How can God be both just and the justifier of sinful men (cf. Romans 3:26)? That question represents the true mystery of reconciliation between God and man, and it’s not humanly answerable. A divinely designed solution is required for God to reconcile sinners to Himself without compromising His righteousness and holiness.
Imagine you’re a judge. Your job is to uphold and execute the law. It’s the only standard you must adhere to, and you must follow it unflinchingly. One day a man stands before you—a vile, wicked murderer. The evidence against him is ironclad. There’s no doubt about his guilt—he openly admits it. But he says he’s very sorry, and he asks you to forgive him. And in spite of what the law says, in spite of your responsibility to dispense justice, you grant him complete forgiveness and let him walk free. We’d certainly be horrified if human judges operated that way.
But that’s exactly what our Judge does. In spite of the clear standard of His law, and in spite of the overwhelming evidence of our sin and corruption, He sweeps aside our crimes, washes away our guilt, and sets us free from the due penalty of our sin. How can He do that and uphold His own holy law?
Paul gives us the glorious answer in 2 Corinthians 5:21—just fifteen Greek words that sum up the entire gospel and encapsulate God’s ministry of reconciliation. Paul writes, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” That is the doctrine of substitution, and that’s how God can be both our just Judge and our merciful justifier.
God “made Him who knew no sin”—which can only refer to Jesus Christ—“to be sin on our behalf.” As we’ve already seen, Scripture testifies over and over to Christ’s sinless perfection. The writer of Hebrews calls Him “holy, innocent, undefiled” (Hebrews 7:26). Pontius Pilate—who had every incentive to find some flaw in Jesus—said, “I find no guilt in Him” (John 19:6). The Father even spoke of the Son’s implicit sinlessness, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17). That same perfect, spotless, undefiled Son was “made . . . to be sin on our behalf” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Don’t misunderstand what it means that God made Christ to “be sin.” Many preachers in the Word of Faith movement, for example, teach that Paul is saying that Jesus actually became a sinner on the cross. They say His sin forced Him to go to hell for three days, and that after He had suffered sufficiently, He was released through the resurrection. That is a blasphemous, ludicrous heresy. Christ surrendered Himself without spot or blemish. On the cross He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). If He was a sinner, He would not have had to ask why He was being punished.
So what is Paul saying when he tells us Christ “became sin on our behalf”? It means God treated Him as if He were a sinner. More than that, actually—God poured out on Him the full fury of His wrath against all the sins of all the people who would ever believe, as if Christ had committed these sins Himself. As a righteous Judge, He had no other choice. The just God of the universe had to punish sin justly—He had to pour out the full penalty on His Son to grant forgiveness to His elect people. His justice demands that every sin ever committed, by every person who has ever lived, will be punished—either in the eternal torment of hell or on Christ at the cross.
It’s a humbling and profound thought that God treated Jesus on the cross as if He had lived my life and punished Him for every sin I have ever committed or ever will commit, to the full satisfaction of His justice. And for all who were included in the atonement—provided by the sacrifice of the Son by the glorious grace and mercy of God—the same is true.
All the judgment, all the torment, all the excruciating punishment was poured out on Christ as He died in our place. That’s a breathtaking reality, especially when you consider that Jesus was on the cross for just a few hours. And during only three of those hours, Christ paid for all the sins of those whom God would one day reconcile to Himself. In that brief span, He was “offered once to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:28). “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). First Peter 2:24 sums up Christ’s saving work simply but powerfully: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” Through His suffering, Christ purchased our forgiveness. Through His sacrifice, He cleared the way for our reconciliation to God. He is our redeemer King, our Lord and Lamb.
Unfortunately, some people attempt to extend the atonement to the whole of humanity, as if He died for the entire human race. In so doing, they make His atoning sacrifice merely potentially effective—its true effectiveness is realized only when the sinner chooses to believe. According to that notion, the price has already been paid for all people—it’s simply up to the sinner to cash in on it. But a just God can’t punish sin twice. He wouldn’t lay the penalty for everyone’s sins on His Son and also apply that same penalty to those who don’t believe. A righteous Judge doesn’t deliver double punishment.
Furthermore, such a notion would mean that Jesus Christ, in dying, did the same thing for those in hell as He did for those in heaven. It would mean that He did not actually atone for anyone’s sins—He just offered a potential atonement that is converted to a real one by the willing sinner’s decision. Christ died for no one in particular if He died for everyone. As Christ Himself explained,
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. (John 10:11, 14-15)
Put simply, Christ is not the Redeemer for those who will not be redeemed.
There’s more. Paul saves arguably the best news for last. Second Corinthians 5:21 concludes that God made Christ to be sin for us “so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Not only has God imputed our sins to Christ, He has imputed Christ’s righteousness to us. God treated Jesus as a sinner, though He was not, so that He could treat us as if we were righteous, though we are not. To put it in personal terms, God treated Christ on the cross as if He had lived my life, so God could treat me as if I had lived Christ’s life. That’s the beautiful glory of the gospel. God sees us covered with the righteousness of His Son.
Many people—including some Bible scholars—wonder why Christ had to live through the humility of the incarnation for thirty-three years. Why didn’t God just send Him down for a weekend—to be crucified on Friday and return to heaven on Sunday? Why wouldn’t that suffice? Why did the Son have to endure all the stages of life—most of them spent living in total obscurity?
The answer is found in the glorious truth we know as the doctrine of imputation. The writer of Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Christ had to live a complete life, fulfilling all righteousness, so it could one day be credited to us. The comprehensive nature of God’s reconciliation is staggering. When God looked at the cross, He saw us; when He looks at us, He sees His Son. Our Lord’s redemptive work went beyond taking on the punishment of our sins—He lived a holy, blameless life credited to us by faith. And we now stand before God fully reconciled to Him, cloaked in the righteous life of our blessed Redeemer.
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