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 a 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)
“Sin,” or “sin offering”?
2 Corinthians 5:21 is almost always mistranslated. That’s because the translators have not paid sufficient attention to the New Testament’s dependence upon the Old Testament. In particular, translators have not paid enough attention to the influence the Septuagint on the Greek expressions used in the New Testament.
The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Old Testament that was produced in the centuries just before Jesus’ birth. It was in common use among first century Jews, including the apostle Paul and other Jews who converted to Christianity and wrote the books of the New Testament.
Because this dependence of the New Testament, and especially of Paul, upon the Septuagint has not been sufficiently recognized, the King James Version and nearly every translation that followed it missed what Paul was saying in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Once again, the KJV translates this verse:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
But that doesn’t make much grammatical sense. People (including the divine Person of Jesus Christ) do not “become sin.” Sin is something we do, not something we are. Paul was not such a bad writer that he would have composed such a poorly constructed sentence. If he had meant to say what Catholics and Protestants today think he was saying, he would have used much clearer wording.
Rather, he was saying (in a more strictly literal translation):
For the one who knew no sin he [God] made to be a sin offering for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
You see, in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, חַטָּאָת (chatta’ath), the common word for “sin,” is also the word for “sin offering.” When it is used with this meaning in the book of Leviticus and elsewhere in the Old Testament, the Septuagint follows the pattern of the original Hebrew and translates it as ἁμαρτία (hamartia), which is the usual Greek word for “sin.” (The Greek word usually translated “become” in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is also a bit tricky. We’ll come back to that later.)
Paul was well-versed in the Septuagint. Though he doesn’t seem to have consistently used any one version of the (Old Testament) scriptures, his quotations often use language from the Septuagint.
In line with the Septuagint, in 2 Corinthians 5:21 he is using the Greek word ἁμαρτία in the sense of “a sin offering.” This makes perfect sense out of a passage that is otherwise grammatically nonsensical. And it fits in perfectly with a regular theme in the New Testament: that Jesus Christ is the sacrifice for our sins.
In short, Jesus Christ did not “become sin.” Paul was a better writer than that. Paul’s real meaning in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is that God made Jesus Christ a sin offering on our behalf.
Jesus Christ as a sacrifice for our sins
Here are some passages from the New Testament, including Paul’s letters, on the theme of Jesus Christ as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (italics added in all cases):
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21–26)
Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6–8)
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1–2)
And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. (Hebrews 10:11–14)
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1–2)
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:9–10)
The Gospels also touch on the theme of Jesus Christ sacrificing himself for the forgiveness of our sins, in the story of the Lord’s Supper. Here it is from the Gospel of Matthew:
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26–29, italics added)
This is a reference to the blood of the covenant that God made with the people of Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai just after the Exodus from Egypt:
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. When he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:3–8, italics added)
Notice that the “blood of the covenant” was the blood of burnt offerings sacrificed to the Lord. Jesus, in symbolically calling the wine of the Holy Supper “my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” was offering himself as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.
Finally, the book of Revelation touches on the same theme, picturing the risen and glorified Jesus Christ as the Lamb who was slaughtered, and who ransomed the holy ones (righteous people) by his blood:
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones. They sing a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God holy ones from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” (Revelation 5:6–10, italics added)
In short, the theme of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice to save us from our sins runs through every part of the New Testament.
2 Corinthians 5:21 in context
With that in mind, let’s read carefully the verses that lead up to Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:21, and see if we find the same theme there.
Short answer: Yes, we do. In this quotation of 2 Corinthians 5:14–21, I have put some of the key words and phrases into italics.
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh; even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be a sin offering who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Though Paul uses different wording here than in some of the other passages, the meanings and the theme are the same.
- Christ died for us all.
- God was in Christ reconciling us to himself.
- God was not counting our trespasses against us.
Christ’s death for us is presented in the New Testament as a sacrifice on our behalf.
Reconciliation is another word for “atonement.” The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “atonement” as “the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ” (italics added).
Trespasses is another word for “sins.” And here Paul says that God was not counting them against us.
