The Great Exchange
2 Corinthians 5:21
We return once again to our study of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, so turn with me in your Bibles to 2 Corinthians chapter 5. And this morning we come to focus our attention on the last verse of this chapter: 2 Corinthians 5, verse 21. And in a way it’s fitting that we should come to treat this particular verse on this particular Sunday, because today is Reformation Sunday. Tomorrow, October 31, 2016, marks the 499th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Though the Protestant Reformation could have been said to have begun even centuries earlier through the ministries of pre-Reformers like Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, and John Huss, most Christian historians consider the events of that day in 1517 the kick-start of the Reformation.
And it’s right for us to celebrate the Reformation. The Reformation recovered the precious truth of Solus Christus—that the Lord Jesus Christ, not the Pope, was the Head of the Church. The Reformation recovered the doctrine of Sola Scriptura—the biblical truth that Scripture, not the Magisterium, is the sole infallible authority and rule of our faith. But the crown jewel of the Reformation was the recovery of the Gospel message itself from the shackles of the heresy and corrupt traditions of Medieval Roman Catholicism—that is, the recovery of the biblical doctrine of justification.
Absolutely central to the conflict between Protestants and Catholics—both 500 years ago and today—is the teaching that justification is not an act whereby God infuses righteousness into a man, so that as he adds his own good works to Christ’s sacrifice he comes to possess his own inherent righteousness which God rewards with eternal life; but rather, that justification is the legal declaration that a sinful man is counted to be righteous, solely on the ground of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to him through faith alone apart from any works at all. It is that doctrine of justification on the ground of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone received through faith alone that Martin Luther called “the article upon which the church stands or falls,” and that Calvin called “the main hinge on which religion turns.” And it is to that doctrine of justification on the ground of imputed righteousness that the Apostle Paul turns to address in this Mount Everest of a text that is before us this morning.
Paul has been expounding upon the heart of the Gospel in this glorious section of 2 Corinthians chapter 5. And he began these meditations on the Gospel after he brought up the love of Christ that empowers him for the radically sacrificial life of ministry that we read so much about in this epistle. He says in verse 14, “For the love of Christ controls us,” or perhaps more accurately, “The love of Christ constrains us,” or “compels us.” Paul’s apprehension of the love of Christ displayed in the Gospel of His life, death, and resurrection for sinners compels him to lay down his life in joyful, enduring ministry, even in the midst of affliction.
And starting there in verse 14, Paul begins expounding on key theological components of that Gospel that so perfectly displays the love of Christ for sinners. And over the past several weeks we have feasted at this theological banquet table. We have raised our eyes to behold the glory of the multifaceted gem of the Gospel, admiring its brilliance from all different angles and vantage points, as it is captured by the various doctrines of salvation. In verse 14, Paul speaks of the doctrine of penal substitution—that “One died for all”—that the one man, Christ, paid the penalty for sin on behalf of, or in the place of His people, as our Substitute. He also speaks of the doctrine of representative headship—that “one died for all, therefore all died.” That is to say, there exists such an intimate union between us as the body of Christ and Christ as the head of the body, that He represents His people in all of His mediatorial work, so that what’s true of the Head is true of the body. So, when Christ died to sin on the cross, the people whom He represented also died to sin with Him and in Him. And when He rose to newness of life, so also did His people rise to newness of life with Him and in Him.
Then in verse 15, Paul speaks of the doctrine of sanctification, and explains that the very reason God saved us is “so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” God has granted us positional righteousness in Christ precisely so that we might magnify His sanctifying glory by living a life of practical righteousness in obedience to Him.
Then in verses 16 and 17, he explains that that sanctification originates in regeneration. He says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” If anyone is united to Christ by saving faith, he has been entirely transformed by the Holy Spirit. He now has new ways of thinking, new desires, new affections, new loves, new ambitions. And because regeneration opens the eyes of the heart, the immediate result is a changed view of Christ. The regenerate person finally sees Christ for the glorious Savior that He is, and therefore eagerly embraces Him in saving faith. And that changed view of Christ breeds a changed view of everything and everyone else, so that, verse 16, the regenerate person no longer regards anyone according to the flesh, but only in accordance with spiritual truth.
