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Church Fathers on 2 Cor. 5:21

Updated: May 30, 2021

By Luke Lancaster

Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters will say that salvation is by the forensic imputation of Christ's alien righteousness. The Scripture passage which they will use to buttress their point is in Paul's 2nd letter to the Corinthians:

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

In our previous article, we demonstrated how to properly understand 2 Cor. 5:21, and how it does not prove imputation (click here). This article supports the previous post in that it examines how the Early Church interpreted the passage.

Church Fathers showing that Christ was made "sin" in the sense of His Incarnation and as a sin offering:

Augustine: "on account of the likeness of sinful flesh in which He came, He was called sin" (Enchiridion, Ch. 41)

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)

Ambrosiaster: "Christ did not have to be born as a man, but he became man because of sin. It was only because all flesh was subject to sin that he was made sin for us. In view of the fact that he was made an offering for sins, it is not wrong for him to be said to have been made “sin,” because in the law the sacrifice which was offered for sins used to be called a “sin.” After his death on the cross Christ descended to hell, because it was death, working through sin, which gave hell its power. Christ defeated death by his death and brought such benefit to sinners that now death cannot hold those who are marked with the sign of the cross." (Commentary on Paul’s Epistles)

Cyril of Alexandria: "We do not say that Christ became a sinner, far from it, but being righteous (or rather, righteousness, because he did not know sin at all), the Father made him a victim for the sins of the world." (Catena)

Eusebius of Caesarea: "And he, since he understood at once his Father’s divine counsel, and because he discerned better than any other why he was forsaken by the Father, humbled himself even more. He embraced death for us with all willingness and “became a curse for us,” holy and all blessed though he was… . “He that knew no sin, became sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Yet more—to wash away our sins he was crucified, suffering what we who were sinful should have suffered, as our sacrifice and ransom, so that we may well say with the prophet, he bears our sins and is pained for us, and he was wounded for our sins and bruised for our iniquities, so that by his stripes we might be healed, for the Lord has given him for our sins. So, as delivered up by the Father, as bruised, as bearing our sins, he was led as a sheep to the slaughter." (Catena)

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)

George Leo Haydock (quoting Church Fathers): "Him (Christ) who knew no sin, (who had never sinned, nor was capable of sinning) he (God) hath made sin for us. I had translated, with some French translators, he hath made a sacrifice for sin, as it is expounded by St. Augustine and many others, and grounded upon the authority of the Scriptures, in which the sacrifices for sins are divers times called sins, as Osee iv. 8. and in several places in Leviticus, by the Hebrew word Chattat, which signifies a sin, and is translated a victim for sin." (Catena)

Church Fathers who believed that we were made "the righteousness of God" by infusion, and not by imputation:

Cornelius a Lapide (quoting Church Fathers): "That we might be made righteous before God, with the righteousness infused by God through the merits of Christ. So Chrysostom. He says righteousness and not righteous, says Theophylact, to signify the excellency of the grace, which effects that in the righteous there is no deformity, no stain of sin, but that there is complete grace and righteousness throughout. (2.) The righteousness of God was Christ made, in order that its effects, or the likeness of the uncreated righteousness of God, might be communicated to us by His created and infused righteousness. So Cyril (Thesaur. lib. xii. c3). (3.) Christ is so called because God owes not to us, but to Christ and His merits, the infusion of righteousness and the remission of our sins. Cf. Augustine (Enchirid. c41). Heretics raise the objection that Christ was made for us sin, in the sense that our sin was imputed to Him and was punished in Him; therefore we are made the righteousness of God, because it is imputed to us. I answer that the two things are not parallel; for Christ could not really be a sinner as we can really be righteous, nor does the Apostle press the analogy. He only says that Christ bore our sins, that we through Him might be justified. Moreover, Christ actually was made sin, i.e., a victim for sin (this is the meaning of “sin” here), and therefore we truly become the righteousness of God. So easily and completely can we turn the tables on these Protestant objectors." (The Great Biblical Commentary, 2nd Corinthians, V.)

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