Christ Became Sin? Uh, what?

The power of pastoral comments

As a clergyperson, I’m constantly reminded of the power of my words: The youth will pick up on something that I didn’t intend, they will summarize my bible study in ways I did not expect, etc. So the following is another reminder of the power of pastoral comments that I felt ought to be shared.

I took my youth to another UM church’s summer rally a few weeks back. It was a blast: food, crazy games involving shaving cream and Cheetos, and a live Christian band.

The lead singer of the band did the one thing that annoys me the most about Christian bands: sermonettes between each song. The devotionals broke up the songs so the youth couldn’t really get down into them and because their style was completely different and not on-the-same-message they detracted from the prepared sermon. Sigh.

Anyway, I would rant more but one devotional the lead singer said has stuck with me and I’m wondering where this idea came from. The lead singer said something like this:

Christ knows all your sins, and Christ knows what it was like to sin. When he died and went to hell, Jesus became sin. Jesus became sin because sin is separation from God. Jesus was separated from God for three days. Jesus knows what sin is like and you can come to him with any of your sins and he will forgive them.

OK, maybe my theological training was faulty but I hadn’t really thought of Jesus = Sin. Weird.

My first thought is theological: To allow for sin to take place posthumously must allow for redemption to take place posthumously. That’s fine but I doubt he would be in the same place as Rob Bell, who allows for redemption after death. I don’t hear many evangelicals embracing theological ideas that decrease the emphasis on this-life conversion and evangelism, and a person saying sin/redemption happen posthumously could lessen that for some people. Again, I don’t have a problem with it but it seems incongruous with the theological system predominant around me.

My second thought is “where did this COME from?” A clergy friend was also there (@aarontiger and you really should read his latest blog post on the OKUMC and church planting). We were trying to figure out where this idea came from since it is not United Methodist theology (heck we remove “he descended into hell” from the Apostle’s Creed). Speaking for myself, I think this is an example of an off-the-cuff pastoral comment. I could imagine going to a pastor and saying “I just don’t think Jesus understands my sin because he was sinless and perfect” and the pastor saying “Well, Jesus did experience sin. Sin is separation, and he was separated from God for three days. So he knows the sin you go through.” That’s not anywhere near the pastoral comment I would make because it doesn’t fit with my theology but I could see it happening.

Anyway, I’m posting this to (1) vent about Christian band leaders and their sermonettes and (2) comment on the need for clergy to issue clear theological tenets even in pastoral counseling or off-the-cuff comments. Again, I don’t know if that’s where the band leader got this, but in my imaginary origin story, I’m still reminded by the need to be clear and theological in all my comments, even the ones I don’t think will stick.


(Photo credit: “Microphone” by Tom81115 on Flickr, Creative Commons licensed)
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  1. Matt says

    Possibly a reference to 2 Corinthians 5:21
    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)
    And the descended into he’ll probably comes from 1 Peter 3:18-19
    18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, (ESV)

    But I’m not aware of any other verses where these theologies would come from and what these verses really mean is not perfectly clear.

    • says

      Wow Matt, way to own me on scripture memorization. Its basically the same phrase in my NRSV. That’s embarrassing.

      Glad this isn’t a public post. Wait…

  2. Sam Powers says

    For the whole “descent into hell” understanding, I prefer Chuck Wilhelm’s Blessing from the Upper Room Worship Book (p. 112): “May Christ come to you in glory upon your dying day as he did to the thief hanging beside him that Good Friday. And though you seldom come to him, and though you often ‘make your bed in hell,’ as I do, may you find Christ descending there, where the apostles in their creed agreed he went – so you would know there is no place he would not come for you.”

    And sermonettes wouldn’t be so annoying if they didn’t come across as “well, here’s some spiritual nourishment for you because I’m not sure the preacher will be providing any.” It probably has to do with theological anxiety over missed salvation moments as opposed to the trust of God’s grace reaching those it needs to reach.

  3. Alex says

    Bear in mind that we do offer both versions of the Apostle’s Creed in the UM hymnal. The “Traditional” version lacks the “descended into hell” bit, but the “Ecumenical” version directly underneath includes it. So we can really go either way. Wesley discouraged the use of the phrase because he didn’t think it was in the earliest manuscripts, not necessarily because it was theologically faulty.

  4. says

    1. My guess is that the band leader picked up that theological point from the song “Jesus Messiah” by Chris Tomlin:

    He became sin who knew no sin
    That we might become His righteousness
    He humbled Himself and carried the cross
    Love so amazing
    Love so amazing

    2. I serve a church where the worship band makes no comments between the songs, which is great for avoiding crazy comments, but I also see the awkwardness as guitarists put on capos, take them off, change pedals, turn pages, etc. Not so bad at the service where the leader plays keyboard and she fills in transitions, but in our “harder rock” service there was no keyboard and she did start to have to fill in comments so it wasn’t awkward.

    3. I was convinced on UMC said, “descended into hell” until my Theology House cohort J.T. from Illinois said that they all do in his experience…maybe it is a regional thing?

