“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” 2 Corinthians 5:21   

This phrase is so often discussed in the context of the Atonement that it may be helpful to first see how it fits in its own context as the last verse of 2 Corinthians 5. Just before this the apostle Paul has expressed the wonder of the love of Christ in that “one died for all” (v14). This was not like mathematics where we may have expected one to die for one, or like the ordinances of the Law where one sin required one sacrifice. In a marvellous expression of the grace of God “one died for all”, for all who would come to Christ and for all their sins! This same beautiful truth is found in Romans chapter five, “For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many” (Rom 5:15 and also verses 16 and 17).

This grace of God, this “love of Christ”, has a moral constraint upon us, for says the Apostle, “if one died for all then were all dead”. And he repeats this to explain his sense, “that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor 5:15).

So the love intended in the cross of Christ places a moral compulsion upon us to emulate our Lord, to live like him, in him and for him. It was to the Galatians that the Apostle expressed this central truth in the following memorable words: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (2:20).

Paul’s life was a constrained response to the love of Christ, a love so great that even though he was the Son of God, he gave his life for Paul! The sheer wonder of this great fact compelled the Apostle through a life of sacrifice and tribulation. He never forgot it and never ceased to wonder at the magnitude of the love of Christ. Such a selfless love of one so great and on Paul’s behalf motivated him throughout his life. To Paul it was like being a new man, part of a new creation, the former eclipsed and a new opening provided (2 Cor 5:17).

Then he took a step back and saw the larger picture. It was God who was responsible for all this, He was the prime mover, providing Christ that He might reconcile us unto Himself (v18). God wanted to do this and provided His Son to put His plan into action. Yet how could a man achieve this, to be a saviour and a sinless man at that? “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself”. Suddenly the focus is all upon God, upon His provision and His grace. What then became of the sins of men? God simply no longer “imputed their sins unto them” (v19).

If they were in Christ then their sins would be blotted out, forgiven! Again the echo of Romans is here, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin” (Rom 4:7-8). What a blessing when God, for Christ’s sake, will not count our sins against us but will cover them by granting us His righteousness, that we may be reconciled to Him. The Father wanted this reconciliation and He led the way in every aspect of its achievement; He even took hold of Saul of Tarsus on the way to Damascus and commissioned him to preach this Word of reconciliation to all lands (v18,19,20)! Nothing was lacking in the plan, all things were in place!

“He Hath Made Him to be Sin for Us”

This is the first phrase of verse 21. What does it mean? There must have been a natural repugnance to describe Christ as “sin”. Why would the Apostle put it this way?

Some have sought to reason that the word here for sin, hamartia, should be translated “sin offering”, thus avoiding any sense of guilt or shame upon the name of Christ. It is said that this is the equivalent word in Greek to the Hebrew word chatta and that word is sometimes used for sin offering. Whilst that is true of chatta, the fact is that in the New Testament hamartia is found 150 times but never once translated as sin offering. Besides, the second phrase in verse 21 also has hamartia—“who knew no sin”; it is unlikely that the same word could be used in two very different ways in the one verse! Jesus certainly knew about an offering for sin!

What he didn’t “know about”, or experience, was transgression or trespass and this is the overwhelming meaning of hamartia in the New Testament. “Trespasses” were the cause of separation from God, as expressed just before in verse 19; so we can be quite sure that this is the sense in verse 21. Christ was without sin and many passages in the Scriptures give support for that (Isa 53:9; John 1:14, 8:46; Heb 4:15, 7:26; 1 Pet 2:22; 1 John 2:1, 3:5).

How then was he “made sin”? The phrase implies that God subjected him to be “made sin”. We have a similar expression in Galatians 3:13 where the Apostle teaches that we are redeemed from the curse of the Law (Mosaic) by Christ because “he was made a curse for us”. The very circumstances by which he was put to death brought the curse of Deuteronomy 21:23 upon him, even though he was innocent of transgression. So here, too, the passage is not suggesting guilt but rather the opposite; “he knew no sin”. Why then say he was “made sin”?

Peter’s Analagous Passage

In 1 Peter 2 we have a very similar passage. After a statement of Christ’s innocence, “who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (v22), the apostle Peter goes on to say of Christ, “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body”. Again the problem is our sins, not Christ’s, but they are born away bodily in Christ upon the tree. The reader will observe that this is the language of Isaiah 53 where again the Lord is the sin bearer of our iniquities —“he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities”, yet he was the innocent bearer of our sins—“he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth” (v5, 9). The three passages, 2 Corinthians 5, 2 Peter 2 and Isaiah 53, are emphasizing the innocence of Christ even as he bears bodily the sins of his people.

With this understanding we see that to “be made sin” was equivalent to being born of human nature, of the flesh of mankind. So to the Philippians Paul expressed it like this:“he was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man he humbled himself.” Would a son of God assume that he would be born of the nature of mortal man?

