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For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.—2nd Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)

Does it mean that he was made to be sin incarnate, just as we say he was love incarnate? Is this a real transformation or just a figure of speech to say he paid the penalty for sin?

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  • Welcome to BH.SE! This verse is classically considered difficult to exposit. If you ask about the exegesis or meaning of this phrase, this could be a really good question. As it stands, it is not a great question for this site because one link will gave you the translation of many versions (though none of them may help you understand it). Also, I recommend quoting less of the passage in the question body.
    – Kazark
    Commented Jun 1, 2012 at 19:19
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    @Dan... Welcome, I edited it according to Kazark's comments, if that doesn't work we can revert it somehow.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Jun 3, 2012 at 0:27
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    I was afraid to ask for the meaning as that leads to opinions. I am looking for possibilities. However at this point, I'd be happy with anything :D Commented Jun 3, 2012 at 2:18
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    I agree with @Kazark that this really isn't a very interesting translation question. The English equivalent is relatively straightforward. Therefore, I removed the translation. Commented Jun 4, 2012 at 3:47

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I understand this to mean that, while Jesus was (and is) perfect, He was made sin for a time for us on the cross. That is, He took the punishment that bought us peace upon Himself, so that we (who are born again) are not punished for our sins.

Even more scandalous, we take on His righteousness, the righteousness of God! No wonder Grace is called Amazing!

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  • Yes, Jesus "was counted among the rebels" (Isaiah 53) and God "condemned sin in the flesh" in Jesus (Romans 8:1-4). Commented May 27 at 18:07
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Consider one of the goats on the Day of Atonement (Yom ha-Kippurim).

In Lev. 16:21-22, it is written,

21 And Aharon shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and he shall send it away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness, 22 and the goat shall bear upon it all their iniquities to a land cut-off, and he shall let the goat go in the wilderness.

Here we see that a goat, who otherwise "knew no sin," had "all the iniquities of the children of Israel" imputed to it, and the life of the goat was a substitution for the life of the people of Israel. Likewise, our sins were imputed to Christ, just as his righteousness is imputed to those of us who are "in Christ."

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God was willing for us to appear in the sinful flesh it is written. Meaning as a human He appeared as a sinner, without really having any sin, but experiencing having sin. That was part of the crucifixion, when as a human He cried out 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me." As if God the Father would ever forsake his Son... or it meant that the Son had forgotten Who He was, overtaken by the human appearance, which is also part of the cross.

This is written as an example for God's spiritual development in us:

"And Jesus grew in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and man."

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    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 14:06
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I want to emphasize the significance of God coming in human flesh to fulfill His divine plan. God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, had to take this extraordinary step for our salvation. Jesus, the second person of the Godhead, who was innocent and without sin, took on human form and supernaturally bore our sins in His flesh.

Jesus had to descend into hell and take back the keys to death, hell, and the grave.

Jesus fulfilled the law of the Old Testament perfectly, taking upon Himself the sins of the entire world. Despite our sinful nature, He did what we could never do. Through His crucifixion, the perfect One bore our sins in His own flesh. If God had not wrapped Himself in human flesh and died on the cross, the entire world have faced destruction.

Jesus introduced a new covenant because man couldn't fulfill the law it was impossible. The new covenant is based upon grace, forgiveness, and a personal relationship with God through grace in faith in Jesus Christ. By His death and resurrection, Jesus provided a way of escape from sin and eternal separation from God for all who accept Him as Lord and Savior.

References:
Jeremiah 31:31-34: Prophecy of the new covenant written on hearts.

Luke 22:20 Jesus at the Last Supper: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood."

Revelation 1:1

I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys to death and Hades.

Ephesians 4:8-10: Jesus descended to the lower regions before ascending to heaven.

1 Peter 3:18-20: After His death, Jesus proclaimed victory to the imprisoned spirits.

Ephesians 2:8-9 Salvation by grace through faith, not by works.

Hebrews 9:15: Christ as the mediator of the new covenant, freeing us from sins.

John 3:16

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that whosoever believed on Him would not perish but have everlasting life.

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    – agarza
    Commented May 26 at 13:07
  • Hey Robin! To repeat what argarza said, welcome to the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange. We are glad you are here. Please take a moment to take the site tour and check out what we are looking for in answers. Again, welcome.
    – Jason_
    Commented May 26 at 22:12
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In 2 Corinthians 5:21 the words “to be” in the phrase “to be sin” are not in Greek. The text says “he made him sin.” This is probably a picture, an illustration, of what sin looks like – the agony, the cruelty, the wickedness, all put on public display with the intended result being, “…so that in him we might be becoming the righteousness of God.” We see the innocent Son of God tortured, suffering, and dying, knowing that it is because of our collective sinful actions and attitudes. Our sin is the cause of this atrocity, and we should recoil in shock and run away from evil and toward righteousness.

Furthermore, sin is an action that takes place in time, and cannot be transferred to another time or person, nor can something or someone become literally sin. Sin is not an object or a substance that can be moved or transferred, bought or sold.

“…So that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” not "from him." "In" is about association, solidarity, not a transfer. It is by being “in” Christ that we can have God’s righteousness, which is about following Christ as our leader, and living and behaving as he did. Righteousness is what we do because we are associated with Christ. It is not delegated or assigned to us.

“Become the righteousness of God” in Greek is, “be becoming the righteousness of God.” This is about transitioning from a condition of unrighteousness, toward righteousness. Becoming righteous is not a status, a position, a transfer, or a declaration. It is similar to, "that we might die to sin and live to righteousness" in 1 Peter 2:24.

The greater context is about Christ reconciling us to God, which is relational, not legal. If an external righteousness is transferred to us in total disregard of our actually ceasing to offend, no genuine reconciliation has occurred. The plea of Paul is that we be reconciled to God. The first step in any process of reconciliation is to stop offending. Until the offenses cease, there can be no genuine reconciliation.

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