-by Trent Horn
“Some Protestants argue for justification by faith alone by appealing to 2 Corinthians 5:21, which says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Protestant pastor John MacArthur even calls this verse the “heart of the gospel” when it comes to belief in sola fide, or justification by faith alone.
On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like it has much to do with us needing only to make an act of faith in Jesus in order to be saved. But Protestant apologists like MacArthur will say our salvation comes not from anything we do, but from the simple recognition that Jesus has already done everything that is necessary to rid us from sin. Through an act of faith, God “swaps” our sins for Christ’s righteousness, and that is why we can spend eternity with him. Jesus doesn’t literally become a sinner, but he is literally punished for our sins because now he has them.
When the Father sees the Son on the cross, he sees our sins and pours out his wrath upon the Son. But when the swap happens and God looks at us, he doesn’t see our sins anymore; he just sees Christ’s righteousness. Think of it as a theological Freaky Friday.
What’s important to remember is that our own righteousness hasn’t changed. Instead, God has covered our sins with Christ’s righteousness. Martin Luther is believed to have compared this to how dung heaps in the countryside would be covered with pure white snow. The dung heap remains, but it is no longer seen.
But this is not how 2 Corinthians 5:21 was traditionally understood throughout Church history.
Several Church fathers said this verse was an allusion to coming in the likeness of sinful flesh, or just the Incarnation in general, and has nothing to do with imputation of sin. St. Augustine said, “Therefore having no sin of his own; nevertheless, on account of the likeness of sinful flesh in which he came, he was called sin, that he might be sacrificed to wash away sin.” Even John Calvin used this verse in this way. When he was defending the importance of Christ’s humanity in the atonement, he wrote the following:
Although Christ could neither purify our souls by his own blood, nor appease the Father by his sacrifice, nor acquit us from the charge of guilt, nor, in short, perform the office of priest, unless he had been very God, because no human ability was equal to such a burden, it is however certain, that he performed all these things in his human nature. . . . Righteousness was manifested to us in his flesh. . . . He places the fountain of righteousness entirely in the incarnation of Christ[:] “He has made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
The point is not that Christ has become our sins, but that Christ has offered himself for humanity by taking on a human body. This corresponds to Romans 8:3, which says, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.”
Another interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 is that “made him to be sin” means “made him to be a sin offering.” The Greek word for sin in this passage can also mean “sin offering,” or what is sacrificed to take away sin. Another place where we find it is Hebrews 10:6, which quotes Psalm 40, which refers to sacrifices. It literally says in Greek: “Burnt offering and for sin you have not delighted in,” so most translators render “sin” in this passage “sin offering” because that makes the most sense of the context.
It’s reasonable to conclude that the same is true of 2 Corinthians 5:21 because Paul makes it clear Christ himself is a paschal sacrifice. He says in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed.”
So, to summarize, 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not refute the Catholic understanding of Christ’s atoning death. Moreover, it’s perfectly compatible with the Catholic view of Christ offering himself as a sacrifice that pays the debt incurred by all the sins ever committed. It is then up to each individual to freely choose to allow God to apply the effects of that sacrifice to his soul. This includes being baptized and being initially saved, and then living a life of obedience to God and not throwing away the value of Christ’s sacrifice. That’s why Hebrews 10:26-27 says, “For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment.”
We should take heart that Christ doesn’t just legally expunge our sinful deeds from a ledger, but transforms us as we receive his righteousness. 2 Corinthians 5:17 even says, “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”
-by Allison Low, Allison Tobola Low is a lifelong Catholic, passionate for sharing Christ and the Catholic faith with others. She works full time as a physician in Tyler, Texas, and also received a Master’s degree in Theology from the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. Allison finds time to teach and share the Catholic faith every opportunity she can find, including being a catechist for Adult Faith Formation and RCIA at her local parish. Allison enjoys giving talks in parishes on a variety of faith-related topics and is also a regional leader for St. Paul Street Evangelization. Her website is www.pillarandfoundation.com where you can find short simple Catholic videos she creates (that are especially for children/young adults).
“Discussing theology with our Protestant brothers and sisters is often interesting, but it can also be quite frustrating.
For instance, many Protestants, particularly those from the Reformed traditions, passionately and firmly hold to the doctrine of penal substitution. This doctrine holds that, on the cross, Jesus was taking the place of all of mankind and was punished by God the Father. In so doing He endured the wrath and punishment we deserve because of our sins.
Reformed vs. Catholic Theology
Of course, as Catholics, while we hold that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice, we do agree that it was substitutionary. But we firmly reject the idea of penal substitution. Since Jesus is God and God is perfect, how can God punish God? And assuming Jesus could somehow separate Himself from God, why would God punish a holy and pure being for our sins? Such an idea is entirely incompatible with our understanding of God.
