Sinfulness for Righteousness
Passage: 2 Corinthians 5:21
We give Jesus our sin; Jesus gives us his righteousness.
[The last couple minutes of this sermon are missing on the audio.]
Today I want to talk about one of the most difficult things for a human being to do. Each of us has had many opportunities to do it throughout the course of our lives. You perhaps had to do it already this morning. Throughout our lives, each of us has asked many people to do this difficult thing. What do you think this very difficult thing is? It’s “forgiveness”.
Think about someone who asked for your forgiveness recently. Perhaps they came to you and said something like, “I was wrong. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” What did they do for which they needed forgiveness? Were you able to say “yes”? How hard was it to say “yes”? If you are like me, there are some things you are able to forgive somewhat easily. But there are other things that are really hard for you to forgive. I personally have to think about whether I am actually ready, willing, and able to forgive.
This brings us to a question I want us to explore: Why is forgiveness so hard?
We are officially in our 2nd week of a season on the Christian calendar called Advent, which began last Sunday. Advent is a time of preparation to celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas. For this Sunday and the next two Sundays leading up to Christmas, we are going to be in a 3-week series called The Greatest Gift Exchange. When people think about Christmas, they think about gifts, both giving and receiving them. And this gift giving is reflective of the gift of his Son that God gave us at the first Christmas 2,000 years ago (see the language of giving (Jn 3:16) and receiving (Jn 1:11-12)).
God not only gives his beloved Son as a gift to be received, but when we surrender to Jesus, another gift exchange takes place between us and Jesus. There is an exchange that takes place between Jesus and those who receive him. [Illustration] Have you ever participated in a Secret Santa gift exchange? Or a gift exchange where you can steal other peoples’ gifts? Usually there is a limit to what you can spend so that everyone gets a gift of roughly the same value. But sometimes there are a few gifts that seem better than the others. At the end of it, you may feel like you really didn’t end up with a great gift or you might wish you had someone else as your secret Santa because that person did a way better job picking out a gift for their person.
In our gift exchange with Jesus, it’s like a gift exchange gone horribly wrong. We walk away with the best gift we could possibly imagine and Jesus walks away with something nasty and gross that we dug out of a dark corner in our basement.
In each week of this series, we are going to focus on the exchange that happens between Jesus and those who surrender their lives to him. This week, we are focusing on 2 Corinthians 5:21. Let’s set the context for this powerful verse.
Christ’s Ambassador of Reconciliation (5:9-20)
Paul, with the help of two other Jews, planted the church in Corinth in the early 50s AD. In order to continue helping the church after he was gone, we know of four letters that he wrote to them. Two of them have been preserved and we call them 1 and 2 Corinthians. What we know from these letters is that Paul and the Corinthian church had a rocky relationship at times. At one point, most of the church turned against them through the influence of a group that came to town and spoke against Paul. But by the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, most of the church had repented of this. So while these people came to know Jesus through Paul, Paul and this church had a painful past. The passage we are looking at today is all about forgiveness and reconciliation, which would be a very relevant and charged topic given the history between Paul and this church.
In chapter 5 verse 20, Paul calls himself an ambassador for Christ, meaning that Paul sees Jesus as his Lord, his King, and he sees himself as Jesus’ ambassador or representative. It is through Paul that Jesus is accomplishing his work in the world. This is why Paul puts such a high priority on living to please Jesus in verses 9 through 11. He reports to Jesus so he is giving his life to do Jesus’ will, pursuing the priorities and agenda of his king.
Paul is not only motivated by a desire to please King Jesus, but also by the love Jesus has shown him. In verse 14, he says:
14 For the love of Christ controls us... (2 Cor 5:14a).
Some other translations say “the love of Christ compels us.” Where does he see evidence of Christ’s love? He continues in verse 14:
because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14b-15)
Paul sees Jesus’ death for sinners as a demonstration of his love. In his letters, Paul says that “Jesus loved the church and gave himself for her” and he also says “Jesus loved me and gave himself for me”. Paul knows Jesus’ great and deep love personally. And that love for him and for other people compels him to tell people about Jesus. Jesus’ love has changed him and it grips and compels him. It’s a controlling influence in his life. He will never be the same.
