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.
Have you noticed how all the greatest stories, the ones we love the most, are filled with the theme of vicarious sacrifice? A hero who takes the place of another. A soldier who volunteers for the impossible mission in order to save the entire unit. A victim who is protected at great cost to the protector. A bad guy rescued by the good guy, even though doing so is risky for that good guy.
We love this story line because deep inside us all we know that we too need this kind of hero. We each need (and want – let’s be honest) that person who will take our place. The one who will do what we could never do. The one who will sacrifice their own life for ours.
Have you ever had somebody take your place in a difficult situation? Maybe a friend took the blame for something you did. Or maybe someone did something for you that you would never be able to do for yourself. Just think for a moment about the innumerable times each week that someone gives a part of their life for you? Are any of us completely self-sufficient? Of course not. We all get by with a little (or a lot of) help from our friends.
Of course, the ultimate story of vicarious sacrifice is Jesus and his life lived for us and his death died for us. This is why 2 Corinthians 5:21 is often referred to as “The Great Exchange.” On the cross, our sin was exchanged for Christ’s righteousness. This vicarious sacrifice of Christ on the cross is the foundational doctrine of the Christian life.
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 all of its horror in the gospels.
Mark 15:18-20. 18 And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.
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?”
But what does it actually mean that he was made to be sin?
We know for certain that it does not mean that Christ committed sins. Paul makes that clear right away – he knew no sin.
For Paul sin is a power, a force that seeks to destroy all of humanity. It is not just a list of wrong deeds or omissions. Paul is showing us how all of Christ’s life culminated in the cross. From his birth to his death. From beginning to end. Jesus placed himself under the power of sin. Just like every other human was and is. He was the second Adam. He became the representative human being. He became sin. He was subjected to the power and influence of sin – and yet he never sinned. And then 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. He became our curse.
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”
Yes, this is deep. But hopefully you can see that this is deep love. Or as C.S. Lewis would call it – the “deep magic.” The deep magic of union with Christ. Because Jesus united himself first to us, to our sin, to our curse, we can now be united to him. To his righteousness – In him we become the righteousness of God.
This is a complete transformation of our standing before God and man. We ARE righteous. Here, as always with the gospel, we are once again the passive receivers of God’s righteousness. But we become the active instruments of God’s righteousness.
Truly “to live is Christ” means becoming what we already are.
How can you celebrate the Great Exchange today?
You in Christ
How does knowing your sin has been exchanged for perfection bring you hope, joy, and peace today?
Christ in you
How can you live out Christ’s imputed righteousness today? Give a specific example. A neighbor to love? An injustice to make right? A person to sacrifice for?
Playlist: The Great Exchange.
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