I’m looking into the subject of justification and righteousness. My question is based on 2 Corinthians 5:21:

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

The ESV Study Bible Notes make this comment and it is this comment that got me thinking:

God imputed our sin and guilt to Christ and so God also imputes the righteousness of Christ to all who believe. This righteousness belongs to believers because they are in Christ. The righteousness of God is also the righteousness of Christ.

Specifically my question is this: Is the ESV comment that the righteousness of God also the righteousness of Christ theologically correct?

What is the Biblical basis for Christians saying the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer, or should they rather say it is the righteousness of God that is imputed to the believer?

And how does the believer come to be “in Christ”?

For clarification and to clear up any confusion, "effected" means executed, produced, or brought about. To effect is to bring about or cause something to happen. "Affected" means made an impact on. It is the past tense of the verb form of affect, which means to impact. Source: https://www.diffen.com/difference/Affected_vs_Effected

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    Is it worth clarifying: your question is about the ESV Study Bible note, rather than the text of 2 Cor 5:21 itself, is that right?
    – Dɑvïd
    Jun 12 '18 at 18:49
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    Since the words 'the righteousness of Christ' do not appear in the text of scripture, the question needs to be edited for this site and the question asked specifically of 'the imputation of the righteousness of God'. Otherwise it might be deemed off-topic.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 13 '18 at 4:51
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    @Lesley This is a link to a list of places where 'righteousness' is mentioned in relation to Jesus Christ. I have shown, in each case, that it cannot be justified, in any of these places, to use them in support of the expression 'righteousness of Christ'. You may find this list helpful.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 14 '18 at 10:23
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    @Ruminator - well, at least I've now learned something new today, so I reckon that made getting out of bed worth-while. Will try to do better next time...
    – Lesley
    Sep 25 '18 at 16:26
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    @Ruminator – Persevere. At least this site is light years ahead of Yahoo Religion & Spirituality where trolls abound, insults fly and those who mock, scoff and ridicule religion can down-vote with impunity. Christianity Stack and Biblical Hermeneutics are civilised and educational. As for rules, I confess I’ve never been very good at reading rule books or manuals. So when I break them, I accept the consequences and try to learn. I’m a bit slow, though...
    – Lesley
    Sep 25 '18 at 17:03

It just so happens that relates to the subject of my PhD dissertation that I am currently working on, so the subject is of great personal interest to me. In an answer here there is no way to answer these questions fully in this context

Since the arrival of the New Perspective on Paul in the late 70s this has been a hotly debated subject for a couple of reasons. Many New Perspective writers such as N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, and Robert Gundry have redefined justification in such a way that they argue the idea of imputation is not necessary and is in fact based on reformation writers such as Luther and Calvin. One famous quote by N. T. Wright, in What Saint Paul Really Said, shows his denial of imputation: "Righteousness is not an object, a substance, or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom." Of course I disagree with his assessment of justification and imputation. Wright misses the point that imputation is the idea of reckoning and not transference. It is not that we become righteous (even though the verb in 2 Cor 5:21 suggests that at a basic level), it is that we are reckoned as righteous. It is the idea that the verb γενώμεθα in 2 Cor. 5:21 is that we are clothed in the righteousness of God. What Paul is referring to here in 5:21 is directly referring to the New Birth (see the context) and that we are born again clothed in the righteousness of God.

At the heart of the reformation was the dispute over whether we are made righteous or declared righteous. The Catholic view was the former and the protestant view was that we are only declared (clothed as) righteous. The view one takes on 2 Cor. 5:21 is greatly affected by how one approaches the New Perspective on one hand and how one views the debate between the reformers and Catholicism on the other hand.

Clearly in 2 Cor. 5:21 the statement by Paul here is the righteousness of God. Where this is made the righteousness of Christ is how it is related to Romans, especially romans 5. Among Calvinists, the idea of imputation includes the distinction between active and passive obedience. According to Calvinists, Romans 5 details that it is also His obedient life prior to the cross that is also imputed to the believers account. In this view it is required that it be the righteousness of Christ because that is the righteousness that is being imputed to the believers account. If they do not explain how the two are identical it is due to fact that they hold to active obedience without explaining that this is the basis of the point. One of the problems with this view is the fact that the Scriptures don't ever say the righteousness of Christ. Paul always says the righteousness of God. I hold to the alternative view of Romans 5 that it is only the one act of his death on the cross that is imputed to the sinners account. If it is only the one act of His obedience on the cross (passive obedience) then it could be argued that this is the righteousness of the Father that is being imputed as a result of the work of the Son. The hard part with this view is that Romans 5 suggests that it is the work of the Son that is imputed to our account.

