Christ Our Sin Offering and Passover Lamb: The Matthew Bible vs. the Geneva Bible

It is almost Easter in the church calendar, and time for the remembrance of how our Lord was offered up upon the cross for us. Here we see how the 1537 Matthew Bible taught this remembrance at 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Romans 8:3, and contrast it with the different teaching in the Geneva Bible on these same verses. The difference arose in part from the Geneva re-interpretation of Paul’s mysterious saying, “Christ was made sin for us.”

2 Corinthians 5:21 – Christ was made sin for us (or, became sin for us)

In the Incarnation, God the Word took on flesh. This was a unique, momentous event in the history of the world and the universe. Now there was born the only one, the Messiah and Saviour, who could be the spotless lamb and acceptable offering to God to atone for the sin of man. Jesus was thus born the Christ, both Son of God and Son of man. For God ordained that, to save us from his eternal wrath for sin, the Messiah must be made man in the flesh and must bear our punishment in his flesh. Christ was thus born to offer himself the holy, fleshly sacrifice to atone for sin – a sin offering, as graphically foreshadowed by the fleshly sacrifices of the Old Testament.

Paul taught about Christ as the divine sin offering at 2 Corinthians 5:21, which says Christ was “made to be sin for us.” However, we cannot understand this unless we first understand the Hebrew idiom that Paul employed.

An idiom is a word used in a non-standard way – that is, idiomatically – in contexts where it takes a unique, figurative meaning.[1] Idioms can be impossible for people who are not native speakers of a language, or well advanced in it, to understand.[2] William Tyndale explained in several notes in his 1534 New Testament that, in Hebrew, sometimes the word “sin” was used idiomatically to mean a “sacrifice for sin” or a “sin offering.” This odd idiom was one of many that found its way into the Greek of the New Testament. Hebrew idioms adopted into Greek or other languages are called Hebraisms.

In the 1537 Matthew Bible, John Rogers added a note explaining the Hebraism “sin” as Paul used it in 2 Corinthians:

2 Corinthians 5:21, Matthew Bible: For he hath made him *to be sin for us, which knew no sin, that we by his means should be that righteousness which before God is allowed.

MB note: To be sin for us: that is to say, to be the sacrifice for our sins. “Sin” in the Scripture is sometimes taken for the sacrifice of sin.

In other words, Christ, who was without sin, was for our sakes made a sacrifice for sin and a sin offering.

The Matthew Bible interpretation of the idiom “sin” is orthodox and traditional. In the 5th century, St. Augustine wrote that in the Bible, “sacrifices for sins are named ‘sins,’ and the punishments of sins are sometimes called ‘sins.’”[3] It seems that in the early Reformation this idiom was well understood in English circles; I chanced, while writing this, to read the work of the little-known Reformer Richard Brightwell, an associate of John Frith, who noted that “sin [means] a sacrifice for our sin, and so is ‘sin’ taken in many places of the two Testaments.”[4] In more recent times, Bible commentator Adam Clarke confirmed that this Hebraism occurs in “a multitude” of places in the Scripture.[5]

Romans 8:3

Paul also used “sin” idiomatically in Romans 8:3. Here Rogers added another explanatory note, which he took from Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament:

Romans 8:3, Matthew Bible: For what the law could not do, inasmuch as it was weak because of the flesh, that performed God, and sent his son in the similitude of sinful flesh, and by *sin damned [punished] sin in the flesh …

MB note: Sin is taken here for a sin offering, after the use of the Hebrew tongue.

Therefore, fully translated and updated, Romans 8:3 means:

For what the law could not do inasmuch as it was weak because of the flesh, that God performed, and sent his Son in the similitude of sinful flesh, and by a sin offering punished sin in the flesh …

At Romans 8:3, Tyndale used the verb “damned” emphasizing chiefly the sense “punished.” In Early Modern English, the word “damned” took the sense condemned or sentenced to punishment, just as today we would speak of someone’s “damnation” meaning his eternal punishment. The idea of punishment was, therefore, an important component of the meaning. We might say that the divine sin offering was a punishment of sin sufficient for all eternity. Galatians 3:15, where Paul wrote that Christ was made accursed for us, is sometimes associated with the idea that Christ became sin for us, and in a note on verse 15 Tyndale explained that the meaning is, “he was punished and slain for our sins.”

Thus it was that Jesus was made sin for us: through the terrible punishment he took in his own flesh, he was made the holy sin offering foreshadowed in the Passover supper and temple sacrifices. (As he himself said, “This is my body, given for you.” Lu. 22:19, 1Co. 11:24.) This explanation is simple, clear, and manifestly biblical. It does not require tortuous mental gymnastics to understand. It is also the essential gospel.

