2 Corinthians 5:21 does not prove Imputed Righteousness
Updated: Jul 9, 2022
By Luke Lancaster
Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters will say that Paul believes that we are saved by imputed righteousness, rather than by an infused righteousness. In layman's terms, Protestants believe that Christians are dirty from sin, and that they are only "covered" by Christ's goodness. This is similar to someone covered in dirt putting on a brand new white robe. The clean covers the unclean. This is different from the Catholic viewpoint, where the dirty person is washed clean. That is, we are "infused" with Christ's goodness (faith, hope, and love). Protestants sometimes vigorously argue against this belief by quoting Paul's 2nd letter to the Corinthians to us, which says,
"For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we [Christians] might become the righteousness of God" (5:21).
This verse, so they say, is similar to a bank account. Our bank account has negative dollars in it, and Christ's account has positive dollars in it. And then we switch accounts, commonly called the "great exchange" or "double imputation." Jesus could not possibly be "made" sin, but rather took our negative, sinful bank account in an extrinsic way. Jesus was interiorly good, but was covered with our dirty robes. Then we, who were interiorly bad, took Christ's positive bank account, and became clothed with the righteousness of God the Son. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?
Catholic Interpretation - part 1
Catholics, however, interpret the passage a bit differently. We interpret the first part of Christ being "made sin" (1) in the sense that He took on our sinful flesh and (2) in the sense that He became a "sin-offering." The Church Fathers (read their commentaries here) connected this verse with what Paul said in Romans 8:3, which speak of the Incarnation: "God...[sent] his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh." Notice how the wording is similar to 2 Cor. 5:21, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin."
Jesus, as Paul says in Philippians 2:5-8, "was in the form of God, [but] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross." The Incarnation and crucifixion are summed up in 2 Cor. 5:21 as Christ being "made sin." Jesus sacrificed Himself to reconcile God and man together.
In the the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Hahn and Mitch say that Paul adopted "the idiom of the Greek OT, where 'sin' is a shorthand expression for a Levitical 'sin offering' (Lev. 4:21; 5:12; 6:25)." So, Jesus became "sin" for us, both by taking on sinful human flesh, and by offering himself as a "sin offering" for us. This is different from the Protestant understanding of Christ being covered with our dirty robes, or taking on our negative bank account.
Catholic Interpretation - part 2
Catholics interpret the second part of 2 Cor. 5:21, where we are "made the righteousness of God," a bit differently as well. We are "made" righteous in the sense that we "regain" the righteousness which Adam and Eve lost for us. Humanity *used* to have a good relationship with with God, but lost it through disobedience, and needed to be reconciled to God. Jesus to the rescue. He became "sin" for us as the God-Man, and bridged our relationship with God together. We are not covered with a new white robe, but truly become washed clean and in fellowship with God. This is called "sanctifying grace" or "infused righteousness." Even some Protestants have noticed that this is truly what Paul is referring too, and not to an imputation of Christ's righteousness.
The Protestant Scripture commentator, N.T. Wright, says, “The little [Greek] word genometha in 5:21b-‘that we might become God’s righteousness in him’-does not sit comfortably with the normal interpretation, according to which ‘God’s righteousness’ is ‘imputed’ or ‘reckoned’ to believers. If that is what Paul meant, with the overtones of ‘extraneous righteousness’ that normally come with that theory, the one thing that he ought not to have said is that we ‘become’ that righteousness. Surely that leans far too much towards a Roman Catholic notion of infused righteousness? How careless of Paul to leave the door open to such a notion” (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, p. 141)!
God is righteous, meaning that He only thinks goodness, speaks goodness, and acts goodness. He is faithful, just, and merciful. In summary, He always does the right thing. Every virtue is embodied in Himself. It is a quality of God. That quality is shared with us and we possess God’s righteous quality, “made the righteousness of God,” denoting infused righteousness. We possess His very own Holy Spirit, so that we can keep "the just requirement of the Law...according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4).
Just as in marriage, the man and woman do not simply have a legal, declarative piece of paper that says they are one. They truly "become one flesh" in the marital act. We are reconciled to God through the "bridge" of Christ.
Context to 2 Cor. 5:21
But how do we know that it is more of a "reconciliation" rather than an "imputation"? Because the context to the passage indicates it. The Corinthians are sinners and are losing faith. Because of this, Paul warns them constantly about the possibility of not inheriting eternal life, “examine yourselves, to see if you are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:15). Heaven is not guaranteed if you lose your faith and faithfulness. The Israelites in the desert feel into sin: they grumbled, fell into idolatry and immorality, and subsequently died as punishment (1 Cor. 10:1-10). These things happened to them as an example for us (1 Cor. 10:11). Before 2 Cor. 5:21, Paul says that he has been tasked with the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18) and begs the Corinthians to “be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20). No discussion of an exchange of robes like Protestantism.
Then the verse of our discussion, 5:21, is said, and Paul continues, “we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he [God] says, 'At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.' Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:1-2). Some Corinthians are going to lose their righteousness, or have already lost it, and need to be "reconciled to God," for they have or might end up in the future having “received the grace of God in vain.” They might not inherit eternal life, and need to repent, for “now is the day of salvation.” This is about a relationship, not just an extrinsic, forensic, declaratory exchange.
As we have seen, 2 Cor. 5:21 does not prove a double imputation. There is not simply an "exchange" of garments between Christ's perfection and our sinfulness. Rather, it is about Christ taking on our sinful flesh and offering Himself as a victim to reconcile God and man together.