2 Corinthians 5:21

Sermon preached on March 27, 2016 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2016. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at http://www.cantonnewlife.org/.

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

A few weeks ago I was reading an article on the web and I saw a link that led to the 100 greatest movie lines ever. I clicked on it but I was soon disappointed. Some of them were no good at all—many were crude and disgusting. But a few of them were good. It was interesting how some of them actually summed up the movie they came from. One was,

"I'll be back."

from The Terminator. The Terminator was a robot from the future that was a killing machine. He was searching for Sarah Conner and he kept coming back for her. That's what he did. That's all he did.

Another line that summed up the movie it came from was a line from
The Godfather. The godfather said,

"I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."

Those two lines defined the movies they came from. In a way they summarized them or identified an important theme in the movie.

John Duncan, late professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at New College in Edinburgh, said that he never heard the gospel better stated than what an old African slave woman said, (Recollections of the Late John Duncan L.L.D., 1872)

"Me die or he die. He die; me no die."

Our text is not quite that short, but a lot of theologians have hailed it as one of the best summaries of the atonement that exists in all of the Bible. It says, (2 Corinthians 5:21)

"God made him
who had no sin to be sin for us,
so that in him we might become
the righteousness of God."

Philip E. Hughes says of our text, (2 Corinthians, NICNT, p. 211)

"There is no sentence more profound in the whole of Scripture…"

R.C.H. Lenski adds,

"This is one of the most tremendous statements written by Paul's pen. It is so tremendous because it so completely and in such a striking form reveals what God has done for us."

R. Kent Hughes says that here, (2 Corinthians: Power in Weakness, Preaching the Word; p. 125)

"we come to the heart of the atonement, the how of reconciliation: … These fifteen words in the original Greek, given in two parallel, mutually defining clauses, take us into the mystery of our reconciliation."

Charles Hodge writes, (2 Corinthians p. 526)

"There is probably no passage in the Scriptures in which the doctrine of justification is more concisely or clearly stated than in this."

This verse is important because it shows us how human beings are saved. It shows that we are not saved by our works. Many people today think that they can get into heaven because they're pretty good—because they know they are certainly better than many people they know. But there is no mention of a works salvation in our text—quite the contrary it's all about God and His work, about God making Jesus sin for us and making us righteous in Him.

This verse is also important in showing us that Christ's work was more than an example for us. The medieval theologian Abelard argued that the atonement was not a sacrifice, but only a moral example. He taught that Jesus died in order to show us how to behave. Our text shows that that is just not true. He died to take away our sin.

This verse is also important because it shows us the glory of Jesus and the greatness and sufficiency of His work. Instead of focusing on our efforts and contributions—it focuses on God and His work in doing away with sin for us.

So this is a great and noteworthy text. So what does our text tell us about how we are saved?

One of the main things that our passage teaches us is that

Christ was our substitute. He died for our sins.

This is an amazing truth. It's incredible that Jesus, the King of Glory, the Author of Life should love us so much that He would suffer the penalty due to our sin. Paul wrote,

"God made him
who had no sin
to be sin for us,"

How did Jesus save us? He saved us by becoming sin for us, for dying in our place.

This idea of substitution is quite foreign to our normal conception of justice. New York State doesn't allow a third party to go to prison for a crime that another person has committed. If someone is convicted of a crime and there is a five year sentence associated with it, the person who committed the crime has to serve the sentence.

Our innate sense of justice almost always demands that the guilty person be punished for his crime.

I saw a movie recently where a guy was convicted of murder in Chicago in the early 80's, but was pardoned by the governor because the governor believed that he was innocent and another person had committed the crime. But the police officers who investigated the original crime, and others, including eye witnesses to the crime, who knew the person who pulled the trigger and saw him do it—were appalled by the fact that the wrong person was suffering. They all wanted the guilty person to be in prison for it—but they couldn't put him back there because the governor had pardoned him. It irks them to this day.

But there has been certain situations where that principle is turned on its head—where someone finds himself in an intolerable situation and the only way out of it is for the guilty person to go free and for that person to offer himself to suffer in their stead.

We see that exact situation in Genesis 44. Before he revealed himself to his brothers, Joseph told them that they had to bring Benjamin to Egypt to prove that they were not spies. Joseph was testing them to see if they would protect Benjamin. Their father, Jacob, didn't want to let Benjamin go with his brothers. He said it would kill him if anything happened to Benjamin. But because the famine was severe, he reluctantly allowed Benjamin to go with his brothers to Egypt. When his brothers brought Benjamin down, Joseph secretly ordered that his silver cup be place in Benjamin's sack. Shortly after the brothers left for home, Joseph sent soldiers after them to search for the cup. When the cup was found in Benjamin's sack, his brothers were in a an impossible situation. They were in a situation where they did not want Benjamin to suffer for having the silver cup in his possession. if Benjamin suffered for it they were undone. How could they face their father? When they got back to Joseph, Judah offered to take Benjamin's place in jail. He pleaded with Joseph, (Genesis 44:30–34)

"So now, if the boy is not with us
when I go back to your servant my father
and if my father, whose life is closely
bound up with the boy's life,
sees that the boy
isn't there, he will die.
Your servants will bring
the gray head of
our father down
to the grave in sorrow.
Your servant guaranteed the
boy's safety to my father. I said,
'If I do not bring him back to you, I
will bear the blame before you,
my father, all my life!'
Now then, please let your servant
remain here as my lord's slave
in place of the boy, and let the boy
return with his brothers.
How can I go back to my father
if the boy is not with me? No!
Do not let me see the misery
that would come upon my father."

