Chapter 21 – Corinthian Atonement Passages

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

1 Corinthians 6:20 “For you have been bought for a price: therefore glorify God in your body” NASB.

1 Corinthians 7:23 “You were bought for a price; do not become slaves of people.” NASB

The above two texts are often mentioned as if they are proof of Jesus literally buying us. However, when the texts are placed in context we see that neither one is dealing with the matter of atonement, nor is it intended to be taken literally, just as being “sold under sin” in Romans 7:14 is not intended to be literal. You know that passages are using words metaphorically when a literal understanding leads to absurdities.

We have been “bought for a price“, therefore, we are no longer slaves to sin. We see this clearly in another parallel passage in Romans 6:9-14, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” ESV. Paul appeals to the same argument, that we belong to someone else who gave his all for us. We read, “Flee sexual immorality. Every other sin that a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought for a price: therefore glorify God in your body 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 NASB.

A different scenario is seen in the next “bought” passage. In the Roman world of Paul’s day it was not uncommon for people to own other people. This ownership was understood to come with obligations of loyalty and duty. We belong to God because we have chosen by faith to have a new loyalty, a new commander. Paul writes, “Were you called as a slave? Do not let it concern you. But if you are also able to become free, take advantage of that. For the one who was called in the Lord as a slave, is the Lord’s freed person; likewise the one who was called as free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought for a price; do not become slaves of people. Brothers and sisters, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called” 1 Corinthians 7:21-24 NASB.

The first passage is about not allowing ourselves to become immoral, and the second involves ownership by another. In both cases it is about a higher duty, a loyalty, due to the price Christ paid (metaphorically) to free us from being slaves to sin or others.

 The Greek word translated as “purchased” is “ēgorasthēte”, which is more literal as “purchase”, as compared to “periepoiēsato” (used in Acts 20:28), but it only makes sense when used figuratively. Revelation 5:9 and 14:3-4 use the word “ēgorasthēte” as “purchased to God”, “purchased from the earth” and “purchased from among men”, which when taken as literal transactions makes no sense.

To read these passages as a literal purchase begs multiple questions, asking who our previous literal owner was, what literal payment was transferred, who now has that payment, and why we have to be literally bought and sold? God had sold us to Satan and Jesus made a deal with the devil and bought us back? Satan sold us to God? Where do we read of these events in the Bible? The problems are complicated and become absurd, but there is no problem if we read the above passages in context and understand them in context as Paul was trying to show that we have a duty to do right because a high price was metaphorically paid in the literal death of Jesus to show us that we do not have to be slaves to sin because we believe we now belong to another.

1 Corinthians 15:3 “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” ESV

This passage states that “Christ died for our sins”, but the word “for” is the Greek word “hyper”, indicating causation, not replacement or substitution. This is also a unique verse because in it Paul the Apostle says that Christ did this “in accordance with the Scriptures.” The most likely Scripture he would be referring to would be Isaiah 53, and you can see here that Paul views this Isaiah 53 passage as Christ dying because of, or with respect to, or for the sake of our sin, but not in place of our sin. Paul apparently did not understand Isaiah 53 as being substitutionary!

“Hyper” is a preposition which, when governed by a genitive noun (denoting possession, such as “our”, “my”, “your”), does not mean “instead of”. The use of hyper as “instead of” is rare in Greek literature and is only used when the noun governing it is in the accusative case – mostly as a direct object or the object of a preposition. There is already a frequently used Greek preposition to denote “instead of” – the preposition “anti”. If the writer wanted to say “instead of/in place of”, he would certainly have used “anti”, not “hyper”.

The phrase in 1 Corinthians 15:3 is “hyper tōn hamartiōn hēmōn”. Hamartiōn (sin) is a genitive noun here, as indicated by “hēmōn” (our). This conveys to the reader that Christ died “because of our sin” or “on account of our sin”, not “in exchange for our sin”.

2 Corinthians 5:14-15 “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” ESV

In the phrase “died for all“, the word “for” is the Greek “hyper“, which means “over, above, or figuratively, on behalf of”. The word “for” in this phrase does not mean “in exchange for” or “as a payment for”. The verse is saying that Christ “died on behalf of all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him.” There is nothing in this passage that involves substitution, exchange, or one literally in place of another. The death was motivational, to change lives so people would live for God.

2 Corinthians 5:17-21 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” ESV

Notice that this passage repeatedly specifies that we are reconciled to God. God is not the one who needs reconciliation. God stands ready, willing, and waiting. We and our love of sin are the problem, not God. We need to be reconciled to Him, not Him to us. Yet, the Penal Substitutionary Atonement claim has this totally backwards, that Christ paid for our sin as our substitute payment, absorbing God’s wrath, so God can now relate to us sinners. The PSA view has some serious reading comprehension problems!

2 Corinthians 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” ESV

This is an important text that is used to claim that Jesus paid for our sins and that the righteousness of Christ is transferred to us. The typical PSA proponent reads this verse as if it says something like this, “For our sake God put our sin on Christ, so that from him we would have the righteousness of God transferred to our account.”

