Fifteen Words of Hope
(2 Corinthians 5:21)
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (5:21)
It began with one of history’s earliest recorded instances of biological warfare. In 1347 a Mongol army besieging the Genoese trading post of Caffa in the Crimea (modern Ukraine) catapulted the bodies of bubonic plague victims over the town’s walls. The terrified defenders fled to Italy, carrying with them the deadly plague bacteria (and the rats and fleas that spread them). Over the next three years the plague spread throughout Europe in the massive epidemic now known as the Black Death. Before the epidemic ran its course an estimated twenty million people—approximately one-third to one-half of Europe’s population—perished. The coming centuries would see recurring outbreaks of the bubonic plague, which would remain a dangerous, unchecked killer until the development of antibiotics in the twentieth century.
Though the Black Death is the most infamous epidemic in history, it was not the only one. The influenza epidemic of 1918–19 killed an estimated thirty to fifty million people, and several million more died at about that same time in an outbreak of typhus in eastern Europe. Other infectious diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever, and in more recent times AIDS, have also claimed uncounted millions of victims.
But there is one plague that is more widespread and deadly than all others combined; it is, as the Puritan writer Ralph Venning called it, the “plague of plagues.” It affects every person who ever lived—and is 100 percent fatal. Unlike other plagues, which cause only physical death, this plague causes spiritual and eternal death as well. It is the plague of sin.
Because Adam’s fall plunged the entire human race into sin (Rom. 5:12–21), all people are sinners from birth. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,” lamented David, “and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). In Psalm 58:3 he added, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth” (cf. Gen. 8:21; Isa. 48:8). Not only are all people sinners by nature, they are also sinners by action. To the Romans Paul wrote, “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10; cf. Pss. 14:1–3; 53:1–3). Later in that chapter he added, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23); consequently, “there is no man who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46), and no one can say, “I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin” (Prov. 20:9).
The inevitable outcome for all those infected by the sin plague is death. Ezekiel 18:20 states plainly, “The person who sins will die” (cf. v. 4). Adam’s tragic epitaph, “and he died” (Gen. 5:5) will be written for all his descendants (cf. vv. 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27, 31; 9:29). Nor is the prognosis any better in the spiritual realm. Sin produces two disastrous spiritual consequences: alienation from God in this life (Eph. 2:12; 4:18; Col. 1:21), and unrelenting punishment in hell in eternity (Matt. 25:41, 46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 14:9–11; 20:11–15).
But the good news of the gospel is that there is a cure for the sinner infected by the deadly sin epidemic. God, in His mercy and love, provided a remedy for sin—the sacrifice of His Son. The Lord Jesus Christ “released us from our sins by His blood” (Rev. 1:5), “for by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). Those who experience “redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of [their] trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7) are cured from sin’s deadly spiritual effects. As a result, they have “passed out of death into life” (John 5:24; 1 John 3:14), and “are no longer strangers and aliens, but … are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household” (Eph. 2:19).
How God made the cure possible is the theme of verses 18–20. In those three verses, Paul described the glorious truth of reconciliation—that the sin-severed relationship between holy God and unregenerate sinners can be restored “through” and “in” Christ. But reconciliation raises some profound questions. How can an absolutely and infinitely holy God be reconciled to sinners? How can His just and holy law, which demands the condemnation and punishment of all who violate it, be satisfied? How can those who deserve no mercy receive it? How can God uphold true righteousness and give grace? How can the demands of both justice and love be met? How can God be both “just and the justifier” (Rom. 3:26) of sinners?
As hard as those questions seem, one brief verse answers them all and resolves the seeming paradox of redemption. With a conciseness and brevity reflective of the Holy Spirit, this one brief sentence, only fifteen words in the Greek text, resolves the dilemma of reconciliation. This sentence reveals the essence of the atonement, expresses the heart of the gospel message, and articulates the most glorious truth in Scripture—how fallen man’s sin-sundered relationship to God can be restored. Verse 21 is like a cache of rare jewels, each deserving of a careful, reverential examination under the magnifying glass of Scripture. It yields truths about the benefactor, the substitute, the beneficiaries, and the benefit.
