(This post is an adapted excerpt from The Cross in Context.)
What is the connection between atonement and sin-bearing? Put simply, offerings or sacrifices that make atonement are frequently said to bear sin or iniquity (cf. Lev 10:17; Exod 32:30-32).
This is the fourth post in this Easter series focusing on Christ’s atonement. Part one defined atonement. Part two highlights the surprising relationship between atonement, burning, and blood. Part three asks, “Does atonement require payment, penalty, or punishment?”
The Meaning of Bearing Sin
Interpreters typically assume that bearing sin essentially means “to endure punishment” for one’s sin. However, this is not necessarily true. In fact, in Leviticus 5:17-18, a man bears his own sin but does not receive punishment. It says,
If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then realizes his guilt, he shall bear [nāśāʾ] his iniquity. He shall bring to the priest a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent for a reparation offering, and the priest shall make atonement [kpr] for him for the mistake that he made unintentionally, and he shall be forgiven [sĕlaḥ]. (ESV)
Many readers understand “bearing his iniquity” to indicate the man will be punished. By this logic, a person who is forgiven does not “bear his sin.” Yet, the man in this passage both bears his sin and is forgiven.
Verse 18 clarifies the way this person bears his iniquity. The phrase suggests that he bears responsibility for sin. It does not necessarily imply his being punished. It can indicate his dealing with the problem. “Taking responsibility for sin” is a general gloss that helps to elucidate the meaning of this important phrase.
Two Contradictory Meanings?
In specific contexts, however, this broad sense conveys two seemingly contradictory meanings.
On the one hand, this phraseology could imply “suffering punishment” (e.g., Exod 28:43). On the other hand, it can mean “to forgive sin.” In Exodus 34:6-7, God proclaims,
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving [nāśāʾ] iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty” (ESV).
In Hebrew, “forgiving iniquity” more literally is “bearing iniquity” in 34:7 (cf. Num 14:19; Job 7:21; 1 Sam 15:25).
Throughout the Bible, this same phrasing has directly opposite meanings in different passages. How is this possible? The solution “is as brilliant as it is ordinary.”
Keep in mind that this key verb nāśāʾ, translated as “bearing” above, uses metaphorical language. Metaphors draw meaning from one sphere of life and map it onto another domain. They appeal to concrete objects or situations in order to help make sense of abstract ideas.
From one perspective, a person may bear or carry a burden, weight, or obligation. In this case, the burden can be painful. In other situations, to say someone “bears” a burden could underscore a new circumstance. In that case, a second party assumes the first person’s load, thus relieving or rescuing the latter from the wearisome affliction.
Both perspectives are not only legitimate ways of using the same metaphor; they are pervasive throughout the Bible. Each usage has a different emphasis.
This verb nāśāʾ appears over 600 times throughout the Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is “to lift, raise, bear, or carry.” Recounting God’s guiding Israel through the wilderness, Deuteronomy 1:31 says, “You have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place” (likewise, Joshua 4:15).
How Do We Discern the Difference?
How do we distinguish texts—where bearing sin entails punishment—from passages that connote salvation or forgiveness?
In the Bible, we see a consistent pattern that should govern our interpretation of the metaphor. Whenever someone bears their own sin, iniquity, transgression, guilt, shame, and so on, the connotation is typically punitive. The verbiage implies that people will suffer some pain or punishment due to their sin.
However, when the Bible introduces an innocent second party, who bears a burden on behalf of a guilty person, the emphasis changes entirely. The language carries a positive connotation. It concerns salvation, that the guilty person is relieved from the burden. Furthermore, there is no unambiguous example where bearing language indicates that the innocent second party is punished in place of or instead of the offender. This is a point that we mustn’t ignore.
Since theologians traditionally emphasize the first option (i.e., bearing as punishment), a modern analogy may help explain the second meaning. Suppose a criminal is sentenced to endure forced labor. His work includes carrying an agonizing load of stone out from a mine. His foreman wants to show compassion to the criminal. So, the foreman uses a wheelbarrow cart to bear away or remove the criminal’s burden. In this example, there is nothing inherent to the metaphor that requires us to say the second party (the foreman bearing the load) suffers the punishment as a substitute in the criminal’s stead.
How Does Christ Bear Our Sin?
Space here doesn’t allow me to fully unpack this discussion and show how it plays out in Scripture. So, I’ll simply close with a plea.
In light of the above discussion, we need to consider which meaning of nāśāʾ is implied when the Bible describes the work of Christ and the sacrificial system. As we’ve seen, the phrase “Person X bears sin” by itself is ambiguous. It could even have opposite connotations depending on the context.
Because of tradition and customary ways of speaking today, many people assume bearing sin necessitates the meaning “to endure punishment.” Bearing language itself does not necessarily have that inference. In fact, we find that innocent parties who bear the sin or transgression of a guilty person often live. We must let the Bible define its own terms. Words have meaning based on how they are used, not based on what we think they should mean.
In what sense does Christ bear our sin, taking responsibility for our sin? What is the pattern we see in Scripture? As a third party who carries the sin of a guilty party, what does that suggest about the meaning of his sin-bearing?
These questions bear the weight of our atonement theology.
This post adapts select paragraphs from The Cross in Context, especially pp. 124-127.
 Gary Anderson, Sin: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 18.