What sort of work does he do for King Jesus? In verses 16 through 21, Paul explains the work he does on Jesus’ behalf. Knowing Jesus died for everyone, Paul says in verse 16:
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. (2 Corinthians 5:16)
On the surface, fleshy-level, Paul thought Jesus was a fraud and a failure. “He died a shameful death at the hands of the Romans so how could he be the Messiah we are all waiting for?” But he had an experience with Jesus that totally changed him. After that he was convinced that Jesus’ death changed everything. Which is why in verse 17 he says:
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
The view of world history in the Bible is that there are two ages or time periods. There’s the old age - the age of sin, death, and curse where all of creation has been corrupted by humanity’s rebellion against God. Then there is the new age or the age to come where righteousness, life, and blessing reign and all creation has been restored and made new. The old age is one of brokenness. The new age is one of restoration, renewal, and healing.
The claim that followers of Jesus were making was that because of Jesus, the future new age of restoration, renewal, and healing was already here in part but not yet here in full. Think about a movie trailer. A movie trailer is not the movie. A movie trailer is a preview of a movie that will be coming out in the future. The movie trailer is a foretaste right now of the whole thing that will come in the future. The future is breaking into and invading the present. The movie of the future is that God is going to make all things new. The movie trailer for that future is that he makes those who surrender to Jesus a new creation. God says, “I’m going to restore this whole thing! And I am going to start with you.”
This is helpfully referred to as the “already-not yet” aspect of the kingdom of God. It is already here in part but is not yet here in full. We await the fullness of the new age as we enjoy a taste of it now. New creation is already present in the old, broken creation but it is not yet here in full.
Paul is crystal clear about who is responsible for this transformation in someone’s life. He says in verse 18:
18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
God makes us into a new creation through Jesus Christ. How? By reconciling people to himself through Christ. The need for reconciliation implies a broken relationship. Our biggest problem in life is that we are relationally disconnected from God. We have sinned against God, rebelled against God, turned away from God. This is how creation got broken in the first place - a broken relationship with God means we are broken and we break things. Our broken relationship with God is the source of all other brokenness. Broken relationship with God breaks things. Repaired relationship with God makes things new.
The way to fix a broken relationship is through reconciliation. Verse 19 describes what God does to make reconciliation possible: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” “Trespasses” are deliberate, intentional actions that break trust. They aren’t accidents or mistakes. The only way we can be reconciled to God is if he doesn’t count our trespasses against us. Only God can bring reconciliation because only God can forgive us for our wrongs against him.
How does God reconcile people to himself? In verses 18 and 19, Paul not only says he has been reconciled to God but that God has given he and his coworkers the ministry of reconciliation and has entrusted to them the message of reconciliation. He then draws this conclusion in verse 20:
20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
God is reconciling the world to himself through Christ and Christ reconciles the world to God through his ambassadors. Jesus’ ambassadors have been given the message and ministry of reconciliation, imploring people on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God. This is the work Paul does for King Jesus: he works as an ambassador on behalf of his King to implore people to be reconciled to God.
But still, what makes reconciliation possible? Paul already said that God does it through Christ. But how? What has he done? Verse 21, our key verse for today, tells us:
21 For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
This is what makes all of what Paul has been talking about possible. This is the lynchpin. This is the foundation for reconciliation which is the foundation for new creation. This is the heart of the gospel. First, it tells us that Jesus was sinless: he knew no sin. Jesus never said “no” to God or “yes” to sin. He lived a perfect, spotless life without blemish.
And yet, Jesus was made to be sin. This verse puts us into a court scene. Imagine standing in a court and the crime and charges against you are read. There is video evidence for everything you have done so there is no denying it. There’s no getting around it. You simply have to accept that you have been caught and must accept the due punishment for your crimes. You’re guilty as charged.
But what happens in God’s court is that Jesus, who has committed no crimes and deserves no punishment, takes our place. He is “made to be sin”, meaning he stands in the place of a sinner. Paul has already said that Jesus died for the sake of others (5:14-15), meaning his death was not for him. Jesus’ death was the death that a sinner deserved, but Jesus was not a sinner. Though Jesus deserved none of the penalty for being a sinner, he took upon himself the penalty of being a sinner.