You can understand Judah's predicament. He was in such a bind. The only way that he could get out of it is if he (or one of the other brothers) offered himself to be Benjamin's substitute. It was the only solution to the problem.

What we should understand about our text is that Jesus dying in our place was the only solution to our sin. We're all sinners. The Bible tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) The punishment for sin is death. (Romans 6:23) That's the great curse that is against us.

Without Jesus we're doomed. The only way that we ourselves can deal with that curse is by enduring and suffering it. We can't erase it. We can't overcome it. We can't defeat it. We can't emerge victorious from the battle with it. The war has already been lost. The outcome is inevitable. Sin has us and there is nothing that we can do about it. We are lost. The curse of sin is death, death in all it's fullness, physical death is the first death and being cast into the lake of fire is the second death. (Revelation 20:14, 21:8)

But someone else, someone who had no sin—He could defeat it for us. Only He could take sin for us and emerge victorious. In John 1:29 John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,

"Look, the Lamb of God,
who takes away the sin of the world!"

That's what Jesus came to do. Our text brings to mind Isaiah 53:4-6 which 700 years before Jesus told about the work of the Messiah. As I read it note how it is all about substitution. It reads,

"Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced
for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought
us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep,
have gone astray,
each of us has turned
to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all."

That text is a great precursor to our text.

"God made him
who had no sin
to be sin for us,
so that in him
we might become
the righteousness of God."

It's the same teaching. The Old Testament is full of substitutionary atonement. We see this in the sacrificial system and in the scapegoat of Leviticus 16:20–22. We read that on the Day of Atonement,

"When Aaron has finished making
atonement for the Most Holy Place,
the Tent of Meeting and the altar,
he shall bring forward the live goat.
He is to lay both hands on the head
of the live goat and confess over it
all the wickedness and rebellion
of the Israelites—all their sins—
and put them on the goat's head.
He shall send the goat away
into the desert in the care
of a man appointed for the task.
The goat will carry on itself
all their sins to a solitary place;
and the man shall
release it in the desert."

The high priest laid both his hands on the head of the goat and confessed the sins of the Israelites and put them on the goat's head. The idea of substitution is in the fore.

But we know that the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin. Hebrews 10 tells us that the animal sacrifices, (Hebrews 10:3–4)

"are an annual reminder of sins,
because it is impossible
for the blood of bulls and goats
to take away sins."

A better sacrifice was necessary. All this pointed to the coming of the Messiah—who would be a substitute.

The high priest Caiaphas even predicted, in an unintended way, the substitutionary death of Jesus. In John 11 we see that the chief priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin because they were upset with Jesus doing miracles and people following Him. They said, (John 11:48–52)

"If we let him go on like this,
everyone will believe in him,
and then the Romans will come
and take away both our place
and our nation.
Then one of them, named Caiaphas,
who was high priest that year,
spoke up,
'You know nothing at all!
You do not realize that it is better
for you that one man die for the people
than that the whole nation perish.'
He did not say this on his own, but
as high priest that year he prophesied
that Jesus would die
for the Jewish nation,
and not only for that nation
but also for the scattered children of God,
to bring them together
and make them one."

Jesus Himself testified about His being our substitute. Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper this way. In Matthew 26:26-27 we read,

"While they were eating,
Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it,
and gave it to his disciples, saying,
'Take and eat; this is my body.'"

Luke rendered Jesus's words this way, (Luke 22:19

"This is my body given for you;"

"Matthew's account continues,

"Then he took the cup, gave thanks
and offered it to them, saying,
'Drink from it, all of you.
This is my blood
of the covenant, which is poured out
for many for the forgiveness of sins.'"

Substitutionary atonement is throughout the Bible. Jesus died in our place. Herman Bavinck writes, (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, p. 378)

"Christ's entire life and work, from his conception to his death, was substitutionary in nature."

John Calvin says of Jesus, (Commentary)

"For he assumed in a manner our place, that he might be a criminal in our room, and might be dealt with as a sinner, not for his own offenses, but for those of others, inasmuch as he was pure and exempt from every fault, and might endure the punishment that was due to us — not to himself. It is in the same manner, assuredly, that we are now righteous in him — not in respect of our rendering satisfaction to the justice of God by our own works, but because we are judged of in connection with Christ's righteousness, which we have put on by faith, that it might become ours."

What all this means is that as far as our salvation goes,

your relationship to Jesus is everything.

It doesn't matter if you're a relatively good person. It doesn't matter if you've tried to live a good life all your life—it's not enough to get you into heaven. We all need Jesus.

John Calvin writes, (Calvin's Commentaries)

"Do you observe, that, according to Paul, there is no return to favor with God, except what is founded on the sacrifice of Christ alone? Let us learn, therefore, to turn our views in that direction, whenever we desire to be absolved from guilt."

Calvin gives an excellent exposition biblical salvation in his letter to Cardinal Sadoleto. He wrote, (A Reformation Debate, p. 66-67)

"we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by His obedience, He has wiped off our transgressions; by His sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by His blood, washed away our sins; by His cross, borne our curse; and by His death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy."

So the great question is: Are you in Jesus? Have you gone to Him for the forgiveness of sins? Have you given your life to Him? For salvation, are you resting in Him alone?

If not, you need to realize that you need Him. In John 14:6 Jesus said,

"I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father
except through me."

Salvation is found in Jesus alone. As the apostle Peter said about Jesus in Acts 4:12,

"Salvation is found in no one else,
for there is no other name
under heaven given to men
by which we must be saved."

Go to Jesus. Find life in Him.