Then, we saw last time in verses 18 to 20, he turns to explain how this new creation has come to be. Man is born again through the Gospel of reconciliation. We’re born sinners; each and every human being comes into this world enslaved to sin. And so we’ve all broken God’s commandments. We’ve each one of us turned to our own way. And so in our natural state, we are enemies of God. Colossians 1:21 says that we are alienated from God, hostile in mind, and engaged in evil deeds. And yet God has taken the initiative to make peace with His enemies—to pursue us, even while we were fleeing from Him. Verse 19 says that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” Praise the Lord! God forgives sin!
But that raises the profound question: how can a holy God forgive sin? How can a perfectly righteous, perfectly good God, whose nature is to punish all sin and wrongdoing, simply not count trespasses against sinners? He can’t just sweep sin under the rug! He can’t just look the other way! If God is holy, sin must be punished! He can’t pretend as if His own character, and holiness, and worthiness, and loveliness ought not to be honored with the utmost reverence, worship, and obedience! When His character is violated by human sin, He must remain consistent with His own holiness, and therefore He simply cannot overlook it! Upon what basis can the holy God not count sin against sinners? Upon what grounds can He graciously extend forgiveness to those who don’t deserve it—indeed, those who deserve to perish eternally for their crimes! Upon what basis can the ambassadors of Christ beg wicked men and women to “Be reconciled to God!”?
And the answer to that question is in verse 21, as the Apostle Paul speaks of the great doctrine of justification. And here we are on holy ground. Amidst all the glorious mountain peaks of Gospel doctrine that we have encountered in this chapter—penal substitutionary atonement, representative headship, particular redemption, lordship salvation, monergistic regeneration, and the gracious reconciliation of God’s enemies unto Himself—here we come to the Mount Everest of Gospel truth: justification upon the ground of the imputation of our sin to Christ, and the imputation of His righteousness to us, received through faith alone, apart from works.
One commentator wrote of this verse, “There is no sentence more profound in the whole of Scripture; for this verse embraces the whole ground of the sinner’s reconciliation to God . . . . Indeed, it completes the message with which the Christian ambassador has been entrusted” (Hughes, 211). Another said, “This justly famous verse is one of the most critical in this letter, and, indeed, within the writings of the apostle Paul. … Here, stated succinctly and with power, is the heart of the gospel” (Barnett, 312). Still another wrote that in coming to this verse, “we penetrate to the center of the atonement and stand in awe before one of the most profound mysteries in the universe. . . . In a manner unparalleled in the New Testament, this verse invites us to tread on sacred ground” (Harris, 451, 456). Pastor John said, “This sentence reveals the essence of the atonement, expresses the heart of the gospel message, and articulates the most glorious truth in Scripture. . . . It is like a cache of rare jewels, each deserving of a careful, reverential examination under the magnifying glass of Scripture” (211). And the great theologian and commentator Charles Hodge wrote, “There is probably no passage in the Scriptures in which the doctrine of justification is more concisely or clearly stated than in this” (Hodge, 526).
Well, with that testimony of high praise, let us ascend the mountain and read our text. 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
I don’t know if there’s another text in the whole of Scripture that succinctly captures the very heart of the Gospel in such an economy of words. How is reconciliation possible? How can the holy God of the universe forgive sinners? Upon what basis can He not count our trespasses against us, and yet still remain righteous? Answer: God the Father imputed our sins to His sinless Son, and crushed Him under the weight of divine wrath in our place, and then imputed Christ’s righteousness to us, and gives us the gift of eternal life as though we had lived Christ’s perfect life of obedience. He is clothed in the rags of our sin and is punished accordingly, and we are clothed in the spotless robe of His obedience, and are declared righteous—“justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:25).
