2 Corinthians 5:21
The Great Exchange
Quiz time. When we talk about justification of the sinner before God, which is a more accurate picture? The crediting of righteousness to the sinner’s legal bank account, or the injection of righteousness into the soul of the sinner? In the area of justification, do Christians become righteous like indebted servants whose debts are paid by another who credits their accounts with more than enough for a lifetime of living? Or do Christians become righteous like dry turkeys in need of being injected with juices and seasonings? To be more theologically clear, is justification by imputation, or by infusion?
Before moving on, let it be noted that the topic of justification is a big one, and Paul doesn’t address it at length in 2 Corinthians. If you want to read his sustained argumentation of justification, go to Romans and camp out in chapters 3-4 for a while (or read all of Galatians). Recall that in 2 Corinthians Paul is speaking of the New Covenant ministry of reconciliation. This is his concern. He has contrasted it with the Mosaic Covenant (chapter 3), he’s spoken about the light of the gospel and the treasure of Christ that are crystal-clear and highly prized in the New Covenant (chapter 4). He then speaks about our future dwelling with God. What comfort from the Spirit our guarantee! What courage that springs from knowing that God will swallow up death by the death of Christ, the author of life! In chapter 5, he’s addressing the persuasion of men. God has commissioned Paul as New Covenant minister to speak of Christ as the means of reconciliation of sinners to God.
There is, however, an insurmountable hurdle for the dead sinner to be reconciled. He can’t jump over it by himself. Dead men don’t jump. That’s why a new creation must take place (5:17). Of course, I’m talking about the hurdle of righteousness. If there’s going to be any hope for a dead sinner to be made alive and reconciled to God, he needs to be righteous. Reconciliation requires righteousness. There’s no possible way that the righteous God would ever (not even in his wildest dreams, which God doesn’t have) be reconciled to unholy sinners apart from righteousness/justification. God does not yoke himself with evil. The pure doesn’t mix with the impure. So, even though chapter 5 is not a sustained argument for the imputation of righteousness, the truth of imputed righteousness has every bearing on reconciliation. No righteousness means no reconciliation.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines “justification” and even appeals to our text as one of the proof texts for substantiating the definition. Notice the language of imputation. It is defined thus: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (WSC, 33; cf. also WLC, 70-73). Petrus van Mastricht, in one of his many uses of 2 Corinthians 5:21, says, “[God] punishes, for the guilty, his own innocent Son: for the sake of us who were most wicked, he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (Theoretical-Practical Theology: Faith in the Triune God, vol. 2, 390). That’s how God reconciles the world to himself: through Christ (vv. 18-19). When v. 21, therefore, says “He made him,” the first masculine pronoun refers to the Father, whereas the second refers to the Son. We could render it thus: “For our sake the Father made the Son to be sin who knew no sin….”
When we consider the clause “who knew no sin,” we need to be careful with what we’re saying. Did the Son know sin? Yes and no. The Son knew sin in that he wasn’t ignorant of sin, nor was he surprised by it. He knows sins when he sees it. He knows that the wages of sin is death. He knows the ruinous effects sin has on the soul and body of a human, and when spread on the world. He was the object of the most heinous sins. He knows that it’s the cause of guilt, corruption, and shame. He knows sin in these ways very intimately. He knows sin far better than we do. His exhaustive knowledge of sin, hatred for it, and desire to rescue his people from it and the wrath of God to come were what moved him (from eternity past) to become the God-man. So, yes, Christ knew sin.
However, that’s not what Paul was communicating when he said that the Son knew sin not. He had something else in mind, something to which many of the biblical authors testify. The Son had no sin in that he was not a sinner. You couldn’t catch him in a lie, as there is no deceit in his mouth (1 Peter 2:22). He wasn’t ever ogling a female. He never cheated anyone. He always honored his parents. Never coveted. No sin. He always did the will of the Father (John 8:29), so he rightly asks his accusers, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46). He is our great, perfect high priest who, while perfectly sympathizing with us and being thoroughly tempted, was without sin (Heb. 4:15). The author to the Hebrews says that this great high priest is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:26). John tells us in summary fashion that Christ came to take away sins. He could only do that if he was sinless (1 John 3:5). If he sinned, he wouldn’t be able to take away sins; he’d need a Savior himself (Heb. 7:27)! So, no, Christ knew sin not.
And it was this sinless Son, who was intimately familiar with but separated from sin and sinners, who was made to be sin. That’s the first part of the Great Exchange and where the idea of imputation becomes necessary in our thinking: our sin imputed/credited/reckoned to the Son. The Father considered the Son to be sin; he counted sinners’ transgressions to be on the Son’s shoulders. Not that the Father thought of the Son as a sinner (for then no atonement could take place!), but that the sin of the elect would be counted to the Son, imputed to him. And that’s why Isaiah 53:10 can say that it pleased the Father to crush the Son. The Son was “numbered with the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). The Father laid the iniquity of us all on the Son (Isa. 53:6). The Son bore the sins of the elect (Isa. 53:11-12). As our text says, God has reconciled sinners to himself in Christ by not counting our transgressions against us (2 Cor. 5:19). Christ was made to be sin so that we would no longer be made to be sin (v. 21). We with Paul break out in doxology, “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin!” (Rom. 4:8).
The Father’s counting the Son with the transgressors dovetails into our being accounted righteous (Isa. 53:11). And that’s the second part of the Great Exchange: the Son’s righteousness imputed to us. No longer is our legal debt before the Judge whose power and authority it is to save and to destroy (James 4:12). Our sin-debt has been paid (Matt. 18:21-35). Praise the Lord! But that’s not the end of the transaction. The story gets better and better. Not only are our sins no longer counted against us, but the righteousness of the Sinless Son has filled our legal account. Perhaps you recall an obscure Disney movie called Blank Check. In it a boy whose bike was crushed by a busy businessman was given a blank check by the man to handle the accident quickly and quietly. On the blank check, using a fancy computer program, the boy wrote down the figure of one million dollars. (The movie was done in 1994, so a million bucks is astronomical for a young 90’s kid.) His once non-existent bank account was immediately flooded with dollars overnight. He had more than he needed. He could get anything he wanted! If we were to quantify the value of Christ’s blood and righteousness, we’d need a number higher than we could count, bigger than our feeble imaginations could conjure up. And it’s that righteousness that has been imputed to our accounts overnight as the Son shone upon our hearts in newness of day. This is no legal fiction as the Roman Catholics claim, but it’s a true satisfaction of guilt, a real payment of sins by his perfect death (5:15), and a genuine accounting of the Son’s perfect righteousness to our accounts as our vicarious substitute. When God delivers, he really delivers! Not only are we innocent before the Judge of all the earth, but we’re righteous. Praise God!
What’s so breathtaking in all this is that God did this “for our sake.” He made the Son to be sin, so that we would be made righteousness to God. God did this for us! And we appropriate it by faith “in him,” as salvation comes only in union with Christ. No Christ means no righteousness. No righteousness means no reconciliation. No reconciliation means we’re left dead in our trespasses and sins. It means we die in our sins, and eternal hellfire awaits us. But God! He had pity on us his creation, decided to create anew, sent his Son who lived, died, and arose perfectly, so that we—we!—might become righteous in God’s sight. The Trinity—Righteous Father, Righteous Son, and Righteous Holy Spirit—saved unrighteous enemies and sinners, gave us new life, and imputed to us the righteousness that the Son earned on earth (which righteousness Adam failed to obtain for himself and all his posterity). Hallelujah, what a Savior!