One of my favorite gospel-oriented passages in the New Testament epistles is 2 Corinthians 5:18–21. Of all the places where Paul boils the gospel message down to a verse or two, few are more potent than the closing sentence of these verses:
Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (emphasis added)
That emphasized verse explains how Paul viewed the atonement. It establishes the principle of penal substitution. It shows why the doctrine of justification is so crucial to a right understanding of the gospel. It reveals the source of the righteousness imputed to believers. And it helps clarify the significance of Christ’s life as well as His death.
Reconciliation is obviously the key term in that passage. The word or one of its cognates is used five times in the span of three verses. This was the whole purpose for Christ’s coming to earth: “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10); to “save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And the way this mission of salvation was accomplished was by reconciling sinners to God. This is not about paying a ransom to Satan. It is not about merely giving lost people new guidelines or a good example to emulate. The reference to “reconciliation” in this context has nothing to do with breaking down racial, ethnic, or religious barriers. It is about “God . . . in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
The passage turns our attention again to a familiar truth. The dominant theme of this passage—and the proper keynote of the gospel itself—is a declaration about what God has done for sinners (not vice versa). God, in the person of His incarnate Son, has intervened on behalf of sinful humanity to reverse our estrangement from Him. As Paul says elsewhere of the elect, “You were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death” (Colossians 1:21–22).
Paul is describing the atoning work of Christ.
In the process, he gives an ingeniously crisp summary of the gospel. It is a compact overview of evangelical principles, weighted differently from the longer, more systematic approach he took in Romans. But all the essential features of gospel truth are here—some implied and others expressly stated. The passage presupposes, for example, the problem of sin. We know that all humanity is fallen, lost, and at enmity with God, because we saw how meticulously Paul labored to establish that doctrine in Romans 1–3. Here the horrible truth of human depravity is implicit in the argument, so this time he doesn’t devote any effort to proving it.
Also, we find here again some clear statements about the principle of imputation. The topic is first mentioned in verse 19, where Paul makes the point that the trespasses of those who have been reconciled to God are not imputed to them. (That’s a clear echo of Psalm 32:2 and Romans 4:6–8.) And then in verse 21, he describes the positive imputation of the believer’s sin to Christ and the reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. Even though he doesn’t employ any of the classic accounting terminology, everything Paul says in that verse clearly hinges on the principle of imputation.
When repentant sinners acknowledge their sin (Psalm 32:5), affirm Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9), and trust solely in His completed work on their behalf (Acts 4:12; 16:31), God credits His righteousness to their account. On the cross God treated Jesus as if He had lived our lives with all our sin, so that God could then treat believers as if we lived Christ’s life of pure holiness. All of our sins—our long list of crimes against God—were legally charged to Him on the cross, as if He had lived it, so that Christ’s righteous life could be credited to us, as if we lived it. That is the doctrine of justification by imputation—the high point of the gospel. That truth, expressed so concisely and powerfully in this text, is mankind’s only hope of gaining right standing with our Creator.
(Adapted from The Gospel According to Paul and The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 2 Corinthians)