For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
In our text, the Apostle Paul first draws our attention to Christ. “Behold,” he says, “the sinless Son of God who is made to be the sin-bearer for sinners.” Then Paul says, “Look at the result. Look at what God’s grace has accomplished! Behold the Christian who is made the righteousness of God in Christ.” What a profound and powerful statement!
Our goal in this message is to answer the question: “What does it means to be made the righteous of God in Christ?” To mine these treasures of our text, let’s examine the context that surrounds it.
The context—a reminder of the coming judgment seat of Christ and our responsibility to share the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:1-20).
A REMINDER OF THE COMING JUDGMENT SEAT OF CHRIST (5:1-10)
Chapter five opens with a reminder that all of us are facing death. Paul’s concern, however, is not directed toward the sinner with a warning to prepare for judgment. Instead, Paul is addressing the believer and speaks of death with a note of expectation and triumphant confidence. He writes, “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven” (5:1, 2).
Here Paul gives comfort to believers who faced the possibility of imminent death because of persecution (1 Cor. 4:11-18). Although death is the last enemy we face (I Cor. 15:26), there is the certainty of the future possession of a spiritual body (5:1, 2).
Further, the present possession of the Holy Spirit is God’s pledge of our ultimate transformation (5:4b, 5). We also have the assurance that upon our death, we go immediately to be with the Lord (5:8). In verse 10, Paul reminds us that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that everyone may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (5:10).
The context suggests that although everyone will eventually be required to stand before God and be judged for their deeds, here Paul is “thinking primarily, if not exclusively, of the Christian’s obligation to ‘give an account of himself’ (Rom 14:12). An appearance before Christ’s tribunal is the privilege of Christians. It is concerned with the assessment of works and, indirectly, of character, not with the determination of destiny; with reward, not status.”1
All the deeds of the Christian will be assessed and rewarded at the judgment seat of Christ. Yet not all verdicts will be comforting. Although the believer may “suffer loss,” it will not be the loss of salvation. It is the loss of rewards.
Paul says, “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15).
OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO SHARE THE MESSAGE OF RECONCILIATION (5:11-20)
After reminding us of the coming judgment seat of Christ, Paul seeks to impress upon our minds our God-given responsibility to share the message of reconciliation. “Therefore,” he says, “knowing what it is to fear the Lord, we persuade men” ( 5:11). The motivation to get involved in the lives of the unsaved and to try to win them to Christ is the great love Christ has shown for all mankind.
The motivation to get involved in the lives of the unsaved and to try to win them to Christ is the great love Christ has shown for all mankind.
His self-sacrificing, self-denying love provides a powerful constraint and example for us: we are to live no longer unto ourselves, but unto him who died for us and rose again (5:14, 15). As Christians, we are new creations in Christ Jesus and are to live to please Him (5:9).
The old way of sin and self-centeredness has passed away. The new way of life in Christ has come (5:17; Rom 6:4; Col. 3:1, 2). We are to view ourselves as Christ’s ambassadors to the world (5:18). Our message is, “Be ye reconciled to God” (5:18, 20)!
The means by which we are reconciled to Christ is the focus of verse 21. In one profound statement we are given the very heart of the atonement. Paul, as it were, swings the spot-light of attention onto Jesus Christ, the sin-bearer for sinners.
Behold the Christ
Behold the Christ—a gift from God—Who is made the sin-bearer for sinners (2 Cor. 5:21a).
Our first challenge is to determine what is meant by the statement that God made Jesus “to be sin for us, who knew no sin.” First, we can say for sure that the phrase does not mean that God viewed Jesus as a sinner. Scripture is emphatic that Jesus was sinless (I Pet. 2:22, quoting Isa. 53:9; I John 3:5; Heb 4:15; 7:26).
Second, we need to observe that the Greek term “sin” (harmartia) can refer to a “sin-offering.” In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word harmartia is translated 94 places in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers as “sin-offering.”2
As the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), Jesus became our sin-offering. He bore our sins (the penalty due them) in his own body upon the tree (I Pet. 2:24). God “delivered him up for us all” (Rom 8:32), making Christ “a curse for us” (placing our curse upon Him) (Gal 3:13). Jesus allowed this so He could become for us “an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2, 25).
Many commentators wish to introduce into this verse the concept of “imputation.” They say, “Our sins were imputed to Jesus.” This is true only in the sense that Jesus bore the penalty for our sins.
Peter writes, “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 1:3:18).
Our sins were not imputed to Jesus in the sense that they were accounted his own. When God looked at the heavenly record of His Son’s life, He did not see all our sins put to His Son’s account, as some have suggested, making Jesus the worst sinner who ever lived. God knows the difference between our sins and His Son’s sinless condition.