He made (5:21a)
The end of verse 20 reveals the antecedent of He to be God the Father, as seen in the previous chapter of this volume. Reconciliation is His plan, and it could not occur unless He initiated and applied it. Sinners cannot devise their own religious approach to God, because they are “dead in [their] trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). The damning lie of false religion is that man can reconcile himself to God by his own efforts, but all attempts to do so are futile. Sinners’ “righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of [them] wither like a leaf, and [their] iniquities, like the wind, take [them] away” (Isa. 64:6). As a result, “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10).
Not even the “Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:4–5) could devise a way to reconcile themselves to God by their own efforts. Romans 10:1–3, expressing Paul’s deep concern for them, reflects that truth:
Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.
Despite their zeal for God, they had not achieved salvation, because they sought it through their own righteousness. The religion of human achievement, whether practiced by Jews or Gentiles, can never bring reconciliation with God. The only way reconciliation can take place is if God reached out to sinners; and He did by the sacrifice of His Son.
Jesus therefore did not go to the cross because fickle people turned on Him, though they did. He did not go to the cross because demon-deceived false religious leaders plotted His death, though they did. He did not go to the cross because Judas betrayed Him, though he did. He did not die because an angry, unruly mob intimidated a Roman governor into sentencing Him to crucifixion, though they did. Jesus went to the cross as the outworking of God’s plan to reconcile sinners to Himself. In the first Christian sermon ever preached, Peter declared to the nation of Israel that Jesus was “delivered over [to death] by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23; cf. 3:18; 13:27; Matt. 26:24; Luke 22:22; John 18:11; Heb. 10:5, 7).
Only God could design an atonement for sin that would satisfy the demands of His justice, propitiate His wrath, and be consistent with His love, grace, and mercy. Only God could conceive the plan in which the second person of the Trinity would, “being found in appearance as a man, [humble] Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Only God knew what it would take to rescue sinners “from the domain of darkness, and [transfer them] to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13), making them “qualified … to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light” (Col. 1:12). Only God knew how to make sinners deserving of hell acceptable in His sight and fit to spend eternity in His presence. Therefore, only God could author and execute the plan of redemption and reconcile sinners to Himself. That plan is so utterly beyond the comprehension of the unregenerate that it seems foolishness to them (1 Cor. 1:18, 23; 2:14). No religion of human design has anything like it.
Reconciliation flows out of God’s love; it was because He “so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “God demonstrates His own love toward us,” wrote Paul, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8); though “we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10). Because “God [is] rich in mercy, [and] because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, [He] made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:4–5).
It is this emphasis on a loving God reaching out to sinners that sets Christianity apart from the false religions of the world. The gods of those religions are sometimes depicted as cruel, angry, and hostile and hence to be feared and appeased—even by such appalling means as child sacrifice (cf. 2 Kings 16:3; 23:10; Jer. 32:35; Ezek. 16:21; 23:37). Others are viewed as apathetic and indifferent to the worshipers who grovel before them, like Baal, whose followers Elijah mockingly challenged, “Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). Their devotees are often driven to desperate measures to get their attention (cf. 1 Kings 18:28).
But Christianity proclaims the glorious, liberating truth that God is neither hostile nor indifferent but a loving Savior by nature. He does not need to be appeased (and indeed cannot be by any human means). Instead, He Himself has provided His own appeasement for justice and the means for sinners to become His beloved children through the sacrifice of His Son (Rom. 8:32; 1 John 4:10, 14), which fully propitiated His wrath. As a result, those who come to Him through faith are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). Because Christ’s sacrifice perfectly satisified the demands of God’s righteousness and justice, God freely offers forgiveness and reconciliation: “Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (Isa. 55:1; cf. Rev. 22:17).
