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“O Sweet Exchange”


“O Sweet Exchange”[1]

I first became aware of the debate over the significance of a prepositional phrase relative to the death of Jesus when, as a student, I wrote to Professor C. S. Lewis to ask him a series of questions designed to ascertain his evangelical orthodoxy. One of my queries was whether he believed in the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, a view that some Adventists are questioning today.[2] Lewis kindly replied in his hardly legible script just weeks prior to his death as follows:  

When Scripture says that Christ died “for” us, I think the word is usually u(pe/r [hyper] (on behalf of), not a)nti/ [anti] (instead of). I think the ideas of sacrifice, ransom, championship (over death), substitution etc. are all images to suggest the reality (not otherwise comprehensible to us) of the Atonement. To fix on any one of them as if it contained and limited the truth like a scientific definition w[oul]d in my opinion be a mistake.[3]

I consider his response sage advice, whatever my views were as a young student who had the audacity to write to C. S. Lewis and interrogate him about his beliefs. As Lewis indicated, much of the debate over the nature of Christ’s atoning death hinges on the meaning of the Greek preposition hyper (for the sake of) when it is followed by a pronoun or a noun (or an adjective as a noun) in the genitive case. Why should a simple prepositional phrase lead to debate; and it is frequently an intense debate?

In any language prepositions are very flexible in their meanings. Hyper, when followed by a genitive, can mean, for, for the sake of, on behalf of, for the benefit of, because of, in the place of, instead of, about, concerning, with reference to.[4] This is quite a bewildering array, but the sense is often indicated by the meaning of the verb with which hyper is associated. When it comes to ideas about the death of Christ, those who favor substitution will prefer the meaning “instead of,” whereas those who are repelled by the idea of substitution will argue for the meaning “for the benefit of” or some such translation.[5] In other words, our choice of translation is not always governed so much by the context of the passage, as externally by one’s preferred theory of the atonement.

In the texts that follow I shall translate hyper followed by a genitive consistently as for the sake of. The first text I wish to consider is 2 Corinthians 8:9, though in fact it does not use hyper but another preposition (dia) with a similar meaning.

For you know the generous act [literally, grace] of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes (di’ humas) he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (NRSV adapted).

The language of movement from plenty to penury is clearly metaphorical. The text, of course, is referring to Jesus’ coming from heavenly splendor to earthly shame (Hebrews 12:2). Two things should be noted. First, Jesus’ descent into poverty somehow procures our ascent out of privation into spiritual abundance, with the implication that we should share our material wellbeing with others who are destitute (vv. 13–14; 9:7, 13).

Second, that Jesus’ action was entirely altruistic is expressed with the prepositional phrase for your sakes (di’ humas). The preposition dia with the accusative, as used here, has the same force as hyper with the genitive. The concessive contrast (“though he was rich…. he became poor”) cannot be limited to the incarnation, for the climax of his becoming poor is the cross. The language of Philippians comes readily to mind (emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbled himself, became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross). The balanced chiastic contrast (rich → poor + poverty → rich) of 2 Corinthians 8:9 does imply some form of exchange: Jesus’ sequence from being rich to becoming poor provides the basis for the believer’s movement from poverty (a sinner) to riches (restoration). However, there is no hint in the context that Jesus bore our punishment. The idea of divine punishment is also absent from the next text.

 “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the sake of the ungodly [hyper asebōn]” (Romans 5:6 NRSV adapted).

Asebōn is a plural adjective and thus refers to the ungodly ones or the impious ones; in other words, sinners, a word with which it is sometimes conjoined (see 1 Timothy 1:9; 1 Peter 4:18; Jude 1:15), and this would indicate that ungodly, as used in this passage, is general and not specific to Gentiles. The word weak (asthenōn) is also a plural adjective, and although often used for the sick (for example Matthew 25:43; Luke 10:9; Acts 4:9; 5:16), it is clearly used here with the same negative moral meaning as ungodly, which is confirmed in the related text of Romans 5:8 that uses sinners (hamartōlōn).

In Exodus 23:7 we read the commandment, “You shall not justify the ungodly person (asebē) for a bribe.” Nevertheless in Romans 4:5 God does just that himself, though not for a bribe:[6] “But to the one who does not work, but trusts him who justifies the ungodly person (asebē), his faith is reckoned for righteousness” (author’s translation). Clearly God’s action in Christ crucified justifies the ungodly (Romans 5:6); his death and not a bribe is the catalyst that precipitates the change. To this passage may now be added the parallel verse of Romans 5:8 (NRSV adapted).

But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for our sakes (hyper hēmōn).

Any notion of meritorious human action in redemption is immediately excluded in that the initiative is God’s; his saving righteous action, “the righteousness of God,” occurs while we were impious, helpless, and sinners — to put into sequence Paul’s three plural adjectives, as in Romans 4:5; 5:6 and 5:8. There is no reference to punishment in these verses, yet by some profound means the death of Jesus reverses the state of the impious, the helpless, and the sinners.

The fourth text to examine is Galatians 3:13–14a (NRSV adapted).

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for our sakes (hyper hēmōn) — for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” — in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles.

The word redeemed (exagorazō, used also in 4:4) literally means to buy back, which conveys the idea of deliverance for a price, but not a payment to the devil or any such thing; it is more an intransitive cost borne by God than a transitive payment made by him to the devil or to his own justice. There are two things to note about Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 21:23 (“anyone hanging on a tree is cursed by God,” NETS). First, he drops the phrase “by God.” Second, Christ’s “becoming a curse for our sakes” refers to the horror of his death and not God’s wrath against his Son.[7] Both Jews and Christians applied “hanging on a tree,” to crucifixion (See 1 Peter 2:24).

Paul’s opponents accuse him of being a transgressor (Galatians 2:18) and of being under the law’s curse (3:10) because he had purposefully refused to circumcise his Gentile converts. In reply he affirms that Christ, through his accursed death on the cross (v. 13), had nullified the law’s power to curse (v.10) him for incorporating Gentiles as Gentiles into the covenantal community of God. Thus the outcome of Christ’s brutal death was so “that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles” (v. 14). Through the gospel, the promise to Abraham that all the Gentiles were to be blessed in him (Genesis 12:2–3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14) had come to pass (Galatians 3:8, 14, 26–29).

And that brings us to the fifth text, 2 Corinthians 5:21.

For our sake (hyper hēmōn) he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (NRSV italics added).

Who or what is the subject of the verb “he made” (epoiēsen)? One would surely suppose “God,” but wait let’s not be so fast. Raymund Schwager argues that in 2 Corinthians 5:21 “God was not the direct actor, but he sent his Son into the world ruled by sin, and thus, through the excess of sin making use of the law, he became sin and a curse.”[8] The problem is that Schwager’s interpretation has more to do with his atonement theory than Paul’s script. His paraphrase seems to say that the subject of the verb “made” is “it,” that is, “sin made him to be sin,” but Paul is not given to tautology.

Besides v. 21, Paul refers to “God” eight times in chapter 5, but outside of v. 21 “sin” is never mentioned in that chapter. The immediately preceding verses seem to indicate the subject of the verb “made” that Paul intended is “God:” “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (vv.19–20). That God, for our sakes, could treat his Son as sin might be unpalatable to our sensibilities yet it is hard to avoid this conclusion unless we abandon the text entirely.

That the text refers to the cross is unavoidable, and the New Testament rather frequently attributes this tragic event to God. “Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood” (Romans 3:25); “who was handed over [by God] to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25); “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Romans 8:32); “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son” (Galatians 4:4). Thus “he made him to be sin” belongs to this body of texts that affirm that God was present and active in the death of Jesus. There is, however, no reference in any of these passages, including 2 Corinthians 5:21, to God punishing Jesus.

As with 2 Corinthians 8:9, there is a clear idea in 5:21 of an exchange. God treated (epoiēsen) him who knew no sin, as if he knew sin, so that [purpose clause] we, who know sin, might, in Jesus, be treated as if we did not know sin (the righteousness of God). The righteousness of God here does not mean a habit or a quality but refers to a relationship. “We are acquitted in his court, justified, reconciled… no longer his judicial enemies, but his friends.” If God’s making Jesus to be sin for our sake involves his punitive action against Jesus, his inflicting his wrath upon our crucified Lord, then we are in danger of ascribing something reprehensible to the deity. Indeed, some may conclude from such a view “that Jesus came to save us from God.”[9]

Yet mysteriously through Christ’s being sin for our sake we are brought into fellowship with God. The exchange language is there, yet the emphasis is not on God’s wrath but on his reconciling grace “for God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NLT). Paul’s concern is that God’s grace be not in vain (6:1–2). This exchange motif is found even more clearly in our sixth text, 1 Peter 3:18.

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous One for the sake of the unrighteous ones [hyper adikōn], in order to bring you to God (NRSV adapted).

The reference to Christ’s once for all [hapax] suffering is clearly alluding to the cross, as the verb “to suffer” often does. For examples see Luke 9:22; 22:15; Acts 1:3; Philippians 3:10; Hebrews 2:9 (“suffering of death”); 9:26; 13:12; and 1 Peter 2:23–24. The “righteous” is obviously Christ and is equivalent to “he who knew no sin” in 2 Corinthians 5:21, and “he who was rich” in 2 Corinthians 8:9. It is quite reasonable to see the idea of exchange in this passage, but there is no compelling reason for understanding the suffering as Christ’s enduring the Father’s wrath. The unrighteous are the beneficiaries of the suffering of the “righteous One,” and through it they are brought (reconciled) to God.

