Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Is Imputation taught in 2 Corinthians 5:21?

Protestants consider 2 Corinthians 5:21 to be one of the chief Biblical proof texts for for their doctrine of the Imputed Righteousness of Christ. In fact, they put so much emphasis on this verse that a lot of their credibility hangs on it. Given this, I want to provide Catholics with some key information on what to say when speaking with a Protestant on this crucial text, because if you can stop them in their tracks here, you'll have gone a long way towards causing them to rethink everything about their own position and what Catholicism has to offer them.

Before examining the verse though, a Catholic must know what the Protestant understands this verse to be saying. The standard Protestant interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21, espoused by even the greatest Reformed theologians, can be summarized as follows (in my own words):

Our sin was imputed to Christ, "making Him to be sin," while on the other hand Christ's perfect obedience was imputed to us, "making us the righteousness of God." Given the option between Imputation and Infusion, we know that since Christ wasn't literally made sin, we can certainly say sin wasn't infused into Him, which thus makes imputation the only acceptable interpretation. Plus, in the immediate context Paul says God did not impute our sins to us (2 Cor. 5:19), indicating that God must have imputed our sins to somewhere else, namely to Christ's account. Having established the framework of imputation in Paul’s lesson, we can say that just as Jesus "becomes sin" (by imputation), the parallel must also hold true, namely that we "become the righteousness of God" in the same way (by a second imputation, received by faith alone). Here, in one concise verse, Paul is clearly describing a "double-imputation" going on, or a "Great Exchange" as many Protestants fondly refer to it. This is the essence of the Reformation teaching on Justification by Faith Alone.

The logic being employed here makes sense (for the most part), but the exegesis (i.e. interpretation of the verses) is simply poor. Here are some reasons why this typical Protestant interpretation simply doesn't work and what the correct understanding should be:

First, the text does not suggest we become righteousness in the same way Jesus becomes sin, i.e. by a double imputation, because Paul uses two different Greek words here, "made [sin]" and "become [righteousness]". This detail is significant, and we cannot be sloppy by inserting "made" in both cases. By using two different terms, both of which suggest transformation rather than imputation, Paul most likely was indicating the 'transformations' take place two different ways. Thus, grammatically speaking, there is no 'parallelism' going on here, and thus assuming this text is speaking of a double-imputation is uncalled for. Rather, Paul is describing a cause-and-effect situation: by Christ doing X for us, this caused Y in us.

Second, the curious phrase "made sin for us" cannot be presumed to include Christ's perfect obedience to the Law, especially since the Protestant says this phrase refers specifically to having our sins imputed to Christ. In other words, nothing about the words “made sin for us” suggests a double imputation, but at most a single imputation (i.e. only our sin imputed to Him). This is important, because for the Protestant position to hold true, it’s not enough that Christ dealt with our sin, for that would only put us back to the ‘innocent’ position of Adam. Instead, Protestants say Christ also had to keep the Law perfectly in our place, and impute this perfect obedience to us (causing us to “become the righteousness of God”), so that we then can be reckoned as having perfectly kept the Law and thus worthy of entering Heaven. The phrase “made sin for us” simply cannot be twisted to include Christ keeping the Law on our behalf. Now Christ certainly had to be perfectly obedient (i.e. without sin) to become a perfect sacrifice, but according to the wording it's only the suffering for our sins that caused (resulted in) us to become “the righteousness of God.” (See my many articles regarding "Active Obedience" for more information on this point.)

Third, the Bible never speaks of imputing sin from a sinner onto an innocent substitute, such that guilt is transferred from one person to another, so to say “made sin” refers to imputation has no Biblical basis whatsoever. Thus, Christ being “made sin” must be assumed to refer to something other than imputation. The term impute (logizomai in Greek, which I've written about a lot) is used numerous times in Scripture but never is it used to refer to sins being imputed to an innocent substitute, even in the Levitical Sacrifices. This fact alone undermines the Protestant reading, since they've "gone beyond what is written" (1 Cor 4:6) and substituted a tradition of men in place of God's Word. The few references to “imputing sin” mentioned in Scripture are stated in the negative, each saying sin is “not imputed” to a person, e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:19 and Romans 4:7-8 (more on these texts later). Also, nothing about “not imputing sin” logically necessitates nor suggests the Protestant fallacy that ‘if sin is not imputed to us, then it must be imputed to someone else’, so this Protestant claim holds no water at all.