Reconciliation required the death of God’s Son because “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) and therefore, “The person who sins will die” (Ezek. 18:20). The slaughter of countless millions of sacrificial animals under the Old Testament economy graphically illustrated that truth. Though unable to atone for sin, since “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4), those sacrifices forcibly drove home the point that sin results in death, and death is required to satisfy the demands of God’s law when it is violated. They also made the people who incessantly offered them long for the final substitute to whom the sacrifices pointed (cf. Isa. 53). And when in accordance with the Father’s plan the final substitute came, He willingly laid down His life to bring the final satisfaction to God only pictured in the sacrificial ceremonies and ritual killings of animals (John 10:11, 18; Phil. 2:7–8).
Him who knew no sin to be sin (5:21b)
This designation points unmistakably to the only possible sacrifice for sin. It eliminates every human who ever lived, “for there is no man who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46), since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Only one who knew no sin of his own could qualify to bear the full wrath of God against the sins of others. The perfect sacrifice for sin would have to be a human being, for only a man could die for other men. Yet he would also have to be God, for only God is sinless. That narrows the field to one, the God-man, Jesus Christ.
In the design of God, the second person of the Trinity became a man (Gal. 4:4–5). The Bible makes it clear that though He had a human mother, the Lord Jesus Christ did not have a human father. Joseph is never referred to as His father, because He was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35). As the God-man, He was the perfect One to be the sacrifice for sin (John 1:29; 1 Peter 1:19), fulfilling the Old Testament picture of the unblemished sacrificial lamb (Ex. 12:5; Ezek 46:13).
The impeccability (sinlessness) of Jesus Christ is universally affirmed in Scripture, by believers and unbelievers alike. In John 8:46 Jesus challenged His Jewish opponents, “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?” Before sentencing Him to death, Pilate repeatedly affirmed His innocence, declaring, “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4; cf. vv. 14, 22). The repentant thief on the cross said of Jesus, “This man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). Even the hardened, callous Roman centurion in charge of the execution detail admitted, “Certainly this man was innocent” (Luke 23:47).
The apostles, those who most closely observed Jesus’ life during His earthly ministry, also testified to His sinlessness. Peter publicly proclaimed Him to be the “Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14). In his first epistle he declared Jesus to be “unblemished and spotless” (1 Peter 1:19); one “who committed no sin” (2:22); and “just” (3:18). John also testified to His sinlessness, writing, “in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). The inspired writer of Hebrews notes that “we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15), because He is “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens” (7:26).
But the most powerful testimony concerning Christ’s sinlessness comes from God the Father. On two occasions He said of Christ, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matt. 3:17; 17:5). Jesus’ unbroken fellowship with the Father also testifies to His sinlessness; in John 10:30 He said simply, “I and the Father are one” (cf. 14:9).
After presenting Jesus as the absolutely holy substitute for sinners, the text makes the remarkable statement that God made Him to be sin. That important phrase requires a careful understanding. It does not mean that Christ became a sinner; the above-mentioned verses establishing His utter sinlessness unequivocally rule out that possibility. As God in human flesh, He could not possibly have committed any sin or in any way violated God’s law. It is equally unthinkable that God, whose “eyes are too pure to approve evil” (Hab. 1:13; cf. James 1:13), would make anyone a sinner, let alone His own Holy Son. He was the unblemished Lamb while on the cross, personally guilty of no evil.
Isaiah 53:4–6 describes the only sense in which Jesus could have been made sin:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
Christ was not made a sinner, nor was He punished for any sin of His own. Instead, the Father treated him as if He were a sinner by charging to His account the sins of everyone who would ever believe. All those sins were charged against Him as if He had personally committed them, and He was punished with the penalty for them on the cross, experiencing the full fury of God’s wrath unleashed against them all. It was at that moment that “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, … ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?’ ” (Matt. 27:46). It is crucial, therefore, to understand that the only sense in which Jesus was made sin was by imputation. He was personally pure, yet officially culpable; personally holy, yet forensically guilty. But in dying on the cross Christ did not become evil like we are, nor do redeemed sinners become inherently as holy as He is. God credits believers’ sin to Christ’s account, and His righteousness to theirs.
