I cannot count the number of times I have seen a Protestant appeal to 2nd Corinthians 5:21 in support of their view of Imputation. In fact, they quote it so often and place so much emphasis on it that I consider it the 3rd most important passage in all of Protestantism, behind Romans 4:5 (which I wrote about here). In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Protestants see encapsulated the epitome of salvation: the doctrine of Double Imputation. In this post, I will show that the Protestant understanding of this text is totally erroneous, and just how desperately they will latch onto such verses to support the heresy of Sola Fide.
The doctrine of Double Imputation teaches that there are two aspects to our Justification, a negative-imputation (not imputing our sins to us, but rather imputing them and their due punishment to Christ) and an positive-imputation (imputing Christ's perfect obedience to the Law to our account). They fondly call this Double Imputation "the Great exchange," where Christ takes our sin and we take His righteousness. In order to be justified, the Christian simply needs to believe that this Great exchange took place for them, and upon believing this, God now counts them as perfectly righteous and thus justified (i.e. declared legally righteous).
A recent well-written book in defense of Imputation is Reformed Baptist pastor John Piper's Counted Righteous in Christ (available for free on his site). In this book, Piper appeals heavily on a few texts, especially 2 Corinthians 5:21, which he quotes more than any other verse. To show just how central this text is, consider what a famous Anglican scholar who reviewed Counted Righteous said in the opening cover:
“I am thankful for John Piper’s zeal for the glory of Christ and the good of the church, and for his careful exegesis of the relevant texts. For myself 2 Corinthians 5:21 is enough, affirming the glorious exchange that the sinless Christ was made sin (by imputation) with our sins, in order that in Christ we might become righteous (by imputation) with his righteousness. In consequence Christ has no sin but ours, and we have no righteousness but his.” John Stott
Piper shares these sentiments as he comments on this passage throughout the book, for example look what he says (pages 81-83):
Second Corinthians 5:21 is one of the most powerful statements on the reality of an external divine righteousness imputed to believers. ... I don’t know a better summary of the implications of 2 Corinthians 5:21 than the words of Charles Hodge:
There is probably no passage in the Scriptures in which the doctrine of justification is more concisely or clearly stated than in [2 Corinthians 5:21]. Our sins were imputed to Christ, and his righteousness is imputed to us. He bore our sins; we are clothed in his righteousness.
It is crucial that readers see just how important Protestants consider this passage. For this verse to be called "enough" and "one of the most powerful" and most clear and concise proofs of Imputation is saying a lot, especially as one sees how they exegete this verse. Now we will proceed to analyze the arguments and exegesis of this text that Piper provides. Pages 68-69 are where Piper gives his most concise interpretation of the text, touching upon some of the most key points:
In view of all we have seen from Romans 3 and 4, it is not unnatural or contrived to see in the words “in [Christ] we ... become the righteousness of God” a reference to the imputation of God’s righteousness to us. This is not a mere guess. It follows from the parallel with Christ’s being “made sin” for us. Christ is “made sin” not in the sense that he becomes a sinner, but in the sense that our sins are imputed to him—a natural interpretation in view of the explicit reference in 2 Corinthians 5:19 to God’s “not imputing” (me logizomenos) trespasses. In other words, the concept of “imputation” is in Paul’s mind as he writes these verses.
But if Christ’s being made sin for us implies the imputation of our sin to Christ, then it is not arbitrary or unnatural to construe the parallel—our “becoming the righteousness of God in him”—as the imputation of God’s righteousness to us. We “become” God’s righteousness the way Christ “was made” our sin. He did not become morally sinful in the imputation; we do not become morally righteous in the imputation. He was counted as having our sin; we are counted as having God’s righteousness. This is the reality of imputation.
Here is a summary of Piper's argument, which is essentially representative of the historic Protestant understanding, stated in 3 key points:
- We know Christ's righteousness is imputed from passages such as Romans 3-4, and it makes sense that this would be the case in other places, such as 2 Corinthians 5:21.
- To add to that, we see the "non imputation" of sin to us mention in this context (2 Corinthians 5:19), which undoubtedly suggests Imputation is Paul's theme for verse 5:21 as well.
- Lastly, in 2 Corinthians 5:21 a parallel is seen between Christ being "made sin" and us "becoming righteousness", so it is natural to see Double Imputation in this passage.