This reading and understanding is incorrect for the following reasons:

  1. The verse says, “…so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”, not “from him”. To be “in” Christ is a Greek way of saying, “in his group”, or “on his team”, or “linked to him”. The Greek word “in” has to do with our identification with Christ, not about something being passed from him to us. “In” is a word that involves association, not a transfer.
  2. Righteousness is a virtue like love, patience, gentleness, etc. There are anti-virtues also, like hate, bitterness, impatience, etc. Virtues cannot be transferred. I cannot transfer some of my patience or love to you. Right living is also virtuous living. Righteousness is not something that can be transferred or delegated. Neither can wickedness. This passage says nothing about the righteousness of God or of Jesus actually being transferred to us. It is by being “in” Christ that we can have God’s righteousness, which is about following Christ, living and behaving as he did. Righteousness is what we do because we are associated with Christ. It is not delegated to us.
  3. The Greek the phrase “we would have the righteousness of God” is actually “that we might be becoming the righteousness of God.” This is about our transitioning from a condition of unrighteousness toward righteousness. Becoming righteous is not a status or a position or a transfer, or a declaration, but a movement, a transition from somewhere to somewhere. So, properly understood, this phrase has nothing to do with God transferring righteousness to us, but of us transitioning from our unrighteousness behavior toward godly, righteous behavior.
  4. The greater context of verse 21 is also problematic because it is about Christ reconciling us to God. If we claim that verse 21 teaches that God transfers Christ’s righteousness to us, we would have a false or reverse reconciliation. The context pleads with us to be reconciled TO God. It is US being reconciled TO Him, not Him being reconciled to us. We have offended God. We must stop offending Him if reconciliation is going to occur. If somehow some external righteousness is transferred to us, and this is called reconciliation in total disregard of our actually ceasing to offend, then God is being bribed or blinded by Christ, and no genuine reconciliation has occurred. The plea of Paul is that WE be reconciled TO God, not for God to be reconciled to us, and the first step in a process of reconciliation is to stop offending. Until the offenses cease, there can be no genuine reconciliation. So to read this passage with the idea that we are not required to stop offending, and that reconciliation occurs due to an imparting of righteousness from a third party destroys the very intent of the passage, which is that we be reconciled TO God. If a transfer of righteousness is occurring without us ceasing to offend, then it must be that God is reconciled to us, which is reconciliation in reverse, if you can even imagine such a thing!
  5. Now let’s focus on the phrase “to be sin for us”. Sin is an action that takes place in time, and therefore cannot be transferred to another time or another actor, nor can something or someone become literal sin. Sin is not an object or substance that can be moved or transferred, bought or sold. Some may say that Christ became legally sin in our place. This idea would mean that Christ merely accepted a temporary legal label called “sin”. But a mere label called “sin” does nothing at all to motivate us to live righteously, and the verse flatly states that “…he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Simply having Jesus become temporarily labeled as a legal sinner provides no motivation of any significance that would move us toward righteous living.
  6. If Jesus was literally “made sin”, then he would not have been an acceptable sacrifice to God.
  7. Using verse 21 as transferring Christ’s righteousness is a denial of being made a new creature in verse 17. Transferred righteousness is a fiction, a legal position, and has no immediate bearing on our behavior. Being labeled “legally righteous” does not make us new, where old things have passed away. We would merely have a new legal status called “the righteousness of Christ”. This is functionally equivalent to putting lipstick on a pig – where we are the pig. It makes a mockery of us actually becoming new, and discards God’s demand that we stop sinning and become righteous.

Now that we have examined what the verse does not say, what then is it saying? “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

First of all, the words “to be” in the phrase “to be sin” is not in the Greek. Without these words the text says “…he made him sin…”. In what sense was Jesus made sin for our sake? I think that this is a reference, a picture, of what sin looks like – the agony, the cruelty, the wickedness, all put on public display, “…so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We see the innocent Son of God tortured, suffering and dying, and knowing that it is because of our collective sinful actions and attitudes. Our sin, our unrighteousness, is the cause of this atrocity. We should reflect on this and be horrified that our sins led to this unrighteousness, and then flee from our unrighteousness and toward God’s righteousness. The very Son of God was nailed to a cruel cross because of our sin. What a shame. May we flee from all sin so that his suffering will not be in vain. If we do this and become a follower of Christ, we will have as the text says, the righteousness of God and reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. This fits the context perfectly and fulfills its author’s intent.

In conclusion for 2 Corinthians 5:21, I again must point to the fact that there is no Penal Substitution here, no transfer of the righteousness of Jesus to our account, nothing about Jesus taking our punishment or God forgiving us because Jesus paid for our sins with his blood. Paul is stating that the ugliness of sin was put on display by the death of Jesus so that those who follow Jesus will choose to live according to God’s definition of righteousness. Jesus gave himself for us to free us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for God’s righteous living.