But if we do not understand how Christ was made sin for us, we lose the gospel. And because this Hebraism is indeed not well understood today, we have lost the gospel at 2 Corinthians 5:21 and at Romans 8:3. This is partly due to the new translations and interpretations introduced in the Geneva Bible, particularly the 1599 edition.

The new Geneva commentaries on how Christ was made sin for us

The New Testament of the 1560 Geneva Bible was the work of the English Puritan William Whittingham. However, it was not his original work; Whittingham took William Tyndale’s translation and, under John Calvin’s oversight, revised it and added new commentaries, often bringing new teaching.[6] The 1599 Geneva Bible used Tomson’s revised New Testament,[7] being a later revision of Whittingham’s work, and brought more new teaching. 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Romans 8:3 are examples of how, step by step, different doctrine was introduced, so that by 1599 the knowledge of the Hebraism “sin” was lost:

2 Corinthians 5:21 in the 1560 & 1599 Geneva Bible:  For he hath made him to be *sin for us, which knew no sin, that we should be made the righteousness of God in him.

1560 note: That is, a sacrifice for sin.

1599 note: A sinner, not in himself, but by imputation of the guilt of all our sins to him.

Obviously the 1560 note agrees with Tyndale, though the translation was changed. However, in 1599 an entirely new commentary was introduced. A similar thing happened at Romans 8:3 (note, the brackets are original in the Geneva revision below):

Romans 8:3 in the 1560 & 1599 Geneva Bible: For (that that was impossible to the Law, inasmuch as it was weak, because of the flesh) God sending his own Son, in the similitude of (4)sinful flesh, and *for (5)sin, (6)condemned sin in the flesh  …

1560 note: *or, by sin.

1599 note 4: Of man’s nature which was corrupt through sin until he sanctified it.

1599 note 5: To abolish sin in our flesh.

1599 note 6: Showed that sin hath no right in us.

Much could be said on this, but I limit my comments to the six points below:

(1) Whittingham changed the preposition of agency (by sin) to a preposition of service (for sin). This made it difficult to understand that by a sin offering, sin was punished in the flesh, though the 1560 marginal note helped. (Modern Bibles handle this in a variety of ways.)

(2) Whittingham changed “damned” to “condemned.” This contributed to losing the sense “punished.”

(3) The editors of the 1599 Geneva Bible apparently rejected the traditional understanding of the Hebrew idiom – rejected it completely, deliberately, and silently. They did not openly refute it, nor mention it as an alternate interpretation. I have not seen where, in any other place in the 1599 Geneva version, the meaning of the Hebraism “sin” was acknowledged or taught. (If anyone finds it, please let me know.)

(4) Of particular concern, the 1599 GNV notes misrepresent the accomplishment and work of the cross. Especially, note 5 says Christ came to abolish sin in our flesh rather than to take our punishment for sin in his flesh. Among other problems – including the novel idea that sin can be eradicated from the flesh[8] – this confuses the offices of Christ and of the Holy Spirit; in particular, it confuses the propitiating work of Christ with the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. On the cross, Jesus took our punishment in his flesh to appease the wrath of God and reconcile us to God: his work there was to take on himself the punishment of sin, not to sanctify us from sin. Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit, which follows after salvation and faith. Thus the Geneva Bible confused and even falsified the work and offices of the Persons of the Trinity – and in so doing, it manifestly changed the gospel.[9]

(5) Note 6 in the 1599 GNV twists the cross into a metaphor: the Lamb, his flesh torn and bleeding, dying as he hung on the cross to atone for our sins, was no sin sacrifice, but was showing that sin has “no right” in us. Again, this denies Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross, and it suppresses the meaning and significance of his self-offering. This flows from rejecting the traditional understanding of the Hebraism “sin.”

(6) It is very subtle, but note 6 also undermines the biblical understanding of the law, which says the disobedience of our first parents did indeed give sin “right” in us (to use the strange GNV terminology). Sin, and therefore death, were our parents’ due for their disobedience to God’s law and commandment, and are our due under the law as their heirs; thus sin does have “right” in us (though again, this is a strange way to speak about it). That is why we needed a saviour born under the law, who could redeem us from the law (Gal. 4:3-5). Therefore, note 6 is based on a premise that again changes the gospel, in that it changes the purpose and significance of Christ’s coming and work on the cross.