Think about this. God reconciles us to himself by not counting our trespasses against us. But why does he not count our trespasses against us? Because instead of counting our trespasses against us, he counts them against someone else. In Romans 4:5, Paul calls God “the one who justifies the ungodly”. To justify someone is to declare them “righteous” or innocent. To condemn someone is to declare them “guilty”. The ungodly should never be justified. The “guilty” should never be declared “righteous” or “innocent”. The wicked, unrighteous, evil, selfish, ungodly, and unrighteous should never have the court judge in their favor. But that’s exactly what God does. He judges in our favor. How? Because even though Jesus was sinless, Jesus stood in our place and God judged against him so that God can judge in our favor. In the sight of God, Jesus was treated as a sinner so that in the sight of God we may be treated as righteous. Jesus takes our condemnation and guilt and serves our sentence in our place. God does not count our sins against us because Jesus has taken the penalty for them in our place.
And here’s where the gift exchange comes in. Why did he do this? What was the purpose? What was the result? Verse 21 says, “So that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The reality is that we are unrighteous. We have lived for ourselves. We have rejected God, ignored God, rebelled against God. We’ve said “no” to God and “yes” to sin, Satan, and ourselves. But what happened at the cross is that Jesus paid the penalty for our sin in our place. He had no sin of his own to be punished for but he took our punishment instead of us. Jesus took our sin from us and he gave us his righteousness, not only taking the penalty for our sin but breaking the power of sin in our lives by his love so that we no longer live for ourselves but for him.
Some people will object to this view of Jesus’ death because they call it divine child abuse. Dad is angry at us and is going to take out his anger on us but Jesus steps in to say, “No, dad, don’t hurt them” and in so doing, he gets the beating instead. But this view sees Jesus as a third party to the situation.
See, here’s how reconciliation works. Reconciliation in a relationship requires forgiveness for the wrongs done. And forgiveness for the wrongs done requires that the person who was wronged pays for the wrongs themselves instead of seeking payback from the wrongdoer. When someone sins against God, one of two people will pay for that sin: either God or the sinner. These are the only two parties involved. If I wrong Bob, either Bob pays for it or I pay for it. Either Bob will make me pay for that sin or he will forgive me. But Larry can’t pay for that sin and Larry can’t forgive me. It’s between Bob and I. If Jesus is a third party, he can’t pay for our sins or forgive us. But Jesus is not some third party. As the Son of God, he is fully God, so he is the one who has been sinned against and because he has been sinned against he can pay for the sinner’s sin through forgiveness. Because the Son of God has paid for our sins, God does not count our trespasses against us. When people say that the cross was divine child abuse, they are seeing Jesus as a third party to the situation rather than the offended party - the party who has been wronged and sinned against.
Jesus has done everything to make our reconciliation with God possible. All we have to do is give him our sin and accept the gift of his righteousness. And we surrender to Jesus when, by the Spirit, we move from saying, “Jesus died for sinners” to saying, “The sinner Jesus died for was me. Jesus took my place. Jesus loved me and gave himself for me.” This is when it goes from theory to reality. I hope and pray that this amazes, astounds, and humbles you.
This “gift” exchange between us and Christ is what makes reconciliation possible. We show up to the party with the worst gift ever and he shows up with the best gift ever. And he willingly and lovingly takes our “gift” of sinfulness and gives us his gift of righteousness. Though we are guilty as charged, we walk away declared righteous and innocent because Jesus serves the sentence for what we have done. That’s why this is the greatest gift exchange ever. It’s so lopsided.
Here’s what we learn from this passage. First, we are reconciled to God. If you have surrendered to Jesus, God is not your enemy. God is not against you. You have been reconciled. He does not count your trespasses against you. You are totally free of them. You have been washed white as snow. God did the hard part of forgiveness.
You can really sin against someone by doing something really bad, like betraying a friend or cheating on a spouse. You can also sin against someone by doing the same smaller thing over and over again. But what we’ve done is the worst of things over and over again, betraying and cheating. Christ took your place for the worst things you’ve done. Christ took your place for your repeated and many offenses. When we look at Christ we see that he stood in my place for my worst things. And he paid for all that it cost. He did not just become sin: became my sin, he became your sin.
