My Dearest Students in the Pastoral Ministry:
I write to you about a matter which will occupy your life as much as any other—the matter of preaching from a difficult passage.
Indeed, after receiving a good question from a seasoned pastor, I instantly thought of you. I felt that whatever I might have for this servant of Christ, a demonstrated Servant of the Word and an able evangelist, perhaps whatever that I returned to him of Gospel use may be of some use for you as you as well. Here is his question and my answer (which I have enlarged and focused for your hopeful edification). I do not share this with you because I am the expert on such matters, but because the Lord brought you to mind as I was considering it. I want to do all I can, within the sometimes distant confines of this sacred calling at the seminary, to be of some help to you if I may.
Here is what came to me and what I now deliver to you with some commentary.
“A Question for you: How do we preach difficult passages where so many disagree, and where there are so many opinions in the congregation (not to mention among other ministers)? I have an example I would like your thoughts on, please. What is the meaning of ‘Jesus was made sin for us’? I understand Calvin’s view of the Pauline proclamation, but don’t agree with Calvin. I understand his writing to basically say ‘Jesus became a guilty sinner and was polluted’ on the cross. My own view, and I am not sure which, if any, scholars might agree with me, is that Jesus remained sinless and unpolluted on the cross, so as the sinless, Holy One, became sin for us in that he suffered the wrath of the Father, that is hell, the punishment for the elect. What do you say that the Bible teaches? Are both of the above views acceptable? Can they be?”
“My beloved friend, you raise a good question, both in the pastoral nature of such a dilemma and in the actual Biblical example itself. I think that both answers, to the pastoral as well as interpretative approach, may be contained in the Scriptural citation itself. It is good to state the Scripture you refer to and then to appeal to traditional interpretive guides as we seek to exegete and preach the passage. Then let me say something about the matter of preaching difficult texts.
The passage you cite is from this:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” 2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV.
The statement itself, that Christ became sin for us, is enigmatic if not at least challenging in any honest intellectual response and startling in our human emotional response. How can this be? Surely this is the matter that causes even angels to repine! I am sure that your view will find strong footnotes from church history and even within the Fathers and the Reformers. Perhaps, one may say, that there is a true incomprehensibility of the fullness of this matter. The view you attribute to John Calvin may, in fact, be one that I fail to see the old Genevan Reformed saying. Indeed, such a view that Christ could, in his nature, become something that He could not be—darkest sin incarnate—is an impossibility. It would be not only decidedly unCalvinistic but utterly heretical. Jesus could not, certainly, be both sin and sinless. This is not only a matter of human logic but divinely revealed truth. Thus, Calvin did not mean to say that Jesus became the nature of sin, but was surely counted as sin. Let us look again at Calvin’s statement on this magnificent article of our faith as Calvin relates it to the phrase in the Apostle’s Creed (which is why we must not, in my opinion, lament this inclusion or regrettably in some cases, just omit it from the Creed):
‘But we must seek a surer explanation, apart from the Creed, of Christ’s descent into hell. The explanation given to us in God’s Word is not only holy and pious, but also full of wonderful consolation. If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason he must grapple hand in hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death . . . No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked! . . . he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man’ (Institutes of the Christian Religion, II, XVI, 10, vol. I, edited by John T. McNeill and translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) 515-516.
In fact, such a reality, for surely it is true, must be categorized along side of those unfathomable truths which shall not be plumbed in this life. This Scriptures are clear about Christ being sinless. Yet on the cross He is said to have become sin. I am tempted to merge those two truths by saying that the sinless Son of God became the sin eater on the cross, being imputed with the moral filth of elect mankind, and judged as sinner by His Father so that His Father would even turn His face from His Son.
I approach this passage seeking to stand on the shoulders of giants and see what others said. Like you, I am not obliged to agree with Calvin. Yet, also, like you I want to see what he says! I tend to want to see what Wesley said as much as Spurgeon or Whitefield! I enjoy reading preachers and so this gives me a great and very practical reason to do so.
I want to interpret the passage in light of the part Christ was to play as explained in the Old Testament. Therefore, I find this passage leading me to consider the role of the Lamb of God, the choice one of the flock sacrificed as a substitution for our sin. That lamb became sin and I understand Christ’s death in this way. The lamb did not develop a limp leg before he was slaughtered. Neither did Christ change His sinless nature as He “became sin for us” on the cross. I am also drawn to interpret the passage in light of easier passages which tell me that, as the Old Testament prefigured, Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, according to John. I confer with Romans and learn more about the imputation of my sin to Christ and His righteousness to me. I did not become righteous by nature in this imputation, but it (righteousness) was counted unto me (as it was to Abraham). The very Greek itself does not infer that there was a transformation of the sinless nature of our Lord. “On our behalf” is a key part of the passage. Of course, the larger context is also required to read. We also became the “righteousness of God” and for me that settles it. This is a passage about imputation. It is about substitution. It is not about transformation. The Father forsakes the Son not in denying His eternal Triune relationship for that horrible yet necessarily salvific moment, but as the Priest must forsake the beauty of the little lamb in the moment of sacrifice, or as Abraham would have forsaken Isaac had not the angel stopped the dreadful act. So using normative tools of interpretation, in this case, a Biblical-theological approach to understanding redemptive history, surveying the Bible for clearer texts and staking out the clear doctrines, and then considering something of the original language and the larger context, I arrive at some understanding. From here, I may choose to actually use this as an example to demonstrate Biblical interpretation of difficult passages. I may also consider other dynamics of congregational life that cause me to hide my exegesis and teach these hermetical approaches at a different time. In other words, I have done the spade work, I may just open up the row and drop the corn in and let is grow with the Father’s sunlight and the Son’s warmth, and the Spirit’s rain.
Yet I approach the text, I would hope, with a bold but bowed humility that seemed to always describe Paul’s theology. I prefer to be shocked by the mere horror of such an idea that the sinless One would somehow become sin. It is startling and I figure that is what the Apostle desired to convey. He does not explain his statement but lets it lie, like the horrible visage of something that could not be, should not be, can not be! I would leave it there, and say to my congregation, “Move not the ancient marker! I do not have an answer that will fully explain the inexplicable! The Gospel is embedded in the mystery that defies human philosophy and this we preach. We compare sacred text with sacred text and we interpret and preach. But then we leave it alone! Who will now assert his or her righteousness in the presence of this text? Will you not throw down your pretense of religion and cast your self on this Lamb of God?”
What a challenge! What a humbling experience! We interpret but we also deliver the truth without intellectual embellishment which could strip the textural lacquer from this holy sign in Scripture, or, paint it over with a self confident, “I got it.” No. I would rather live in the tension of a mystery than tread where angels fear to go! I would rather keep my explanations to a minimum and then let the Scripture do its divine work on the human soul, beginning with my own!
So that, my beloved friend, is my answer which may be “no answer” for you! I believe your explanation is certainly right on. You have good commentators with you. Yet, again, I like Calvin’s approach. He is undoubtedly capable of unpacking this passage further, but appeals to the Creed to speak of the hidden mystery of this event. I don’t believe his view competes with yours but compliments yours. And somehow I also would resign myself that the fulness of this is part of the mystery. Thus, men of good will shall surely disagree. This you may admit while carefully exegeting and expositing your own prayerful and studied work on the difficult text.”
Thus, I wrote to my friend and I write to you, dearest students in Christ’s Gospel ministry. Pray, study the Word, seek holiness out of grace, and preach to draw open the curtain of the Word of God to reveal the beauty of Jesus Christ our Lord, even if sometimes, that divine display may be one of awe and mystery. All the better.
Commending you to Christ and to the Word of His grace, I am