In Galatians 3:10, 13 Paul further explained the necessity of believers’ sins being imputed to Christ. In verse 10 he wrote that “as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.’ ” There is no way for sinners to reconcile themselves to God, because no one is able to “abide by all things written in the book of the law to perform them.” Violating even one precept of the Law warrants eternal punishment in hell. Thus, the entire human race is cursed and unable to do anything to lift that curse. Therefore, the only reason believers can be reconciled to God is because “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’ ” (v. 13). Were it not for the fact that “while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6), no one could be reconciled to God.
on our behalf, (5:21c)
The antecedent of our is the phrase “ambassadors for Christ” in verse 20; those to whom the “word of reconciliation” was committed (v. 19), who have been reconciled to God (v. 18), and are new creatures in Christ (v. 17). Christ’s substitutionary death was efficacious only for those who would believe (John 1:12; 3:16–18; Rom. 10:9–10); all those whom the Father gives Him and draws to Him (John 6:37, 65). (For further information on this point, see the discussion of verse 14 in chapter 14 of this volume.) That God raised Jesus from the dead is proof that He accepted His sacrifice on behalf of His people (Rom. 4:25).
so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (5:21d)
The phrase so that reflects a purpose clause in the Greek text. The benefit of God’s imputing believers’ sins to Christ and His righteousness to them is that they become righteous before Him. They are “found in Him, not having a righteousness of [their] own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:9). The very righteousness God requires before He can accept the sinner is the very righteousness He provides.
Because Jesus paid the full penalty for believers’ sin, God no longer holds it against them. In Psalm 32:1 David wrote, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” In Psalm 130:3–4 the psalmist added, “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.” In metaphorical pictures of forgiveness, God is said to have removed believers’ sins as far from them as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12); cast their sins behind His back (Isa. 38:17); promised never to remember them (Isa. 43:25); hidden them from His sight behind a thick cloud (Isa. 44:22); and cast them into the depths of the sea (Mic. 7:19).
Believers experience the blessedness of forgiveness solely by faith in the complete redemption provided by Jesus Christ; “the righteousness of God [comes] through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (Rom. 3:22). They are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24); therefore, God is “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). In Romans 3:28 Paul stated definitively, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (cf. 4:5; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:24).
When repentant sinners acknowledge their sin (Ps. 32:5), affirm Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9), and trust solely in His completed work on their behalf (Acts 4:12; 16:31), God credits His righteousness to their account. On the cross God treated Jesus as if He had lived our lives with all our sin, so that God could then treat us as if we lived Christ’s life of pure holiness. Our iniquitous life was legally charged to Him on the cross, as if He had lived it, so that His righteous life could be credited to us, as if we lived it. That is the doctrine of justification by imputation—the high point of the gospel. That truth, expressed so concisely and powerfully in this text, is the only cure for the sin plague.
21 Thus far, Paul has been content to give the broadest outlines of the drama of reconciliation, stating merely the relationship between the principal actors, as it were. Now he explains, so far as human language and imagery permit, the “how” of reconciliation. The fifteen Greek words, carefully balanced, almost chiastic, defy final exegetical explanation, dealing as they do with the heart of the atonement.
There are three main ways of understanding the first section of the verse, particularly the second use of hamartia, “to be sin” (GK 281; see Notes). (1) Treated as if he were a sinner, Christ became the object of God’s wrath and bore the penalty and guilt of sin. (2) When Christ in his incarnation assumed human nature “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Ro 8:3 RSV), God made him to be “sin.” (3) In becoming a sacrifice for sin, Christ was made to be sin. The background to the first view is the idea of substitution; to the second, the notion of participation; to the third, the OT concept of sacrifice.
Although the Hebrew term ḥaṭṭāʾt (cf. Ex 29:14; Lev 4:3 et al.) may mean both “sin” and “sacrifice for sin” (or “sin offering”; see Notes, esp. references to L. Sabourin’s works), it seems that Paul’s intent is to say more than that Christ was made a sin offering and yet less than that Christ became a sinner. So complete was the identification of the sinless Christ with the sin of the sinner, including its dire guilt and its dread consequence of separation from God, that Paul could say profoundly, “God caused Christ, who knew nothing of sin, to be sin for our sake.” Christ “came to stand in that relation to God which normally is the result of sin, estranged from God and the object of his wrath” (Barrett, 180).