In dialogue with Protestant friends, I have found that the essential elements in their belief in penal substitution seem to be that due to God’s wrath and perfect justice, Jesus had to be punished in order for us to be forgiven – there was no other option. But this doctrine is based on misunderstandings of the Incarnation, God’s “wrath,” and God’s perfect justice.
Why have you forsaken me?
When Jesus is on the cross, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46). Those holding the doctrine of penal substitution, claim this shows that God the Father abandoned Jesus on the cross and the relationship between God the Father and God the Son was severed. Additionally, quoting 2 Corinthians 5:21, they believe Jesus literally took on our sins. Referencing Romans 1:18, they say that God’s wrath was poured out onto Jesus. So at this moment on the cross, Jesus is taking our place and enduring the punishment we deserve for our sins.
But if we examine our understanding of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, we can see that this view of penal substitution is incompatible with these doctrines.
In Light of the Trinity and the Incarnation
First of all, God has revealed that He is a Triune God. The three Divine Persons of the Trinity are God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Each Divine Person is distinct but not separate. Each divine person fully possesses the divine nature with the only difference being the relationship of the Persons. In the Godhead, these three Persons have no beginning and no end, and they are in eternal communion with each other.
In the Incarnation, God the Son, the Second Divine Person, while still fully possessing a divine nature, united himself to a human nature. This hypostatic union is real and not merely accidental. The two natures in Christ are distinct without commingling and Jesus’ divinity remained unchanged. Jesus was not simply a man with the indwelling of God but was both true God and true man.
Both Human and Divine
Therefore, when Jesus walked the shore of Galilee, spoke to the Apostles and was scourged at the pillar, it was God the Son who did these things. These experiences were possible because of his human nature. And when Jesus gave sight to the blind, calmed the storms and raised the dead, it was God the Son who did these things, because while having a human nature, He was still God the Son who fully possessed the divine nature. And when Jesus died on the cross, the Second Divine Person suffered in the flesh and was crucified in the flesh.
So the Passion was endured by God the Son on account of the human nature He assumed while His divine nature remained unchanged. (See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, 46, a. 12.)
With the doctrine of penal substitution, however, it is held that God the Father ruptured His relationship with God the Son on the cross in order to punish Jesus. But this element of the doctrine is contrary to the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity. If it were possible for God the Son to be separated from God the Father, even for a moment, then he would not and could not be God.
Did Jesus literally take on our sins?
When we acknowledge that Jesus is God the Son, we also must reject any interpretation of Scripture that suggests that Jesus literally took all our sins onto himself. We can confidently do this because of the nature of sin.
Simply put, sin is an offense against God. When we sin, we damage our relationship with God to varying degrees. By committing grave sins, we completely sever our relationship with God. We are no longer in communion with God.
If Jesus literally took on all our mortal sins, we would have a situation where Jesus would be at enmity with God. But, as already pointed out, this is not possible because Jesus is God the Son.
Acknowledging what we know about the Triune God, the Incarnation, and sin, we must then examine Scriptures in their entirety along with all the revealed doctrines. Looking at Scriptures in their entirety requires us to reject any interpretations suggesting God the Son in any way lost communion with God the Father or was at enmity with the Father.
How is God’s wrath satisfied?
Protestants will often ask, however, if Catholics do not hold that God the Father poured out the wrath we deserve onto Jesus, then how is God’s wrath satisfied? They will also point to numerous texts in the New Testament referring to God’s wrath, such as John 3:36; Romans 1:18 and 12:19; and Ephesians 5:6. But the key to understanding is in properly interpreting what Scripture is teaching us.
Anger (wrath) is a passion within human beings. God, however, is immutable and impassible. He does not have feelings as we know them. Nor does He experience passions. God also does not have a temper. And our sins do not provoke revenge in God. God is infinitely perfect, merciful, loving and just in all he does, so we must see what we call His anger in light of this truth.
Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, tells us that at times Scripture speaks of things in reference to God metaphorically. This is seen particularly when certain human passions are predicated of the Godhead. Aquinas says:
Hence a thing that is in us a sign of some passion, is signified metaphorically in God under the name of that passion. Thus with us it is usual for an angry man to punish, so that punishment becomes an expression of anger. Therefore, punishment itself is signified by the word anger, when anger is attributed to God.
In order to help us better understand God, Scripture uses metaphors, but we must take care to not hold that God can change, or that our actions cause emotions or passions to flare up in God.
