Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Can you explain what is meant by the phrase “God made him [Jesus] . . . to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21)?*
We’ll have to wait for the Lord’s return to explain fully the meaning of this verse. But that does not mean this passage is totally beyond our comprehension. We can say some things about it, even
1. “Him who had no sin”: The sinlessness of Jesus is indicated in several places in the New Testament (1 John 3:5; 1 Peter 2:22; Heb. 4:15). It was not simply the absence of an act of disobedience on His part but also the absence of the taint of sin from His person. His absolute distance from sin in any form and expression lies at the very foundation of the saving power of His death. Apart from Christ no one else has broken away from the enslaving power of sin (Rom. 3:9, 10). He permanently broke the universal power of sin. This is the good news: The One over whom sin was unable to rule at all has placed His victory at the service of the human race as a means of atonement.
2. “God made him . . . to be sin for us”: This phrase reveals several important ideas. First, it rejects the view that the Father was against us while the Son had to persuade the Father to love us. It was God who took the initiative and provided what we needed. He loved us in our rebellion and sin.
Second, we’re confronted with the unfathomable mystery of the atonement. Atonement mysteriously occurred in the encounter between holiness and sin, death and life, purity and impurity. One could argue that Christ became sin by bearing our sin, assuming full responsibility for it, and experiencing its penalty. But we should not separate that legal image from the fact that on the cross Christ in fact experienced God’s absolute abandonment.
Third, Christ became sin “for us,” for our benefit, as our substitute. We know about the burden of our own sin without experiencing God’s total abandonment. Yet our guilt, inadequacy, and shame weigh as a heavy burden on our souls. As our substitute Christ experienced the guilt, shame, and humiliation of the whole human race entirely abandoned by God. The guilt and shame of sin was heaped upon Him until it crushed Him while He groaned under its weight (Heb. 5:7).
Notice that He did not become a sinner, but sin. The sin of the human race was credited to Him not in an impersonal way, but in actuality. He who had no sin was treated as if He had committed the sin of every human being who ever lived or will live in this world of sin and death. He “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). The curse that was ours was carried in His person, and through His death He exhausted its condemning power for those who believe. He “was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). The words “his poverty” refer to the fact that He became a curse for us, and that our sin and its penalty were transferred from us to Him as our substitute. Jesus took our poverty upon Him in order to enrich us.
3. “That in him we might become the righteousness of God”: Here is revealed the purpose of the astonishing sacrificial death of Christ. He took what was ours–our sin–and gave us what we did not have–the righteousness of God. This gift is only available to those who are in Christ; those who exist in a faith-relationship with Him as the Son of God.
The phrase “the righteousness of God” could designate the righteousness that God imparts to us through sanctification. Or, it could mean the righteousness that we have before God, the imputed righteousness that God credits to us by faith in Christ. This last interpretation appears to be the most appropriate in the context. Christ took what was not His, our sin. Now in Him we participate in that which is not ours, the gift of justification by faith. God did in Christ and through Christ the unimaginable: He made Him sin. Because of that we are accepted in the Beloved.
*Bible texts in this article are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.