Fourth, the meaning of “made sin” need not only refer to Imputation or Infusion, for that’s a false dilemma fallacy. The Church Fathers shed valuable light on what “made sin” refers to. Many Catholics are aware that some Fathers claimed that “made sin” refers to being “made a sacrifice for sin,” since the Hebrew word for “sin” doubled in the Old Testament as a term referring to personal failings as well as Levitical Sacrifices. Scriptural support for this “sin offering” claim not only includes many texts of Leviticus, but even New Testament texts like Hebrews 10:5-8; 10:18; and 13:11, where the Greek term “sin” (hamartia) is used but is clearly referring to a “sacrifice for sin” and not personal failings. In Hebrews 10:6, it is directly quoting Psalm 40:6-8, an OT text speaking of sacrifices of various types, saying: “In burnt offerings and sin offerings [hamartia] you have taken no pleasure.

There is a slight catch though, because the texts where the Greek word hamartia (sin) is rendered as “sin offering,” it most often uses a special form, peri hamartias (“for sin”=sin offering), whereas 2 Corinthians 5:21 simply uses hamartia (without the “peri” or the –s). The only possible exceptions I’m aware of where ‘hamaria’ alone could refer to “sin offering” are Leviticus 4:21b, Leviticus 4:24b, and Leviticus 5:12b, where most translations do render ‘hamartia’ as ‘offering for sin’ in English. But fortunately that’s not the whole picture.

The Church Fathers whom I was able to find commenting on 2 Corinthians 5:21 formed a general consensus on what “made sin” referred to. Consider:
Augustine: "on account of the likeness of sinful flesh in which He came, He was called sin" (Enchiridion, Ch41)

Augustine: "For God made Christ Himself to be sin for us, on account of the likeness of sinful flesh, that we may be made the righteousness of God in Him." (Commentary on Psalm 119, Ain, Section 122)

Gregory Nyssa: "He made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin,” giving once more the name of “sin” to the flesh." (Against Eunomius, Book 6, Section 1)

Gregory of Nazianzen: "And so the passage, The Word was made Flesh, seems to me to be equivalent to that in which it is said that He was made sin." (Letter To Cledonius [Epistle CI])

Hilary: “To condemn sin through sin in the flesh, He Who knew no sin was Himself made sin; that is, by means of the flesh to condemn sin in the flesh, He became flesh on our behalf but knew not flesh” (On the Trinity, Book 10, Section 47)

Ambrose: “Christ is said to have been made, but of a woman; that is, He was “made” as regards his birth from a Virgin … He Who in his flesh bore our flesh, in His body bore our infirmities and our curses … So it is written elsewhere: Who knew no sin, but was made sin for us” (Against Auxentius, Section 25)

Pope Leo the Great: "When the evangelist says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt in us,” and the Apostle, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,” it was shown that the Only-begotten of the Most High Father entered on such a union with human humility, that, when He took the substance of our flesh and soul, He remained one and the same Son of God." (Sermon LXIII.1)
The 'consensus' among the Fathers on the meaning of "made sin" in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is that it refers to "the Word was made flesh," the Son becoming Incarnate, which is also why they also linked 2 Corinthians 5:21 directly to Romans 8:3, "By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh." Using the principle of Scripture-interprets-Scripture, that's what "made sin" means, and it's not hard to see.

But there is a 'bonus' here that need not be ignored either, and that is the words "and for sin" which immediately follows is the Greek phrase peri hamartias (περὶ ἁμαρτίας), the very phrase mentioned earlier, which does indeed refer to "sin offering"! So both realities, Incarnation and sin offering, are certainly present, even if the Incarnation is the more central.

Fifth, the context clearly explains the goal of God the Father sending His Son was to bring about our reconciliation, thus undermining the whole presumed forensic-imputation theme Protestants project onto verse 21. Verse 5:20 explains that Paul is an ambassador of Christ, calling us to be "reconciled to God." So the focus here is on "reconciliation," which is the restoring of a broken friendship. (Cf 1 Cor 7:10-11) This isn't really a forensic category, for the defendant doesn’t reconcile with the Judge in a courtroom. This also strongly goes against an "imputation of Christ's Righteousness" theme, because reconciling is about restoring what was lost, not supplying something new that was never possessed. The implication is that we are restored to communion with God as Adam was originally in communion, otherwise there’s no reference point of a relationship break requiring reconciliation. And verse 5:19 is just as helpful, for it tells us that this reconciliation was done by “not imputing their sins,” which refers to forgiving sin since Romans 4:7-8 use ‘not impute sin’ in that very manner. Using context as a guide, it’s reasonable to conclude that “becoming the righteousness of God” must refer to being reconciled to God and having sins forgiven. Otherwise, “becoming the righteousness of God” refers to something not spoken of within the immediate context, which is unlikely. And this is confirmed when we examine a parallel text, Romans 5:9-10, where the phrase "justified by his blood" is paralleled to "reconciled by his death".

