2 Corinthians 5:21. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Union with Christ is the great foundational doctrine of the Christian life. And 2 Corinthians 5:21 is one of the great scriptures that allows us to wrestle with what took place through Jesus to secure our union with Christ. Sometimes this verse is called the Great Exchange. Our sin was exchanged for Christ’s righteousness.
As Paul said back in 2 Corinthians 5:18, all this is from God. He is the agent through Christ. God the Father made him to be sin. But this was never an action taken against Christ, or in opposition to Christ’s will. God, through Christ, reconciled us to himself (5:18). Christ was the willing participant. In Jesus Christ dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col 2:9). Therefore the redemptive plan of the Trinity was embodied by Christ.
The Great Exchange was devastating for Christ. What Paul says almost in passing, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, is fleshed out in it’s emotional horror in the gospels.
Luke 22:44. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
Matthew 27:46. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
There are many questions that come with this verse. When and how was Christ made to be sin for us? At his incarnation? His crucifixion? What does being made sin even mean?
We know it does not mean that Christ sinned. Paul makes that clear right away – he knew no sin. For Paul sin is a power, a force that seeks to destroy humanity. It is not a list of wrong deeds or a list of omissions. I think Paul has in view here all of Christ’s life culminating in the cross. Christ took the place of humanity. He was the second Adam. He became the representative human being, he became sin. He was subjected to the power and influence of sin. Yet he never sinned. The climax of Christ’s union with the sin of humanity is the cross. On the cross Jesus was condemned as the curse bearer. As humanity’s representative, he took our guilt and our punishment of death.
Galatians 3:13. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”
Our union with Christ is made possible by his union with us. He became our curse.
Warning: language and creepiness.
And now our righteousness is made possible by our union with him.
In him we become the righteousness of God. This is a complete transformation of our standing before God and man. We ARE righteous. Here again, like our reconciliation, we are the passive receivers of God’s righteousness, but also the active participants in God’s righteousness. Truly “to live is Christ” means becoming what we already are.
How can you celebrate the Great Exchange today? Have you thanked God lately for the substitutionary life and death of Christ? How can you live out of the righteousness of God today?