“For the powerless (thing) of the Law [i.e. what the Law lacked power to do], in which [i.e. in that] it was weak through the flesh, God (has done), sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh] and about [i.e. for the sake of] sin, judged against sin in the flesh, (so) that the just/right (thing) of the Law should be filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in us—the (one)s not walking about according to (the) flesh, but according to (the) Spirit.”
The relevant portion parallel to 2 Cor 5:21 is indicated by italics above; here it is extracted out, along with the Greek text:
“…sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh] and about [i.e. for the sake of] sin, judged against sin in the flesh, (so) that the just/right (thing) of the Law should be filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in us”
pe/mya$ e)n o(moiw/mati sarko\$ a(marti/a$ kai\ peri\ a(marti/a$ kate/krinen th\n a(marti/an e)n th=| sarki/, i%na to\ dikai/wma tou= no/mou plhrwqh=| e)n h(mi=n
2 Cor 5:21
“the (one) not knowing sin, He [i.e. God] made (to be) sin over us [i.e. for our sake], (so) that we might come to be (the) justice/righteousness of God in him”
“…sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh] and about [i.e. for the sake of] sin, … (so) that the just/right (thing) of the Law should be filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in us”
I feel it is best to proceed here by comparing the key words and phrases between the two passages:
|“the one not knowing sin”
(to\ mh\ gno/nta a(marti/an)
|“his own Son”
(to\n e(autou= ui(o/n)
It is interesting to consider these expressions as complementary: in Corinthians, the emphasis is on Jesus’ lack of familiarity with sin; in Romans, it is on Christ as the (beloved) son and heir (cf. Rom 4:13ff; 5:10; 8:12-17), highlighting the importance and preciousness of the sacrifice God makes. Based on Rom 4:13ff (cf. also throughout Gal 3-4), there is probably here an allusion to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, which may already have been present in Christian thought prior to Paul.
|“He made (to be) sin”
|“sending in the likeness of flesh of sin”
(pe/mya$ e)n o(moiw/mati sarko\$ a(marti/a$)
Does Romans here explain the phrase in Corinthians? This is certainly possible, though it raises some interesting questions regarding the traditional view of Christ’s sinlessness. Was sin dwelling in his flesh just as it is for other human beings (cf. Rom 7:13-20)? In order for the expression to have its full significance, this would seem to be the case. It certainly could be affirmed without admitting that Christ committed any sin. On the other hand, the expression “in the likeness of flesh of sin” could be taken to mean that it was not actually “flesh of sin”; but, then, in what way was it like sinful human flesh? If all that Paul meant to say was that Jesus had a “human nature”, without sin, this is a curious way to state it. Needless to say, the entire matter is extremely sensitive from an orthodox Christological standpoint.
|“over us” (u(pe\r h(mw=n)||“about sin” (peri\ a(marti/a$)|
The preposition u(pe/r fundamentally means “over”, while peri/ means “around, about”; however, both can be understood as “on behalf of, for the sake of, because of”, depending on the context. In Corinthians, Paul uses traditional early Christian language for the atoning, sacrificial work of Christ, which takes place “over us”, that is, for our sake. In Romans, the focus is more what is done about (and to) sin—i.e. the power of Sin, especially that which dwells (“houses”) in the flesh (Rom 7:17-18, 20). This is clear from the clause which follows: “he (God, through Christ) judged against sin in the flesh”. Does this mean Christ himself took on sinful flesh—that sin dwelt in his flesh, in common with humankind? There would seem to be three main possibilities:
- There was no sin in his flesh; he was human, but it was not “flesh of sin”. To say that God “judged against sin in the flesh” means that it was judged through the suffering (and death) of the sinless flesh of Christ.
- The “curse” or effect of sin was in his flesh, but not the power of sin itself. God judged against what sin had done to human beings in the flesh.
