How Jesus became sin – 2 Corinthians 5

Posted: February 14, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

God has made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him!’

These are the words in question. Our Shy Commenter is wondering about justification (see previous two posts). SC asks, doesn’t Paul here picture us sharing in Christ’s righteousness? Which is what I had been denying we share, in justification.

On the face of it, Paul doesn’t say here that we share Christ’s righteousness. He says that we share in God’s righteousness. ‘God’, when opposed to Christ, means God the Father. But the ‘place’ where we share in God’s righteousness is in Christ. As we belong to Christ we share in God’s righteousness.

I don’t think we can really read this as referring to a righteousness Jesus’ achieved in his perfect life of obedience, which is now imputed to us. It’s God the Father’s righteousness, and he didn’t obey anyone!

So it’s not a text I would use to build a case for the doctrine that we share Christ’s righteousness (a doctrine I opposed in my earlier posts).

What is Paul on about here, then?

First, some context. Paul is talking death and resurrection here: the apostles’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that of all mankind. The apostles are able to keep going in intolerable conditions because of their confidence that Jesus’ resurrection is their resurrection. And also because of their confidence that there has been a fundamental change in mankind’s future. Even though the world is hostile to the apostles, they see people not as they are, but as they could be in Christ. I.e. they see new creation. For the way is now open for reconciliation with God.

The key thing to get here is the structure of Paul’s thought. He is not opposing this world with the spirit-realm of ‘heaven’, as two spheres for possible existence. The duality here is between two ages: present and future, the age of ‘flesh’ and the age of resurrection. Paul is looking forward to the time when his slowly-dissolving flesh will be transformed and raised into resurrection life.

This dual structure dominates the whole passage. When Paul describes the apostles’ ministry, he talks in the same way. They persuade people, confident that God’s work of new creation is going on, people are being transformed. Reconciliation with God is not only possible – it is happening, because instead of counting people’s sins against them (old era) now God has graciously made for us a way back to him (new era): Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It’s worth noting that reconciliation with God, here, is very close to new creation. The two ideas go hand in hand. It seems Paul views this reconciliation as part of the change of ages, a sort of foretaste of the full resurrection life that is ahead.

And the way God is effecting this reconciliation is through the apostles. As they announce the end of the old age in Jesus’ death, and the arrival of the new age in his resurrection, God uses that announcement to advance the new era (his kingdom). (Quite appropriate then, I think Paul is implying, that the apostles themselves are caught up in Jesus’ story of death and resurrection. At the moment they’re outwardly in the ‘dying’ bit of the story!)

So the apostles plead with people, on the basis of what happened with Jesus, to take part in the new age. V.20-21 function in the passage as Paul’s summary of that apostolic message.

Now for that verse:

“We are Christ’s ambassadors, and God appeals to mankind through us in this way: ‘Be reconciled to God…'”

The rest of the appeal summary (v.21) gives the content of what God has done to bring about that reconciliation. It’s the story the apostles tell everywhere they go, the gospel story. Here Paul tells the story using the language of sin and righteousness – judicial language. To interpret v.21, we need to keep in mind the themes, and especially the dual structure of the whole passage, which this verse is summarising. If we do that, we can say that:

– it’s actually a story of death and resurrection. So this legal language of sin and righteousness colours our view of what’s happening at the Cross.

– the duality sin and righteousness is part of the wider dual structure of Paul’s thought here: sin corresponds to the old age, and righteousness to the new.

So then,

Jesus ‘became sin’ for us – that refers to his death on our behalf, because of mankind’s sin. Human sin was judged and put to death in him. This is the death that put an end to the reign or era of ‘the flesh’. As Paul puts it elsewhere, ‘Jesus came as representative of sinful flesh to put sin to death in his own body’ (Romans 8:3). As a result, we all also died.

As a result of his sharing our death,

we can ‘become the righteousness of God in him’. 

– Firstly Jesus, having become sin, now becomes ‘the righteousness of God.’ This refers to his vindication in resurrection. God the judge awards him the status of ‘righteous’ by raising him from his state of condemnation (death). But he is not raised once again as ‘flesh’. Rather, Jesus’ new body is raised as righteous, he inaugurates the reign or era of the new humanity, here described as ‘righteousness’, as opposed to the old one of the ‘flesh’.

