Today’s evangelicals often speak about the gospel as if it were a means of discovering one’s own purpose, a message about how to have a happy and prosperous life, or a method of achieving success in one’s relationships or business. In the minds of many, the best starting point for sharing the gospel is an announcement that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
All those ways of presenting the gospel have become such common clichés among contemporary Christians that most people in the church today do not flinch when they hear the gospel framed in such language. They don’t notice how profoundly all those narratives deviate from the gospel Paul proclaimed and defended. A major problem with all of them is the way they turn the gospel into a message about you—your life, your purpose, your prosperity. You become the center and subject of the story.
Those are concepts that would have appalled and outraged Paul. One truth that should stand out boldly in every text we have looked at is that the central figure in the gospel according to Paul is always “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The apostle took great care never to let the narrative drift.
Within the central text we have been examining throughout this series, 2 Corinthians 5:18–21, Paul’s intention is to explain how God has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18). He mentions both Christ and God in every verse. In the span of these four verses, he mentions God by name at least once in every verse (five times total). Four additional times he refers to God with pronouns (Himself twice and He twice). He uses the Messianic title Christ four times. And in that final verse he refers to Christ twice with the pronoun Him. The entire passage is decidedly God centered, not man centered. That should be the case any time we talk about the gospel. It’s first of all a message about God’s purpose in the work of Christ; the sinner’s own purpose in life is secondary. That, of course, is the point we started with in this series: The gospel is a declaration about the atoning work of Christ.
Nevertheless, we are by no means left entirely out of the picture. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” (2 Corinthians 5:21, emphasis added). Christ is the subject of this narrative; His people are the objects. All told, pronouns referring to redeemed people are used nine times in the passage. People from every tongue, tribe, and nation constitute “the world” (v.19) whom Christ has reconciled to God. (Paul isn’t suggesting that every individual who ever lived will be reconciled to God. Both Jesus and Paul emphatically reject universalism [Matthew 7:21–23; Romans 2:5–9]. “The world” in this context refers to humanity as a race, regardless of gender, class, or ethnic distinctions [Galatians 3:28].) Everything Christ did, He did on our behalf.
Why? Not for our comfort or self-aggrandizement, but for His glory. “So that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
In what sense do believers “become” righteousness? The answer again is simple and obvious. This is the mirror image of how Christ was “made . . . sin.” Just as the sins of His people were imputed to Him, His righteousness is imputed to them. They “become the righteousness of God” by imputation, through their union with Christ.
Notice the expression “in Him” in 2 Corinthians 5:21. It’s an echo of verse 17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature” (emphasis added). The expression speaks of a spiritual union that occurs at salvation, when the Holy Spirit takes residence in the believer and thereby makes us spiritually one with Christ. “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). That’s true of every believer. We are “in Christ,” or as Paul says in Ephesians 5:30, “We are members of His body.” The church—the fellowship of true believers—is metaphorically spoken of as “His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). In that sense, believers embody the very righteousness of God.
So 2 Corinthians 5:21 is describing a double imputation—believers’ sins are imputed to Christ, and He pays the due penalty in full. His righteousness is imputed to them, and they are rewarded for it. Our Lord’s perfect righteousness is like a glorious mantle that covers all His people’s imperfections and gives them a right standing before God. “He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10).
In other words, God treated Christ as if He sinned all the sins of everyone who would ever believe, so that He could treat them as if they had lived Christ’s perfect life. That’s a fitting paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 5:21. Christ, as our perfect Substitute, not only died for our sins and thereby “canceled out the certificate of debt” (Colossians 2:14); He also embodied the perfect righteousness God requires for entry into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20). Both His life and His death therefore count vicariously for all those whom He reconciles to God.
The Way of Salvation
I have stressed the sovereignty of God in salvation because that doctrine stands out prominently on the face of this text. It’s an amazing and counterintuitive truth. After all, God is the offended deity. But reconciliation for sinners comes at His instigation, through an atonement that He sovereignly provides.