In conclusion, we see that the Protestant interpretation is clearly ruled out given (a) the terminology Paul chose to use, (b) the logic structure of the verse, and (c) the context. In turn, we see that the Protestant side has to desperately cling to this verse and pile upon it all sorts of bogus assumptions because there simply is no other clear proof of their teachings in Scripture. The fact is, the Bible is a Catholic book and Paul was thoroughly Catholic in his teachings.

Please see This Recent Post from Jason Stellman's blog which also briefly discusses this issue.

BONUS: - 5/2/20 - I just came across this quote from none other than John Calvin, from his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3:11:9, in his discussion on properly understanding Justification:
[Paul] places the fountain of righteousness entirely in the incarnation of Christ: “He has made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). 
Note that Calvin did NOT believe in the Imputation of Christ's Righteousness, but rather this doctrine is a second-generation Protestant invention (see HERE). 


jack mills said...

I have no clue what you are trying to say with your analysis of the Greek. The verse clearly states that Christ became sin for us and we become the righteousness of God. We have no righteousness apart from this act by Christ. What is your point? Where are the people who interpret the verse for what it says wrong? What are you saying the verse means?

Anonymous said...

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The verse addresses Christians in the plural and thus speaks to a community rather than to isolated individuals. What makes the community righteous is their union (communion) with Christ and that is not an individual's personal attribute because it belongs to the whole community. Thus the passage is not a proof of imputed individual righteousness it's about communal participation in Christ's righteousness through the Church as ambassador of Christ and dispenser of the sacraments.

Nick said...

Hello Jack,

I don't know how much clearer I can be with my article. If you understand what Protestants are saying when they quote it, then you should be able to follow my critique of the article.

For example, when it says we become the Righteousness of God, what does this SPECIFICALLY refer to? Are we allowed to just make up whatever we want and say that's the true meaning? Obviously, No! So we must look to context and other pieces of data. In the context, it shows that Paul is talking about Forgiveness and Reconciliation, so that's what I say us becoming the Righteousness of God is referring to here.

Now if a Protestant wants to say us becoming the Righteousness of God refers to something else, namely Christ's righteousness imputed, then they'll have to show where they came to that conclusion. Otherwise, it's without Biblical warrant and thus a Tradition of Men.

James Ross said...

Greetings Nick,

Wouldn't Philippians 2:7 "He emptied Himself taking the likeness of a slave..." fit here too?
Of course, our Lord was anything but a slave.

stephen said...

Mmm? Not convinced, as a Protestant, by your points. But am interested that you never made note of Philemon v18 'put that on mine account.' How else are my sins got rid of?

De Maria said...

The verse means that Christ came in the likeness of sinful flesh.

De Maria said...

Blogger stephen said...

September 10, 2014 at 2:07 AM

Mmm? Not convinced, as a Protestant, by your points. But am interested that you never made note of Philemon v18 'put that on mine account.'

That doesn't mean that St. Paul is admitting to any personal sin. It merely means that he is making himself the surety for Onesimus. If Onesimus has done anything wrong to Philemon, St. Paul will pay for it in his stead. The same way that Jesus paid for our sins.

Philemon 1:18King James Version (KJV)

18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;

How else are my sins got rid of?

Christ washes them away in Baptism:

Acts 22:16 And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.

De Maria said...

Anonymous said...
DeMaria, if your sins washed awy in baptim,

Don't you believe Scripture?

Acts 22:16 And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.

then why are your works necessary for further justice?

Because Christ commanded us to strive for perfection.

Matthew 5:48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Therefore, we add to our faith many virtues:

2 Peter 1:5And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; 6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; 7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. 8 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. 10 Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall:

And work out our salvation:

2 Corinthians 7:10 For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.

Abraham simply be lo ieved the promise and God counted him righteous.

On the contrary, Abram left Ur when God called him:
Hebrews 11:8 By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.

25 years of faithful obedience later, God counted him righteous. This is why the Word of God says:

Romans 2:13King James Version (KJV)

13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.

John Bunyan said I know my rigeouness is in heave. Rom 4:11 simply says " that righteouness might be credited to them" can it be clearer.

No. But you keep missing it anyway. Righteousness is credited to faithful Catholics in Baptism. Catholics present themselves at the altar of grace and believing the promises of Christ, submit to Baptism. And God, seeing our faith, credits it to us as righteousness. It couldn't be clearer. But you keep misunderstanding.

stephen said...

