The apostle Paul’s urgent mission
As the maps in the back of your Bible will show you, Paul traveled extensively throughout his ministry. He believed his mission was so urgent that, like Jesus before him, he had nowhere to lay his head (Lk 9:58). Rest or even a semi-permanent location to call home were not priorities for him. He moved from region to region, city to city preaching the gospel, making disciples, and planting churches. He was, after all, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God (1Ti 1:1).
When God appoints you as his official delegate to the world, never mind the sacrifice or personal risks. A wise man answers the call and considers it an honor to suffer for the sake of Christ (Php 1:29).
Paul was a wise man.
The beginning of Paul’s story, however, is another matter altogether. He was still a violent, self-righteous Pharisee breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord when Christ first appeared to him (Ac 9:1). As he went on his way to imprison or execute the Christians in Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly shone around him (Ac 9:3). And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Ac 9:4).
(At the time, Paul was better known by his Hebrew name, Saul.)
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus asked (Ac 9:4). Until that moment, Paul never considered that he was doing anything but the will of God. In his mind, he was merely preventing the spread of a heretical movement which blasphemed the Lord our God who is one by claiming Jesus, a human being no less, is equal with God (Dt 6:4; Jn 5:18). How could Paul, a zealous defender of God’s law, sit on his hands as this terrible heresy pervaded Jewish synagogues across the Roman Empire? Someone had to stop it, or so Paul thought.
An encounter of the heavenly kind convinced Paul otherwise. Christ’s accusation on the road to Damascus pierced his hard heart. Luke’s narration in the book of Acts tells us his eyes were opened that day (Ac 9:8). What do you suppose he saw?
First of all, Paul came to see the truth about Jesus. That man from Nazareth was not the deranged leader of a heretical Jewish sect as he once thought. He was and is God’s Messiah. Secondly, he realized he was persecuting Christ himself by persecuting Christ’s disciples. Jesus taught, “As you do something to one of the least of these my brothers, you do it to me” (Mt 25:40). Lastly, Paul saw the truth about himself.
None is righteous
Despite a lifetime of religious zeal and meticulous law-keeping, Paul finally viewed himself not according to his own standard of righteousness, but in light of God’s perfect, holy law. He learned the reality of human depravity which he later articulated so well in his letter to the Romans. Combining several passages from the Old Testament, he writes:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18)
Paul, then, offers the following conclusion:
Now we know that whatever God’s law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)
Paul once believed he was justified before God because he did everything right. From his birth, he kept the law. He was even circumcised on the eighth day of his life as the law required (Php 3:5). But now, he could see himself clearly for the first time and knew everything he did was, in fact, wrong.
While God’s law does guide us to do what is right, it also proves our inadequacies. Through the law comes knowledge of sin (Ro 3:20). Even if a person could keep ninety-nine percent of the law, the book of James says, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (Jas 2:10). And even if it were possible to keep the whole law without failing in one point, we would still be guilty because we were brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did our mother conceive us (Ps 51:5).
This horrifying truth, which confronts every last one of us, is inescapable. None is righteous, no, not one, and the whole world will be held accountable to God according to his perfect judgment (Ro 3:10, 19). Even before Paul was a murderer, his good works could not outweigh his guilt or atone for his sins. If the great Saul of Tarsus was condemned before God, what chance does anyone have to escape God’s wrath?
Today, most people want to think of God as loving and merciful to the exclusion of his fierce anger toward sin. While he is certainly loving and merciful—God is love (1Jn 4:8)—he is also a righteous judge who feels indignation every day because of our rebellion against him and his law (Ps 7:11). He is full of mercy, but he cannot merely ignore our crimes or else he ceases to be just. Criminals must be punished for justice to prevail. Only a corrupt judge lets lawbreakers go free.
Thankfully, our condemnation is not the end of the story.
How can we become righteous?
In his greeting to Timothy, Paul refers to God as our Savior and Christ Jesus as our hope (1Ti 1:1). We deserve the wrath of God on the day of judgment, yet we have hope in Christ Jesus. God, a righteous judge who cannot overlook our trespasses without violating his own nature, somehow acts as our Savior (Ps 7:11). But how can God offer hope and salvation if he must uphold his law and punish violators?
Second Corinthians 5 is one place in Scripture among many which answers the question. It is perhaps my favorite because Paul, the author, summarizes God’s gracious plan of redemption in only fifteen words—fifteen Greek words, that is. If you are willing to highlight any part of your Bible, let this verse be it: “For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Co 5:21).
First, we should recognize the problem implied by this verse. Evidently, we lack the righteousness of God (2Co 5:21). Otherwise, we wouldn’t need to become the righteousness of God. By nature, we don’t have it. We are not righteous. Again, none is righteous, no, not one (Ro 3:10). Even the most religious Jews, such as Paul, were not righteous according to God’s holy standard. That is why Paul could say:
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:1-4)
In other words, many in Israel thought they could become righteous enough on their own to stand justified before God. Paul, however, says, “No, their zeal for God is misguided at best (Ro 10:2). The truth is, apart from God’s righteousness through faith in Christ, a person remains accountable to every last iota and dot of the law (Ro 10:3, 4). He or she cannot be saved (Ro 10:1).”
