The Sinless Made Sin for the Sinful

A sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:21 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 12/21/03

Today we are celebrating the birth of Jesus. We thank God for telling us the details we have just read about His birth. But the Bible tells us almost nothing more about him until he is 30 years old. According to Mark, one of the very first commands of his public ministry was this:

“Believe the gospel!” “Believe the good news!”

You must believe the gospel!

But what is the gospel? What is the good news?

Or change the question somewhat: How can a man have an eternal relationship with God? How can he live in the presence of God for all eternity?

Ask this question of people outside the Harris Teeter grocery store; what will they say? Consider these four answers, each with an implied definition of the good news, and each with an implied command:

1)  “Live a good life – try hard, do better than most others. Go to church, get involved: your good deeds will then outweigh your bad deeds. God will appreciate that!”

What is the “good news” in this case? “Those who do more good than bad are saved.” What is the implied command? “Do good!”

2) “If I am sincere, if I believe in something, and if I live a life consistent with those beliefs, God will reward me, even if I get a few things wrong.”

Here the good news is: “Those who are sincere are saved.” The implied command: “Be sincere!”

3) “All paths lead to God – some are more direct, while some others are roundabout, but everyone eventually will be saved by Christ, whether they know Him or not. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy!”

Here the good news is: “I’m ok, you’re ok, we’re all ok, we’re all saved.” And the implied command is: “Don’t worry, be happy! Feel good about yourself!”

4) “If I agree that Jesus is God and that God raised him from the dead, I will be saved.”

Here the good news is: “Anyone who agrees with certain facts about Jesus will be saved!” The command: “Agree with the facts!”

All of these are false gospels – and thus not good news at all.

Each of these has an element of truth in it – but there are many, many who believe one of these four and are heading to hell.

What is the gospel? What is the good news? How can you have an eternal relationship with God?

We are working our way through Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth. We are in the middle of our consideration of 2 Corinthians 5:10-21. Let’s read this passage:

10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. 12 We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. 13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. 16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 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 5:10-21 ESV

These verses tell us both why we should spread the gospel and what the gospel is. Last week we addressed the “why”. We noted that:

This week: What is the Gospel? Verse 19 tells us that God has entrusted to us the message or the word of reconciliation. This message of reconciliation is the Gospel. A message always has content. There are things it says and things it doesn’t say.

Consider a man on a business trip sending a message back to his wife with a returning colleague. He instructs his colleague to tell her

But the colleague, when he sees her, doesn’t quite get it right. He tells her that her husband said:

Has that colleague fulfilled his task of relating the message? There is a great difference between the two messages, isn’t there. One expresses love. The other doesn’t.

Just so: God has enstrusted His message to the world to us, the Church. We must get it right. What is the message of the gospel entrusted to us?

We’ll answer this question under four headings:

For the first two headings, we’ll use passages other than today’s text. Along the way, we’ll see how the true Gospel differs from the four false gospels above.

Your Purpose

Why are you alive? Why did God create you? Consider Isaiah 43:6-7:

Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth - everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.

God created you – and thus has a right to do anything He wants with you.

Why did He create you?

The passage from Isaiah tells us. He created you “for His glory.”  He created you to display what He is like.

Indeed, all of creation serves this same purpose: to show what God is like.

In the same way that a great painting shows the skill of the painter, in the same way a wonderful Christmas dinner shows the skill of the cook, all creation shows God’s power, wisdom, and skill.

Yet we humans can display God’s glory more fully than the stars, the mountains, and other inanimate objects, great as they are. As the book of Genesis tells us, we are made in the image of God. We share some of God’s attributes. In particular, we can delight in Him! We can worship Him! We can recognize Him as the source of all true joy! That is what we were created to do: to find our joy in God, to see Him as our greatest joy. To fall on our knees before Him and adore Him.

That is why Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. That’s your purpose.

Your Failure

Have men fulfilled their purpose? Have you fulfilled your purpose?

Romans 3:23 tells us:

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Imagine that you are a potter. You fashion a water pitcher. And the water pitcher looks lovely. But the first time you pour water into it, you find out that it leaks. You locate the hole, and see that it just can’t be patched. What do you do?

Do you say, “Oh, it doesn’t leak that much, I’ll still use it”? Would you put that leaky water pitcher on your table, and say to your guests, “Don’t mind that leak; don’t worry about the water that will drip on your plate when you pour water. It still looks pretty good, and it does hold water for a few minutes before it all drains out.”

No, you wouldn’t say that. If a water pitcher leaks at all, it is no good. You are the potter. The pitcher you made is no good. You have a perfect right to break it to pieces and throw it away. No one can be upset with you if you do that.