And how does the believer come to be “in Christ”?

Many, many books have been written on this subject over the last 500 years so in a few lines it is impossible to give this an easy answer. It involves subjects such as the ordo salutis, the order of the decrees of God.

If one has an emphasis on corporate aspects of salvation as the New Perspective does then the emphasis is on placing us in Christ as the first act on the part of God. There are a large number of Covenant theologians who are also proponents of this order even if they are not proponents of the New Perspective on Paul.

My view is that the order is imputation first and then on this basis we are declared righteous (justified), and because we have been justified we are then declared to be in Christ, i.e. joined to the body of Christ. This order fits with the Old Testament and the fact that God cannot even look up sin. In this order we are clothed in His Righteousness and therefore He can declare us righteous and we can then be in His presence as part of the body of Christ. This is the order that I hold as the correct one. There are some Calvinists who reverse the first two so that they can put justification in eternity past (justified from eternity). In that incorrect view justification occurred in eternity past and then at the time of the cross or at the time of faith the righteousness of Christ was imputed to the believer's account. Then they are placed into the body of Christ at the moment of faith.

The primary focus of my dissertation answers two questions: (1) when are we declared righteous (justified)? and (2) on what basis are we declared righteous? N.T. Wright argues that justification occurs in three phases, and he makes the basis of justification "the whole life lived." There are some Calvinists (Piper, Schreiner, and MacArthur) who also argue that justification has some future element to it or that it is an already not yet proposition. I argue like Augustus Strong that justification is complete and final at the moment a sinner places their faith in the finished work of Christ. I am building the case using the verb for justified by looking at the tense of all the verbs to explain how they affect the question of timing. I have already touched on #2 that it is imputation alone that is the only basis that keeps salvation by grace through faith alone

  • The Calvinistic Reformed denomination I'm in holds that justification is a forensic act of God that happens in a moment, to permanently change the sinner's stance when faith in Christ alone obtains. Thereafter, the process of sanctification works out till the day the Christian dies. The legal stance of the believer is changed to enable him or her to be adopted into God's family as a child of the King, with all the resources of heaven available to grow in grace. Thanks for a clear summary presentation of your PhD dissertation on the question under consideration.
    – Anne
    Jun 14 '18 at 9:18
  • @Ken Banks I cannot fathom this legalistic framework of discourse, for the legalism itself is a human creation and can be applied to the divine uncreated dimension only very cautiously and metaphorically, for divine infinity and paradoxality defies all human categorisations. Moreover, human being always retains his awesome freedom, even after the conversion. So, if a Christian freely decides to cease to co-act with God's salvational action within one's heart, He will not force such a one to be His follower, but respect his free apostasy entirely. Legalistic fatalism is theologically untenable. Jun 14 '18 at 11:29
  • @Levan We would disagree on the question of a believer losing their salvation. Salvation is entirely based on the power of God and His desire to bring us to Him. We are secure in Christ because He has promised to keep us secure in Christ!! He keeps His promises even when we are unable to keep ours. I would never call this continued emphasis on grace "legalistic fatalism." Of course I do not agree with certain Calvinistic formulations of salvation and sanctification, especially Lordship salvation, as some of them do overly emphasize a law based framework but that is a different discussion.
    – Ken Banks
    Jun 14 '18 at 13:22
  • @KenBanks Thanks. Yes, I guess, we came to a moment of "we agree to disagree". As to me, the vision you give reduces Christ to a level of Zeus, who was weaker than another pagan divine principle - the Fate (Τυχή), for God/Christ desires all to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) and is "Good to all" (Psalm 145:9) without exclusion, thus bestowing His salvific power to all. Yet, if even this is not enough to save all, but some perish, then there works some power in universe stronger than He, which Power is that of Fate, and Christ is weaker than It, and we get a restored pagan religion in a Christian guise. Jun 14 '18 at 13:40

Here is how I see the Greek of this verse:

The one knowing no sin He made to be sin for our sakes, that we ourselves might become God's righteousness in him.

Details: enter image description here

Further explanation

Paul makes reference in this verse to the righteousness of both Jesus and God.

  1. Regarding Jesus' righteousness:

    Paul recognises and declares Jesus' righteousness when he writes, τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁμαρτίαν ("the one knowing no sin"). He is joined in this declaration by:

    • the writer to the Hebrews -- "For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens;" (Hebrews 7:26)

    • and Peter -- "Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:" (1 Peter 2:22)

    • and also John -- "And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin." -- (1 John 3:5)

    • and by Jesus himself - "And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him."

    Jesus' righteousness is not explicit in scripture because it's "a given". His sinlessness is understood as righteousness by these writers, and I would have thought also by any who claim him as their Saviour. Honestly, it is a no-brainer.

