2 Corinthians 5:21- The Great Exchange?

(Note: this page provides more detail on the information at the page Made to be Sin – definition.)

“For he hath made him (Christ) to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor 5:21)

“Made him to be sin” is a strange-sounding concept. Which sin was He made to be? Can a person become an action? Jesus did not commit any sins or take on anything like an attitude of rebellion; He did nothing that would fit the definition of sin. Jesus did not do any sinful acts because, while He had the physical nature of fallen man, could be and was tempted, He had no inclination to disobey. In His mind (“the mind of Christ;” 1 Cor 2:16) there was total trust in His Father.

The Great Exchange?

This verse (2 Cor 5:21) is often referred to as “the great exchange” and understood to be the very basis of the gospel. Here are two examples of such thinking:

“God lays our sins on Christ and punishes them in him. And in Christ’s obedient death, God fulfills and vindicates his righteousness and imputes (credits) it to us. Our sin on Christ; his righteousness on us. (www.desiringgod.org)

“God reconciled sinful man to Himself by making His sinless Son the sin bearer and dying in the sinner’s place. Jesus Christ paid the death penalty for the sinner so that God could set the sinner free and declare him righteous in His holy presence.” (www.abideinchrist.com)

 That thinking may come from such reasoning as this:

 “… consider the following passage in the King James Bible, “he hath made him to be sin for us…” 2 Corinthians 5:21. The word for “sin” is #266 “αμαρτια,” where in Numbers 6:14, and many other places in the Greek Old Testament, the word, “αμαρτιαν” is translated “sin offering.” “Offering” denoted by the Italics, is implied by the context, as it was talking of animals for a sacrifice for sin. Jesus becoming the “sin offering” opens a whole new aspect of understanding this verse.” (https://christianity.stackexchange.com)

The above implies Jesus did not become sin but became an “offering for sin” which is quite different. He was offered as a solution to the problem of sin – as payment for the penalty due sinners. That understanding is an improvement over Him becoming sin but there is another and even better way to understand it.

Made Like Us

“Made him to be sin” is equivalent to “sending … in the likeness of sinful flesh” in the following verse:

“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:” (Rom 8:3)

 That sending, of course, is referring to His being sent to this earth:

“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” (John 3:17)

In both 2 Cor 5:21 and Rom 8:3 all uses of “sin” and “sinful” are from the same Greek word “hamartia” (G266).  Rom 8:3 clarifies that “made him to be sin” in 2 Cor 5:21 is referring to Him taking the same fallen human physical nature that each of us has. “Hamartia” often has the meaning of the sinful nature.

“made him to be sin” = “in the likeness of sinful flesh”

That Christ was made “in the likeness of sinful flesh” is supported by other verses:

“Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh;” (Rom 1:3)

“But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:” (Phil 2:7)

Again, we have the connection:

“in the likeness of sinful flesh” = “in the likeness of men”

“Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; …  For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.  Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.” (Heb 2:14,16-17)

Yet Without Sin

While still having the identity of the Son of God when He was on earth, His divinity was combined with humanity so that He was both divine (His true identity) and human. An important point is that, while like us in His humanity, He never sinned:

“Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:” (1 Pet 2:22)

“And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.” (1 John 3:5)

That is the sense in which He condemned sin in the flesh – by showing that sin is not necessary or inevitable. While He had the same nature as man, He never yielded to that nature. Here is a good paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 5:21 emphasizing the possibilities for those who will avail themselves of the remedy provided:

“He can do this because he ordained that Christ, who had no selfishness of his own, take our selfish condition upon himself in order to cleanse and recreate humanity back to God’s original ideal, so that by uniting with Christ we might be restored to the perfect righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21, The Remedy NT)

“For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (Matt 26:28)

Remission is like healing; think of cancer going into remission. The blood sacrifice was not for payment of a debt but so that all who chose to believe can have their sinful condition go into remission or be cleansed.

“How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb 9:14)

“Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless.” (2 Peter 3:14)

“Without spot and blameless” is referring even to God’s people – those who will take the remedy and be cured.

“Sins” Often Means Our Sinful Condition

As mentioned previously “sins” translated form the Greek “hamartia” (G266) often means the sinful condition. Here are further examples where it can be seen to have that meaning:

“Who his own self bare our sins (G266) in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.” (1 Pet 2:24)

“Bare our sins” could be “bare our sinful nature” as in He bore or had our nature which can be tempted.

And what about the following verses? I have added a few words that I think help clarify the meaning.

“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for [the remedy of] our sins [G266; sinful condition] according to the scriptures;” (1 Cor 15:3)

Does “died for our sins” mean He died:

  • for the benefit of our sins? (do our sins say “thank you”?)
  • to cancel out of our sins? (you can’t undo a past event)
  • or as a solution to our sinful condition? (something in need of fixing)

“Who gave himself [as the remedy] for our sins [G266; sinful condition; He does not erase past history], that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father:” (Gal 1:4)

“Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins [G266; sinful condition], sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high;” (Heb 1:3)

“And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins [G266; sinful condition; how can you wash away a past event?] in his own blood,” (Rev 1:5)

In the four verses above, “sins” means our sinful condition, the condition we were born with because of what we inherited from Adam and it is a terminal condition. Thank God, He has provided the Remedy in Jesus taking our condition on Himself and in that state overcoming sin.

It should be pointed out that “sinful condition” while manifested in acts of sin, refers more to the sinful heart which is related to having a wrong concept of God and His character as detailed in the study The Cleansing of the Sanctuary.


It has been shown that, in 2 Corinthians 5:21 and many other verses, sin/sins refers to the sinful nature rather than to acts of sin.

God did not make His Son to be sin so that He could be slain as blood payment for sin. (See video Is the Shedding of Blood Required for the Forgiveness of Sins at the bottom of this page.) Rather, God, who only wants to forgive and heal, made Him to also, likewise, take part of the same flesh and blood (Heb 2:14) we have that He might overcome in our nature and provide an example and a way for us to escape the pull of our cancerous, sinful nature and go into remission. Our wonderful God is far more concerned about the pain we cause ourselves and others by our sins than He is of any hurt to Himself.

The Great Exchange turns out to be the Great Fake News Exchange replaced by a much more beautiful and Biblically-consistent understanding.


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