And secondly, we are involved in the story, as we were in his death. Just as it was our (old) humanity was judged and brought to an end in Jesus’ death on the Cross, so the new humanity is ours also. Ours in the sense that we can share in it. We also can be vindicated by God, reconciled and even raised bodily into the new era.  Through union with Christ. We can share in God’s ‘Yes’ to Jesus. We can ‘become the righteousness of God in him.’ (To verb that noun, Shy Commenter, and talk about ‘justification’: we can share in Jesus’ justification).


Taking the verse as a whole, Paul says that Jesus took our humanity down through death and raised it into new life, cleansed of its mortal illness, sin. As Paul puts it, “What is mortal has been swallowed up by life.” (v.4). Or to summarise,

He shared in our death so that we could share in his resurrection. 

In so doing Jesus opened up a future for our enslaved race.

And so the apostles call us into that future. The second half of the verse is in the subjunctive: ‘that we might become the righteousness…’ It is not an indicative, not a sealed deal. It is a possibility, an offer even. Participation in this new humanity is not automatic: it’s ‘opt in’. That is an important difference from the first half, ‘he became sin for us’. That’s an indicative. It happened. Everyone is caught up in that death, like it or not. The human race stands condemned.

But now God sends this call, this appeal, pleading with us: be reconciled to God. Take part in this future. How can we? How could unclean flesh like mine be reconciled to God? How can he speak his ‘Yes’ to a sinner like me?

In this way:

God has made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him!’

  1. Nuria says:

    Thanks for these posts Jonathan. What a great God, what a great gospel! Again, I like your integration of “the gospel story.” Two comments so far:

    1) I would find it helpful to hear if you think there are any unhelpful practical implications of retaining a doctrine of imputed righteousness? Obviously you could say: “because such a doctrine can’t be exegetically substantiated from the biblical text.” Ok, But aside from that, can you see any unhelpful flow on effects of this doctrine in churches at present?

    2) A point of clarification. In your first post you wrote: “I might just mention that I think the translations do a worse than usual job of grasping Paul’s line of thinking, in this chapter. They add in some quite unhelpful stuff. I’m proposing to take it back out!”

    I’m struggling to see what you’re changing in the translation. Perhaps I haven’t gone through your paraphrase with a fine enough toothed comb, but it sounds to me more like you’re suggesting a change in hermeneutics – how reformed theologians have interpreted 2 Cor 5:21. Sounds like the bit you want to take back out is not unhelpful translations so much as the interpretation that vs. 21 is about imputed righteousness.

    If you are suggesting specific translation issues, perhaps you would write more about that one day.

    • Jonathan says:

      Good questions, Nuria, thanks for commenting! It’s nice to hear from someone who is clearly theologically clued up. You haven’t been to bible college by any chance…?

      So your questions are harking back to a set of posts on justification here at The Grit last year. We’re talking justification here.

      Anyway, on point 1. First I don’t have a problem with imputation, depending on what you mean by it. God imputes or reckons us righteous or guilty – that’s what judges do. What I question is the notion that it is Christ’s earned righteousness that is imputed to us. I think in a legal setting this stretches the concept of imputation beyond what it can bear, making it meaningless. Just re-clarifying terminology.

      To answer your question, I reckon there can be all sorts of knock-on effects from wrong doctrine, it’s hard to predict. But in general, this one is part of an abstracting tendency, where we often locate the real action an another realm away from our world. The real place where atonement occured was in the spiritual realm when God ‘poured out his wrath’ on Jesus in some invisible way; the real church we join is invisible and located in heaven around Christ; our justification is something that goes on elsewhere, a pronouncement in heaven’s court with no necessary earthly component to it; the only work that matters in this life is ‘spiritual’ work because it’s plugged in to ‘eternity’; etc, etc.

      Imputation that goes on somewhere else, that doesn’t involve an experience of resurrection here on earth, is an abstract, and hence part of the problem not part of the solution.

      2. On the translation, sorry if I was a bit vague. I reckon if you read my paraphrase side by side with say the ESV, the differences would be apparent. In general, the translations obscure the fact that Paul is discussing his general ministry practise and calling – they make it seem he is directing his efforts towards persuading the Corinthians to trust in Jesus at this point. Which he clearly isn’t.

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