Did Christ Die as a “Sinner” upon the Cross?

By Wayne Jackson

“Some say that when Jesus died he bore our ‘actual’ sins in his body on the cross. Others believe that Christ only bore the ‘penalty’ for sin. Which view represents the truth of the matter?”

Some prominent theologians contend that when the Lord languished upon the cross, he literally bore our sins in his body, so that in reality, Jesus actually died as a “sinner.” Martin Luther, the prominent Protestant reformer, taught that the prophets of the Old Testament foretold, “that Christ should become the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, rebel, and blasphemer, that ever was or could be in the world.” He alleged that the Lord lost his innocence at Calvary, and died as a sinful being (Luther on Galatians, Chapter 3:13, London Edition, 1838, pp. 213-215, as quoted by Albert Barnes, “2 Corinthians & Galatians,” Barnes Notes on the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1955, pp. 334-335).

A Lutheran scholar has written that “it is Scriptural to say that God did impute the guilt of man to the innocent Christ” (Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, St. Louis: Concordia, 1951, Vol. II, p. 353 — emp. WJ). A Presbyterian writer, James M. Boice, asserted that when Christ died upon the cross [tree] he, “violated the law — through no fault of his own — [and] he became technically guilty of all of it [the law]” (“Galatians,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank Gaebelein, Ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976, Vol. 10, p. 460).

Advocates of this view often appeal to such passages as 2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 9:28, and 1 Peter 2:24 to substantiate their argument. For example, this latter text affirms that Christ “his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree.”

But Peter’s declaration can hardly mean that the Lord actually became a sinner while upon the cross. In this same epistle the apostle already has declared that Jesus died as “a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1:19).

What, then, is the explanation of these passages? They involve a common biblical figure of speech known as “metonymy.” In this figure a subject is named when, in fact, something associated with the subject is intended. Any good textbook on sacred hermeneutics (the science of Bible interpretation) will provide ample evidence and illustrations of this figure of speech (see D.R. Dungan, Hermeneutics, Cincinnati: Standard, n.d., pp. 282-284).

Here is an example. In describing certain sacrifices offered under the Levitical code in connection with the priests’ consecration, Moses instructed: “But the flesh of the bullock, and its skin, and its dung, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin-offering” (Exodus 29:14). Note the final expression in this text — “sin-offering.” Actually, in the Hebrew Bible the term is simply “sin” (see ASVfn).

The root form means to “miss (a mark), fall short.” It occurs about 595 times in the Old Testament, and in about 40% of these instances it metaphorically denotes a “sin-offering” (Ernst Jenni & Claus Westermann, Eds., Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997, pp. 406-407). Thus, because the context clearly indicates that a sacrifice is in view, virtually all translations render the original word as “sin-offering” in the Exodus text. Clearly that is the meaning of the expression (cf. Leviticus 10:17).

Using similar language, Paul writes: “Him [Christ] who knew no sin he [God] made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The expression “made to be sin,” likely signifies, “made to be a sin-offering,” in harmony with the common Old Testament idiom.

J.H. Thayer opts for an alternate meaning, yet one still consistent with the sinless nature of the Lord. He saw the metonymy as a use of the “abstract for the concrete,” with the sense being: Though Jesus knew no sin, i.e., he was sinless, nonetheless God allowed him to be treated as if sinful (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clarke, 1958 Edition, p. 31).

Peter’s statement, that the Savior “bore our sins” (1 Peter 2:24), does not suggest that the Lord carried the “guilt” of human sin in his body personally. Here the term “sins” conveys the sense of “the penalty of sin” that justly was due us. A passage from the pen of Jeremiah will illustrate the proper meaning. In his lamentation over the fall of Jerusalem, the prophet wrote: “Our fathers sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities” (Lamentations 5:7; cf. Ezekiel 4:4). The offspring did not bear the guilt of the previous generations; they merely were suffering the consequences of earlier rebellion.

When the writer of Hebrews declares that Christ will “appear a second time, apart from sin” (9:28), he certainly did not imply that Jesus, at the time of his death, became a “sinful” person by assuming the guilt of others. Earlier the writer had emphatically declared that the Savior was “without sin” (4:15). Thus, the meaning of 9:28 is this. When Christ comes again, it will not be for the purpose of providing a redemptive plan for sin. That was achieved by the “first” coming; the “second” coming will be for judgment (v. 27).

The Scriptures do not teach that Christ died as a sinner. That theory is an error that results from not understanding the figurative language used in the sacred writings.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.