Over at The Cripplegate, in an article entitled “In what way was Jesus made sin on the cross?“, Nathan Busenitz tackled the meaning of the phrase “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” from II Corinthians 5:21. In what way was Jesus “made sin”?
To answer that question, he asked another, more thorough one. “Did Jesus become the literal embodiment of sin, or take on a sin nature, or become a sinner when He died at Calvary?”
That question Busenitz answered with a resounding “No!” by developing the doctrine of imputation. As B.B. Warfield states, there are three great acts of imputation in the history of mankind.
In the developed theology thus brought into the possession of the Church, three several acts of imputation were established and expounded. These are the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity; the imputation of the sins of His people to the Redeemer; the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to His people.” (Studies in Theology, “Imputation”)
It is this second act of imputation that Busenitz treated. He laid out the case that Jesus did not in any way become a sinner on the cross or literally become sin itself, but rather we are to understand this verse as that Christ was treated as if he had committed the sins of his people. The imputation of our sin upon Christ does not mean he actually experienced our sin, but rather was charged the penalty for it. Just as we were granted an “alien righteousness” in our justification that is credited to our account before God and is done “not by infusing righteousness” into us (WCF 11:1), so Christ experienced an “alien sinfulness” as God treated him by penalty for our sins without infusing our sins into him in any way.
Beyond his own arguments and offerings of Scriptural texts, he gave helpful quotes from theologians that support this teaching. Here are three of them – three “Johns” – commenting on II Corinthians 5:21:
John Chrysostom: “God allowed His Son to suffer as if a condemned sinner, so that we might be delivered from the penalty of our sins. This is God’s righteousness, that we are not justified by works (for then they would have to be perfect, which is impossible), but by grace, in which case all our sin is removed.” (Homily on 1 Cor 11:5)
John Calvin: “How can we become righteous before God? In the same way as Christ became a sinner. For He took, as it were, our person, that He might be the offender in our name and thus might be reckoned a sinner, not because of His own offences but because of those of others, since He Himself was pure and free from every fault and bore the penalty that was our due and not His own. Now in the same way we are righteous in Him, not because we have satisfied God’s judgment by our own works, but because we are judged in relation to Christ’s righteousness which we have put on by faith, that it may become our own.” (Commentary on 2 Cor. 5:21)
John MacArthur: “God the Father using the principle of imputation, treated Christ as if He were a sinner though He was not, and had Him die as a substitute to pay the penalty for the sins of those who believe in Him (Cf. Is. 53:4–6; Gal. 3:10–13; 1 Pet. 2:24). On the cross, He did not become a sinner (as some suggest), but remained as holy as ever. He was treated as if He were guilty of all the sins ever committed by all who would ever believe,though He committed none. The wrath of God was exhausted on Him and the just requirement of God’s law met for those for whom He died.” (The MacArthur Study Bible)
You can read the article yourself for a clarifying development of the text. I found that it agreed with other treatments such as those by Stephen Charnock, John Gill, Matthew Henry, and Charles Hodge.
Yet one thing in particular could trouble us about this teaching. Somehow understanding Christ being treated as if he were a sinner, but not having our sins literally placed on him, could cause us to wonder how he can really identify with our struggle with sin. Does not this imputed sin, with its forensic-style explanation, depersonalize the cross and disassociate too strongly the sinner from the Savior?
Here are four further truths that I believe help answer this question and further apply this teaching.
The Godhead understands the wickedness of sin far more than we do. Before man ever fell, God knew the awfulness of sin. He told Adam that it would bring death in the garden before he ate from the tree (Genesis 2:16). In the perfection of his holiness and in the depths of his omniscience, God knows the evil of evil. We fail to see it as he sees. A husband does not have to commit a sin, such as adultery, to know how devastating and terrible participating in that sin would be to his wife. How much more does God understand how wretched sin is for we have committed them against him!
Jesus was tempted in all things just as we are. As Hebrews 4:15 says, “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” As man, Jesus knows exactly what living in this dark, sinful world is like. He experienced temptations aimed right at his heart and mission (Matthew 4:1-11; 16:22-23).
Each person of the Trinity feels the penalty of sin far more than we are capable of understanding. Who can begin to know the Father’s anguish in seeing his Son so brutally mistreated and his wrath poured out upon him? Who will ever feel the weight of innumerable hells like the Son did at the cross? Who among us can sense the Spirit’s sobriety over the ages in foretelling through the prophets the crushing death of the Messiah, and then being the one responsible to lead him straight to Calvary? We will spend eternity being awed at the price truly paid for our salvation.
Christ died personally for each of the elect. When Jesus went to the cross, he had each of his beloved ones in mind. He not only died for the mass of sin committed, but he died for particular sinners. Paul knew personally that he was crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). As his priestly prayer before his death reveals, he was praying for his people because he knew he was going to suffer for those whose very names are written on the palms of his hands (John 17:6-10; Isaiah 49:15-16).