Baptism does not wash away one's sins or save us. If it did Paul would not have said 'I came not to baptise but to preach the gospel' (1 Cor.1:17).
Works are the evidence of true faith but never the basis of it. See Eph.2:8; Gal.2:16; Tit.3:5&7. Etc

De Maria said...

Blogger stephen said...
Baptism does not wash away one's sins or save us.

You are contradicting Scripture. Scripture says that Baptism washes away sins:

Acts 22:16 And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.

And that Baptism saves us:

1 Peter 3:21 The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us ….

If it did Paul would not have said 'I came not to baptise but to preach the gospel' (1 Cor.1:17).

That's a non sequitur. St. Paul did baptize, although his primary mission was to evangelize. Here he preaches about Baptism:

Romans 6:2-4King James Version (KJV)

2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?

3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?

4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

Notice that those baptized die with Christ and then rise to new life with Christ.

And he did Baptize many:

1 Corinthians 1:14 I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius;

1 Corinthians 1:16 And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other.

Works are the evidence of true faith

True. And they make faith perfect:

James 2:22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

Faith without works is not a saving faith:

James 2:20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

This is why God only justifies those who do His works:

Romans 2:13King James Version (KJV)

13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.

but never the basis of it. See Eph.2:8; Gal.2:16; Tit.3:5&7. Etc

But works are the basis of the Judgment:

2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.

If you have no faith, you will not do good works and you will be cast into fiery gehenna.

Anonymous said...

De Maria -

You can only do so much with progressive, liberals. They refuse and reject God's word and history. They all want to create a new form of Christianity their own way while ignoring history. This one guy who said baptism doesn't wash away sin is clueless about scripture and history. Might as well throw the words away.

Nick said...

Note that I'm deleting any comments which I suspect are from Kevin. He is a troll following me on many blogs who isn't interested in dialog but instead is posting random irrelevant garbage. He has a mental disorder and shouldn't be encouraged to waste other people's time and post where he isn't welcome.

James Ross said...

Amen to that! Should anyone actually feel the need to have a food fight with Kevin, they can find him on that other blog. Keep him away from here.

JW said...

Were you not able to find Chrysostom's commentary on this verse? I will just quote a little bit, but here's the link if anyone wants to read the whole thing: .

He understands Paul to be teaching here that Christ died in our place: "'He made sin,' that is suffered as a sinner to be condemned, as one cursed to die..." and "For a great thing indeed it were for even a sinner to die for any one whatever; but when He who undergoes this both is righteous and dies for sinners;" Then he interprets the righteousness of God: "For this is [the righteousness] of God when we are justified not by works, (in which case it were necessary that not a spot even should be found,) but by grace, in which case all sin is done away. And this at the same time that it suffers us not to be lifted up, (seeing the whole is the free gift of God,) teaches us also the greatness of that which is given."

So, we have Christ crucified on our behalf as though he were a sinner and we receive as a gift, by grace, the righteousness of God.

Also, in the same section from which you quoted Hilary he also writes: "He was sent in the likeness of the flesh of sin, bearing sin indeed in His flesh but our sin." He sees no conflict between bearing our flesh and bearing our sin. Hilary here is teaching the imputation of our sin to Christ.

Nick said...


I was aware of Chrysostom's commentary on this verse. That's why when I listed off the multiple Church fathers, I said these fathers form "a general consensus". The intent of my presenting the Church Fathers was to show that we shouldn't just presume Imputation is going on in 2Cor521, nor is that even a preferred reading, nor is it even the plain reading. This should act as a warning against Protestants trying to use 2Cor521 as some super proof text, when it isn't. The problem that needs to be exposed is that only when clear evidence is hard to come by do people have to become desperate about texts like this. In my experience, the Protestant cannot actually stop and be honest with the evidence though, because the issue for Protestants never was "What does the Bible actually, clearly teach?"

As for your quotes, nothing about them demands, much less suggests, an Imputation reading. In fact, he only mentions the taking away of sin, not some Imputation of Christ's Active Obedience.

As for Hilary, you're also presuming Imputation in what you're quoting. What you need to do is first step away from thinking Imputation is the ONLY WAY to read the Bible. That's equivalent to a Jehovah's Witness who reads the Bible always assuming there is no way Jesus can be God.

JW said...

You wrote: "The Church Fathers whom I was able to find..." That sounds like every comment you found was in agreement.

You also wrote: "The 'consensus' among the Fathers on the meaning of "made sin" in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is that it refers to "the Word was made flesh." This is, at least, not the unanimous consent.

You also wrote: "we see that the Protestant interpretation is clearly ruled out" and "the Protestant side has to desperately cling to this verse and pile upon it all sorts of bogus assumptions."

