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Fifteen Words of Hope


Second Corinthians 5:21 says this: "He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him."

The Bible makes it clear, first of all, that all people are sinners by nature and by action. In fact, all people are sinners from birth. And thus, all people are born alienated from God—who is holy, cannot look upon sin, cannot fellowship with sinners. That alienation because of sin prevents us from knowing God. He is too perfectly holy to have anything to do with sinners except to reject them.

Now the result of that rejection, the result of that alienation in time, is God-lessness. The result of it in eternity is hell. So this alienation into which every human being is born is indeed a serious issue. It means that everybody lives their life without God and, if they die in that condition, will spend their eternity without God in torment.

Now that kind of reality proves that the most deadly virus in the world is not the HIV virus; it is the SIN virus. Like the HIV virus it kills everyone it infects; only, unlike the HIV virus, it infects everyone. It kills not just in time but in eternity. It kills not just physically but spiritually. There is no cure for the HIV virus, but thankfully there is a cure for the SIN virus. In fact, God has made it possible for sinners to be cured so thoroughly and completely that they can be reconciled to God and have eternal fellowship in his presence. And that is the good news. That is what Christianity preaches. That's the gospel. There is a cure for the SIN virus, so that the hostility between people and God can end now and forever. And sinners can be reconciled to holy God. In fact, if you look back at verses 18, 19, and 20, you see several times the word reconciled in one form or another. Verse 18 says, "God who reconciled us to himself.

Verse 19: that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." And at the end of verse 20: "We call on sinners to be reconciled to God." This is the good news, friends. This is the great news that you don't have to live God-lessly in time and you don't have to live God-lessly in eternity. You don't need to suffer through this life without God and to suffer eternal torment without God in the life to come. Reconciliation is possible.

God is the Benefactor of our reconciliation to him.

But that brings up the question How? The apostle Paul has been talking about the ministry of reconciliation. We have been reconciled to God, and now we preach reconciliation. He mentions the ministry of reconciliation in verses 18 and 19, and then in verse 20 he mentions it by saying we are ambassadors for Christ. We go out and we preach to sinners that they can be reconciled to God. That's our ministry. That is the good news.

But the question then comes up, How can that be? How can such a reconciliation take place? How can an absolutely and utterly holy God who is infinitely pure and perfect ever be reconciled to sinners? How can he do that who is too pure to look on sin or to fellowship with transgressors? How can God satisfy his just and holy law with a condemnation of sinners by full and deserved punishment, and still show them mercy who deserve no mercy? How can God end the hostility and how can he take sinners into his holy heaven to live with him forever in intimate communion? How? How can both justice and grace be satisfied? How can love towards sinners and righteousness come together? To put it in Paul's words: "How can God be just and a justifier of sinners?"

The one verse I just read you explains how. Fifteen Greek words. And these 15 Greek words, translated into English, carefully define and perfectly balance the mystery of reconciliation. They show us the essence of the atonement.

Now what did it take? It took death. Because, as it says in the Old Testament in Ezekiel 18:20, "The person who sins will die." As it says in Romans 6:23 in the New Testament, "The wages of sin is death." God knew what the requirement was. The requirement is death, and God made that abundantly clear throughout the whole Old Testament economy, because the Jews spent most of their life, of course, either coming from or going to a sacrifice. They had to continually massacre animals, millions and millions and millions of them, to deal with sin, to show the people how wicked they were and how sin required death. It wasn't that those animals took away their sin. They didn't. They couldn't. But what they demonstrated to the people repeatedly was that the wages of sin is what? Is death. Death. Death. Death. Death. Death. Death. And every time they would sin it was back to another death, back to killing another animal. And they were wearied of that, longing for the ultimate Lamb who once and for all would take away the sin of the world and end this carnage. The animals were symbols that God's law can only be satisfied through death—and made the people long with all their hearts for a final substitute, a final substitute.Well, the Father sent one and he didn't come reluctantly, not at all. He said, "No man takes my life from me," in John 10. "I lay it down of myself. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again." He willingly did not hold onto what he had a right to grasp, but let go of it and condescended to die.

So if there was to be reconciliation, the plan had to come from God. He had to initiate it. He had to design it. He had to execute it.

Christ was the only acceptable Substitute.

