This is a follow-up to an article I wrote previously. Hopefully this will make clearer my interpretation of 2 Cor. 5:21, and I offer a paraphrase of this difficult verse.
The explanation by David J. A. Clines in the New International Bible Commentary (Zondervan 1979) comes close to what I believe is the correct interpretation of verse 21:
Verse 20 expands 'committed to us the message of reconciliation' (19); v. 21 develops 'not counting men's sins against them'. Made is devoid of any idea of compulsion; Christ's sacrifice was freely willed On 10: 8). made him ... to be sin: The Heb. word for 'sin' (hatta't) and consequently the LXX hamartia 'sin', Paul's word here, are occasionally used for 'sin-offering' (e.g. Lev. 4: 24), and it is probable that this is Paul's meaning here (so NIVmg). Christ's death is frequently spoken of as a sin-offering (e.g. Rom. 8: 3; Heb. 7: 27; 9: 12; In r: 29; Isa. 53: 6, 10), and all legitimate inferences from other interpretations of 'made him to be sin' (e.g. He stood in the place of sinners, He accepted the penalty of sin) are embraced by the concept of Him as a sin-offering. Paul is careful to avoid any suggestion that Christ became sinful or a sinner (though a too strict parallelism with 'we become righteousness' as an equivalent of 'we become righteous' might suggest this), and explicitly asserts that He had no sin. We ... become the righteousness of God means 'we become righteous before God', with the added nuance that it is God's righteousness that is imparted to us. (Italics added)
Clines was constrained by the need to be as concise as possible due to his context.
Many scholars fail to appreciate the fact that this verse was written by a Hebrew, and Hebrew authors often used a sin and its punishment synonymously. Thus, it wasn't a problem for Paul, and probably for those to whom he was writing, to use the word sin to refer to sin itself and to a sin-offering in the same sentence. Clines at least hints at this explanation
One can see the machinations that many scholars use to get around the literal interpretation of this verse by reading David E. Garland's commentary (New American Commentary, Broadman and Holman 1999), While admitting that “From the time of Ambrosiaster and Augustine, interpreters have argued that Paul means that Christ became a “sin-offering,” he then proceeds explain why “there are problems with this view.” He quotes Lambrecht to say “By metonymy, using an abstract term in place of a more concrete term and by saying it was “for us,” he protects Christ's sinlessness.” In other words, by using sin Paul meant sin-offering. (Look up the definition for metonymy.) This statement directly contradicts what Garland meant when he said “there are problems with this view.” He quotes Dunn to say “Even though Jesus was sinless, God deals with him as though he were a sinner by letting him die an accursed death. In the Jewish cult the animal offered up to atone for sins “had to be holy, without defect, precisely so that both priest and offerer could be confident that the death it died was not its own.” This same statement was made by Spurgeon and many others. These scholars and pastors seem to “want to have their cake and eat it too.” They want to say that Jesus became sin while at the same time meaning that He was not sin but a sin-offering. There is a rather simple explanation of this conundrum, but that will be presented later.
This mistaken interpretation of 2 Cor. 5:21 is also confounded by the fact that many scholars do not seem to appreciate what is meant when Paul uses the term “the righteousness of God.” Garland illustrates this misunderstanding in his brief treatment of this phrase. “We are given his righteousness only as we are in him, and will be raised like him only if we live in him.” Thus, he never defines “the righteousness of God,” he just restates what Paul said in different words. It is not correct to say simply that we are “given His righteousness.” I simply ask, “what does that mean?”
Bishop N. T. Wright is perhaps the best source to better understand what Paul means by the term “the righteousness of God.” In his commentary on Romans in the New Interpreter' Bible (Abingdon, 2002) Wright essentially says that the entire letter to the Romans is intended to explain this term. In essence, the term encompasses God's covenant faithfulness, God's plan for the salvation of all true believers, starting with His covenant promises made to certain individuals and the selection of the nation Israel through which these promises would be executed, His coming to earth in human form to pay the penalty for all sin, and the explanations by Jesus and the apostles that salvation is based on true faith in God and His Son, reiterated by Paul. Through this plan, God is able to condemn all sin in a manner that is loving and just. When we “become the righteousness of God.” we become beneficiaries of this eternal plan. We don't actually become righteous, but God treats us a though we are, just as he treated His Son as though He were a sinner. Lenski had previously expressed similar thoughts. Here is a short excerpt:
Now the astounding thing is that this sinless One God “made sin for us.” “Sin” is to be taken in the same comprehensive sense. God did not make him “a sinner.” God did less, and he did more. God left Jesus as sinless as he was. The idea of God making anyone a sinner, to say nothing of his own Son, is unthinkable. God did something else entirely: he laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:6) so that he bore our sins in his own body on the tree (1 Pet. 2:24), so that he was made a curse for us (Gal. 3:13, ὑπέρ, “in our stead”), so that he died for all (v. 14, 15, again ὑπέρ, “instead of all”). God made Christ sin ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν by charging all that is “sin” in us against him, by letting him bear all this burden with all its guilt and penalty “in our stead” in order to deliver us. It sounds incredible that God should have done this with his own sinless Son. Because it is so astounding Paul puts it in this astounding way. But it is fact, God did this.(Lenski, R. C. H. (1963).The interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second epistle to the Corinthians (pp. 1051–1055). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.)
