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)
A great exchange lies at the heart of the Christian faith. God’s people contributed their sin, their failures, their guilt, and exchanged them for forgiveness, for joy, for Jesus’s righteousness, leading to eternal life. Have you marveled at this recently?
Allow me to tell the story again.
Scripture depicts God’s people as a woman who formerly had nothing but sin and shame (Ezekiel 16; Hosea 1). Yet somehow, the righteous King of heaven decided to pursue her for marriage. She was poor, naked, and diseased beyond hope of recovery. She laid on her sickbed, unable to rise; he sat on the throne of heaven, worshiped by angels. She committed sedition against this King, cursing him in her sin — despite all his unceasing kindness and provisions.
The last thing she expected — indeed the last thing she looked for — was the love and forgiveness that this King would ensure she acquired.
He Came to Become Sin
From heaven, he came and sought her. He came to the ancient ruins of Eden, taking a human body and reasoning soul to visit the fallen realms of his earth.
And although he created the world, the world did not know him. Taking wonder deeper, he traveled even to Israel, his own people, and they still did not recognize him. He taught among them as no one before. He healed their sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead to life.
As he hinted at his identity, Israel’s spiritual watchmen did not grow relieved or enthralled, but incensed and jealous. They rejected him, refused to follow, questioned him at every turn, stirred up the people against him, and in the end, crucified him. Yet not without his consent. He gave himself willingly unto death, bringing his Bride — still ignorant and dead in sin — to life. He embraced that wrath she deserved. He became sin, our sin, that we might be forgiven.
I hope you’ve heard that story before — love hearing it over and over. Heaven has no greater to tell.
Yet as we feast upon its bounty, drawing strength for each new day, do we forget this was a two-way exchange? For myself, I often emphasize what Jesus took on my behalf: wrath, punishment, death, sin, abandonment. Before the cross, I gratefully sing,
Here we have a firm foundation,
Here the refuge of the lost;
Christ, the Rock of our salvation,
His the name of which we boast.
Lamb of God, for sinners wounded,
Sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded Who on him their hope have built.
What remains less in view, though, is what we get in return beyond canceled debt. C.R. Wiley observes,
Most Christians are familiar with salvation as accounting, but they think in terms of single-imputation. They believe that our sins have been imputed to Christ and that’s why he died on the cross, so that he could pay for them. But that’s where it stops for them. They think that Christ’s death has left them with a zero balance. (Man of the House, 111)
But notice again the verse: “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). Christ does not merely forgive; not merely cancel debts. He gives righteousness in such degree that we become the righteousness of God. Christ’s perfect life is ours — his perfect obedience reckoned to us. Our accounts burst with the eternal riches of the perfection of Christ.
Our ‘Not-Yet’ Fight
O believer, though you still put the flesh to death daily, and carry a cross through a fallen world, remember Christ has made you, in a real and living sense, perfect — right now.
“O believer, Christ has made you, in a real and living sense, perfect — right now.”
Yes, you still sin, but every sin that lies ahead is paid for at the cross. “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). Your ongoing sanctification, as slow and arduous as it runs, confirms a remarkable reality: By Christ’s one offering, he has perfected you already. We feel the “not yet” of continuing to fight, but how often do we delight in the “already” of our holy status before God?
Why does this matter practically? As we realize our standing in Christ — the great blessing we have in not only giving the penalty of our sins to Christ, but receiving his perfect life — we know we are loved and accepted before we make great strides in the Christian life. And reckoning this allows us to make the greatest strides in the Christian life.
As Chosen Ones
Notice carefully the order of Paul’s words in one example among many:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:12–13)
As Paul commands us to put on the radiant clothing of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love, he inserts a phrase bearing the weight of ten worlds: Put these on as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.
“You have no need to work your way into his love or achieve his holiness. Christ has done it in your place.”
Put on these virtues — or, in another place, simply “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14) — as a chosen one, one already holy and beloved. Continue to pursue a life worthy of the gospel with this sure gospel footing: You journey forth already holy, already beloved of God. You have no need to work your way into his love or achieve his holiness. Christ has done it in your place.
Bringing Holiness to Completion
Through this side of the great exchange, he welcomes you before you continue making those strides in humility, meekness, and love. You do not put on Christ to become definitively chosen, holy, and beloved, but as a response to what Christ accomplished two thousand years ago. As we progressively “bring holiness to completion in the fear of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 7:1), we do so already basking in the statements that we stand holy and beloved in Christ. Our growth in Christian living is growing into what we already are in union with our Savior.
At the heart of Christianity is indeed a great exchange, a double exchange. Christ, our great Groom, became our sin and bore the wrath we deserved. And in exchange, we get his perfect life and all that justly comes with it: God’s love, eternal life, heavenly rewards, unity with each other, restored and unbreakable fellowship with God. We are rich beyond measure, having God himself as our treasure, and this empowers us to live wholly for him.