"He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
ere is the apostle Paul's most succinct statement about the meaning of the cross. This could be the shortest, simplest verse among many in the Pauline epistles that make the meaning of justification inescapable: "He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him."
That text is all about the atoning work of Christ. Its meaning can be summed up in a single principle: substitution. It describes an exchange that took place through the atonement that Christ offeredour sin for Christ's righteousness. He took the place of sinners so that they might stand in His place as a perfectly righteous man.
Notice the graphic language: He was made sin (that's the very epitome of all that is despicable and odious), so that we might be made righteousness (that's everything that is good and pure and acceptable in God's estimation). This was the exchange: our sin for His righteousness. Our sin charged to His account; His righteousness credited to our account. It is a profound concept, and several amazing things stand out on the face of this text.
God did this
First of all: The atonement was God's own sovereign plan and purpose. "He [God] hath made him [Christ] to be sin for us." It was God who appointed His own Son to stand in the place of sinners.
In the words of Acts 2:23, Christ was "delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God." His death on the cross was not merely something inflicted on Him by the wicked hands of sinful men. This was not merely an atrocity instigated and carried out in the strength of human free will. God ordained it.
As Isaiah 53:10 says, "it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief . . . [He made] his soul an offering for sin." Acts 4:28 also says that what happened at the cross was precisely what the hand and the counsel of God predetermined to be done.
So God Himself was the One who offered this amazing sacrifice on behalf of sinners. It was all done, according to John 19:28, so "that the scripture might be fulfilled." In other words, the cross was not an accident of history or an afterthought. But long before the beginning of time this was the predetermined plan of a sovereign God to redeem sinners. That's why Revelation 13:8 refers to Christ as "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." The truth of God's sovereignty permeates this text. God did this.
He did it for us
Second, this is pure grace: "He hath made him to be sin for us." Christ, who did not deserve the wages of sin, suffered the full weight of divine wrath on behalf of people who did not deserve anything but judgment. He did not deserve to die; we did not deserve to live; but He changed places with us.
First Peter 3:18, "[Christ] suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God." Think of how amazing this is. Romans 5:7-8: "For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
So this was an extraordinary expression of amazing, unimaginable, incomprehensible love for people who were utterly undeserving of any favor whatsoever. Yet God did this for us. Sinners though we were; enemies though we were; our sin having set us against God as stubborn adversariesHe sacrificed His own beloved son for us.
He did it through Christ
Third, notice that what God planned and purposed was accomplished through the agency of the incarnate Christthe eternal Son of God in human flesh, who did all this willingly, on our behalf. He "who knew no sin" became "sin for us."
Both His life and His death are in view here. The fact that He "knew no sin" speaks of His sinless life. The reality that "He [became] sin for us" speaks of His dying on the crosswhen He stood in the place of sinners and bore the wages of their sin as if He Himself had been guilty of all of it.
And yet he wasn't. "[He] knew no sin." Again, that speaks of His perfect life. Born under the law, He fulfilled every jot and tittle of God's commandments perfectly, in every degree. Hebrews 7:26: "[He was] holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners." "[He] did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth" (1 Peter 2:22). According to 1 John 3:5, "He was manifested to take away our sins; [but] in him [there was] no sin." He was the spotless, sinless lamb of Godinnocent, pure, without sinas far from sin as anyone could ever be. But He was manifested to take away the sin of the world by bearing it and paying the awful price of it.
That message is what the true gospel is all about. No text of Scripture presents it more plainly or more concisely than this verse. In a few upcoming posts, we'll look at 2 Corinthians 5:21 from three perspectives that help unpack the text's implications for the doctrine of justification.