Does the Bible Say "He Became Sin Who Knew No Sin"?
The Bible rarely touches on one topic, only one time. We often find multiple books of the Bible and multiple writers touching on the same points, which hopefully helps us understand each topic more fully. Throughout the New Testament and the whole Bible, one concept we see is a righteous person dying for the unrighteous. The ultimate and most obvious example is Jesus Christ himself. He became sin who knew no sin so that we could be saved. But what does that mean?
We hear the phrase “he became sin who knew no sin” frequently, but we don’t often stop and think about the implications. We may be tempted to gloss over concepts like this and thus lose the wonder of the gospel. We need to slow down and examine Scripture, considering what it means that he became sin who knew no sin.
What Bible Verse Says, “He Became Sin Who Knew No Sin”?
“He became sin who knew no sin” is not actually in the Bible. This phrase is a lyric from the Chris Tomlin song “Jesus Messiah.”
However, the phrase is inspired by 2 Corinthians 5:21, where Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This may appear to be a small difference, but it is an important one.
The basic meaning of the phrase does not change between the lyric and the verse. Both convey the fullness of Christ taking on our sins as though they were his own. However, the subject is not Jesus in the verse: it is God the Father. In the previous verse, Paul pleads with his audience on behalf of Jesus to be reconciled to God. In v. 21, Paul highlights the lengths to which the Father was willing to go to offer ruined sinners salvation and restoration. God loved his creation so much, he was ready to send his Son, who deserved only glory and honor, into the world to pay for the sins of men. And in exchange for their sins, Jesus Christ offers them his righteousness, the very righteousness of God.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking Jesus is super loving and compassionate, while the Father is this angry, disapproving judge seeking any reason to smite us. This is not true. Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). The love, compassion, mercy, and tenderness we see in Jesus is just as true of the Father. Certainly, God is just and will judge those who live in unrepentant sin. But we must never forget that the first inclination of the Father’s heart is mercy.
2 Corinthians 5:21 pictures the great exchange at the gospel’s core: sin and death for life and righteousness. When we surrender our lives to Christ, we are united with him. Much like in a marriage, what is ours becomes his, and what is his becomes ours. Our sin debt is placed on him, a debt he paid on the cross, and we receive his perfect innocence and purity before the Father. Of course, we all still sin, and we will continue to sin as long as we live in a fallen world. But now, we have been given the righteousness of God, so we can approach our heavenly Father with confidence, knowing that when he looks at us, he only sees the perfect obedience of Jesus.
Why Is it Important that Jesus Knew No Sin?
We first have to remember that God is infinitely holy to answer this question. This means that he is perfect in absolutely every way. It is in his character that we find the definition of goodness. And as the Creator of all things, he alone sets the standard for how we should live, and his standard is absolute perfection. Anything less than that is sin. Because God is perfect, sin is infinitely offensive to him. God must punish sin. Otherwise, he would not be just and, by extension, not good.
When the first man and woman rebelled against God, they fell short of God’s perfect standard. And when that happened, the relationship between God and humans was broken. Therefore, every person born after Adam and Eve is born with a warped nature that wants to go its own way and define its own truth. The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The penalty for even one sin is eternal separation from God. If this is true, what hope could there be?
Only God himself is perfect, so only God himself could save us from our sins. But to pay for the sins of men, any potential savior would have to be a man. So that’s exactly what God did. Jesus Christ, God the Son, stepped down from Heaven and took on the nature of a man, fully God and fully man. Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, yet he did not sin. This was crucial to God’s plan. If Jesus had sinned even once, God’s plan of redemption would have come undone, because then Jesus would have had to pay for his own sin. It was Jesus’ sinless record that made him the only one who could pay for the sins of others.
What is the Context of 2 Corinthians 5:21?
The book of 2 Corinthians is the second letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. In his first letter, Paul rebuked the church for several pervasive sins within the church body, from sexual immorality to abuses of the Lord’s Supper and beyond. Following such a difficult letter, Paul penned 2 Corinthians, which was intended—at least in part—to encourage and build up his somewhat discouraged readers.
Starting in v. 11 of chapter 5, Paul explains the ministry with which he and his companions have been tasked, calling it in v. 18 a “ministry of reconciliation.” He uses this wording because the message was that through the death and resurrection of Christ, God the Father reconciled the world to himself. The gospel with which Paul had been entrusted was not a self-help or a "get rich quick" gospel. It was not about selling “fire insurance” so that people would not go to hell. It was a call on behalf of Christ himself for people to be reconciled to a right relationship with God.
When we come to v. 21, Paul tells us exactly what God did to make reconciliation between himself and humans possible. Human sin had to be dealt with. God could not just sweep it under the rug or say, “Oh, it’s fine. I forgive you,” without actually judging the sin. To simply ignore sin would have violated God’s justice. However, letting his fallen creation destroy itself before pouring his wrath upon the earth was not what God wanted. Therefore, his solution was to pay for sin himself. God the Son, Jesus Christ, would take on flesh, live a perfect life, and die in place of sinners so that they “might become the righteousness of God.”
What Changed When Jesus Became Sin?
Hebrews 10:5-14 details for us what Christ’s death accomplished. By dying on the cross, Jesus did away with the old sacrificial system and ushered in a new covenant (v. 9). This covenant would not be ratified with the blood of bulls and goats as before, but with Christ’s own blood (Luke 22:20). Jesus offered a single sacrifice once for all, the first and only sacrifice that could permanently take away sins (Heb. 10:12, 14). Therefore, he made salvation and perfection before God possible for those who would repent and trust in him (Heb. 10:14).
After Jesus was crucified, God provided a visual representation of what the writer of Hebrews describes. When Jesus died, the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place in the temple was torn from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45). The Most Holy Place was where the presence of God resided. No one could go into that room except the High Priest once a year on the Day of Atonement. Because God is holy and man is sinful, there had to be a separation between the two. For so long, the people of Israel had been so close to God, yet so far. They were separated by a barrier that could not be removed. That is, until Jesus’s death.
When Jesus died, that barrier was removed, both physically and spiritually. God declared that the chasm created by sin was gone by tearing that curtain. Reconciliation and relationship with God were possible. There would no longer be any separation between God and his people. And three days later, God put his final seal on that promise by raising Jesus from the dead.
Jesus’ resurrection proved once and for all that atonement had been made and that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that Jesus’ resurrection is not only important but critical to our faith. According to the apostle, if Christ has not been raised from the dead, “[our] faith is futile and [we] are still in [our] sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead is our confidence that he became sin who knew no sin and that his sacrifice was enough. Through repentance and faith in the living Lord Jesus, we have access to God forever.
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Rylie Fine is a freelance writer and editor. She is passionate about the Bible and seeks to equip other believers to study it for themselves. Rylie lives in northeast Ohio with her husband, Evan.