As we ascend with the Apostle Paul to this summit peak of Gospel truth and breathe the rarified air of 2 Corinthians 5:21, we’ll guide our thoughts by focusing on four facets of the Gospel by which we are saved, so that we might more deeply comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ” displayed in the Gospel, and therefore might be controlled and constrained and compelled by that love to a life of joyful, radically sacrificial, life-giving Gospel ministry.
I. The Saving Father[*]
That first facet of the Gospel to which we must give our attention is, number one, the saving Father. We read in verse 21 that “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf.” And when we ask ourselves what is the antecedent of the pronoun “He”—when we inquire of the text, “Who is this He who made the sinless One to be sin?”—we look back to the last word of the previous verse and discover it to be God the Father. Verse 20 ends with Paul’s entreaty: “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He”—that is, God—“made Him who knew no sin to be sin . . . .” The Gospel begins with the saving Father.
Paul declared this very truth earlier in this passage when he said in verse 18, “Now all these things are from God.” It is what the prophet Jonah declared from the belly of the fish as he repented of his sin: he said, “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jon 2:9). God the Father is the architect of salvation! It is His plan! Which means it is not the result of the ingenious devising and planning of sinners! It is not as if fallen man can just acknowledge our crimes against the holy law of God and concoct a plan for our own rescue! Only false religion speaks that way—that by adherence to a set of religious rituals or to some moral code of conduct, sinful man might achieve a measure of righteousness that might atone for his sins and avail for him in the courtroom of God!
But the unregenerate heart is capable of no such thing! The things of the Spirit of God are foolishness to the natural man, because they are spiritually appraised (1 Cor 2:14), and yet the natural man is spiritually dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1)! Romans 8:7 says the natural human mind is “hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” And so Ephesians 2:3 says that we are “by nature children of wrath.” We are in no condition to accomplish salvation for ourselves! Nor to devise any plan of action by which we might ingratiate ourselves to a holy God! No, the plan of salvation originates, as it must, with the saving Father.
Isaiah illustrates this so vividly in chapter 59 of his prophecy. Turn to Isaiah 59. In verse 9, we see the miserable condition of the natural man: “Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we hope for light, but behold darkness, for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope along the wall like blind men, we grope like those who have no eyes; we stumble at midday as in the twilight, among those who are vigorous we are like dead men.” Verse 12: “For our transgressions are multiplied before You, and our sins testify against us.” Verse 14: “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away.” Now, look at the middle of verse 15: “Now Yahweh saw, and it was displeasing in His sight that there was no justice. And He saw that there was no man, and was astonished that there was no one to intercede; then His own arm brought salvation to Him, and His righteousness upheld Him.”
There was no man to intercede on behalf of men! We were all like blind men groping along a wall! And so God’s own arm wrought salvation! Righteousness stood far away from us! And so He brought His righteousness to men! He says in Isaiah 49:12 and 13: “Listen to Me, you stubborn-minded, who are far from righteousness. I bring near My righteousness!” God is the architect of salvation! He made the One who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf! This means that Jesus did not go to the cross because of the treachery of Judas, because of the wickedness of Annas and Caiaphas, because of the cowardice of Pontius Pilate, or because of the bloodlust of the Roman executioners! Jesus went to the cross, as Peter said to the men of Israel on Pentecost, “by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God,” Acts 2:23. They did “whatever [His] hand and [His] purpose predestined to occur,” Acts 4:28.