The second thing you see in this text—first, the benefactor who is God; second, the Substitute. And the Substitute is identified. "He made him who knew no sin." That's the identification of the Substitute. Who is it? Him who knew no sin. Let me tell you something, folks. That narrows the field to one. Him who knew no sin. Who's that? It's not a human being, for there is none of them who is righteous, no not one. They've "all sinned and come short of the glory of God," Romans 3:23. There's no human being who qualifies. Who is the one who knew no sin? Who is this one? Who is the one who can bear the full wrath of God against sin for somebody else because he doesn't have to bear it for himself? See, no sinful person could be a substitute. No sinner could die for another sinner, because he'd have to pay the penalty for his own sin. There had to be a sinless offering, and it had to be a human being because it had to be man who dies for man. But it couldn't be a sinful human being or he'd have to die for his own sin and couldn't provide atonement for somebody else's. So it had to be a sinless man.

Well, the only way to have a sinless man was to have a man who was God, because God alone is sinless. So if you're going to have a sinless man you have to have a man who is God. And that's exactly what God designed—that the second member of the Trinity, sinless and perfect, equally holy with the other two members of the Trinity, would come into the world in the form of a man.

Jesus Christ then is the One who knew no sin—"Him who knew no sin" is Christ. And the testimony of everyone historically affirms that. You can go to the pagan world. Start there.Jesus says in John 8:46, "Which of you convicts me of sin?" Silence. And there's still silence. Hear Pilate in Luke 23; Pilate—cynical, vicious, cruel, ungodly, pagan, idolatrous Pilate—said in Luke 23:4, to the chief priests and the multitudes, "I find no guilt in this man." Verse 14 again he said it. "I have found no guilt in this man." Verse 22 and again the third time he said to them, "Why? What evil has this man done? I have found in him no guilt." Listen to the thief on the cross: "We indeed suffer justly," he says to the other thief. "We're receiving what we deserve for our deeds, but this Man has done nothing wrong." Listen to the testimony of the centurion who watched it all. In verse 47: "Certainly this Man was innocent."

It wasn't just unbelieving people who saw his perfection. How about the apostles? John, who was with him day and night for three years; John who followed his every footstep and heard his every word and saw his every act and maybe felt his every breath as he leaned on his breast as often as he could; it was John who said in his epistle 1 John 3:5: "In Him there is no sin." And John said we were eyewitnesses of it. And then there was the writer of Hebrews who affirms the very same reality when he says in 4:15, "We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses but one who has been tempted in all things as we are tempted, yet without sin." And in chapter seven the writer of Hebrews says, "He was holy, innocent, undefiled, and separate from sinners."

And then there was Peter who preached in Acts 3, and he says of Christ, "You have killed the prince of life." And he calls him a holy and just One. And then you remember it was Peter, especially Peter, who said of Christ that "He was a Lamb"—1 Peter 1:19—"unblemished and spotless." Who said of him in chapter 2:24 of that same epistle, "He bore our sins in his own body on the cross that we might die to sin and live to righteousness, but he"—verse 22—"committed no sin." Then in 3:18 of that same epistle, "Christ died for sins, the just for the unjust."

Now the testimony of unbelieving men was of his sinlessness; the testimony of those who knew him best was of his sinlessness.

But there's another who gave testimony, and that testimony is indeed powerful. It was none other than God the Father himself. At his baptism recorded in Matthew 3:17, the Father said, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am completely pleased." And at his transfiguration in Matthew 17:5: "This is my beloved Son in whom I am completely pleased." You see, the Father was totally satisfied with the Son. There was nothing in the Son that dissatisfied the Father. He was perfect, sinless.

And maybe the greatest testimony of his sinlessness was the unbroken fellowship he had with God. "I and the Father are one." "I and the Father are one." He said that many times. He says that in John 10:30. He says it in John 14:30-31. He says it repeatedly in John 17. He says it in verse 11; he says it in verse 21, 22, 23, "We're one." "We're one." "We're one." "We're one." "We're united." "We're united." That was the greatest testimony of his sinlessness—that he had absolutely unbroken communion with God.

Now had he not been man he couldn't be the substitute. Had he not been sinless he couldn't be the substitute. So he had to be man and he had to be God.

Notice our text again. "God made him who knew no sin"—here is the remarkable statement "—to be sin." You see, he had to punish sin. But if he punished the sinner the sinner would be destroyed in hell eternally. So he had to take the Substitute and put him in the place of the sinner and punish the Substitute instead. He had to be sin. That phrase is very important and I want you to grasp it. What does it mean that he was made sin? That's an astounding statement. What does it mean?

First of all, let me tell you what it doesn't mean, and you need to understand this clearly. It does not mean that Christ became a sinner. It does not mean that he committed a sin. It does not mean that he broke God's law. He did not do that. The Scriptures I've just read to you indicate that he had no capacity to sin. That's what theologians call the impeccability of Christ. He had no possibility to sin. He could not sin. He was sinless God while fully man. But man can be fully man and not be sinless. Namely, like Adam. And God cannot sin. And certainly it is unthinkable that God would turn him into a sinner. The idea of God making anybody a sinner is unthinkable, to say nothing of making his holy Son into a sinner.

