God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV
This is a challenging passage. What does it mean that Christ, who knew no sin, became sin for us? This article will briefly explore this passage and will offer an answer to this question.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Table of contents
I believe that to truly understand this passage, we need to understand the surrounding context. Otherwise, we can easily make this verse say something other than what Paul intended. In verses 11-15 of this chapter, Paul expressed his motivation for sharing the gospel of Christ. He said that “Christ’s love compels him.” Why? Because he was convinced that Christ had died for all people. And those who now have new life in Christ should no longer live for themselves, but for the one who died for them.
Paul continued, saying that he had once regarded people, including Jesus, from a worldly point of view. A worldly view would focus on things such as personal relationships, gender, ethnicity, religion, economic status, or skin color. But Paul had learned to see beyond the outward appearance. He saw Christ as the one who reconciles us to God. And he saw other people as loved by God and in need of the reconciliation Jesus provides.
Paul understood that God had given him the ministry of reconciliation. There were two aspects to this ministry of reconciliation. The first was to make clear that God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ. And the second was to implore people to be reconciled to God.
Christ Made Sin
As the above discussion has shown, 2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2 is about reconciliation. Specifically what God has done to reconcile fallen humanity to himself. And 2 Corinthians 5:21 is really the key verse in this discussion of reconciliation.
Here, Paul says that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Paul affirmed that Jesus had no sin of his own. Hebrews 4:15 expresses this as well, that Jesus, although tempted in every way that we are, was without sin.
The Day of Atonement
But, in some fashion, God made him, who had no sin of his own, to be sin for us. I believe that Leviticus 16 can help us to understand what Paul is referring to here. This chapter describes the sacrifices offered on the annual Day of Atonement. The high priest would offer a sacrificial bull for his own sin and then a goat for the sin of the people. The blood of these animals was sprinkled on the atonement cover over the ark of the covenant and then on the altar of burnt offering.
Following this, the high priest would place his hands on the head of a second goat. He would then confess the sins of the people over this goat and send it out into the wilderness. And, as it went out, it carried on itself the sins of the people.
Together, these two goats symbolized what Jesus would later do. The first goat shed his blood, which was brought into God’s presence, to make atonement for the people’s sin. The second goat then carried that sin into the wilderness. Like the first goat, Jesus shed his blood for our sin. That blood was then brought into God’s presence to make atonement for us. And, like that second goat, Jesus carried our sins out into the wilderness of death. He who had no sin was made sin for us.
The Righteousness of God
Isaiah tells us that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Is. 64:6). And Paul quotes Psalm 14:3 to say that there is no one who is righteous (Rom. 3:10). All the righteousness that humans are capable of falls short of the righteousness that God demands.
But the result of Jesus being made sin was “that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross, God’s righteousness can be imputed to us. It is not that we ourselves somehow become righteous. But, rather, we become his righteousness. It is God’s righteousness that enables me to be in right standing with him. My own righteousness will never get me there.
1 Corinthians 5:21 describes a transaction that takes place when I come to faith in Christ. My sin is given to Jesus to deal with. And, in return, the righteousness of God is given to me. And, in that fashion, I become reconciled to God.
All the World? Or Those in Christ?
But this discussion on the atonement raises a question that is often discussed and debated. Christ was made sin for us. But who is the ‘us’ that Paul refers to here? Did Jesus die for the sins of the whole world? Or only for the sins of some?
The context of this passage, as mentioned above, concerns reconciliation. Paul expressed that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ (2 Cor. 5:19). And he expressed his plea that we be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20). While many will disagree with me, I believe that this passage expresses that God’s work of reconciliation is universal in nature, it is for the world, for all people. But, as Paul’s plea suggests, there is a response required of people before that work of atonement is effective in a person’s life. It is only those who are in Christ who experience reconciliation, the fruit of the atonement.
Sufficient for All
And I believe this is what Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:9, that God “is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” Two groups are mentioned here: all people; and those who believe. Relating this to the 2 Corinthians passage, God is reconciling the world to himself; he is the savior of all people. But only those who are in Christ, those who believe, are reconciled and experience his righteousness.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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This article was first published on Christianity.com on August 4, 2021