.

And that’s an important and worthwhile distinction to remember.

1 comment :

  1. Good thoughts, Bernie.

    In that verse, 2 Cor. 5:21, the parallel is 1 John 1:10, which says, "If we say we have not sinned, we MAKE God to be a liar..." The ..."was MADE sin..." is exactly the same Greek syntactic construct.

    So the English translation is a bit misleading in 2 Corinthians. And if we were to *insist*, because we had a sentimental attachment to the idea, that Christ was *made into* sin, in some sense, then we would have to also believe that 1 John commands us to believe that sinful people who say they have no sin literally turn God into a liar!

    Now that would simply be untrue in the first place, and blasphemous in the second. So consistency requires, and sound doctrine demands, that we do not make that mistake in either case.