In another commentary, Wright said this:
As he asked in 2:16, who is capable of being God's agent in this extraordinary work? The answer is in the cross, on which God made the sinless Messiah to 'be sin' on our behalf. All our sins, our failings, our inadequacies, were somehow dealt with there, so that we—the apostles, and all who are called to be 'ministers of reconciliation'—could embody in our own lives the faithfulness of God. No wonder the Corinthians found it difficult to grasp what Paul was up to, why his ministry took the shape it did. Nothing like this had ever been thought of in the world before.
(N. T. Wright, New Testament for Everyone - Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians.)
I might add, no wonder we Westerners today have trouble grasping the meaning of this verse. Most of us see nothing wrong with the translation in most modern versions of the Bible.
Some scholars try to argue that it makes no sense for Paul to use the same word to to say sim and sin-offering in the same sentence. I argue that it makes no sense to say in the same sentence that He committed no sin and yet literally became sin! Most scholars recognize this and have devised long explanations to make sense of it, (You might say that I am doing the same this here! All I am really doing is illustrating the fact that I have studied the matter carefully.) In essence, many conclude that “Paul meant that Jesus became a sin offering for us. but that is not what he said.” Consider, for example, a statement by MacArthur:
"As Christ was not a sinner, but was treated as if He were, so believers who have not yet been made righteous (until glorification) are treated as if they were righteous. He bore their sins so that they could bear His righteousness. God treated Him as if He committed believers’ sins, and treats believers as if they did only the righteous deeds of the sinless Son of God. "[MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArtthur Study Bible (2 Co 5:21). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.]
Thus, twice here, MacArthur demonstrates that He became sin means He was treated as if He were a sinner or treated as if He committed believers' sins, but he still has to say that He bore their sins so that they could bear His righteousness. That is what the verse says, but it is more important, in my opinion, to ask “what does it mean?” MacArthur gave two explanations and made one error – Christ bore no sins, he bore the punishment for sins.
The New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGC) on this verse is an example of these long explanations. The author, Murray J, Harris, concludes:
"We conclude that in v. 21a Paul is not saying that at the crucifixion the sinless Christ became in some sense a sinner, yet he is affirming more than that Christ became a sin offering or even a sin bearer. In a sense beyond human comprehension, God treated Christ as “sin”, aligning him so totally with sin and its dire consequences that from God’s viewpoint he became indistinguishable from sin itself."
This is basically a defense for a literal interpretation of this verse, This commentary also recognizes the contrast Pail is making in verse 21: sin was reckoned to Christ’s account (v. 21a), so that righteousness is reckoned to our account (v. 21b).
Although Harris makes mention of Isaiah 53 in its exegesis of this verse, most scholars seem to miss the fact that Paul's statement in Verse 21 is a re-statement of Isa. 53:5b - The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. (NASB) Paul simply adds “though He knew no sin,” speaking of what he knew about Jesus, and explaining that our healing is accomplished through God's covenant faithfulness, which culminated in Christ becoming a sin-offering for all true believers. Also see 1 Peter 2:24, where the apostle make a statement similar to Paul's and then quotes Isa, 53:5b. Through parallelism, we understand that He Himself bore our sins is equivalent to by His wounds and we might die to sin and live to righteousness is equivalent to you were healed. (Words from the NASB translation)
Another commentary that points to the contrast Paul is making in verse 21 is JFB:
As our sin is made over to Him, so His righteousness to us (in His having fulfilled all the righteousness of the law for us all, as our representative, Je 23:6; 1 Co 1:30). The innocent was punished voluntarily as if guilty, that the guilty might be gratuitously rewarded as if innocent (1 Pe 2:24). Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, pp. 309–310). Oak Harbor, WA.
So here is my brief explanation of verse 21. The verse is difficult to understand in a literal fashion. That is because it was written by a man with a Hebrew mindset, and it employs a Hebrew idiom – antithetic parallelism. As a Hebrew, Paul had no problem using the same word for sin and sin-offering in the same sentence because it was used in both ways in the Septuagint. Here, using antithetic parallelism, the apostle Paul is contrasting Christ's sacrifice with our blessing, just as the prophet used this idiom at Isa, 53:5b and the apostle Peter at 1 Pet. 2:24, I believe this thought is also expressed by Lenski:
What makes this statement of Paul’s so remarkable is the fact that he does not say: be given, get, receive, have God’s righteousness, but “become.” It is identifying us with God’s righteousness in Christ. The expression constitutes a climax. Justification has never been put into stronger or intenser terms. Yet the fact that God made Christ sin is equally strong and intense. The two expressions also properly go together in their contrast: Christ all sin for our sakes and in our stead; all of us God’s righteousness in connection with Christ. Sin—righteousness, true opposites. (Lenski, op. cit.)
Note that last phrase, “true opposites.” This shows that Paul was using antithetic parallelism to make his point.
Here is my paraphrase, a way in which I suggest we should understand this verse:
Jesus, who in no manner sinned, took on the undeserved punishment for all sin so that we can experience eternal life, which we do not deserve, through a foreordained plan of God to deal with all sin in a manner that is loving and just.