He became sin: Union or Imputation?

A common theme of the Apostle Paul is ‘we are in Christ and Christ is in us’. Paul does not talk imputation, he talks union.

One verse that has puzzled me a lot is II Corinthians 5:21

What does it mean for Christ to become (or be made) “sin”? How can one who does not know sin, nor has committed any sin, become “sin”?

One common solution is to determine that “sin” must be transferable  (disregarding the witness of Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:20 in the process).

And so this verse is often talked of in the manner of ‘exchange’. We start with the righteous Christ and the sinful human, like this…

and we become this…

In other words, Jesus takes on my sin, and I get his righteousness. It is primarily an exchange, a swap. My sin is imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to me.

However, this description does not actually fit with what Paul is saying when we look closely at Paul’s language:

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

Critical to Paul’s statement is that we only become righteous “in him”. Rather than an exchange this is, for Paul, a matter of union. His righteousness is not imputed, it is shared. It comes from us being ‘in’ him.

This is a common theme of the Apostle Paul; we are in Christ and Christ is in us (2 Cor 5:17, 2 Cor 13:5, Col 1:27). Paul does not talk the aloof language of imputation, he talks participation, of our being incorporated into Christ. Indeed, Paul teaches an incredible notion – that we are united to Christ in his death. (Rom 6:3-5, Rom 7:4, 2 Cor 4:10, 2 Cor 5:14, 2 Tim 2:11).

Now we also know that God did not ‘clean us up’ before uniting us to Christ, because even as Christ died for us (and us with him) we were still sinners (Rom 5:8).

The picture in Paul’s mind is therefore, surely, more like this. Christ unites himself to us while we are sinners:

And he does this so that we die with him.  When he dies, we die.

And yet, if we really are truly united, then he must become what we are. He cannot be united to us without “contamination”:

Or perhaps it is more like this:

… that is, Christ takes us wholly into himself. Broken, rebellious sinners, he embeds us within himself, bearing our sin in his body (1 Pet 2:24) and takes us into death with him. He fully unites himself with us. There should be no surprise, then, when the Apostle Paul describes it this way: that he who knew no sin was made to ‘be sin’ for us. It sums it up perfectly.

If we read on in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we see this same pattern repeated in 2 Cor 8:9: Despite being rich, Christ becomes poor so that we, through his (condescended) state of poverty, become rich. Again, this is not exchange because it is only in and through his poverty (when he partakes with us, and us with him) that we become what he is – rich.

There is, therefore, a consistent stream of thought in Paul’s letter. He becomes what we are (sin/poor) so that we, being united with him, can become what he is (righteous/rich).

And this is a recurrent theme of the New Testament. Christ puts aside equality with God in order to become as we are.  United to broken humanity, he is flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood (Heb 2:14), made to be like us in every way – and all for our sake.

Why try to make the meaning of this verse any more complicated than that?

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