You say, well what does it mean, then, that he was made sin? Isaiah 53 introduces it to us. "Surely our griefs he himself bore, our sorrows he carried." Verse 5: "He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities, and the chastening that fell on him was because of us." Verse 6: "All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way. But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him." He didn't die for his own sins. He died for what? For our sins. What it means is the Lord took all of the iniquity of all of us and it fell on Christ. What do you mean? It wasn't his sin? No. It was our sin.

What does it say? Simply this. God treated Christ as if he were a sinner. How? By making him pay the penalty for sin though he was innocent. He paid the penalty. God treated him as if he was the sinner. More than that, God treated him as if he sinned all the sins of all who would ever believe. Is that incredible? Sin, not his at all, was credited to him as if he had committed it and paid the price. And he didn't, but it was credited to him as if he did.

That, listen, is the only sense in which Christ was made sin. And the word is he was made sin by imputation. Sin was imputed to him. It wasn't his. He never sinned. But God put it to his account, charged it to him, making him pay the penalty. It would be like some—it would be like all of the sinners in all the world—charging all their sin to your credit card and you having to pay the bill. Imputation. Listen. The guilt of the sins of all who would ever believe God, all who would ever be saved, was imputed to Jesus Christ, credited to him as if he were guilty of all of it.

And then just as soon as God had credited it to him, God poured out the full fury of all his wrath against all that sin and all those sinners, and Jesus experienced all that. Is it any wonder at that moment he was alienated from God and said, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me"? He was treated as a sinner. He was treated as a sinner deserves to be treated, with all the fury of just punishment. Let me go further. He was treated as every sinner cumulatively deserved to be treated, and all the fury was poured on him.

He was personally pure; he was officially guilty. He was personally holy; he was forensically guilty.

Look at Galatians 3:10. "For as many of the works of the law are under a curse." Alright? You want to try to earn your way to heaven? You want to try to reconcile yourself? You want to keep certain works, do certain religious duties, subscribe to some moral law or ceremonial law? You want to achieve your own righteousness? You've got a problem. All of you who try to reconcile to God through works, through what you do, are cursed. Why? Because it says in Deuteronomy, "Cursed is everyone who doesn't abide by all things written in the book of the law to perform them." You know why that curses you, that approach curses you? Because the first time you violate one law, you're damned. It just takes one. "Cursed is everyone who doesn't keep all that is written in the book of the law." So if you're going to try to reconcile yourself to God through human effort, every time you try to do that you put yourself under a curse, because it only takes one violation. So the whole human race is cursed, and everybody in every religion on the face of the earth trying to achieve reconciliation by their own efforts is cursed.

All this curse of iniquity has to be paid for. There has to be a penalty for this curse. So verse 13 says, "Christ redeemed us from the curse by being made a curse for us." Wow. That's the point. He became a curse for us. He took the full fury of God's wrath on our behalf. God placed Christ in the path of the curse and trampled him with exhaustive judgment.

And again I remind you that it is imputation that is crucial to understanding reconciliation. He became sin by imputation. Our sin was imputed to him. Follow this. Just as believers become holy by imputation, remember that, being given his righteousness. Let me say it another way. Christ, dying on the cross, did not become evil like we are. Nor do we by virtue of the cross become as holy as he is. You say, well, what happens? It's imputation. God puts sin to Christ's credit—our sin—and puts Christ's righteousness to our credit. It's not that we are so righteous God is satisfied. It's because the penalty is paid and the guilt has been met that God can credit to us the righteousness of Christ. That's the gospel.

The only sense in which you are made righteous through justification is by imputation, and that's the same sense in which Christ was made sin. He is made sin because God credits our sin to him; we're made righteous because God credits his righteousness to us.

Listen. I'm a Christian; you're a Christian. I am not so righteous that, as I am, I can stand before a holy God. Are you? I got a lot of sin in my life. And I would say, if I got anywhere near God, what Peter said: "Depart from me, O Lord, for I'm"—what? I'm still sinful. But God looks at me and does not consider me on the virtue of my human morality. He considers me on the virtue of the imputed righteousness of Christ which covers me. This is the point.

Well, the Benefactor is God. The Substitute is Christ, and by imputation receives our sins and dies for them, taking our place.

We are the beneficiaries of Christ's sacrifice.