Dear friends, may we never forget those most sobering words of Isaiah 53:10—that “It was the will of the Lord to crush Him, putting Him to grief”! Literally, “The Lord was pleased to crush Him”! Oh, may we behold the complexity and the incomprehensibility of the heart of God! This Father, who delighted in His Son from all eternity, and whose Son in the days of His flesh had always and only done His Father’s will—this Father, who on multiple occasions declared from heaven itself, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”— was pleased to crush His beloved Son under the weight and burden of my sin! Why in the world should a God so holy as this crush His righteous Son for a worm like me?! Why should the obedient Son perish for treacherous, adulterous criminals? Bow in wonder, friends, before the magnanimous heart of the saving Father! Oh, may we never be among those who suppose that God the Father is this purse-lipped, furrowed-browed old miser whom Jesus convinced to love us! No, the Father is no reluctant Savior! It is precisely because He loved us that He was pleased to crush His Son for us. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4–5).
He is the saving Father. Only He could have possessed the wisdom to make hell-deserving sinners acceptable in His sight. Only He could have designed an atonement in which sin would be justly punished in a substitute, so that guilty sinners could be forgiven without compromising the demands of His justice—so that His wrath would be propitiated in a manner consistent with His love and mercy. And only He could have possessed the love, and the grace, and the large-heartedness to freely deliver over His own beloved Son to make it all happen. Dear friends, salvation belongs to the Lord. He is the architect of this great Gospel by which we are saved. Let us worship this saving Father with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
II. The Sinless Substitute
Well, we have beheld the saving Father. Let us now raise our eyes to the second facet of the Gospel that is presented to us in this text, number two: the sinless substitute. “He”—the Father—“made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf.”
Paul identifies the Lord Jesus Christ here as “Him who knew no sin.” Now, this of course doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t know what sin was. It means that Jesus was not personally acquainted with sin—that He had no experiential knowledge of having participated in sin. Paul uses this same idiom with respect to the knowledge of sin in Romans 7:7 where he says, “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law.” The idea there is not, “I wouldn’t have been able to intellectualize the concept of sin without the law;” of course not: the law is written on the heart of all men. No, the idea is, verse 8, that sin took opportunity through the commandment and produced in me coveting of every kind.
So to know sin, the way Paul uses it here, speaks of the knowledge of personal participation in sin. And he says, Jesus knew no sin. Paul is saying that Jesus was entirely sinless. And Jesus claimed as much for Himself. In John 7:18 he says, “He who is seeking the glory of the One who sent Him, He is true, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.” In John 8:46 he challenges the Pharisees by asking, “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?” And of course, none of them could. And it wasn’t just His own claims, but the disciples—the men who lived every day with Jesus for three years—testified of the same thing. In 1 Peter 2:22, the Apostle Peter applied Isaiah 53:9 to Jesus when he said that He “committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth.” In 1 John 3:5, John said, “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.” Hebrews 4:15 says that He’s a sympathetic High Priest “who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” And in 7:26, it says as our high priest He was “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens.” The Man Jesus Christ was absolutely free from sin. Not in thought, not in word, not in deed—nothing He ever did or didn’t do fell short of God’s holy standard of perfect righteousness. He always loved the Lord His God with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength. He always loved His neighbor as Himself. He only ever did what was pleasing to His Father.
And that is absolutely essential to the Gospel. Because Jesus is not only the sinless One; He is the sinless substitute. The one who knew no sin is made to be sin on our behalf. There’s that Greek preposition huper that we’ve spoken so much about, that signifies the concept of substitution. Back in verse 14 it’s translated as the simple word “for” in the phrase, “one died for all, therefore all died.” Christ died on behalf of, or in the place of, His people, as a substitute. In verse 20, Paul says “we are ambassadors for Christ,” and “we beg you on behalf of Christ”—both the word huper, speaking of the fact that the Gospel preacher stands in the place of Christ, as if Jesus Himself were imploring people to repent and believe the Gospel through us. And so when Paul says that the one who knew no sin was made sin on our behalf, he is once again speaking of the substitutionary atonement of Christ.