Even the language Paul uses here stresses the efficacy of God’s saving work. The point is not that God began a work that sinners must now complete. It’s not that God took a step in our direction, hoping we would come the rest of the way. Rather, “all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:18). The salvation of sinners is entirely God’s doing. And Christ is both “the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2 KJV). Nothing sinners can do would in any way exculpate their sins or earn them any merit.
Yet sinners are not passive in the process. The gospel confronts every sinner with a duty. That’s why this passage includes an urgent plea: “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
God’s sovereignty does not eliminate human responsibility. God holds us responsible for what we do and don’t do, and it is perfectly just for Him to do so. He doesn’t control human actions by constraint. As the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures” (3:1). In other words, although “The king’s heart is . . . in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1), God does not exercise His sovereignty over the human will by force or coercion. He doesn’t manipulate people’s actions like some kind of cosmic puppet master. When we sin, we do it willingly. And when God draws a sinner to Christ, He does it by attraction, not by force. He regenerates the heart and soul, so that Christ becomes irresistible to that person. Therefore, when a person is saved, God gets all the credit. And when we sin, the responsibility and the blame belong entirely to us.
That seems to be one of the most difficult truths to wrap the human mind around. We naturally want credit when we do good, and we want to avoid blame when we sin. So in all candor, we don’t really want to see both sides of this truth. Charles Spurgeon, the great nineteenth-century Baptist preacher, made some helpful observations about the dilemma:
That God predestines, and yet that man is responsible, are two facts that few can see clearly. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one part of the Bible that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find, in another Scripture, that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is only my folly that leads me to imagine that these two truths can ever contradict each other. I do not believe they can ever be welded into one upon any earthly anvil, but they certainly shall be one in eternity. They are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the human mind which pursues them farthest will never discover that they converge, but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.  Charles Spurgeon, “A Defense of Calvinism” in The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, eds. Susannah Spurgeon and Joseph Harrald, 4 vols. (London, UK: Passmore & Alabaster, 1899), 1:177.
Just as God’s sovereignty doesn’t eliminate the sinner’s responsibility, likewise the plea for sinners to “be reconciled to God” poses no actual contradiction to the fact that God is the one who sovereignly draws those who do respond to the plea.
Paul believed as strongly as anyone in the sovereignty of God. But his point here is that the plea is an essential feature of the gospel message. God is not indifferent to the plight of lost humanity. He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11). Therefore to omit the passion and urgency of the entreaty (“we beg you . . . be reconciled to God”) is to fail to preach the gospel as it should be proclaimed.
How can a sinner be reconciled with God? In Acts 16:30, the jailer in Philippi asked that question of Paul: “What must I do to be saved?”
Paul’s answer to the Philippian jailer was the same one he gives in all his gospel summaries: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
He was certainly not suggesting to the jailer that faith is a meritorious work summoned out of the sinner’s own free will in order to earn salvation. Faith itself is a gift. God is the only one who can “give to you the spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Ephesians 1:17). It was, after all, the Lord who opened Lydia’s heart to heed the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14).
Nevertheless, God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30 ESV). And no one is excluded from His plea for reconciliation. The point to grasp here is that no one is compelled by force or coercion to reject the gospel message. They do it freely, by their own choice. Those who turn away in unbelief are therefore wholly responsible for putting themselves under God’s condemnation (John 3:18). “They have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:22).
Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19–20).
Both unbelief and indifference are sins (John 16:9; Hebrews 2:3; 12:25). Furthermore, unbelief is blasphemy, because “the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son” (1 John 5:10).
Full reconciliation with God is there in Christ for all who do respond to the plea. Dear reader, if you understand that you are hopelessly in bondage to sin and therefore you sense your desperate need for God’s grace, then simply “ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7–8). Those who come will not be cast out (John 6:37).
(Adapted from The Gospel According to Paul)