For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)
We can sometimes forget the most basic realities of the Christian faith. We might assume that a time comes when we move onto bigger and better things or we get distracted by the cares of this world and forget to value what is meant to be most central to our hearts. The gospel is like that. We hear it, we accept it, and then we move on. But we were never meant to "move on" from the realities of the gospel. Treasuring Jesus in the gospel is not something we graduate from. It is like the foundation of our house of faith. We may build upon it, but we never get rid of it and we always rest upon it.
When I want to remind myself of the gospel and rejoice in its goodness, one of my go to passages is 2 Corinthians 5:21. In just a few short phrases it communicates the magnitude of the gospel. In particular, it tells us about the realities of what has become known as the "great exchange." It tells us about the glorious truth that on the cross Jesus exchanged his righteousness for our sin, and through faith in Jesus we are given Christ's righteousness in place of our sin. Incredible! Jesus gives up his righteousness and takes our sin, so that we can shed our sin and take on his righteousness. Let's unpack this even more.
He did what we could not
Jesus did what we could not. He "knew no sin." The Bible tell us that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, and yet he did not sin (Heb 4:15). In our society, which prizes self-esteem, even at the cost of honesty, we do not like to talk about our sin. Everyone knows they have sin, but no one wants to admit it for themselves or speak honestly about it for others. Many know they have sin, but they don't want anyone else to think they do.
Jesus was not like that. He did not cover his sin by making excuses or putting on a mask. He did not white-wash a tomb, pretending to make pure and alive what contained dead and rotting corpses. Jesus is the real deal. He lived his entire life without sin. He was tempted in every way that we are, and resisted sin on each and every occasion. When he was murdered upon a cross he was not just legally innocent of the crimes put forward by his Jewish and Roman accusers, he was also innocent of the sin he bore for humanity.
Jesus did what we could not. He was sinless.
And became what he was not
Jesus lived without sin, but he died with the weight of all humanity's sin resting upon him. Jesus became sin, so that he could ransom us through his blood. In Jesus, God cancels our record of debt - which stands against us and rightly claims we are condemned. Jesus became sin, nailing it to the cross, so that our rightly-condemning debt could be paid.
In order to do that, Jesus became sin. "For our sake he made him to be sin, who knew no sin." We naturally think that the physical suffering was the worst part of the cross. In no way do I want to minimize the physical agony the cross must have caused Jesus. It is a pain I will likely never come close to experiencing. But, often forgotten in it all, is that becoming sin must have been worse.
Consider the guilt you feel when you are confronted with your sin. It is heavy and weighs on you. Imagine for a second that weight is like the dripping of a faucet, annoying but tolerable. Now consider what it might feel like to experience the weight of all your sin (past, present and future) all at once. Personally, I think it would be unbearable. I think my body would shut down and I would die from the spiritual, emotional and psychological agony I would experience. If one sin is like a dripping faucet, this might be like a flooded river. Now consider what it might be like to take on the weight of all sin, from all time, for all humanity, all at once. It would be crushing. Like the most powerful waters of the worst hurricane. This is what Jesus did. He became sin, for all humanity, throughout all time. It is impossible for us to fully grasp the immensity of what Jesus did on the cross.
Jesus did what we could not. And became what he was not.
So we could become what we are not
Why did Jesus do all this? He did it so that "in him we might become the righteousness of God." When we treasure Jesus as our savior - when, by grace through faith, we trust in Jesus as our lord, not only does he take our sin from us, but he gives us his righteousness. Jesus didn't just live without sin, but he also healed the sick, proclaimed the gospel and loved everyone around him perfectly. When we place our faith in Jesus, all that righteousness is attributed to us.
In our standing before God, he doesn't look at us as sinners, but as righteous, blood-bought saints. He doesn't see our sin, because Jesus took our sin. He sees us as righteous because Jesus is fully righteous. The implications of this are vast. We are adopted and become co-heirs with Christ. We are made alive together with Jesus. We have God's Spirit living inside us, working on our hearts to transform us increasingly more into the likeness of Jesus. We are sent as God's ambassadors, invited into the privilege of participating in God's mission in the world. We could go on and on.
This message is not something we move past. It is something we come back to day after day, reminding ourselves of the goodness of the gospel, so that the rest of our lives are shaped by this remarkable reality.
That Jesus did what we could not, and became what he was not, so that we could become what we are not.