See, Christ didn’t just obey the Father and live a sinless life for His own sake. He was already sinless from all eternity. He was God Himself—perfectly righteous as the second person of the Trinity. No, His sinless life of perfect obedience as a man was absolutely necessary in order for Him to be a suitable substitute for sinful men. And the Old Testament taught clearly that any sacrifice brought as a substitutionary atonement for Israel had to be without defect. In Leviticus 22 verses 20 and 21, God commanded, “Whatever has a defect, you shall not offer, for it will not be accepted for you. . . . it must be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no defect in it.” The same was true of Israel’s Passover lamb. To be accepted as a suitable substitute for God’s people, He commanded in Exodus 12:5: “Your lamb shall be without blemish.” Well in the same way, Hebrews 9:26 identifies Christ Himself as the atoning sacrifice for His people in fulfillment of the Levitical sacrifices. And therefore, as a substitionary sacrifice for sinners, He was required to be without defect. Similarly, 1 Corinthians 5:7 identifies Him as our Passover Lamb, and therefore Peter says we were redeemed “with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:18–19).
The only fitting substitute for sinners had to be free from all defect themselves. That’s why Psalm 49:7–8 said, “No man can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom for him—For the redemption of his soul is costly, and he should cease trying forever.” You can’t redeem your brother because you yourself have sins to pay for! And those sins demand an infinite punishment! Only a sinless substitute, only one who knew no sin of his own could qualify to bear the full wrath of God against the sins of others (MacArthur, 214). And here we behold the Lord Jesus Christ—the spotless Lamb of God—so perfectly suited to our need! Man had committed sin, and therefore man is required to provide atonement. But the miserable state of humanity is that sinful man cannot provide atonement for himself, let alone anyone else! And so wonder of wonders, God the Son Himself, free from all sin and uncleanness, would be born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, and thus avoid the stain of Adam’s guilt and the inheritance of sinful human nature, and He would live a perfect life as a man, so that He might be the sinless substitute that would atone for sinners. Oh the depths of the wisdom of God to devise this Gospel! Philip Edgcumbe Hughes put it this way: “Only He who had completely and uninterruptedly obeyed the law of God was fitted to suffer the punishment due to those who have willfully disobeyed that law. Only He who was entirely without sin of His own was free to bear the sin of others” (212, 213).
III. The Sin Imputed
And at the end of that quote, we come to the substance of Christ’s substitution. In what way did the sinless substitute stand in the place of sinners and atone for our sin? In answering that question we come to the third facet of the Gospel in this text, and that is, number three: the sin imputed. Look once again at our verse: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf.”
And if that statement doesn’t totally shock you, you have let it become too commonplace in your thinking and in your affections! He, the loving Father, made Him, Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf! That ought to knock you out of your chair! This sinless One?! This spotless Lamb?! God the Son Himself?! Made sin?! Paul intends that to be every bit as startling as it sounds!
But we have to be careful to understand the precise meaning of that phrase, or we can veer off into false doctrine and even heresy very quickly. In the first place, for the Father to make the Son sin does not mean that Jesus was made a sinner on the cross. That is absolutely inconceivable, for the very reasons we have just outlined in our previous point. The uniform testimony of the New Testament is that Jesus was entirely without sin at all points in His life. He had to be, in order to righteously accomplish a genuine atonement. The only suitable substitute to atone for man’s sins is a sinless substitute. And besides that, Christ is still Holy God on that cross. The Lord Jesus Christ could no more be made a sinner than God the Father or the Holy Spirit could be made a sinner. And besides even that, if it was possible for Christ to be made a sinner, it is altogether unthinkable that the thrice-Holy God, whose eyes are too pure to approve evil, would make anyone a sinner—least of all His own beloved Son. There was never a moment on that cross that Christ, with respect to His own person, was anything but holy, harmless, and undefiled, and separate from sinners.
