But although God would be just to do away with every one of us, He chooses not to. He chooses to show His justice in another way, by providing the solution to our failure. [2 Corinthians 5] Verse 21 is a wonderful summary of this solution:
For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Note that there are four parts to this solution:
1) God uses a sinless man, Jesus.
The ESV text says he “knew no sin”; the NIV translates this “had no sin.” Jesus knew all about sin, but He never committed a sin. As Peter tells us:
1 Peter 2:22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.
What does this mean? What would a sinless man look like?
We tend to think in terms of gross, obvious sins: A sinless man would be someone who never robbed a bank, never committed adultery, and was always kind to others.
But Jesus tells us that these gross, outward sins are the fruit of sinful hearts. A sinless man must have a sinless heart. So this means that Jesus:
- Never desired someone else’s possessions.
- Never lusted after a woman.
- Never was greedy for money.
Furthermore, He always, continuously fulfilled the purpose of man’s creation: Every moment of every day He delighted in God, He glorified Him in thought and deed. Every moment of every day He loved the Lord His God with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Jesus was sinless – and thus was the first man, ever, who did NOT deserve punishment.
2) God credits all the sins of all those He chooses to save to Jesus’ account; Jesus suffers the penalty for those sins.
The text tells us: “God made him who had no sin TO BE SIN for us.”
What does this mean? Look back at verse 19. This verse tells us that God is reconciling the world to Himself, “not counting their trespasses against them.”
“Counting” is a bookkeeping term; we could translate it “crediting”. Think in terms of credits and debits to an account. Each sin creates debt. Each sin makes the total debt larger and larger. And we sin continually! So we are always adding to that mountain of debt, until it becomes like billions and billions of dollars. The debt gets so large, we can never pay it back.
But God takes all that debt, and transfers it to another account. He doesn’t force you to pay it. He transfers all the debt to the account of Jesus. “God made him to be sin.” The sinless one is made sin.
The language sounds strange to us because Paul uses the imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Consider Leviticus 4:21:
[The priest] shall carry the bull outside the camp and burn it up; . . . it is the sin of the assembly.
Your translation may say, “it is the sin offering for the assembly.” But the Corinthians read the Old Testament in its Greek translation, the Septuagint. And in that translation, the bull is said to be the “sin of the assembly.” The sacrifice for sins is said to be sin.
Just so with Christ in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Here Jesus is “made to be sin” just like that bull was the sin of the assembly. All the sins of those God saves are credited to Jesus’ account. He takes on all the punishment for all those sins.
So the first three points of this verse are that God takes a sinless man, Jesus, and credits all the punishment for all the sin of those He is saving to Jesus’ account.
But there’s an additional crediting that takes place, and that is the third point of the verse:
3) God credits Jesus’ perfect life, His righteousness to our account.
God not only takes away our debt, our sin, but He also credits us with Jesus’ perfect life.
Once again, this is a financial image: We are in debt for billions and billions of dollars. God transfers that debt to Jesus’ account, so we don’t have to pay it. But He does more. He transfers into our account a huge fortune – the righteousness of Christ.
So Paul says, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
We are not only free from the penalty of sin, but we take on the righteousness of God.
This is wonderful – but this is not the end of the story.
4) God not only changes our position before Him; He also changes who we are.
We’ve described a “bookkeeping” transaction. God takes our sin and assigns it to Jesus. God takes Jesus’ righteousness and assigns it to all whom He saves. This is a glorious truth.
Yet God does more than that. He also changes our behavior. He changes who we are. He changes us in practice.
When Paul says that we “become the righteousness of God,” he implies not only that the accounts are settled, but also that God fulfills in us the purpose of the creation of man. He miraculously makes us new creatures, as verse 17 tells us: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation.”
In the words of verse 15, Jesus
died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
A new Creation! A miracle of God! We thus are able to live differently – to live for Him! To glorify Him! To delight in Him!
As His new creation, we now fulfill God’s purpose for mankind: To glorify Himself.
So God’s solution to our problem is to send the perfect man, Jesus, and to credit all the sins of all those He will save to Jesus’ account. Furthermore, He credits His righteousness to our account. In addition, He changes our hearts. He make us into a new creation, so that we might fulfill God’s purposes for mankind. This is Good News indeed!