Paul’s declaration of Christ’s sinlessness may be compared with the statements of Peter (1 Pe 2:22, quoting Isa 53:9), John (1 Jn 3:5), and the author of Hebrews (Heb 4:15; 7:26). The sin with which Christ totally identified himself was extrinsic to him. He was without any acquaintance with sin that might have come through his ever having a sinful attitude or doing a sinful act. Both inwardly and outwardly he was impeccable. The one who was devoid of sin took the place of those who were devoid of righteousness when he bore the consequences of their sin. As a result, they gain the right standing before God that they lacked. The purpose and result of God’s causing Christ “to be sin” was that in Christ believers “might become the righteousness of God,” i.e., might become justified or righteous in the sight of God (see Notes) by being in Christ, who is their righteousness (1 Co 1:30).
5:21 / Since there is no transition between verses 20 and 21, it is difficult to know exactly how verse 21 relates to the foregoing. Apparently, verse 21 continues the direct citation of Paul’s message of reconciliation from verse 20, providing, in effect, substantiation for the exhortation to be reconciled with God. As in verse 19, the acting subject is God; however, unlike verse 19, Christ is the object of the action. This is the only passage in which Paul refers directly to the sinlessness of Christ (who had [lit., “knew”] no sin), although other passages seem to presuppose it (cf. Rom. 5:19; 8:3; Phil. 2:8). Paul’s description of Christ in our text conforms to a traditional expectation about the Messiah, as well as to the statement about the Suffering Servant of the Lord (cf. Isa. 53:9: “For he did no lawlessness [anomia]”).
Can the same be said for what follows? God made Messiah sin for us. Interestingly enough, a text from Qumran (CD 14.18–19) expects that the Messiah of Aaron and Israel will appear and “atone for their iniquity.” The expression “Messiah of Aaron and Israel” may be elliptical for “Messiah of Aaron and Messiah of Israel” (so A. S. van der Woude). Even so, this text does not necessarily include the substitutionary aspect which 2 Corinthians 5:21 has. The sinless Christ was made sin “for us” (hyper hēmōn) in the sense that he took on the sinners’ curse in his atoning death on the cross. According to Galatians 3:13, Christ redeemed believers from the curse of the law by becoming a curse “for us” (hyper hēmōn), for it is written in Deuteronomy 21:23, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” As we have seen above, Paul the Pharisee probably applied this ot text against the crucified Christ while he knew Christ “according to the flesh” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:16). After his encounter with the resurrected Lord on the way to Damascus, however, he saw Christ in a different light, but continued to apply Deuteronomy 21:23 to the death of Christ, this time in a positive way as a reference to the substitutionary death of Christ for sinners. Paul realized that Christ was not the accursed sinner before God, but rather the deliverer who had come to die for the remission of sins of others. As he states in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “one died for all” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3; Gal. 1:4; Rom. 4:25; 5:6, 8; 6:10; 1 Thess. 5:10). Paul understood the death of Christ in light of the sinless Suffering Servant of the Lord: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6); “he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors” (cf. Isa. 53:12). It is also possible that becoming “sin” (hamartia) refers to becoming a “sin offering,” for in the lxx hamartia is sometimes used of the sin offering (cf. Lev. 4:21, 24; 5:12; 6:18). The Suffering Servant is said to be made an “offering for sin” (Isa. 53:10).
The purpose for which God made sinless Christ a substitute for sinners is that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As Paul stated in a previous letter to the Corinthians, “It is because of him [sc. God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). It is clear that the righteousness of God comes from him and is conferred on believers who are in Christ. Godless sinners, who previously possessed no righteousness of their own, receive righteousness in sinless Christ who, by a process of substitution, became a sin offering for them. In other words, believers identify with Christ in such a way that they die with Christ to the penalty for their sin (i.e., the curse of the law) and also share with Christ in his resurrection life and vindicated status.