In what sense, then, did the Father make the Son to be sin? In only this sense: On the cross, the Father imputed the sins of His people to the Son. This is the doctrine of the imputation of sin to Christ. What that means is: the Father treated Christ as if He had committed the sins of every one of the people His Father had given Him, though in fact He committed none of those sins. In other words, the Father charged the sins of all those who would ever believe to Christ’s account, laid the burden of the guilt of our sin upon His shoulders, and caused Him to pay the penalty for sin—which was to bear in His own person the full fury of the Father’s wrath against sin.
And this was illustrated exquisitely for us in the Old Testament practice of the Day of Atonement—the absolute pinnacle of the Israelite sacrificial system. Turn to Leviticus 16. Once a year—and only once a year—the high priest of Israel—and only the high priest of Israel—was to enter God’s immediate presence in the holy of holies, in order, Leviticus 16:17 to “make atonement for himself and for his household and for all the assembly of Israel.” And God commanded the high priest to offer two goats. Verses 8 to 10 tell us that one goat was to be sacrificed, and its blood was to be sprinkled on the mercy seat, the covering of the ark of the covenant. The other goat was to be kept alive, to bear the sins of the people, and to be banished from the presence of the Lord. Look at verses 21 and 22: “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.”
By laying his hands on the head of the scapegoat and confessing all Israel’s sins over it, the high priest was symbolizing that God had reckoned the sin and guilt of the people to be judicially and legally transferred to the goat. Instead of bearing their own iniquity and being banished from the holy presence of God, Israel’s sin was imputed to a substitute. The innocent scapegoat bears the sin, guilt, and punishment of the people and is banished in their place. Turn now to Isaiah 53, verses 4 to 6. Isaiah prophesies of the sufferings of Messiah 700 years in advance when he says, “Surely our griefs He Himself bore,”—He bore our sins. “And our sorrows He carried.” Verse 5: “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.” And in his first letter to the churches, the Apostle Peter quotes this passage in 1 Peter 2:24 when he says, “And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross.” In Galatians 3:13, Paul says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us.” The curse of the law which we were under because of our sin—namely the curse of suffering under the wrath of God for eternity—was borne by Christ who became a curse for us, in our place.
On Calvary, as the midday sun is shrouded in darkness, the Father is, as it were, laying his hands on the head of the Son, the scapegoat, and confessing over Him the sins of His people. And as a result of bearing their sin, the Son is banished from the presence of the Father, leaving him to suffer, as Hebrews 13:12 says, outside the gate. God the Son, who for eternity was the apple of His Father’s eye, His ever-present companion, in whom His soul was always well-pleased, was forsaken by His Father, as His Father laid upon Him the iniquity of us all, and abandoned Him to bear His unleashed fury. Oh, Christ knew what the wrath of God was. As God, He exercised it upon His enemies in judgment ever since the angels fell. But I can only imagine the terror of utter bewilderment, when the Son became the object of the Father’s wrath—the first time in all of eternity He had known the bitterness of His Father’s displeasure, the pain of His Father’s rejection—leaving Him to cry out those wretched words: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Dear sinner, that was your cry of dereliction! That bitter cup of wrath was yours to drink! And if God is to remain both just and justifier—if He is going to declare guilty sinners righteous—He must declare a righteous substitute guilty! If God is going to reconcile sinners to Himself, not counting their trespasses against us, and still remain holy—He must count them against a sinless substitute; He must impute them to our sin-bearing Savior. This is why Jesus is hanging on that cross! Not because He wants to be a good example! And certainly not because He wants to show you how great you are! But so that all the punishment your sins deserved would be borne by your Substitute—so that God’s righteousness would be satisfied in strict accordance with divine justice! God can justly and legally and righteously not count our trespasses against us, and forgive us, because He has legally imputed our sins to Christ on the cross.
IV. The Saints’ Righteousness
But as glorious as that is, that’s only half the story of justification! In fact, if the only benefit we received in justification was the forgiveness of our sins, we wouldn’t be saved! The old Sunday school definition of justification—that it means—“just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned” is entirely inadequate, because God’s law doesn’t only require us to be sinless, or innocent. It requires us to be righteous!
