This excerpt is from the first two posts in a series; both were published back in May 2006. Phil draws out the foundational doctrines encapsulated in 2 Corinthians 5:21.
Second Corinthians 5:21 is one of my favorite verses of Scripture: "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him."
The whole gospel message is contained in embryo in those words. That short statement is crucial to our understanding of the nature of the atonement, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and the twin principles of imputation and substitution. It teaches great truths about the character of God, the sinlessness of Christ, and the simplicity of salvation. It summarizes the core truth of biblical soteriology. It has important implications for Christology. And it even says something about theology proper, because it plainly assumes the sovereignty of God, the love of God, the justice of God, and the grace of God.
This is one of those crystal-clear verses that helps us make sense of all the rest of Scripture. It helps explain the significance of the priestly and sacrificial laws of the Old Testament. It thoroughly illuminates the meaning of the cross of Christ. It reminds us why Christ is the only way of salvation from sin. It shows why no good works performed by sinners could ever contribute an iota to their salvation. And it demonstrates how salvation was accomplished for us without any of our own works—and yet in a way that completely fulfilled God's law, upheld His justice, and vindicated His own righteousness.
In other words to borrow an expression from Romans 3:26, here is how God can "be just, and the justifier of [those who believe] in Jesus." This text explains how God can pardon sinners and treat them as righteous without compromising His own impeccable righteousness or lowering His perfect standards in any way.
Historic Protestantism was born out of Luther's realization that the doctrine of justification by faith is the heart of the gospel. That conviction of Luther's has always been part of the fabric of Protestant belief. That's a stubborn fact of history that tends to rankle some folks today who insist that the central principles of historic Reformed theology—starting with sola fide—are outdated and too narrow and therefore need to yield to "a more generous, catholic spirit."
Luther called justification the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. Calvin called it the principal hinge of religion. Every other major reformer likewise accorded sola fide the same kind of importance.
Actually, the word "importance" doesn't do it justice. Historic Protestantism has regarded justification by faith as the central distinctive and most essential truth of the gospel.
[N]o single verse of Scripture is more clear about this than 2 Corinthians 5:21. The verse is Paul's simple one-sentence summary of the message he proclaimed as an ambassador of Christ. It explains precisely what he meant when he said in 1 Corinthians 2:2, "I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified."
Here, in Paul's own words, is the heart of the true ambassador's message. This is Paul's own explanation of precisely what he meant when he spoke of preaching "Jesus Christ, and him crucified." In other words, this is Paul's most succinct summary of the heart of the gospel: "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).