In fairness, a good Catholic apologist should affirm that Piper's arguments make sense, even if we don't agree with his exegesis of the actual text. It is very important to understand the Protestant mindset when doing these kinds of apologetics so that you can zoom into and refute the main errors. Now these 3 key points will be addressed, as they are going to be the heart of this article.
First, Romans 3-4 do not teach that Christ's Righteousness is imputed, and in fact the whole imputation paradigm read into these texts is false. This is precisely why I wrote the huge article on Logizomai, so as to squash that myth. I have encountered Protestants who act as if there is some huge distinction between Imputation as a doctrine and imputation as a Biblical term (logizomai), and yet Piper shows right here that the term logizomai plays a crucial and direct role in finding imputation in texts outside Romans 4. To add to that, the "righteousness of God" is never equated with Christ's Righteous Obedience in Romans 3-4, much less do these texts say that it is imputed. So Piper is clearly approaching 5:21 with some serious biases.
Second, notice how Piper zooms in on 5:19 and the mention of "not imputing" sin, even noting the logizomai connection. The main problem in this situation is that Piper and Protestants have a bad habit of thinking that just because sin is "not imputed" to someone that this entails that the sin must then be imputed to another, in this case Jesus. That's just bad logic. Nothing suggests or demands that if X is not imputed to someone that X must have been imputed to someone else. But Protestants have to say this, because this is the only text which comes anywhere close to 'proving' their doctrine that our sin was imputed to Christ - something the Bible never says! To "not impute" sin is simply a way of saying sin was forgiven, so that when God looks at them He sees no sin there to impute to them.
Third, to connect these last two points, the term "impute" (logizomai) doesn't even appear in this verse, but rather the words "made" (Greek: poieo) and "become" (Greek: ginomai), which never mean such a thing as "impute". The fact Paul uses two different words between "made sin" and "become righteousness" totally undermines any appeal to a parallel. All the text is saying is that one action led to another action, not suggesting that there is a parallel. See, for example, 2 Corinthians 8:9, where it says Christ became poor so that we might become rich. Christ "becoming poor" most likely refers to Him taking on human flesh, which led to us becoming rich in glorification. There is no requirement for imputation to be read into this.
The main objection a Protestant like Piper would raise is that there is no other way to interpret Christ being "made sin" than by Imputation. In other words, since it would be an abomination to suggest Christ was literally made sin, in that sin was infused into him, the only option is that Christ was "made sin" by Imputation. And if that's the case, then it's not necessarily a stretch to say this Imputation is a "double imputation". This is probably the most popular Protestant argument when commenting on this text.
The answer to that objection is surprisingly simple. Christ was indeed "made sin," but being a scholar of the Torah, Paul was using a Hebraism. In this case, the Hebrew word for "sin" was also used to mean "sin offering" (see the Hebrew word: chatta'ath), and thus to be "made sin" was a Hebrew way of saying "made a sin offering". Even the Church Fathers (e.g. St Augustine) recognized this and made it clear that Paul meant "sin offering". Of course, Protestants like Piper must rush to reject this, since it naturally throws a wrench into their whole argument. And Piper does just that on page 68 of his book (in footnote #13), where he brushes off translations (e.g. the Protestant NIV) which say this does mean "sin offering," and the NASB cross-references to Romans 8:3 which uses "sin offering" in a similar text as 2 Corinthians 5:21. But who is being more unreasonable here? Piper, who suggests the word "made" means "impute" or those who have a good reason to say it means sin offering?
The Biblical evidence against reading "made sin" to mean "imputation" is quite solid and fair. There is the analogy in 2 Corinthians 8:9; the cross-reference to the clearer statement in Romans 8:3 that Christ was sent "in the likeness of sinful flesh" to deal with sin; and the allusion to Sacrifice in 2 Corinthians 5:21 where it says Christ "knew no sin" in corresponding to the sacrificial animal being free of blemish (otherwise Paul saying "knew no sin" would be irrelevant here). And many Protestants are perfectly fine with rendering it as "sin offering," as Reformed author Brian Vickers explains his acceptance of it in his book Jesus' Blood and Righteousness (p116) that the Greek word for "sin" that Paul uses is likewise used in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) both to mean "sin" and "sin offering," with both usages even in the same verse such as in Leviticus 4:3. (What these Protestants who grant "sin offering" fail to realize though is that the OT Sacrifices did not operate on a Penal Substitutionary framework, as I note in This Post on the Atonement.)
In conclusion, it is abundantly clear that the Protestant appeal to this passage offers nothing whatsoever in terms of providing solid proof for Double Imputation.