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
The Great Exchange! This is what 2 Corinthians 5:21 teaches, and it is nothing short of glorious. Here Paul tells us that God (the Father) made Christ, His sinless and perfect Son, to become sin for us, in order that by His work in bearing and dying for our sin, we might receive His very righteousness, granted to us by faith. That is, our sin is exchanged for Christ’s righteousness, our sentence of death is exchanged for His life in us, our condemnation is exchanged for our justification, through Christ. The heart of the gospel is found in this great exchange.
We, who stand before God as sinners and guilty, deserve only one thing from the true, living, and holy God–we deserve everlasting condemnation–period. This may be hard for some readers to grasp, given that we live in an “entitlement culture.” We are told repeatedly that we deserve good things, that we are entitled to pleasure, leisure, and delights of various kinds. But the stark and indubitable truth is this: from God our Creator, before Whom we have sinned and rebelled, we deserve one thing, and one thing only–divine judgment and eternal condemnation. Furthermore, the severity of this reality is only increased when we realize that we can do nothing to rid ourselves of our sin or of the deserved condemnation we have brought upon ourselves (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16). If God did what was just and only just, all of us would be condemned for eternity.
“But God...” Amazingly, God in His love for us devised a way–the only way—that we sinners could be spared the judgment that we deserve. God the Father sent His own perfect and divine Son to earth to take on our human nature in order to bear and pay for our sin. So indeed, God made Christ, who knew no sin, to become sin for us, that the penalty of our sin might be paid fully, and by faith we then would receive the righteousness of God in Christ. What an exchange this is. It expresses the glory of the gospel through the grace, wisdom, and power of God.
One final thought—please do not conclude that God decided to be merciful instead of just in sending Christ to bear our sin so that we might share His righteousness. No, indeed, God’s work through Christ met the full demands of His just wrath against us as Christ bore our sins on the cross. Only in doing so could God then show His mercy to save us—precisely because we no longer have our trespasses counted against us (2 Corinthians 5:19) because they were counted against Christ as He bore our sin and died in our place. So, the cross is the full manifestation of God’s just wrath against our sin in Christ while it is also the full display of His mercy in granting us what we could never earn or deserve; i.e., His merciful salvation in Christ. Praise be to God for this greatest of all exchanges ever made!
In what ways are you tempted to think that you are able to establish your own right standing with God? Do you rely on your good works, on your kindness to others, on your service at your church? Do you think these things are what makes you right in God’s sight?
Do you think that God would have sent His only Son to bear our sin and die our death if there had been any other way to bring about our salvation? How does this make you appreciate even more what God has done for you in Christ?
Considering what God did to bring about our salvation, doesn’t it stand to reason that we should long to live our lives, as fully as possible, to express to Him our love and devotion? How does our continued sinning, then, go against all that we should be, and should do, since in Christ our sin is exchanged for His righteousness?
And yet we will sin (this is a sad, but true, fact about all of us). Consider 1 John 1:8-2:2 for help in what to do when you sin.
Bruce A. Ware is professor of Christian Theology and chairman of the Department of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He has written several books, including his theology book for children, Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God. Bruce and his wife, Jodi, have two daughters and three grandchildren. The Wares love drives in the country, hikes in the woods, walks on the beach, and time with their daughters and son-in-law and grandchildren, along with reading and good music.