That we might become the righteousness of God
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 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. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 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 5:17-21)
The last verse of this passage is perhaps the most significant. In merely fifteen Greek words, Paul articulates the true gospel of Jesus Christ. This single verse is a perfect summary of the vital doctrine of the church which separates biblical Christianity from every other religion, that is, the teaching of justification by faith alone.
My Christian creed
If someone were to approach me as a Christian and ask, “What do you believe?” I feel that quoting 2 Corinthians 5:21 would suffice. Let me read it again: “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).
In relatively modern times, it has become semi-popular for Christians to say, “I have no creed.” Others will get cute and say, “My creed is the Bible.” My response to them is, will you please be more specific? It is lazy and unhelpful to answer an inquisitive mind so broadly. If someone wants to know what I believe as a Christian, then I assume he wants to understand what makes me distinctly Christian. What sets me apart from the atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, or even the Catholic? It is this: I believe God made sinless Christ to be sin, so that I might become righteous before him.
Let me break that down. First, I believe there is a God who is holy, just, and righteous. Second, I believe he holds us accountable. Unless we, too, are perfectly righteous, then we are guilty and condemned before God. Third, I believe Christ, Lord and Savior, was and is perfectly righteous. Fourth, I believe God put our sin on Christ and Christ’s righteousness on us.
From polluted garments to righteous robes
I’ll illustrate this exchange using two passages from Isaiah. Isaiah 64 says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa 64:6). We are wearing nasty robes. Unfortunately for us, heaven has a dress code. We cannot enter eternal life wearing polluted garments, so Jesus took those garments and put them on himself. “He made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2Co 5:21).
Naked people, however, are not permitted into heaven either. Jesus took our polluted garments, but we still need something to wear. Specifically, we need something clean to wear. Isaiah 61 says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isa 61:10).
From where do we get this robe of righteousness? The answer is Jesus, “who knew no sin” (2Co 5:21). Christ alone wore the garments of salvation. He was the only perfectly righteous person to walk this earth. His robe remained spotless. He is the one giving us something clean to wear so we may enter heaven, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
We have nothing but dirty robes. Jesus possesses the only clean robe. Jesus says to us, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll go to the cross wearing your robes. If you’ll trust me to do this thing for you, then I’ll give you my robe.” That’s 2 Corinthians 5:21. That’s the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s justification by faith alone. That’s the creed of every sound Christian.
As we eat the bread and drink the wine of the Lord’s Supper, we do so with a firm conviction of the truthfulness of this statement: “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).
(I preached this short message at Joy Christian Church on February 4, 2018, during the Lord’s Supper.)