    Paul writes:

    For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. -- Romans 5:19

    What do readers imagine Paul is attributing to the words "disobedience" and "obedience" other than "unrighteousness" and "righteousness"!! If not, then how can "many be made righteous" by one who is himself not righteous?

  2. Regarding God's righteousness:

    Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that "the one knowing no sin" ("the righteous one, my servant", per Isaiah) was made to be sin SO THAT "we ourselves might become God's righteousness in him". In other words, the sudden appearance and rapid growth of the church, i.e. those moved to live and declare the gospel of Jesus Christ (aka the gospel of Christ; aka the gospel of God), would be the unmistakable manifestation of the righteousness of God in the world.

Is the ESV comment that the righteousness of God also the righteousness of Christ theologically correct?

There would have been no manifestation of the righteousness of God had it not been for the righteousness of Jesus. Of course, this is no great mystery to anyone who understands Jesus words:

I and my Father are one.
-- John 10:30

The Jews to whom he was talking certainly understood what he was saying, though they could not comprehend it. But neither yet, it seems, has all of Christendom 20 centuries later.


It is a beautiful, difficult and paradoxical expression. What can it mean that through Father's dispensation Jesus, who knew not sin, was made "sin" for us? He committed no sin, and then what does it mean "he was made sin"? There can be many interpretations, one more profound and beautiful than other, I offer my one:

"sin" (ἁμαρτία) is translated as "missing", and as such it is a deficiency and privation of the fulness of divine perfection, so the one who "knows no sin" is the one who is only perfect, with no slightest taint of deficiency; therefore, not an angel (for even in the highest of them God finds "faults", that is to say, creaturely deficiencies, as written in Job 4:18, for they are not uncreated and properly divine), not a saint, but only God. Thus, the expression "knew not sin" means, as Paul often writes, that Jesus is equal to the Father in perfection (cf. Phil. 2:6), sharing the entire fulness of Godhead with the Father (Col. 2:9), and appealed by Paul most often by the divine name "Lord", to whom worship befits no less than to the Father.

But how He became "sin"? He, the uncreated Logos, the only-begotten Son, in the incarnation, adopted human created nature. Now, this nature was not damaged by the sinful inclinations, that has become a lot of all mankind since the fall of Adam, but in this adopted human nature, and He also humanly realised and perceived the human lot, the human maladies and afflictions, the power of sin that dragged humans and made them miserable; He suffered Himself thirst and hunger, physical pains, and psychic pains because of hard-neckedness of people around Him, the treason and abandonment even from His closest friends, so He perceived all gravest human sins, without sinning Himself. But whenever He met the infection of sin in people, He "took it on Himself", that is to say, healed them from it, taking this sin upon Himself figuratively, that is to say, consuming it in the fire of His divine love and divine forgiveness. Angel cannot forgive, only God can, and when Jesus authoritatively, divinely says "I forgive you", this means in fact, that He penetrates the depths of our essences as God and heals the infection of sin in us, figuratively speaking "taking this sin upon Himself".

This is, in my view, a tentative explanation of this paradoxical expression - "He became sin for us", that is to say, He gave heed to all entirety human sins so as to destroy this entirety within each of us in and through Himself, by taking those sins upon His sinless self, without tarnishing Himself, but rather drawing those sins to sinlessness through the "consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29) of His divinity. Thus, paradoxically Christ became "sin" for sins, for if sins would "sin", that is to say, if sins would not behave in their proper sinful way, but rather in a non-sinful way (for this will be the sinning for sins), then they are destroyed as sins! For example, if a former alcohol addict will, through Christ, transform his addiction and inclination to alcoholism to an inclination of helping others getting out of this dangerous addiction, then his addiction has committed a Christly "sin" having being destroyed as a sin and having started to live a transformed life of righteousness. And thus, we become "righteousness in Christ" through work of His transfigurative grace in our hearts, for He, having become a Trap of sins, the "Sin" for our sins, transforms them from evil to good, thus destroying their tyranny upon and within us.

As to why Father's righteousness is also Jesus righteousness, I guess it is clear from what was said above: Father not only does not do the work of salvation in us without Jesus, but ontologically cannot do it, no less than Jesus Himself cannot do anything without the Father, and their salvational activity is one activity (cf. John 5:17). Can the sun's utility for all plants of the planet earth be separated from the utility of its rays? For in fact, sun's utility is expressed necessarily in its rays. Similarly and utterly similarly is with the Father and the Son, for both have shared one eternal glory even before creation of world (John 17:5), and exactly to this common glory and to this common righteousness the Father and the Son lead humanity, making us the living temples of Them (cf. John 14:23) and Their Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19).