If we had been asked before the event, would we have imagined this to be so? Surely not, but as someone of Divine life and immortality, and this is the beauty of the Philippian passage: though in the form or status of God (v6), yet found himself in fashion as a man!

That is the apostle’s mind on the subject and that is also the wonder of the Corinthian passage. The love of God was such that He wanted so greatly to provide a way of reconciliation for mankind that against all natural wisdom He made His Son in the same nature as the sinners he was to save.

“Nothing Amiss”

It is clear from this that God did not blame Jesus because he was of our human nature! He did not “make him sin” and then turn around and find fault with him because of that! The Father loved the Son and was always delighted and pleased with his obedience: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17), and, “mine elect in whom my soul delighteth” (Isa 42:1). The Son did not need to be justified before his Father because he was of the nature of man, that God had given him! It never altered their unity and love. “I and my Father are one”, said Jesus (John 10:30). The Scriptures are silent on Jesus’ need of reconciliation or atonement because he was born in the nature that God gave him! In all of the passages we have considered in this article—the sins of sinners are the cause of separation. We are the ones requiring the reconciliation. God “hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:18). It was not Christ who required the reconciliation rather he was the means of reconciliation, the reconciler, the mediator, for us. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself (v19)… we pray you in Christ’s stead be ye reconciled to God” (v20). We cannot miss the emphasis.

What comes to us through Christ is righteousness. The concluding statement of 2 Corinthians 5 is “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (Christ)”. He is the funnel, so to speak, of the righteousness of God and he can be such because he was and is righteous, “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Heb 7:26). His role was to be made sin who knew no sin; our part was to be “made the righteousness of God in him”, who knew no righteousness! The contrast in these roles is stark and important.

So the purpose of our passage, 2 Corinthians  5:21, is to magnify the wonder and goodness and grace of God. The language is sharp and arresting but the message is surpassing.

Romans 8:3

So we are led back to a favourite passage, Romans 8 verse 3. It is the same apostle and the same mind that was heard in Rome as in Corinth and the two epistles were written about the same time. What the Law could not do, God has done. The apostle states that the Law “was weak through the flesh”.

A sinless bearer of human nature was only possible if God entered directly into the problem of sin and this He did in His Son. It was a deliberate, head-on confrontation with Sin, in its own body, on its own ground. In the previous chapter the apostle had so openly expounded on his own fight against sin. He had spoken of Sin in chapter six as though it was a King: “let not Sin therefore reign in your mortal body”; “for Sin shall not have dominion over you”; “ye were the servants of Sin”, but “now made free from Sin” (Rom 6:12,14,17,22). In chapter seven Paul writes of this king as being an overlord within his members. “But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good, that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” (7:13). “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (v23). This was not the first time that sin was personified; the prophets and the Lord spoke often in similar terms, but in Romans 7 “sin” as the source of sin is personified ten times. These references are not speaking of trespasses and sins but of the driving force of sin that is the common experience of all mankind. The word throughout is hamartia but here used figuratively or metonymically1 being the cause of sin in our nature, the source of sin, the “law of sin in our members”, the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life”. The cause of sin is called by its effects. This is a very common figure of speech and it is important that we perceive this accurately. Confusion of this may lead us to think that because one is born of human nature he is therefore in need of reconciliation or atonement before God for that alone, apart from trespasses committed. Jesus is the test, for he had “the nature of sin”, the same as all other men, but was without sin. He needed to be saved out of death but he was never estranged from God, never in need of atonement for possessing the nature which God gave him.

“The Likeness of Sinful Flesh”

Whereas in 2 Corinthians 5:21, the Apostle speaks of Christ being “made sin”, here in Romans 8:3 it is, “sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh”. They are equivalent expressions and this helps us to be sure of the meaning of both passages. Here in Romans the reason given for God so sending His Son is that it was “concerning sin”, hamartia, that is, for defeating sin in its own arena, in the flesh. For where else could it be defeated? If the flesh is the source of sin then that is where the issue must be met and won. King Sin must be defeated in his own domain! This achieved, righteousness flows on to us—verse 4. So we see how similar are 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Romans 8:3 and the unlocking of one throws light upon the other.

Thankfulness for Understanding

It is our basic understanding of the nature of flesh, its mortality and its waywardness that leads us on to a gratifying comprehension of these lofty matters. One well-known writer, without that background, wrote this re 2 Corinthians 5:21:

“If becoming the righteousness of God means God has adjudicated in our favour, then to become sin will mean that God has adjudicated against Christ, with the result that his relationship with God was severed” (Tyndale commentary, 2 Cor 5).

This comprehension comes with such repugnant outcomes that one can only be profoundly thankful for the Truth received from God through our forebears. The atonement has such depths that we can never measure the mind and love of God, but it also comes with such appeal to wisdom and such harmony with the whole knowledge of God that we conclude with wonder and with praise!