You say, “Mike, what do you mean? If I’ve committed no sin, aren’t I righteous?” No, there’s a difference between innocence and righteousness. We’ve got to understand: the law of God, which we’ve all broken, has both (a) positive demands, and (b) penal sanctions for failure to meet those demands. We’re required (a) to obey God’s commandments in a way that befits His worthiness, and we’re required (b) to pay the penalty of eternal punishment if we fall short of perfect obedience. And you and I—all of us—have failed to do both. We have failed to live lives of perfect righteousness; we have not loved God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. And we have also failed to pay an adequate penalty for our sins, short of perishing eternally in hell.
So if we are going to be saved, we need a substitute who does more than pays our penalty by bearing the wrath of God against our sin. That would bring us back to zero, if you will—back to a state of neutrality. We’d be reckoned as never having sinned, but also as never having obeyed, either. No, if we are going to stand in the presence of God and not be incinerated by His holiness, we need to be counted—not just innocent—but righteous! We need a positive record of righteousness credited to our account from One who has obeyed on our behalf all the positive demands of the law that God required of us.
And that brings us to our fourth facet of the Gospel in this text. We’ve seen the saving Father, the sinless substitute, the sin imputed, and now, number four: the saints’ righteousness. Look once more at our verse: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
“The righteousness of God” speaks of that righteousness by which God Himself is characterized. God’s righteousness is His unwavering commitment to doing what is right—namely, upholding the glory and honor of His own name. It is this righteousness that He requires of His creatures if they would be in fellowship with Him. If you would be reconciled to a saving relationship with God, you must possess a record of righteousness which consists of perfectly and consistently acting in a way that upholds the glory and honor of the name of God—in other words, of perfect obedience.
But because we’re sinful, we can never attain the righteousness of God by the works of the law, because we don’t perfectly obey. That is precisely why the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, Romans 1:16: because, verse 17, in this Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. That’s why Paul goes on to say in Romans 3:21: “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” That’s why he defines the very nature of what it means to be saved in Philippians 3:9 as “not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (NKJV). If we are to have any hope of salvation at all, we must be provided with the righteousness of God.
And if we are to receive a righteousness answerable to our own nature and need, the righteousness of God must be the righteousness of a Man. And therefore, Scripture teaches that we receive the righteousness of God through the God-Man, Jesus Christ. The perfect record of obedience to God’s law that we need credited to our account is the very perfect record of obedience that Christ accomplished in His life on earth. That’s why Romans 10:4 says, “The goal of the law is Christ forrighteousness to everyone who believes.” That’s why in 2 Peter 1:1 Peter calls Christians “those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” And that’s why Paul contrasts Adam and Christ as the two heads of humanity in Romans 5:12–21, and says in verse 19: “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were constituted sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be constituted righteous.” Adam’s sin provides an actual, lived-out record of human disobedience, which was counted to be ours through our union with him, and became the legal basis on which God justly constitutes all men guilty (Rom 5:12). In the same way, Christ’s life of obedience provides the actual, lived-out record of righteousness, which is counted to be ours through our union with him, and becomes the legal basis on which God justly constitutes guilty sinners righteous.
You see, Christ did more than just die for our sins! He also lived to provide our righteousness! And when we trust in Him, we lay hold of both benefits in union with Him. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf”—in other words, God imputed our sins to Christ—“so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him”—so that God could impute Christ’s righteousness to us!
But Roman Catholics, some Anglicans, and other heretics say, “Where do you get imputed righteousness from in this text? This verse doesn’t say, ‘so that we might be counted as the righteousness of God in Him’! It actually says, ‘so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him’! This isn’t the imputation of the righteousness of another to the believer’s account; it’s the infusion of an inherent righteousness into the believer!” GraceLife, understand: the difference between those two is the difference between heaven and hell. A gospel of infused righteousness is eternally different than the Gospel of imputed righteousness—because the one is my own inherent righteousness (contra Phil 3:9), while the other is the alien righteousness of Christ alone received through faith alone.