Chrysostom's commentary, which is in complete accord with the Protestant view, shows that it is not Protestant desperation and bogus assumptions, but a completely permissible reading.

Hilary's mention of Christ bearing our sins in the immediate context of your quotation shows that the incarnational aspect need not be read to exclude the imputation reading. Ambrosiaster's commentary on this verse actually identifies all three aspects (incarnation, sacrifice, and Christ suffering as though he were a sinner) and he apparently sees no conflict.

Nick said...


I explained why the Protestant interpretation is clearly ruled out: (a) the terminology Paul chose to use, (b) the logic structure of the verse, and (c) the context.

In fact, the very fact you and others cannot even address my exegesis head-on actually supports my claim. Searching high and low for some scrap of something a Church Father said is hardly direct interaction with the strong case I built above. The problem is that in your mind Imputation would remain true even if you didn't have Chrysostom, and to prove that, you cannot afford to allow Chrysostom any other reading. In other words, you're not even open to the fact I'm pointing out that Chrysostom doesn't share your Protestant categories. He knows nothing of Christ's Imputed Righteousness, particularly Active Obedience. Same for Hilary, you cannot afford to have them read other than what you need them to be saying.

Even if I were to grant that Chrysostom taught Imputation as Protestants teach it, that would at most mean there is a mixed bag in terms of Patristic testimony. It would mean the Biblical text doesn't clearly come down on one side or the other, and that instead the Fathers saw various ways it could be read. Ok, perhaps, but that ultimately means that Scripture is not perspicuous on this verse, which ultimately means 2Cor521 cannot be used as a super-proof-text. Of course, the Protestant side cannot tolerate such honesty and fair treatment of the Scriptures.

stephen said...

Don't have time to engage on this forum; Calvin, Luther, Warfield, Hodge, Spurgeon, Wycliffe,Tyndale,Wylie,Hus,etc have all answered Rome's heresy over and over again. But will just say I'm glad you're now at least quoting the Bible instead of burning those at the stake for translating and reading it. Thankful for small mercies I suppose.

Hugo said...

Hi Nick,

Even though I am not a greek expert I have found it to be very curious the greek word poieo (do, make), is used in the LXX translation of the pentateuch as an equivalent to offer.

See for example Num 15:3.

"and you shall offer burnt offerings (holocautoma) to the Lord" (καὶ ποιήσεις ὁλοκαυτώματα κυρίῳ). Note the word poieo there in the perfect active indicative tense. This is the same word poieo that Paul uses right next to hamartia (sin offering) in 2 Cor 5:21. The connection is tricky for most people that have some knowledge of the greek because Paul is using the Aorist tense, which makes the word look different. But this is the same greek word in both cases (G4160).

why is this relevant? Because it can be shown that sacrifice offerings like the burnt offering, can be "offered" by the use of the word poieo in the LXX, which opens the door to the fact that Paul was thinking in sacrificial terms here similar to those of Rom 8:3 "and God sent a sin offering".

I think you missed this connection in your references to Leviticus. There you find in 4:20 the greatest example since literally the priest has to "offer (word poieo) the calf...for the sin offering" 4:20.

"καὶ ποιήσει (G4160 poieo) τὸν ... τὸν τῆς ἁμαρτίας (G266 hamartia)"

Look at the equivalence in 2 Cor 5:21

"ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν (G266 hamartia) ἐποίησεν (G4160 poieo)"

I hope you find this useful.

Nick said...

Hugo, wow, that's awesome. I will look into this more. I'm frequently disappointed with the state of Biblical scholarship on both sides due to the fact there seems to be less interest on getting to the facts and more interest in pushing an agenda. It's sad when internet blogs and comment boxes have to be the place where these kinds of Biblical details are 'discovered' and shared, rather than on more prominent websites and books.

Hugo said...

Hi Nick,

I am glad you find it useful. Unfortunately, I have seen top New and Old testament scholars missing this point completely.

For your reference, I went through all the septuagint looking for instances in which the word poieo was used in the sense of "offering" a sacrifice. These are the references I found:

Exo 29:35
Exo 29:38
Lev 4:20
Lev 5:10
Lev 9:7
Lev 9:16
Num 15:3
Num 15:24
Num 28:24
Num 29:2

You will notice that some of these chapters are packed with liturgical sacrifices that aren't detailed anywhere else. I am referring mainly to:

Exo 29, Lev chapters 1 to 5 and 9 to 10, and Numbers 15 & 28.

If you focus your efforts there you will find a lot of interesting things.

God bless,