- Sin did “dwell” in his flesh, and it was this that God judged against. Christ himself knew no sin (2 Cor 5:21) in the sense that: (a) he did not commit sin, and (b) was not enslaved by the power of sin; however God made him to be sin, in order to deal with sin.
The first of these accords with orthodox Christology, especially the blunt declaration in 1 John 3:5; however, the last of these, in my view, seems closer to Paul’s thought in Romans, though perhaps not without further qualification. Ultimately, the most important point is that the power of sin was destroyed and made inactive through the death (and resurrection) of Christ, allowing believers to be set free from bondage to sin and death (Rom 6:6-11).
|“so that we…” (i%na h(mei=$)||“so that… in us” (i%na…e)n h(mi=n)|
Both passages conclude with a i%na purpose-/result-clause (“so that…”), indicating primarily the purpose, but also the result, of God’s work in Christ. The difference of focus or location in terms of the believer (“we/us”) is relatively slight, and complementary—in Corinthians, the emphasis is on what happens to us, in Romans, on what takes place in us.
|“we might come to be”
|“might be (ful)filled (in us)”
Both verbs are aorist subjunctive forms, indicating the possibility or potential of what God can (and) will accomplish in the person of the believer, based on what he has already done (past action). The aorist subjunctive often carries an imperitival force, i.e., “we should/shall become…” In Corinthians, indeed, it is a matter of what the believer will become; in Romans, on the other hand, something is completed or fulfilled (“filled [up]”) in (and among) believers.
|“(the) justice/righteousness of God”
|“the just/right (thing) of the Law”
(to\ dikai/wma tou= no/mou)
These expressions reflect what it is that we as believers will become, or what will be fulfilled in us, respectively. In 2 Corinthians, it is the “justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) of God”, an expression which Paul uses in Romans (Rom 1:17; 3:5, 21-22; 10:3, cf. also 3:25-26; 6:13). It is best, I think, to consider this as an attribute of God Himself (subjective genitive), which he demonstrates primarily and fundamentally in the person and work of Jesus Christ. An important emphasis in Romans is that this justice/righteousness has been manifested in Christ altogether separate and apart from the Old Testament Law (cf. Rom 3:21ff, etc), so it is interesting that the parallel passage in 2 Cor 5:21 specifically mentions the Law (no/mo$). The fact is, that Romans very much builds upon the idea, already discussed in Galatians, that Christ, by his sacrificial death, fulfills the Law for human beings. In Gal 3:10-13, this takes place by Jesus becoming the curse of the Law himself (par. to the idea of being “made sin”). The curse came into effect (pronounced as judgment) when the Law, representing the terms of the covenant between God and his people, was violated. According to Paul’s view, human beings, held in bondage under the power of sin, are incapable of fulfilling the Law (i.e. the Law of God, as expressed in the Torah). In Rom 8:3-4, God judges against sin itself in the flesh, removing its enslaving power over those who trust in Christ.
What about the specific expression in 2 Cor 5:21? how exactly do believers “become” or “come to be” the justice/righteousness of God. According to what Paul teaching and relates in his letters (especially in Galatians and Romans), I would suggest three aspects of this process:
- Justification—this is essentially what is described in Rom 8:3-4: (a) Christ is made sin and, through his death, becomes the curse, (b) this sacrificial acts fulfills and completes the requirement of the Law, (c) through Christ God judges sin itself, removing its enslaving power, (d) believers in Christ are thus made right before God, and (e) now have the freedom and ability to fulfill the Law, through the Spirit, no longer by observing the Torah itself.
- Union with Christ (“in Christ”)—believers are united with Christ, and thus participate in the very justice/righteousness of God which he himself manifests and embodies. It is communicated in the believer through the power of the Spirit, which is also the Spirit of Christ.
- Resurrection/Glorification—Experience of God’s justice/righteousness is also eschatological, with the completion of salvation in the end-time judgment. Ultimately it is the body (“flesh” in the strict sense) which remains to be redeemed and loosed from bondage. Paul never loses sight of this future aspect of salvation.