We as mankind and each one of us individually have failed to fulfill our purpose.

So what will God do with us?

Just like the potter with the pitcher, He is perfectly just to do away with us.

Verse 10 of our passage tells us that something like this will happen to every individual:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

You WILL appear before that judgment seat. And if you haven’t loved him with all your heart, you are a leaky pitcher. And you are in danger of being thrown into God’s trash heap, of being thrown into hell forever, for your failure to fulfill the purpose of your creation.

God’s Solution

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. 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:

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!

Thus, as we celebrate Christmas, we recognize the reason that God sent His only Son to be a baby in the manger. He sent that little child so that He might live a perfect life and the die on the cross. All this was for His glory and for the good of His people.

Your Response

How does this true Gospel differ from the false gospels we described above? Let’s consider them one by one.

1) The first false gospel told us, “Do good, so that your good deeds will outweigh your bad deeds!”

This false gospel recognizes the truth that we will all be judged, we all must give an account before God. But this false gospel fails to understand the depth of the sin that every one of us commits. We can never do enough good to balance the accounts. We are always violating the command to love the Lord our God with all our hearts. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

The only true good we can do results from the miracle of new life that God gives us. Apart from that, we are without hope. We may look ok when we compare ourselves to other humans. But before God, our sins will always far, far outweigh whatever good we do. We can never balance accounts between the good and the bad. So this is a false gospel. It is not good news at all.

2) The second false gospel told us, “Be sincere! Have faith! It doesn’t matter so much WHAT you believe – but believe in something!”

Again, there is a germ of truth here. Some pretend to believe in Jesus and really are hypocrites. A hypocritical faith is no faith at all.

But our passage tells us that God credits Jesus with our sin “so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God”. Only those IN CHRIST receive this benefit. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by Him! (John 14:6). A gospel which downplays the content of our faith, a gospel that pretends that sincerity is all that matters, is no gospel at all. For we can be sincerely wrong. And those who have trusted in something other than Jesus are without hope. We must be in Christ to receive the benefit of His righteousness.

3) The third false gospel told us, “Don’t worry, be happy! All paths lead to God! Everyone will be saved.”

The germ of truth here is that God does indeed love the world – in a sense. He does send sun and rain on both the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45); He does make the free offer of the Gospel to all, and commands His people to do the same.

But the Bible makes clear that all will not be saved:

Matthew 7:13  Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.

Remember the purpose of creation. We are created to glorify God – and we won’t bring Him glory if we claim that we have come to Him in any way other than by the blood of Jesus Christ. God must be seen as the source of all our righteousness, or we are stealing glory from Him. A gospel that claims all will be saved is dangerously deceptive, lulling people into a false hope. It is thus no gospel at all.

4) The fourth false gospel says, “Just agree with the facts! Confess that Jesus is God and that God raised Him from the dead.”

There is an important truth here. Certainly we must agree with the facts that the baby in the manger is God incarnate, that He died and rose again. But as James says, even the demons agree with such facts (James 2:19). Yes, we must agree. But we need to have more than intellectual acceptance of a few propositions. We need new hearts. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” And only God can create. Salvation is God’s work from beginning to end. As Paul writes earlier in this book, speaking of those Corinthians who are saved,

2 Corinthians 3:3:  you are a letter from Christ . . . written . . . with the Spirit of the living God, . . . on tablets of human hearts.

So what is your response?

Should you say, “Oh, salvation is a work of God from beginning to end, so I’ll just wait and see if He saves me.”

No! Fall on your knees! Hear the angel’s chorus of praise! Come and adore Jesus as Christ, as the Messiah, as Lord! And plead with Him,

Oh, Lord, Creator, Master: Would you save even me? I deserve nothing from You. Indeed, I deserve hell. Please work that miracle in my life and save me, by the blood of Your risen Son, Jesus! Be my righteousness! Purchase my soul with your blood! Unite me with yourself! Credit me with the righteousness of Christ! Be My Savior and My God!

Celebrate this Christmas as a new creation in Christ! Recognize and respond to the true Gospel! Fulfill the purpose of your creation! Then you can truly sing:

Behold Him there the Risen Lamb! My perfect, spotless Righteousness!
The great unchangeable “I Am”! The King of Glory and of Grace!
One with Himself I cannot die; My soul is purchased by His blood.
My life is hid with Christ on high, With Christ my Savior and my God.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 12/21/03. The hymn quoted is “Before the Throne of God Above” by Charitie Lee Bancroft.

Copyright © 2004, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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