21. He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become God’s righteousness in him.
This is one of the epistle’s outstanding verses that summarizes God’s good news to sinners. It discloses the meaning of the word reconciliation, a word that until now Paul has not fully explained. In his discussion, the question always remained as to why God was willing to overcome his anger toward sin as he reached out to us in love and peace. Now the apostle explains that God took his sinless Son and made him the sinbearer in our place. God had his Son pay the death penalty for our sins, so that we might be set free and declared righteous in his sight. Christ redeemed us by taking upon himself the curse that rested on us (Gal. 3:13).
- Contrast. A cursory reading of this verse reveals that Paul writes a number of opposites. Viewing the verse in two parallel columns, we immediately see a comparison.
|who knew no sin
|to be sin
|on our behalf
The differences between Christ and us are obvious: sinlessness and sinfulness (implicit), sin and righteousness, substitution and source. Having created perfect human beings, God established a special relationship with Adam and Eve. When they fell into sin, they offended their creator God and caused alienation. As their judge, God called them to account for their disobedience and sentenced them (Gen. 3:8–19). An earthly judge does not bear any personal animosity toward a person who is accused, proven guilty, and sentenced. Nor does the judge establish a friendship with an offender. This is not so between God and the sinner, because at the dawn of human history God established a personal relationship with human beings. True, Adam and Eve and their descendants have offended God by their sins, but God continued his relationship with them by removing the curse of sin through his Son Jesus Christ. Through him, God imputed to his people righteousness, extended to them his friendship, and effected peace between himself and them.
- Significance. “[God] made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf.” Paul designates Christ as “him who knew no sin.” Even though Jesus’ sinlessness is implied throughout the New Testament, in only a few places do writers specifically refer to his purity. For instance, disputing with the religious establishment of his day, Jesus challenged the Jews to prove him guilty of sin (John 8:46; compare 7:18). The writer of Hebrews states that Jesus was identical to us but without sin (4:15; refer to 7:26; 9:14). Quoting Isaiah 53:9, Peter writes, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22; see 3:18). And John confesses that Jesus “appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin” (1 John 3:5).
“[Jesus] knew no sin,” Paul writes. Yet Jesus must have been gravely offended and deeply grieved when he observed and continually experienced in himself the effects of human sin. He was “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isa. 53:3). During his earthly ministry, he was frequently confronted by Satan and his evil cohorts, yet he never succumbed to sin. Even though he appeared “in the likeness of sinful man” (Rom. 8:3), he kept himself free from sin by showing his constant love to God and humankind.
Although Jesus was tempted by Satan, he did not become a sinner. When God made him sin by imputing to him our sin, he regarded him as the sinbearer, not as a sinner. True, as the Lamb of God, Christ removed the sin of the world by his sacrificial death on the cross (John 1:29; 3:14–15). But presently Paul portrays not a sacrificial offering but rather a courtroom scene in which a judge either sentences the guilty or releases the innocent. By imputing sin to Jesus Christ, God imputes righteousness to his people. Christ took our place as the head of redeemed humanity; he is our representative speaking to God in our defense (1 John 2:1).
Also, Christ became our substitute by taking our place before God to receive the punishment that was due us. Standing before God, Jesus bore the greatest burden of sin ever. He paid for sin when he was spiritually severed from God and was physically dying on the cross (Matt. 27:46, 50). Jesus took upon himself our sins and through his atonement made us recipients of God’s righteousness.
- Effect. “So that we might become God’s righteousness in him.” The good news of Christ’s death is that our sin, which separated us from God, has been removed; he accepts us as if we had never sinned at all. Because of Christ’s death, God declares us innocent. He acquits us, drops all charges against us, and grants us the gift of righteousness. Sixteenth-century German theologian Zacharius Ursinus put this truth succinctly in these words:
God grants and credits to me
the perfect satisfaction, righteousness,
and holiness of Christ,
as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner,
as if I had been perfectly obedient
as Christ was obedient for me.
Let us briefly discuss the meaning of the phrase God’s righteousness. Is it righteousness that belongs to God (subjective genitive)? Or is it righteousness that he receives from us (objective genitive)? Or does righteousness originate with God and then is granted to us (genitive of origin)?
