The gospel message is a general call to faith—one that is extended indiscriminately to all who hear it. In fact, the apostle Paul uses much stronger words than call or invitation. He says it is “as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20, emphasis added).
The Greek word translated “making an appeal” or “pleading” (NKJV) is parakaleō. It speaks of an exhortation, admonishment, or entreaty. The word translated “beg” (deomai) is stronger yet. And it means just that—begging. It is a common word in Scripture, often used to describe passionate prayer. It is the same word used by the father of a demon-possessed boy, pleading with Jesus for help: “Teacher, I beg You to look at my son” (Luke 9:38, emphasis added).
That is the proper tone of the gospel’s invitation, what Paul refers to as “the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). This is how God commissions His ambassadors to preach: “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20, emphasis added). It is not a dispassionate suggestion, or even a stern command. It is an earnest, urgent plea extended with God’s own authority, tenderly entreating the sinner to respond with repentant faith.
It is the duty of every believer to make this message known to the world. God “has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). That is why it is crucial for Christians to understand the gospel correctly and be able to present it clearly and persuasively. God has commissioned us as His ambassadors not only to proclaim the fact “that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19), but also to be persistent with the appeal to “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). In this capacity we are “ambassadors for Christ,” speaking “on behalf of Christ” and “as though God were making an appeal through us.”
Don’t miss the rich significance of the word ambassadors. An ambassador is an officially delegated emissary tasked with delivering a message on behalf of the government he represents. When he speaks, he does so with the full authority of the rightful head of state. He doesn’t get to craft the message to suit his own (or his audience’s) tastes and personality. He is not an editor or script doctor. He is given a message to convey, and he is not entitled to rewrite it, abridge it, amend it, or alter it in any way. He has no authority to omit parts of the message that might not be to his liking, and he can’t dress it up with his own personal opinions. His task is to deliver the message exactly as it was given to him.
We have every reason to be faithful in fulfilling this vital and extremely urgent task. For one thing, the cross of Christ clearly demonstrates the gravity of divine judgment. “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). Furthermore, “the love of Christ compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14, NKJV). No threat or hardship can dissuade us—not rejection, persecution, or the world’s utter contempt. We must entreat sinners as persuasively as we can: “Be reconciled to God.”
In the Greek text, the word translated “reconciliation” is katallagē. Like its English counterpart, it signifies restored favor, goodwill, and friendly relations between two parties formerly at odds with one another. The Greek term was also commonly used in financial transactions with a slightly different shade of meaning. In such contexts it signified an exchange—like the making of change. Every purchase involves such an exchange; in return for the money a customer gives a merchant, he receives whatever goods or services he is purchasing plus enough change to equal the value of his money. Thus with the completion of the transaction, the two parties were said to be reconciled. We use the English verb in a similar fashion to speak of reconciling accounts, such as when a checkbook register is balanced.
The exchange by which God reconciled sinners to Himself is remarkable. It involves a transaction no mere human mind ever would have conceived. Indeed, it runs counter to everything human intuition would normally think about how sinners might be reconciled with God. The idea is not that the sinner purchases God’s favor by good works (or by any other asset the sinner brings to the table). In fact, the sinner is on the sidelines while “God . . . in Christ reconcil[es] the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19, emphasis added).
Of course, the guilt of sin must be dealt with and removed, because that is the cause of the sinner’s alienation. God does not forgive by sleight of hand. For the sake of his righteousness and the honor of His holy law, a real transaction involving actual punishment had to take place. Unless sin was dealt with, He could not righteously forego imputing trespasses to guilty sinners (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:19). The wages of sin—the death penalty—had to be administered (Romans 6:23). God’s holy nature required that His wrath against sin had to be fully satisfied.
It was such an awful price that no mere mortal would ever be able pay it for himself. An eternity in hell is not enough for a sinner to erase his or her own debt. Therefore the infinitely holy Son of God voluntarily took the place of sinners and paid that infinite price on their behalf.
In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul recounts the transaction that took place. His description is absolutely shocking: “[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This was the exchange that bought reconciliation with God for all believers: Christ traded His righteousness for our sin.
On the surface, that is not an easy statement to comprehend. God made His sinless Son “to be sin.” What does that mean?
It cannot mean that Christ was made sinful, or tainted in any way with personal guilt. God would never make His beloved Son into a sinner. Besides, Christ had no capacity to sin. He is God. He did not relinquish His deity in order to become human. And Scripture says God’s “eyes are too pure to approve evil, and [He] can not look on wickedness with favor” (Habakkuk 1:13)—meaning, of course, that He cannot regard sin with either approval or indifference. “It is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). “He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). Therefore He could never sin.
Furthermore, it is perfectly clear that He didn’t sin. Scripture everywhere asserts that Christ “offered Himself without blemish to God” (Hebrews 9:14). He is “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26). He “committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). Even here in 2 Corinthians 5:21, the text speaks of Christ as “Him who knew no sin.”
That means, of course, that He knew nothing of sin through personal experience. He certainly knew all about sin. He lived His earthly life in a world cursed because of sin. His preaching was filled with instruction and exhortations against sin. He even had “authority on earth to forgive sins” (Luke 5:24). But throughout His whole earthly life He remained perfectly sinless, and nothing that took place at the cross altered that fact.
This can only mean that Christ was “made . . . to be sin” by imputation. Paul has just stated in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (NKJV). Since we already know that God does not simply look the other way or wink at evil, Paul’s meaning is simple and obvious: The legal obligation stemming from sin’s guilt was transferred to Christ, and He bore its full penalty.
In a solemn, judicial sense—by imputation—Christ took on Himself all the guilt of all the sins of all the people who would ever believe. He bore not only their misdemeanors and accidental indiscretions, but also their grossest, most deliberate sins. He stood in the place of countless fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, covetous people, drunkards, revilers, and extortioners (1 Corinthians 6:9–10), and He took the punishment for those sins. Imagine all that guilt consolidated into one horrific indictment. Christ stood as a proxy for His people at the bar of divine justice—before “God, the Judge of all” (Hebrews 12:23). He answered every charge against them, pleaded guilty, and bore the full penalty of their sin.
“He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him” (Isaiah 53:5). Thus He became the living embodiment of every evil the fallen human heart is capable of imagining. He became “sin for us (NKJV, emphasis added)”—as our Substitute. That is precisely what Scripture means when it says, “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). The principle of penal substitution is the only doctrine that adequately and biblically explains the cross.
(Adapted from The Gospel According to Paul)