The shift from a singular adjective (“righteous One”) to a plural (“righteous ones”) conveys the idea of the one dying for the many (that is, all others), which idea is also very present in Mark 10:45 and the parallel Matthew 20:28 (“For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom in exchange for many” [lutron anti pollōn]) and Mark 14:24 (He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’[hyper pollōn]). What is interesting about Mark 10:45 is that it uses the very preposition (anti) that C. S. Lewis took to infer the idea of substitution. That “the many” refers to all others finds some support in 1 Timothy 2:6 (NRSV adapted), “Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for the sake of all” (antilutron hyper pantōn).[10] Not surprisingly Evangelical scholarship finds support in Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28 for a penal substitutionary view of the atonement, but again there is no reference to punishment in the context of Mark 10:45.[11]

The idea that deliverance involves cost is common enough in the New Testament and the context indicates the metaphor derives from the slave-market: “For you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23); “you know that you were ransomed… not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18–19); “they will even deny the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1); “you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). However, “cost” refers to the expense that the Lord endures; not a payment to the devil or even to some abstract concept, such as “justice.”  

Our final text is Galatians 2:19b–20 (NRSV, adapted):

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for the sake of me (hyper emou).

The couplet “gave himself” always refers to the death of Jesus (Galatians 1:14; Ephesians 5:2, 25; 1 Timothy 2:6; Titus 2:14) and the introductory perfect tense, “I have been crucified with Christ,” confirms that. The combining of the verbs “love” and “gave” takes us back to John 3:16 and both center Christ’s death in God’s prodigious love. The idea here is identification with (or participation in) Christ’s humiliation, but certainly no concept of punishment is present.

Over my years as a Christian I’ve heard or read many stories that attempt to clarify the meaning of the cross. But my favorite story (apart from the Gospels) of the death of Jesus is chapter fourteen in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis combines ideas of ransom, substitution, and the triumph of good over evil in recounting Aslan’s subdued journey with Susan and Lucy to fulfill his pact with the white witch, that is, to die on the Stone Table instead of Edmund. Yet despite the story’s rich imagery, Lewis makes no mention of Aslan’s death appeasing the wrath “of the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea.” These are just stories, but then the terms that the New Testament uses are just metaphors — redemption, atonement, justification, sanctification, ransom, purchase, deliverance, and rescue etcetera. As Lewis wrote to me fifty-five years ago, these “are all images to suggest the reality (not otherwise comprehensible to us) of the Atonement. To fix on any one of them as if it contained and limited the truth like a scientific definition w[oul]d in my opinion be a mistake.”

The New Testament’s various metaphors for the atonement give independent yet united pictures just as the similes for the Kingdom of Heaven do — the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a merchant, a fishing net, a sower, a landowner, ten bridesmaids, and a banquet. Like multiple guy ropes pulling against each other to keep the TV tower upright, so the truth of the Kingdom and of the Cross needs many images in tension to keep it upright (orthodox). We Adventists have a penchant for turning poetry into prose, hyperbole into history, and symbols into science. I think the New Testament does have the idea of exchange, or perhaps interchange, in imaging the death of Christ, but that does not imply any punitive action of the Father against his Son. Hence, I agree in part with Scriven and Weiss (see footnote 2).


Notes & References:

[1] God “gave His own Son as a ransom for us — the Holy for the wicked [lawless], the Sinless for sinners, the Just for the unjust, the Incorrupt for the corrupt, the Immortal for the mortal… O sweet exchange!” The Epistle to Diognetus (2nd century) (translated by Maxwell Stanforth).

[2] Charles Scriven, “God’s Justice, Yes; Penal Substitution, No,” Spectrum 44/3 (2016) 32–38; Herold Weiss, “Paul Did not Teach Righteousness by Faith,” Adventist Today 25/2 (2017) 15–17; Herold Weiss, “The Apocalyptic Imagination: Challenges and Opportunities,” Spectrum 46/2 (2018) 22.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Personal Letter (The Kilns, Oxford, UK: 31 October, 1963). A few weeks after writing this letter to me, Lewis died (22 November 1963). The letter is now available in Walter Hooper (ed.), The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950–1963 (Volume III; New York: Harper Collins, 2007) 1476.

[4] Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (4th Rev. Ed.; Chicago: University Press, 1957) 846–47.

[5] For example, Scriven says, “Christ on the cross acts for us and on our behalf, not instead of us,” “God’s Justice, Yes; Penal Substitution, No,” 37. Scriven advocates a Christus Victor (triumph of God over the evil forces) model of the atonement. His major concern is to affirm justice and to deny any idea of an angry Father pouring out his wrath on an innocent Son.

[6] “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe” (Deuteronomy 10:17).

[7] Despite Leon Morris’ sterling effort to say it did (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross [2nd ed.; London: Tyndale, 1960] 52–56, 59.

[8] Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation (New York: Crossroad, 1999)167, as quoted in J Denny Weaver, The Non-Violent Atonement (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2011) 59.

[9] Mark D. Baker (ed), Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006) 22.

[10] The parallel between Mark 10:45 and 14:24 could give hyper in the latter a similar meaning to anti in the former, that is, some idea of exchange.


Norman H. Young is a Seventh-day Adventist Christian theologian and New Testament scholar. He recently retired as senior lecturer at Avondale College in New South Wales, Australia.

Photo by Hugo Fergusson on Unsplash


Further Reading:

"A Response to Norman Young's Essay" by Herold Weiss.


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