The second of these three questions describes a circumstance that is improbable if not impossible. And the third question would expect the answer that we have received complete righteousness, but we can say only that our righteousness is in Christ. His righteousness is imputed to us in justification, which is a declaratory act of God. We do well to answer the first question and say that righteousness, akin to holiness, is an inherent characteristic that belongs to God. He expresses this attribute by judging sin as a violation of his holiness. The righteousness that God possesses must be understood in terms of judgment, justice, and grace. Through Christ Jesus, God has placed us within the context of that righteousness and has reconciled us to himself. Hence, reconciliation and righteousness are the proverbial two sides of the same coin.
5:21. The content of the appeal is clarified. Christ never committed sin, but He voluntarily became a sin offering (the likely sense of to be sin on our behalf) by bearing the penalty for sin as a substitute. He was punished for the sins of others. The purpose for his death was that those who believe might have a righteous standing before God. The sinless One died so that sinners might live.
21 Before continuing his appeal to the Corinthians, Paul makes a highly compressed but extremely profound statement about the work of Christ: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us. Various interpretations of this have been suggested: that Christ was made a sinner; that he was made a sin-offering; that he was made to bear the consequences of our sins. The first suggestion is rightly rejected out of hand. The second can be supported by appeal to Paul’s use of sacrificial terminology elsewhere (cf. Rom. 3:25; 1 Cor. 5:7) and to the fact that in the Greek version of Lv. 4:24 and 5:12 the word translated sin here is used to mean sin offering. The third interpretation is supported by appeal to Gal. 3:13, where Paul speaks of the death of Christ in terms of his bearing the consequences of our sins: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree”.’ This interpretation is further supported by the fact that the statement God made him who had no sin to be sin is balanced by the opposite statement, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. If becoming the righteousness of God means that God has pronounced judgment in our favour and put us in right relationship with himself, then to become sin, as the opposite of that, would mean that God had pronounced judgment against Christ (because he took upon himself the burden of our sins; cf. Is. 53:4–6, 12) with the result that his relationship with God was momentarily, but terribly beyond all human understanding, severed (cf. Mt. 27:46) for us. It is then no wonder that the love of Christ was such a strong motivating force in Paul’s life; and once we grasp the significance of the love of Christ for us, it will also be a strong motivating force in our own lives as well.
5:21. Paul now summarized the basis of this message. The Cross epitomized the love of God (John 3:16) and of Christ (John 15:13; Rom. 5:8). The Savior was sinless: He had no sin. He was “without sin” (Heb. 4:15), and “in Him is no sin” (1 John 3:5). He took on Himself the sin of the world (John 1:29; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 2:2). God made Him … to be sin for us (cf. Isa. 53:4–6, 10). The sins of the world were placed on Him so that, in turn, His righteousness could be given those who trust Him (Rom. 5:17) and are thus in Him. That gift of righteousness is obtainable only by faith (Rom. 3:22; 6:23; Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 3:9).
5:21 This verse gives us the doctrinal foundation for our reconciliation. How has God made reconciliation possible? How can He receive guilty sinners who come to Him in repentance and faith? The answer is that the Lord Jesus has effectively dealt with the whole problem of our sins, so now we can be reconciled to God.
In other words, God made Christ to be sin for us—Christ who knew no sin—that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
We must beware of any idea that on the cross of Calvary the Lord Jesus Christ actually became sinful in Himself. Such an idea is false. Our sins were placed on Him, but they were not in Him. What happened is that God made Him to be a sin-offering on our behalf. Trusting in Him, we are reckoned righteous by God. The claims of the law have been fully satisfied by our Substitute.
What a blessed truth it is that the One who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we who knew no righteousness might become the righteousness of God in Him. No mortal tongue will ever be able to thank God sufficiently for such boundless grace.
5:21 — For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
God took the sins of the whole world and, on the cross, piled them on the back of Jesus Christ, the one person who had never committed a single sin. Jesus took our punishment so that we might receive His righteousness.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2003). 2 Corinthians (pp. 209–217). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
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