Our problem is, we do not possess nor can we obtain through our best efforts the righteousness we need to be spared God’s wrath in the end. Apart from divine intervention, all we can rightfully have is a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume us for all eternity (Heb 10:27).
Next, we learn from 2 Corinthians 5:21 that God our Savior has given us hope through Christ Jesus (1Ti 1:1). He has provided a way for salvation. For our sake he made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Co 5:21). Those fifteen Greek words capture the essence of the gospel and explain how a condemned sinner can be justified before God.
Please notice that Paul doesn’t mention good works or religious activity. He doesn’t suggest if only we’ll change our moral behavior, then we’ll finally become righteous. Instead, he places us in the passenger seat. God is the active party in this divine exchange whereby he offers his Son for our sake that we might become the righteousness of God (2Co 5:21). Though he is working for our good, he alone is working.
The divine exchange between Christ and sinners
Let me explain what I mean by divine exchange.
Paul says Christ knew no sin (2Co 5:21). Immanuel, God with us, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, was tempted as we are, yet he never committed sin (Mt 1:23; Jn 1:14; Heb 4:15). The perfect Son of God came to earth to fulfill the Law, which he did perfectly (Mt 5:17). He satisfied every last demand of God his Father. From his conception to his death, he possessed the righteousness that has eluded mankind since the fall of Adam.
Then, God made his Son to be sin (2Co 5:21). The book of Isaiah describes our righteous deeds as a polluted garment (Isa 64:6). In the first part of the divine exchange, God strips the filthy rags from our back, wraps them around Christ, and punishes him for our sin. He deserved no punishment of his own, therefore, he could stand in our place. The apostle John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation, that is, the atoning sacrifice to appease God, for our sins” (1Jn 4:10).
As for the second part of the divine exchange, we must be clothed with the garments of salvation and covered with the robe of righteousness which only Christ, who knew no sin, can give (Isa 61:10; 2Co 5:21). He has put on our polluted garment, and we must put on his robe of righteousness (Isa 64:6).
How, then, is this exchange completed? How do we put on Christ’s robe of righteousness? (Isa 64:6). There is only one way, for by grace you have been saved through faith (Eph 2:8). To the Romans, Paul writes:
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23-25)
To be clear, faith is not a personal endeavor to become righteous through obedience or good works. On the contrary, faith can only begin once a sinner recognizes his utter inability to be holy enough to satisfy God. Faith comes when the weight of guilt forces him to his knees where he cries, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk 18:13). Only after he knows he cannot save himself will he be justified by faith apart from works of the law (Ro 3:28).
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Co 5:21). That is why Paul can identify God as our Savior and Christ Jesus, our hope (1Ti 1:1).
Paul’s ministry of reconciliation
Now, we can begin to understand the urgency of Paul’s ministry. He was an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God because people all over the world were marching on paths of ruin and misery (1Ti 1:1; Ro 3:16). But if they would confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead, they would be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved (Ro 10:9-10).
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? (Romans 10:14-15)
In his plan of redemption, God providentially uses preachers to deliver the good news of Jesus Christ to lost people. Like Ezekiel whom he sent to prophesy over a valley full of bones, he directs his messengers to tell dead men how they might die to sin and live to righteousness (Eze 37:4, 1; 1Pe 2:24). He calls them and speaks through them, and as many as are appointed to eternal life believe (Ac 13:48).
Returning to 2 Corinthians 5, Paul refers to this mission as the ministry of reconciliation (2Co 5:18). He writes:
In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 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 5:19-20)
Once his eyes were opened, how could Paul rest knowing the world’s desperate need of Christ? (Ac 9:8). Even if God had not laid the divine necessity upon him to preach, I think the apostle would still say, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1Co 9:16). If God himself lovingly holds out his hands to a disobedient and contrary people as both Isaiah and Paul tell us, so should ambassadors for Christ (Ro 10:21; 2Co 5:20). After all, God makes his appeal to unreconciled sinners through us, that is, believers.
Our ministry of reconciliation
Though God placed Paul in a unique position and gave him extraordinary abilities, everyone in the church plays a role in the ministry of reconciliation (2Co 5:18). Following his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Prior to his ascension into heaven, Jesus left the church with these words: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Ac 1:8). As long as we have Christ and his Spirit—to the end of the age (Mt 28:20)—we will be the Lord’s witnesses who share the responsibility and privilege of imploring others on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God (2Co 5:20).
Study the examples of the early church. Even at a time when there was great persecution against the church, those who were scattered went about preaching the word (Ac 8:1, 4). Despite the persecutors who dragged off men and women and committed them to prison, those faithful disciples continued to tell people about sin and the Savior as they fled their homes (Ac 8:3).
Is the world’s need for the gospel any less vital today than it was in the first century? If not, what excuse can we have when we fail to proclaim the way of salvation? (Ac 17:17).