God knows the difference between our sins and His Son’s sinless condition
Our sins were not made Jesus’ in any personal sense, nor considered as such. Jesus volunteered to take the penalty due our sins upon Himself. God did not view Jesus as “clothed in our sins,” and therefore a sinner! He saw Jesus as He truly was—the sinner’s sin-offering. He could qualify to be the sin-offering only as long as He personally remained sinless.
This is an important distinction to remember. Now we turn our attention from Christ, our sin-bearer, to what His grace accomplishes in the life of believers.
Behold the Christian
Behold the Christian—by the grace of God—who is made the righteousness of God in Christ.
We now come to the last phrase of our text, which informs us that Jesus was made a sin-offering for us “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” In what sense are we made “the righteousness of God in him”?
Is it true, as some say, that Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to the believing sinner in the sense that when God looks at the heavenly record, he does not see the sinner’s sin, but sees only the righteous life of Christ? Are we truly, as the songwriter says, “dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne?”3
To answer this we need first to state emphatically that “all believers are for given and accepted, not for the sake of any thing in them, or of any thing that ever was, that is, or ever can be, done by them, but wholly for the sake of what Christ hath done and suffered for them.”4
When, by the grace of God, a sinner exercises faith in Christ, that faith is imputed by God for righteousness (Rom. 4:22; Jam. 2:23). This is true of every believer. It is as Paul declares, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
Christ’s perfect righteousness is not imputed to us, as some say, in the sense that it is accounted our own. When God looks at the heavenly record of the believer’s life, He does not see Christ’s personal righteousness credited to our account. What He sees is that on the basis of the finished work of Christ on the cross, the believer’s faith is credited to him for righteousness (Rom. 4:5).
The sinner is freely forgiven, the penalty for sin removed, and he is declared, “not guilty.” We are “justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:24).
This is the only means of obtaining or retaining the favor of God. God does more for us, however, than declare us righteous (justification). He actually makes us righteous (sanctification).
When we come to God through Christ by faith, He makes us a new creation in Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit and enables us to live in obedience to His Word. As we walk in the light, we do deeds of righteousness. This is the fruit of faith (Gal. 5:6).
The immediate context of our passage suggests that Paul is emphasizing the importance of being righteous (sanctification), rather than our standing of righteousness (justification).
His reminder of God’s judgment on our works (5:1-10), his call to live righteously, and not unto one’s self (5:11-15), and his emphasis on being a new creature with the old sinful way of life passing away (5:16-18) all suggest that Paul is telling us that God’s grace actually enables us to live holy and righteous lives.
God’s grace actually enables us to live holy and righteous lives
This is in contrast to those who would tell us that Paul is speaking of a “miracle of celestial bookkeeping in which the endlessly sinning Christian is credited with the righteousness of Christ.”5
When we are presented to God, of what do our “robes of righteousness” consist? The Apostle John tells us that when the Bride of Christ is presented to Jesus we shall be clothed in fine linen, clean and white. The fine linen is the righteousnesses [the righteous deeds] of saints (Rev. 19:8), not the personal righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Let no one misunderstand. Jesus’ personal righteousness is the ground of our justification.
Verses such as, “The LORD our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6), or you are “in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30) teach us that Christ alone is the basis of and the source from which all our righteousness (both our justification and sanctification) is derived.
By the grace of God, Jesus became the sinner’s sin-offering so that the sinner could be made the righteousness of God in Christ. As a sinner, we must put off the filthy rags of our own righteousness (Isa. 64:6), and put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14).
In translating Count Zinzendorf’s great hymn, John Wesley wrote, “Jesus, thy blood and righteousness / My beauty are, my glorious dress.” By this he meant, “for the sake of thy [Christ’s] active and passive righteousness I am forgiven and accepted of God.”  He did not mean that Christ’s righteousness served as a cloak to hide from God our continuing practice of sin.
If the intent of the author of the hymn, “The Solid Rock,” was the same as John Wesley’s, then I will gladly join in and sing, “Dressed in His righteousness alone,/ faultless to stand before the Throne.”
God grant each of us the grace to live no longer unto ourselves, but unto him who died for us and rose again (2 Cor. 5:15). Thus we will ever rejoice that we have been reconciled to God. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.
- Murray J. Harris, “2 Corinthians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Zondervan Publication, 1976, p. 349.
- Adam Clarke, “II Corinthians” in Clarke’s Commentary. Vol. 6. Abingdon Press, n.d., p. 338.
- Edward Mote, “The Solid Rock.”
- John Wesley, “The Lord Our Righteousness,” in The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 1, Sermons I, (edited by Albert C. Outler). Abingdon Press, 1984., p. 455.
- Paul Rees, in The High Cost of Holy Living, by Dwight Hervey Small. Revell Publishing Company, 1964, p. 9. Ibid., p. 458.