    In a similar vein of thought: just this week I was thinking how music lyrics are the place most of our teenagers, and many of our adults get their theology. This is true today as when Charles Wesley wrote many a hymn and the Methodists were known to “sing their theology” – but it seems that hymn writers were more theologically educated in the past than current song writers. Does this mean we should send some our top musicians, like Chris Tomlin and David Crowder, to seminary? I think that would get better results than encouraging already trained theologians to learn something about music.

    • Carolyn says

      As both a musician and a trained theologian, I have to say that the main reason why I despise Christian rock and praise songs so much is both the terrible theology and mediocre music. It has been my experience that classical musicians are called upon to understand the religious texts of the music they perform, but there is no requirement for pastors to understand music.

      At BU School of Theology, I sang with Marsh Chapel choir and the director is very knowledgeable about the Bible and theology (though he has had little formal training; he holds an MM and DMA in choral conducting). He would exegete the music for us almost every week, and now he co-preaches with the Dean on Sundays when Bach Cantatas are performed. Likewise, the conductor of the Harvard Summer Chorus (where I am currently singing), points out that Beethoven uses German vi chords to indicate transformation and intelligently placed this chord in a passage about baptism in his Mass in C.

      It’s a travesty that secular music professionals understand and deploy Christian theology more intelligently than Christian contemporary musicians. Chris Tomlin (and the like) absolutely should go to seminary.

      • David says


        Please remember that Wesley stressed an importance to Lay Speakers. Lay Speakers are not ordained clergy who completed seminary, but they are trained to share God’s message with people. In the end, lay speakers are called by God to “do His work”. Same goes for artists such as Chris Tomilin (you chose him as an example). He has been called as a worship leader. He has been called to “do God’s work”. That includes sharing His message through songs and worship.

        Even though you may “despise” Christian rock and praise songs, they are still worship songs to God that are very powerful instruments of worship for those who have the heart to experience it. Contemporary worship music is not just about music. It’s about worship. It’s about expressing your worship to God. It’s about playing your best for God. It’s about losing yourself so that the Holy Spirit can take the reigns.

        Young people may despise old hymns, but once they are filled with the Holy Spirit, they can truly worship God even with the oldest of hymns. Your comments, as a trained theologian, were a bit ignorant in my opinion. I’m not bashing you, but rather trying to clear things up.
        God doesn’t look at music, He looks at the heart. There are different ways people express their worship. For you, obviously, it’s through more traditional choral music. For me, it’s through my guitar and my band. I write songs of love and worship for God so that I can express my love for him and others can as well.

        I first met Christ through contemporary worship. Many youth members first come to Christ during contemporary worship music. I find it hard to think that is something to despise.

        I do believe that any worship song writer, or worship leader, must receive nourishment constantly (bible study, prayer, worship) in their own lives. If you don’t know God, how can you write songs about Him or for Him, right? But I don’t think it was necessary for you to say that Chris Tomlin should absolutely go to seminary. I’m saddened that you have had very bad experiences with contemporary worship. In my heart, contemporary or traditional, they’re all worship!
        I can only pray that your heart be opened and that it will only add another way you can worship His holy name! =)

  5. Tim says

    Christ knows all your sins, and Christ knows what it was like to sin. When he died and went to hell, Jesus became sin. Jesus became sin because sin is separation from God. Jesus was separated from God for three days. Jesus knows what sin is like and you can come to him with any of your sins and he will forgive them.

    2 Cor 5.21 is the scriptural basis for part of what the singer is saying. On the cross, Christ became sin, even though he never sinned. Other Scriptures say he bore sin.
    However, Christ did not go to hell. He endured hell on the cross. When he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was enduring punishment for sin. When he said, “It is finished!” The punishment for sin was completed. The penalty for sin was already paid on the cross, so there would be no need for Jesus to go to hell for three days.

    The phrase, “descended into hell” in the creed is actually “descended into sheol” in the Greek. Sheol is the place of the dead. So the creed means that Jesus became subject to death, he physically died — which, of course, some have disputed through the centuries (swoon theory, etc).

  6. David says

    That’s the first time I’ve heard of “sermonettes”. Worship leaders are called to lead the congregration. That doesn’t mean that they’re only there to sing and shut their mouths. Whatever the Holy Spirit is leading them to say, it should be said. Instead of saying “oh here we go, another sermonette…”, try opening up and hear what God is trying to say to you through that. Remember, most of the time, the worship leader is up there actually doing their job passionately. They are being led by the spirit to say these little “sermonettes” for a reason. The hearts that are open are the ones that are blessed by the message. Of course, over doing it can also be bad, like having a sermonette between each and every song. I believe the spirit gives us just enough and never too much to where it’s annoying. The spirit is in control of the worship. He knows what He’s doing.

  7. Stephen J. Smart, MD says

    2 interpretations of “descended into hell” that I am aware of. The first, “sheol” or place of the dead may have referred to the place where the OT saints (Abraham, Moses, etc) resided until Christ’s coming and sacrifice; this would not have been what we now refer to as “hell”.

    The second is more spiritual and I reference “Introduction to Christianity” by Joseph Ratzinger. Here, he explains that hell is the complete absence of God, essentially a place where “love cannot penetrate”. Possibly at the moment of his death he experience complete separation from God the Father (for a microsecond?) and at this moment, was in “hell”. Fits with “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”.

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