In short, the entire passage is about the new life that we have in Christ because Christ died for us (as a sacrifice) in order to reconcile us to himself (to God), so that our trespasses (our sins) would not be counted against us.
Paul sums up these themes in this pithy final statement:
For our sake he made him to be a sin offering who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
In other words, not only the context of the New Testament as a whole, but the context of this specific passage in Corinthians 5 makes it clear that Paul was talking, not about some strange idea of Christ “becoming sin”—a statement that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament—but rather about Christ becoming a sin offering. This is a theme that recurs throughout the New Testament, and that draws upon and raises up to a higher level one of the central themes of the Old Testament.
What, exactly, does it mean for Christ to be a sacrifice for our sin? That’s a big question! A proper answer will have to wait for a future article. Meanwhile, please see this article on “propitiation” and “atonement”:
For now, our purpose is to show that Paul did not mean what is said in the common translation of 2 Corinthians 5:21.
Paul was a better writer than that
It is true that Paul’s language is sometimes a bit fancy. It’s not always easy to get what he is driving at. That’s why Peter said:
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other writings. (2 Peter 3:15–16)
However, Paul’s writing, though sometimes a bit fancy, is never sloppy and ungrammatical. If he had wanted to say what Western Christians think he said in 2 Corinthians 5:21, he would have worded it better—such as “For our sake he made him to be sinful who knew no sin” or “For our sake he placed our sins on the one who knew no sin.” These at least would have made grammatical sense.
He could have said these things. But he didn’t say them. Because that’s not what he meant.
Once again, both the immediate and the wider context show that he was using the Greek word ἁμαρτία as a parallel to Hebrew word חַטָּאָת, which is often used to mean “a sin offering.” Once we realize this, not only this verse, but the entire sequence of ideas in 2 Corinthians 5 makes perfect sense, and fits in perfectly with the rest of what Paul and the New Testament as a whole say about Jesus Christ.
Plus, it doesn’t require Paul to have written a strange and ungrammatical sentence.
Do we “become righteousness”?
“But,” you say, “Didn’t Paul say in the very same sentence that we become righteousness? Wouldn’t that be just as strange and ungrammatical a statement?”
The idea here is that there is a parallelism between Christ “being sin” and our “becoming righteousness.” And yes, there is a parallelism in the sentence. But not that one. You see, Paul uses two different verbs here.
In the first part of the verse, when he speaks of God making Jesus to be a sin offering, he uses the word ποιέω (poieō), whose basic meaning is, as it is commonly translated “to make,” but which also means broadly “to do” or “to constitute as.”
In the second part of the verse, when he speaks of our becoming the righteousness of God (as it is commonly translated), he uses the verb γίνομαι (ginomai), which does indeed have the primary meaning of “to become,” but which also has a broad range of meanings, including “to arise, to be fulfilled, to partake,” and so on. In other words, it has the sense of something becoming like or partaking in a particular quality—in this case, the quality of God’s righteousness.
This is why the Complete Jewish Bible, in translating this verse with an eye to the underlying themes from the Old Testament Scriptures, translates it (as quoted earlier):
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.
The usual mistranslation of Christ being “made to be sin” leads to a false parallelism in which we “become righteousness.” But as Jesus himself said, no one is good but God alone (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19). We humans cannot “become righteousness” except as we partake in the righteousness of God.
Here, then, is how the verse really should be translated:
For the one who knew no sin he made to be a sin offering for us, so that in him we might partake in the righteousness of God.
I recognize that this leaves many questions unanswered, especially the question of what it means for Christ to be a sacrifice for our sin. But for today, it is enough to show that Paul simply didn’t say what is in most translations of this verse. When it is translated that way, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
But when it is properly translated, with an eye to the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament that Paul was drawing on, it fits in with key themes in the Old and New Testaments, and leads us to a much clearer and more beautiful understanding of Paul’s message, and of the message of the Bible as a whole.
We will explore more of these beautiful and soul-restoring meanings in future articles.
For further reading: