Note: This post will be a little more technical than most of our articles here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life. That is necessary in order to deal with a common objection to the Christian beliefs we present here.
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 is often quoted to support the Western Christian doctrine that by his death, Jesus Christ satisfied the justice, or the wrath, of God the Father. This is known as the satisfaction theory of atonement.
Satisfaction theory was originated by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century. In the centuries that followed, Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas, among others, modified it into the currently accepted Catholic doctrine of atonement. In the 16th century, Protestant theologians developed its penal substitution variant, which is widely accepted within Protestantism today. (Eastern Christianity never accepted satisfaction theory. It continues to hold to earlier Christian views of atonement.)
According to satisfaction theory, we humans are unacceptable to God because of our sin. And being sinful by nature, we are incapable of satisfying God’s justice (in the Catholic version) or of assuaging God’s wrath (in the Protestant version). However, since Christ was sinless, he was able to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, or take the punishment demanded by God’s wrath. Anyone who accepts Christ’s sacrifice is accepted by God as righteous.
How does this happen, according to the theory? By Christ’s merit and righteousness being imputed to us. The idea is that Christ’s righteousness gets attributed to us even though we are sinners, whereas our sin gets attributed to Christ even though he was sinless. God can therefore accept us as righteous even though we are actually sinful.
That’s what 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, doesn’t it? In a slightly more modern translation:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (New Revised Standard Version)
There’s only one problem. That’s not what Paul was saying. Here is translation that gets much closer to what he was saying:
God made this sinless man be a sin offering on our behalf, so that in union with him we might fully share in God’s righteousness. (Complete Jewish Bible, italics added)