Second, we are reconcilers. Those who are reconciled become reconcilers. This works itself out in two ways. In our personal relationships, we are to be reconcilers and forgivers. When people wrong us, we are to be the kind of people who are ready, willing, and even eager to forgive. We are to not seek payback for what others have done to us but we are to “not count their trespasses against them.
But this is what makes forgiveness so hard, right? They should be held accountable for this! You shouldn’t have to pay for it! They can’t just get away with this! Forgiveness is hard because there is always a cost involved and the one who pays the cost isn’t the person who should be paying it. The person who was wronged pays the cost of the one who wronged them. I’ve heard forgiveness described as “giving up the right to get even” or “surrendering your right to repayment for the wrong”. Verse 19 gives a good definition too: forgiveness means “not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19). That is what makes forgiveness so hard: it is costly, it is painful, it feels unfair.
What makes us able to forgive others is the fact that we have been forgiven already and for so much more. God’s forgiveness of us enables our forgiveness of others. And we will never out-forgive God. The gift of forgiveness that God has given us will always be bigger and more expensive than the gift of forgiveness we give to others. We can give people the gift of forgiveness when we remember how big God’s gift of forgiveness to us is. Forgiven people become forgivers. Reconciled people become reconcilers. It’s a gift that we “pay forward”.
God is no longer our enemy and he calls us not to live with enemies. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). Paul says in Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Jesus told us to love our enemies, repaying them with good for the bad they’ve done for us. That’s not necessarily forgiveness because they have not come admitting their wrong and apologizing, but that is living without seeking payback. I’ve heard it said that bitterness and resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it hurts someone else. The reality is that we aren’t their Judge. God is their judge so we need to leave judgment and payback to him. When someone sins against me and I’m having a hard time letting it go, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that, before God, either they will pay for their sin or Jesus already has. It’s not up to me to get them to pay for it. If this is difficult for you, I’d suggest reflecting on and praying through Romans 12:9-21 and Luke 6:27-36.
On another level, we are reconcilers for God. Christ makes us his ambassadors, God making his appeal through us. We have been given the ministry and message of reconciliation so that on behalf of Christ, we implore people to be reconciled to God. This is amazing! If you were to hire one of your former enemies, you would maybe be a bit hesitant about giving them a really important job. Maybe they could scrub toilets or something, but you aren’t going to entrust them with really important responsibilities. That’s not what God does. God gives his former enemies the high call and privilege of now going out and telling people who are still his enemies to be reconciled to God. And who better to do the work than people who have experienced this reconciliation for themselves? Those forgiven through Christ are going to be the best ambassadors for Christ because they have a personal story of transformation. It’s not cold, impersonal business.
You are an ambassador for Christ. The question is whether you are a good ambassador or one who is neglecting their responsibilities. In everything you do and say, you are representing him. So what do your actions and words say about him? Do they tell people that you are in a relationship with the God who loves his enemies, who forgives his enemies, and makes them into new people? How well are you representing Christ in your family, in your neighborhood, in your friendships, at your workplace, at the gym, when you are buying groceries, on your social media accounts? Is your life motivated by Christ’s love for you and a desire to please him?
Something to remember is that when someone rejects the gospel, they aren’t rejecting you. Ultimately they are rejecting God. Paul is worried about some of the Corinthians because they have rejected him as God’s ambassador. Jesus said: “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16). If you reject Christ’s ambassador, you are rejecting Christ and if you are rejecting Christ, you are rejecting the one who sent him: God. People aren’t ultimately rejecting the ambassador but the one the ambassador represents.
We ought to live with a holy sense of purpose. And if you are having a hard time representing Jesus and talking about him, the best thing for you to do is to go back to his love. Paul says the love of Christ is the controlling influence in his life. We are telling people good news all the time and they are telling us good news too. We will talk about a product we bought because it makes life so much easier. We will talk about our car mechanic because they do such a good job at affordable prices. We will talk about a great restaurant because the service was great and the food was delicious. We tell people the good news of what something or someone has done on our behalf.
So if you don’t feel yourself wanting to talk about Jesus, go back to the gift he has given you. The deeper we go into Christ’s love, the more it will control us and the more we will become people who can’t help but talk about it. People who have been loved by Christ talk about Christ.