A few weeks ago, a friend asked the following question: 2 Corinthians 5:21 says: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” So does this mean that Christ gave up His holiness at the cross? How could this be if God is inherently holy?
This is a very significant question, so let me pass along the answer I gave because I’m sure others have wondered the same thing.
Because we know that Christ was without sin, the phrase “to be sin” requires a careful understanding. It does not mean that Christ became a sinner. As God in human flesh, He could not possibly have committed any sin or in any way violated God’s law. It is equally unthinkable that God, whose “eyes are too pure to approve evil” (Hab. 1:13), would make anyone a sinner, let alone His own holy Son. He was the unblemished Lamb of God while on the cross, personally guilty of no sin. Isa. 53:4-6 describes the only sense in which Jesus could have been made sin. It says:
4Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. 6All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.
Jesus was not made a sinner, nor was He punished for any sin of His own. Instead, the Father treated Him as if He were a sinner by charging to His account the sins of everyone who would ever believe. All those sins were charged against Him as if He had personally committed them, and He was punished with the penalty for them on the cross, experiencing the full fury of God’s wrath unleashed against them all.
This is what we call “imputation.” In the same way that Christ was made “to be sin” by our sin being imputed to Him, so also, the righteousness of Christ was imputed to our account so that we were made to “become the righteousness of God in Him.” We are not sinless and righteous, but through imputation in which Christ’s righteousness is charged to our account, God looks on us as being as pure and sinless as Jesus Christ. So imputation works both ways—our sin was imputed to Christ, and His righteousness was imputed to us. He remained absolutely holy and sinless, but was treated as though He had sinned; we are absolutely corrupt and sinful, but are treated as though we have never sinned. What incredible, marvelous grace!