The last three points should cause any objective and biblically literate reader to wonder about the doctrine of the Geneva Bible. Indeed, a careful examination of the notes reveals that, in many essential respects, the Puritan commentaries, especially in 1599, taught another gospel than that taught in the Matthew Bible – so different, and in so many points, they cannot be reconciled. This is amply demonstrated in my new release, The Story of the Matthew Bible: Part 2, The Scriptures Then and Now, which looks at the different Geneva treatment of the New Covenant, the miracles of Christ and his other works, the church, and more. I have also blogged about the significant Geneva revisions to 1 Peter 1:13 here, which revisions led to the destruction of the doctrine of the revelation of Christ through preaching. God willing, I will also blog soon about how the Geneva Bible lost the gospel in the book of Job.

After I (R.M.D.) became aware that most moderns do not understand the Hebraism “Christ was made sin for us,” I emended later editions of the October Testament to give the idiomatic meaning plainly in the biblical text at 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Romans 8:3. It needs to be clear in the text, not tucked away in a note. Some other modern Bibles have done the same, including the NASB and Christian Standard Bible; however, they kept the word “condemned” at Romans 8:3, which, in my view, muddies the water. The CSB has “He condemned sin in the flesh by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sin offering.”

The final revision of Romans 8:3-4 in the October Testament (New Matthew Bible) is,

3For what the law could not do, inasmuch as it was weak because of the flesh, God has performed. He sent his Son in the similitude of sinful flesh, and by a sin offering punished sin in the flesh, 4so that the righteousness required by the law may be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.

With the benefit of hindsight, Tyndale’s literal translations of the Hebraism “sin” were not the best choice. As he himself once wrote, “Words that are not understood, profit not.”

Ruth Magnusson Davis, blog post April 1 2021: William Tyndale on How Christ Was Made Sin for Us. The Matthew Bible vs. the Geneva Bible.

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[1] An idiom can be a word or a saying. Here we are dealing with just the word “sin” used idiomatically.

[2] I can testify to the difficulty of idioms for non-native speakers of a language. I studied civil law in Québec, Canada. I passed my days studying in the French language and I wrote exams in French. This was only a little more difficult for me than studying in English. However, if I went to a coffee shop I would be lucky to understand half of the conversation there. The difference was the local idioms, which I did not know. The French in my university environment was standard, international French.

[3]Augustine of Hippo, Against Lying: To Consentius, trans. Rev. H. Browne., ed. Philip Schaff (Charleston USA: no pub., facsimile, 2015), 40.

[4] Richard Brightwell, “A Pistle to the Christen Reader,” contained in The Revelation of Antichrist in The Works of the English Reformers: William Tyndale and John Frith, editor Thomas Russell, Vol. III (London: Ebenezer Palmer, 1831), 460.

[5] Adam Clarke wrote on Romans 8:3 that God in Christ “did that which the law could not do; i.e. purchased pardon for the sinner, and brought every believer into the favor of God. And this is effected by the incarnation of Christ: He, in whom dwelt the fullness of the Godhead bodily, took upon him the likeness of sinful flesh, that is, a human body like ours, but not sinful as ours; and for sin, και περι ἁμαρτιας, and as a Sacrifice for Sin, (this is the sense of the word in a multitude of places), condemned sin in the flesh – condemned that to death and destruction which had condemned us to both.” (https://www.studylight.org/commentary/romans/8-3.html#verse-acc, accessed March 29, 2021.)

[6] The dramatic nature of the new commentaries in the Geneva Bible, both in 1560 and in 1599, is shown at length in Part 2 of The Story of the Matthew Bible: The Scriptures Then and Now.

[7] See the Tolle Lege edition of the 1599 Geneva Bible at page xxiv. No additional information about Tomson is given there. According to a Wikipedia article, he was Laurence Tomson, an English Calvinist, who published his first revision of the Geneva New Testament in 1576. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurence_Tomson, accessed March 29, 2021.)

[8] The Bible does not say sin can be abolished in the flesh, but that the flesh is in its very nature irremediably corrupt, and we must die to put on the incorruptible (1 Cor. 15:53). Further, it is not our flesh that is sanctified after salvation, but our life, spirit, and conscience. The flesh remains the flesh, and lusts against the spirit, as Paul said at Galatians 5:17. This is acknowledged in the 1599 GNV note on Galatians 5:17, which sets up an internal inconsistency in the commentaries.

[9] See also my paper, Christ Manifest vs. Christ Incarnate, in which I show how Calvin’s doctrine of the manifestation of Christ (as opposed to the Incarnation of Christ) changed the traditional understanding of Jesus’ office and work. Also, Calvin’s characterization of the Mosaic sacrifices as “shadowy observances” rather than “observances that foreshadowed” was one of several new interpretations that severed the all-important conceptual link between the Old Testament sacrifices and the sacrifice of the Son of God under the New Testament.

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KP. Christ was made sin for us, Christ became sin for us