St. Paul writes, “God made him [Christ] who knew no sin, to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Sadly, Luther took this passage as though it employed no literary device, as though it were in the “proper literal sense”.
A passage is in the “proper literal sense” only when there is no “noteworthy” literary device. If there is a “noteworthy” literary device, it is in the “IM-proper literal sense”.
Why all these technicalities? Theology is no easy science! It is very demanding. And this is the lucid distinction carved out by the Tradition. The reason is this: Every last text in Scripture is literally true. So, those who say that it is wrong to take everything “literally” are in error. The Church teaches that the literal sense is always true. See Leo XIII in his magisterial Providentissimus Deus. There is no such thing as a false passage of Scripture. What these people mean to say is that we should not take every passage as though it were in the proper literal sense. For many passages are in the improper literal sense.
Witness Jesus’ command: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off….” Sadly, the master of allegory, Origen, took this one in the proper literal sense. He drew the conclusion and castrated himself. Ouch.
The lesson is clear: Some texts employ literary devices that are “noteworthy”. For example, “God was walking in the garden”. What, did he have legs? No. So he couldn’t walk. Then, the text means, as one who is intimate with another walks where he walks, and searches him out, so the Lord who generously invited Adam and Eve into fellowship with him and marital bliss with one another, so this our Lord sought to ask them, “Where are you?”
Back to our text. Luther took “Made him to be sin” in the proper literal sense. But this is blasphemy and heresy. We cannot say that our sins are in Jesus’ soul and body. This is to blaspheme God. What, can a sin jump from me to you like a flea jumps from one body to another? Nonsense.
The Muslims, and probably many Jewish thinkers, find those (heretical) Christian theses that suggest that guilt can “jump around” like a flea to be abhorrent. Good for them: They are abhorrent. We must reject the idea that Jesus “Became sin” in the proper literal sense.
Rather, Paul meant this: That just as the sacrifice for sin is called “sin” in the Old Testament, so Jesus became a sacrifice for our sins. In fact, the statement of Paul also contains another obvious literary device. For we do not become the very righteousness of God. God’s righteousness is God himself. We do not become God himself. We would explode. That would not be an act of union between persons but of domination: God crushing us with his infinity. Instead, we are made to participate in God. So too, Jesus was made to participate in the likeness of sinful flesh: Taking on real human flesh, except without sin.