But how do we get that from our text? Well first, though the explicit language of imputation isn’t used in verse 21, it isn’t far behind. In verse 19, Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting”—or not imputing—“their trespasses against them.” So he describes the first half of forgiveness of sins, in verse 19, as the non-imputation of sin to us. Then he describes the second half of it in verse 21, by describing it as God making Christ sin. But again, in what sense did God make Christ sin? Not by infusing sin into Him! That would be blasphemy! No, the Father made Him who knew no sin to be sin by legally imputing our sins to Christ and treating Him as if He had lived our life of sin though in fact He committed no sin. Well, if the parallel between the two halves of verse 21 is to hold, we must “become” righteous in this very same sense! Not that righteousness is infused into us, but by God’s legally imputing the righteousness of Christ to our account, treating us as if we had lived His life of perfect obedience, though in fact we are nothing but sinners in ourselves.
O, what a blesséd Gospel! This is the great exchange! My filthy garments of sin wrapped upon the sinless One, and His pure-white robe of righteousness laid upon me! “For all of you who were baptized into [union with] Christ,” Galatians 3:27, “have clothed yourselves with Christ!” Oh, let us sing with Isaiah: “I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, My soul will exult in my God; For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness” (Isa 61:10; cf. Zech 3:1–5; Matt 22:1–14)!
And the saints have sung the song of imputed righteousness throughout the history of the church. In the 2nd century, one of the early church fathers celebrated this very text by exclaiming, “O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!” (Epistle to Diognetus, 9:5). In the 16th century, the English Reformer Richard Hooker said, “Let it be counted folly or frenzy or fury or whatever. It is our wisdom and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this: that man hath sinned and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God” (in Storms, 174)! And in our own century, we sing the beautiful words penned by Chris Anderson: “His robes for mine: O wonderful exchange! / Clothed in my sin, Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage. / Draped in His righteousness, I’m justified. / In Christ I live, for in my place He died.”
Praise God for the Gospel of the Great Exchange! God has imputed my sin to Christ, and has punished Him as if He lived my life, so that He might impute Christ’s righteousness to me, and reward me—a sinner, condemned and unclean—as if I had lived Christ’s life!
Dear sinner, can you say the same? Do you know in your heart of hearts—are you absolutely convinced in the depths of your soul—that God has imputed your sins to Christ and imputed Christ’s righteousness to you? For that wonderful exchange happens only through repentance from sin and saving faith in Christ. We must never neglect those two tiny words at the end of our verse: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him!” It is only in Him—in a saving faith-union with the righteous One—that the righteousness of God is made yours! It is only by faith in Christ—apart from works of your own!—that you might be declared righteous in the sight of the holy God with whom you have to do!
Dear sinner, you have heard the Good News of Jesus Christ this morning—that you have sinned, that you are deserving of hell, that you are helpless under the weight of God’s judgment, but that Christ the Righteous has both lived and died in the place of sinners and promises to welcome all the weary and heavy-laden who come to Him in repentance and faith! Turn from your sins, turn away even from the filthy rags of your own ‘good works,’ and trust entirely in the perfect death and the perfect life of the Lord Jesus Christ to pay for your sin and provide your righteousness.
And to my dear brethren who are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone: dear friends, treasure this Gospel of the Saving Father, the Sinless Substitute, the Sin Imputed, and the Saints’ Righteousness. Treasure this Gospel! Worship the Triune God of this Gospel! And may the love of Christ displayed in this Gospel compel you to preach this Gospel to the lost, and minister this Gospel to the saints—even in the midst of affliction.
[*] The titles of the main points of this outline are adapted from a sermon on this passage given by Steve Lawson.