Thirdly, the beneficiaries. These last points are brief. Thirdly, the beneficiaries. "He made him who knew no sin to be sin"—here it is—"on our behalf." On our behalf. What are you talking about, Paul? Who is our? Well, it's the same as the we in verse 20. "We are ambassadors." It's the same as the us in verse 19. "He committed to us the reconciliation ministry." It's the same as the us in verse 18. "Us who have been given this ministry.

Who is this "our, we, us" group? Well, they're in verse 17 described. Any man who is—what?—"in Christ." Who is a new creation. Old things have passed away and new things have come. There is a transformation. There is a new creation at salvation. There is. We are transformed. We are changed. But even with that change we wouldn't have sufficient righteousness to satisfy a holy God. And so he has to cover us in the righteousness of Christ to make us acceptable until he can get us to glory and we'll be made righteous.

And it is for us, us who are in Christ, then, us who have been reconciled, that he died. He died in our place. The actual substitution in its efficacy was for believers, those who would believe. He died for our sins. He died for us. He died in our place.

The benefit of Christ's sacrifice is our righteousness before God.

The final point: the benefit. And what did he provide us in order that—this is the purpose of it—we might become the righteousness of God in him? See, there's that imputation. What is the benefit? We become righteous before God. This is what justification does. And the righteousness that we are given is the very righteousness of Christ.

Listen to what Paul said in Philippians 3:9. "We are now found in Christ not having a righteousness of my own," he says. Not some righteousness derived from keeping the law, but a righteousness through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God. Wow. It's imputed to us. He's holy; God imputed sin to him. We're sinful; God imputes holiness to us. The very righteousness which God requires to accept the sinner is the very righteousness which God provides. When God looks at you he sees you covered by the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That's why all your sin is automatically forgiven in the eternal sense, because Jesus already paid the penalty. Right? God can't hold you responsible for your sin. Jesus paid the full penalty for it, took the full fury for it.

You say, Well, what about the sins I commit after I'm a Christian? Well, he died for those too, because you weren't even born when he died. They were all future. In fact, he is the Lamb slain from before what? The foundation of the world. Before even the creation the plan was for him to die for all the sins of all who will ever believe.

This is the righteousness that Romans 3 talks about. It's the righteousness of God, verse 21, "apart from the law." Verse 22: It's the "righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe."

And that's the key. How do you get in on this? Believe. Believe what? Believe that you're a sinner. Believe you're in a desperate situation. You are desperately alienated from God. Believe that you have no hope of reconciliation and you will in this life live godlessly and in the next life you will suffer eternal torment. And believe all of that and then believe that God sent his Son into the world in the form of man to die as your substitute and take your place, and that he took the full fury of the wrath of God upon him. And believe that the affirmation that God's justice was satisfied was the fact that God raised Jesus—what? From the dead. And when God raised him from the dead he was saying, I am satisfied. Then God exalted Jesus to his right hand, where he sits at the right hand of God on the throne. And God says when that was done, when he offered himself and satisfied my justice, I gave him, Philippians 2, "a name which is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee in the universe must bow and every tongue must confess that Jesus is Lord."

That's what you believe. That's the gospel. And when you believe that by faith, simply believing that, God in his mercy takes the righteousness of Jesus Christ and imputes it to you because your sins were imputed to Christ when he died on the cross. The Father knew you were there when the Son had died. Your name was written in the Lamb's Book of Life before the foundation of the world, and the atonement that Christ made was for you, and you come to believe and you receive the imputed righteousness. And then you live in this life with God in your life, and in eternity in the presence of God in absolute perfection. That's the gospel. That's Christianity. That's it.

The Benefactor is God. It's all his plan. It comes out of his love. The Substitute is Jesus Christ who took your place, the perfect God-Man. The beneficiaries are all of us for whom he died, those who will believe. And the benefit? You receive the righteousness of God imputed to you as if you were equal to Jesus Christ in holiness. Some day you will be made holy. But until then, you're covered with the righteousness of God in Christ. And it becomes yours through faith. Believe. Repent. Put your faith in Jesus Christ.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

John MacArthur is pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, as well as an author, conference speaker, chancellor of The Master's University and Seminary, and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry.

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Sermon Outline:


God has made it possible for sinners to be cured so thoroughly and completely that they can be reconciled to God and have eternal fellowship in his presence.

I. God is the Benefactor of our reconciliation to him.

II. Christ was the only acceptable Substitute.

III. We are the beneficiaries of Christ's sacrifice.

IV. The benefit of Christ's sacrifice is our righteousness before God.


When we believe, God takes the righteousness of Jesus Christ and imputes it to us, because our sins were imputed to Christ when he died on the cross.