“2 Corinthians 5:21 and Christ Becoming Sin”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations

If we are to be honest students of the Bible, we must squarely address not only the passages that conform to our preconceptions but also the ones that challenge them.  Most of us would put 2 Corinthians 5:21 in the latter category.  Calvinists love 2 Corinthians 5:21 because it appears to support the Calvinist doctrine of imputed righteousness (my sin is imputed to Christ; Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me). 

If, on the other hand, we aren’t prepared to accept imputed righteousness and its implications (which are enormous in scope), the straightforward Christ-became-sin reading of the text poses problems for us.  Usually, I’ve heard brethren say that rather than becoming sin, Christ became a sin offering for us. 

While that’s true, as an interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21, I think it is more convenient than strictly faithful.  After all, the text doesn’t say “to be a sin offering”, and I am not aware of any textual basis for so rendering it.  It says, “to be sin”. 

I am suspicious of rewriting the Bible to avoid the difficulty in difficult passages.  It seems like a marvelous way to get into trouble.

Instead, I prefer to resolve the difficulty by considering the apparently less challenging half of the verse.  Jesus did [bracketed thing] so that we could become the righteousness of God in Him.  So far, so good, except the second half of the statement is not literally true.  I am not God’s righteousness.  The church is not God’s righteousness.  He is ours.

Clearly, Paul is speaking elliptically here, but that leaves open the question of what lies within the ellipsis.  We must ask what the relationship is that Christ creates between Christians and the righteousness of God.

Numerous passages answer that question, most notably the discussion in Romans 9:30-10:13.  Through Christ, we obtain God’s righteousness.  We receive it.  Our nature does not change, but He credits righteousness to us on the basis of faith.

Once we’ve figured out the second half of the 2 Corinthians 5:21 parallel, we can return to the first.  If “become” carries the elliptical meaning of “receive”, it is contextually likely that “be” carries a similar meaning.  Otherwise, the parallel doesn’t balance. 

Thus, we ought to read the text as saying that just as we received God’s righteousness, Christ received our sins.  This is an uncontroversial statement.  1 Peter 2:24 says explicitly that Christ bore our sins in His body on the cross, and many other passages make the same claim.

At this point, some might ask, “What’s the difference between Christ receiving our sins and Christ becoming a sin offering?”  Practically, not much, but the former is founded on a careful parsing of the text, and the latter isn’t. 

I am convinced that it’s important for us not only to be right about the Bible, but to be demonstrably right.  We can’t merely know the right answer and say, “This is right!  Trust me!”  We must be able to start with the evidence of the text and reason to the correct answer, even with texts that appear to teach something different. 

Nothing in the Bible is an affront to the truth, 2 Corinthians 5:21 included.  A difficult passage is nothing more than a passage that we have not taken the time and trouble to understand.  When we do invest that time and trouble, it will bear the fruit of renewed confidence in the word of God.