  • ἁμαρτία is never translated as "missing" and you attempted to provide a source you would have realized that. Please quit making up Greek based on etymology and intuition. You mislead and confuse the issue with absurd nonsense. Please stop. -1
    – Ruminator
    Jun 13 '18 at 9:33
  • You are always very much interested, as I see, in my posts, so congratulations, you are on a right track for the truth of my ideas objectively does influence and benignly infect you a lot, whether you wish it or not :) and I am sincere, for I do wish you to see things objectively and correctly. ἁμαρτάνω = 1. "miss", "miss the mark"; "fail", "fail of having" only then 2. "do wrong", "sin"; So Greek genius related the sinning with missing the target of human excellence, human fulfilment, which is to imitate Christ and become like him, by vanquishing the power of sins through and in Him. Jun 13 '18 at 10:23
  • @Levan By your answer you seem to be suggesting that Jesus was providing a remedy for sin that came before His death on the cross. It is by the events of the cross alone (based on the earlier context of 2 Cor. 5:14) that He became sin. That excludes anything prior to the cross and it also excludes anything that theologians have suggested came after the cross. Could you clarify this aspect?
    – Ken Banks
    Jun 13 '18 at 15:44
  • @KenBanks Thanks for the comment and the question. Well, there are gradations. When Jesus divinely forgave sinners before His crucifixion, He was not doing it without really touching with a healing grace the soul/heart of the sinners. Yet, in Crucifixion He showed the final victory over the tyranny of sin on human nature, which He started do heal already before the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Jun 13 '18 at 23:10

In II Corinthians 5:21, the word for 'made' sin is ποιεο poieo. Poieo is translated both 'do' or 'make' and there is no exact English equivalent. 'Effect' is the best I have ever managed to find.

It is exactly the same word as is used when Jesus 'made' water wine.

Something was added to the water which, when suffused throughout the water, was present everywhere within the water. There was something 'effected' which, existing in all parts of the water, made it wine.

Thus with Christ in crucifixion. He was 'effected' sin. Sin was contained in Him. Such that sin was eradicated - in him - at the point when he died. Sin was contained within him and, once taken down into death within him, it was gone forever.

As sin is contained in him, so is the righteousness of God contained in them that believe on him. They believe in the sufferings and death of Christ as the execution of judgment - by God - on his own beloved Son.

Believing that God's rightness effected this upon Christ, that very rightness is seen in their faith by God, himself. For it is God alone who justifies - personally - and none else.

Thus, as sin was contained in Christ, so the righteousness of God is contained within the faith of the believer. As a company - a body - the whole complement of all God's people are viewed in Christ as a new humanity.

And within that humanity is righteousness. The only righteousness that exists is the righteousness of God himself. And there it is - within The Christ.

This is a very complex concept to grasp. It is better to - first - consider justification as Paul expresses it in Romans. After fully grasping the doctrine in Romans, it will then follow more easily to understand this particular aspect in Corinthians.

Note : the expression 'the righteousness of Christ' never appears in scripture, is never alluded to in scripture and is never implied anywhere in scripture.

  • Jesus being ποιεο sin has nothing to do with his being "effected" (and I'm not sure you understand the difference between "affected" and "effected". Your continued reckless invention of word "definitions" based on etymology and intuition creates absurd commentary and darkens counsel. Please quit making up Greek. People get misled and confused by it. Thanks. -1
    – Ruminator
    Jun 13 '18 at 9:30
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    @Nigel J The contraposition with the Cana's miracle of this Pauline passage is beautiful and theologically truthful and pertinent. Jun 13 '18 at 11:58
  • @Ruminator Your comment noted.And my answer stands.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 13 '18 at 12:28
  • @Nigel as you point out, all sin was contained in Christ so when he took it down into death within him, it was gone forever, thus sin in a Christian is an anomaly. Quoting Donald Macleod in 'A Faith To Live By' p79: "The English word ‘anomalous’ comes from this same Greek word, anomia, without law. If something is an anomaly, that means it goes against all law and all reason, and that is a marvellous way of describing sin. Sin is the ultimate anomaly: sin cannot be understood: an anomaly by definition is what is beyond reason." To be effectively justified must have the affect of shunning sin
    – Anne
    Jun 14 '18 at 9:05
  • @Anne Amartia (sin) is a negative a-martus, martus being a witness or testimony. Thus sin is the contradiction of a testimony. The psalmist says, 18:32, I have kept myself from my iniquity. It was there, in his flesh, in his members, but, within himself, he kept at a distance from it.If we walk in the Spirit, we shall live. If we walk after the flesh, we shall die.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 14 '18 at 10:31

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