Was Christ Made to Be Sin?
Many scholars interpret 2 Corinthians 5:21 quite literally and conclude that Christ literally became sin when He was crucified. Unfortunately, this is a serious mistake, in my opinion. Let me explain why.
This verses reads, He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (NASB)
The basic problem here is a failure to realize that most of the books in our Bible were written by men of an Eastern mindset – specifically Hebrew. (See Theology of the Old Testament, Brueggemann, Fortress, 1997, p. 81) This certainly includes Paul, the author of this passage. These men were quite comfortable with the use of figurative language, and a number of literary practices were commonplace with them. In this instance, Paul was using two different literary practices which were fairly common in the Old Testament. One was parallelism, and the other was a failure to distinguish carefully whether one was referring to a particular sin or its punishment.
In this verse, the parallelism is antithetical parallelism between Christ and us, a literary contrast. We tend to think that we became righteous because He became sin. That is incorrect thinking and reasoning. The verse clearly says that our righteousness in God’s eyes is in Him. At no point do we actually become righteous. Instead, God has accepted an atoning sacrifice on our behalf – the sacrifice of Jesus. God could not accept the atoning sacrifice of Jesus if Jesus in any way had sinned or was sin. God required an atoning sacrifice to be perfect – unblemished. (Lev. 4:3ff, Ex. 12:5, 1 Peter 1:19) In the verse before us, Paul stated that Christ knew no sin, (See Heb. 4:15, 7:26; 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5) so He was a qualified propitiation (substitute) for us. (Rom 3:25, Heb. 2:17, 1 John 2:2, 4:10) This atonement language means that Christ took upon Himself the punishment that we deserved for our sin. Another way to say it is “Christ was treated as if He had sinned so that we could be treated as if we had not sinned.” This makes the antithetical parallelism or contrast rather clear.
The idea expressed in 2 Cor. 5:21 perhaps comes from Isa. 53:6b – But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. (Also verses 11 and 12) This is an example where the author fails to distinguish between iniquity and its punishment. Perhaps this is because the Hebrews believed that iniquity and sin would inevitably be punished. (Ez. 18:20, Rom. 3:23, e.g.) There are a number of examples where iniquity is used to refer to punishment. One is Exodus 20:5 where we learn that the iniquity of the fathers is visited upon their children. This is stated again in Ex. 34:7 – [The Lord] keeps lovingkindness (Heb. hesed) for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations. (NASB) Here, the word iniquity is used to refer to the sin as well as its punishment. (The word iniquity is used in the Bible to refer to wickedness and injustice; it is synonymous with sin, a more general term which usually has to do with violation of God’s laws or our failure to live up to His expectation of moral behavior.) Another verse that uses the two terms – sin and its punishment – interchangeably is Ezekiel 18:20 – The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. (NASB)
Second Corinthians 5:21 is probably the only place where Paul does not consciously point out that Christ’s death was an atoning sacrifice, a sin-offering, on our behalf. Rom. 3:25 states that Jesus was punished publicly as a substitute for the punishment we deserved. He died in our place. Rom. 8:3 says that God sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as an offering for our sin, so that we would not suffer spiritual death for our own sin. This thought was expressed prophetically in Isaiah 53:10 – … He would render Himself as a guilt offering… Some modern translations of 2 Cor. 5:21 have a footnote to indicate that in modern usage the verse should read “he was made sin, that is, a sin-offering” to make clear Paul’s thinking in this instance.
Many scholars prefer to say that the righteousness of Christ was imputed or credited to us. The KJV uses this term several times in Romans 4, for example, in explaining how Abraham was accepted as righteous by God (Gen. 15:6). The NASB and other modern translations say that Christ’s righteousness was reckoned to us, based on our faith. This language simply means that God chooses not to give us the penalty we deserve for our sin. He accepts our faith instead. That faith is a deep, abiding trust on our part that God will accept on our behalf the penalty Christ has paid by His death on the cross. Instead of the spiritual death we deserve, we receive eternal life in God’s presence. The contrast is clear – Christ suffered physical death so that we might experience eternal spiritual life. In no way did Christ actually sin or become sin.