Punishment as an expression of Wrath
Even though God does not experience the passion of anger, we say that we experience the consequences of sin as expressions of His “wrath.” But this must be understood metaphorically. When we sin, we rebel against God and turn away from him. God allows us to endure the consequences in this life and in the next. Those consequences include disorder, disharmony, pain, suffering and physical death. But these consequences/punishments are not the result of God actively willing torments. Rather, because of His love for us, God has given us a free will to make choices. If we choose to separate ourselves from Him who is Goodness itself and Love itself, then the inevitable outcome will be that we deprive ourselves of His goodness and love.
Another way of understanding “God’s wrath” is to recognize that our disobedience and rebellion do not causes any change in God by nature of who He is. Rather, we are changed by sin. If we reject God’s love and rebel, our hearts are hardened. Lacking God’s love, one will be tormented by the thought of God’s judgment and, as a result, will experience “God’s wrath.” But in both scenarios, what has changed is not God but us.
The final point to keep in mind in regard to God’s nature is related to His perfect justice. Those holding to the doctrine of penal substitution believe that since the consequences of our sins are suffering, death and the pains of hell, justice requires Jesus to take our place and experiences these consequences for salvation to be possible.
But as posited earlier, how can God punish Jesus Christ who is completely innocent? It is also impossible to hold that God the Son could literally become a sinner in enmity with God. And it is at odds with justice that Jesus, perfectly pure, holy and innocent, would have to be tortured and crucified as punishment for what He did not do.
Christ’s Sacrificial Offering of Love
Jesus’ entire life was one of love, obedience and self-emptying (Philippians 2:8). He accepted his death on the cross freely, willing laying down his life for each one of us in love. Because of the Incarnation, God the Son performs a human act – one of freely offering Himself and sacrificing His life. He does this in our place. And being God, his offering is one of infinite value. This act of humility, obedience and love was pleasing to God. And Christ’s sacrifice was of infinite merit for us.
As Aquinas writes:
. . . by suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which he suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of his life which he laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion and the greatness of the grief endured…And therefore, Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race…” (Summa, III, 48, a. 2).
-by Dr. Bryan Cross, PhD, was raised in the Pentecostal tradition, then became Reformed shortly after completing his bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Michigan. He then received an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary. In 2003 he and his wife and two daughters became Anglican. On October 8, 2006, he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He has previously taught at Saint Louis University, Lindenwood University, and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. He is presently an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Mercy University. His personal blog is “Principium Unitatis.”
“The Reformed conception of the Atonement is that in Christ’s Passion and death, God the Father poured out all of His wrath for the sins of the elect, on Christ the Son. In Christ’s Passion and death, Christ bore the punishment of the Father’s wrath that the elect deserved for their sins. In the Reformed conception, this is what it means to bear the curse, to bear the Father’s wrath for sin. In Reformed thought, at Christ’s Passion and death, God the Father transferred all the sins (past, present, and future) of all the elect onto His Son. Then God the Father hated, cursed and damned His Son, who was evil in the Father’s sight on account of all the sins of the elect being concentrated in the Son. (R.C. Sproul says that the 56th minute of his talk here.) In doing so, God the Father punished Christ for all the sins of the elect of all time. Because the sins of the elect are now paid for, through Christ’s having already been punished for them, the elect can never be punished for any sin they might ever commit, because every sin they might ever commit has already been punished. For that reason Reformed theology is required to maintain that Christ died only for the elect. Otherwise, if Christ died for everyone, this would entail universal salvation, since it would entail that all the sins of all people, have already been punished, and therefore cannot be punished again.
The Catholic conception of Christ’s Passion and Atonement is that Christ offered Himself up in self-sacrificial love to the Father, obedient even unto death, for the sins of all men. In His human will He offered to God a sacrifice of love that was more pleasing to the Father than the combined sins of all men of all time are displeasing to Him, and thus made satisfaction for our sins. The Father was never angry with Christ. Nor did the Father pour out His wrath on the Son. The Passion is Christ’s greatest act of love, the greatest revelation of the heart of God, and the glory of Christ.(1) So when Christ was on the cross, God the Father was not pouring out His wrath on His Son; in Christ’s act of self-sacrifice in loving obedience to the Father, Christ was most lovable in the eyes of the Father. Rather, in Christ’s Passion we humans poured out our enmity with God on Christ, by what we did to Him in His body and soul. And He freely chose to let us do all this to Him. Deeper still, even our present sins contributed to His suffering, because He, in solidarity with us, grieved over all the sins of the world, not just the sins of the elect. Hence, St. Francis of Assisi said, “Nor did demons crucify Him; it is you who have crucified Him and crucify Him still, when you delight in your vices and sins.”(2) The Passion is a revelation of the love of God, not the wrath of God. The fundamental difference can be depicted simply in the following drawing(3):
One problem with the Reformed conception is that it would either make the Father guilty of the greatest evil of all time (pouring out the punishment for all sin on an innocent man, knowing that he is innocent), or if Christ were truly guilty and deserved all that punishment, then His suffering would be of no benefit to us.
A second problem with the Reformed conception is the following dilemma. If God the Father was pouring out His wrath on the Second Person of the Trinity, then God was divided against Himself, God the Father hating His own Word. God could hate the Son only if the Son were another being, that is, if polytheism or Arianism were true. But if God loved the Son, then it must be another person (besides the Son) whom God was hating during Christ’s Passion. And hence that entails Nestorianism, i.e. that Christ was two persons, one divine and the other human. He loved the divine Son but hated the human Jesus. Hence the Reformed conception conflicts with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The Father and the Son cannot be at odds. If Christ loves men, then so does the Father. Or, if the Father has wrath for men, then so does Christ. And, if the Father has wrath for the Son, then the Son must have no less wrath for Himself.
St. Thomas Aquinas says:
Christ as God delivered Himself up to death by the same will and action as that by which the Father delivered Him up; but as man He gave Himself up by a will inspired of the Father. Consequently there is no contrariety in the Father delivering Him up and in Christ delivering Himself up. (4)
There St. Thomas explains that there is no contrariety between the Father and the Son during Christ’s Passion, no loss of love from the Father to the Son or the Son to the Father. The Father wholly and entirely loved His Son during the entire Passion. By one and the same divine will and action, the Father allowed the Son to be crucified and the Son allowed Himself to be crucified.(5)
One question, from the Reformed point of view, is: How then were our sins paid for, if Christ was not punished by the Father? Christ made atonement for the sins of all men by offering to God a sacrifice of love that was more pleasing to the Father than the combined sins of all men of all time are displeasing to Him. Hence through the cross Christ merited grace for the salvation of all men. Those who refuse His grace do not do so because Christ did not die for them or did not win sufficient grace for them on the cross, but because of their own free choice.
A second question, from the Reformed point of view, is this: St. Paul tells us, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”(6) How should we understand the curse, if God the Father is not pouring out His wrath on His Son? St. Augustine explains clearly in his reply to Faustus, that what it means that Christ was cursed is that Christ suffered death.(7) Christ took our sin in the sense that He willingly bore its consequence, namely, death, because death is the consequence of sin and its curse. Death is not natural. But Christ took the likeness of sinful man in that He subjected Himself to death, even death on a cross for our sake.
A third question, from the Reformed point of view, is this: How then should we understand Isaiah 53? What does it mean that:
Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, every one hath turned aside into his own way: and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. .. And the Lord was pleased to bruise him in infirmity: if he shall lay down his life for sin, he shall see a long-lived seed, and the will of the Lord shall be prosperous in his hand. Because his soul hath laboured, he shall see and be filled: by his knowledge shall this my just servant justify many, and he shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53;4-6, 10-11)
This means that Christ carried in His body the sufferings that sin has brought into the world, and that Christ suffered in His soul over all the sins of the world, and their offense against God. He bore our iniquities not in the sense that God punished Him for what we did, but in the sense that He grieved over them all, in solidarity with us. That is what it means that the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He suffered the consequences of sin (i.e. suffering, grief, death), by entering into solidarity with us, entering into our fallen world, and allowing Himself to suffer in it with us, for us, even by our hands.(8)
- This is why Christ retained His five wounds in His resurrected body. And this is why Catholics show Christ on the cross, in the crucifix, because this is Christ’s glory. We, with St. Paul, glory in Christ crucified. (1 Cor 1:23-24) [↩]
- CCC 598 [↩]
- Of course in the Reformed system Christ also self-sacrificially loves the Father. But what effects propitiation in the Reformed system is the complete pouring out of God’s wrath upon the Son. In Catholic doctrine, by contrast, God does not pour out His wrath for our sins onto His Son, and what effects propitiation is Christ’s positive gift of love to the Father. Hence the illustration depicts what effects propitiation in the respective theological systems. It is not intended to be an exhaustive illustration of all that is going on during Christ’s Passion. [↩]
- See ST III Q.47 a.3 ad 2 [↩]
- For a fuller explanation of what Christ did for us through His Passion, according to St Thomas Aquinas, see “Aquinas and Trent 6.” [↩]
- Gal 3:13 [↩]
- Contra Faustus, XIV. [↩]
- For additional reading on the Catholic understanding of the atonement see Philippe De La Trinitaté’s What is Redemption?, and Jean Rivière’s The Doctrine of the Atonement Volume 1 and Volume 2. [↩]