The resurrection is the most glorious day in biblical Christianity, perhaps second only to the bodily return of Christ at the end of the Tribulation. For the resurrection means Jesus’ sacrificial death has been accepted by the Father and He has been exalted into the position of highest authority as anointed king over His spiritual kingdom and heaven and earth. His resurrection means He has the power and right to resurrect His people to glorification, rule over the millennial empire from a restored Jerusalem, and renew the heavens and earth to rule forever as king over a restored creation with His people from all dispensations. This, and more, is what the resurrection means. But what does it mean for you? Jesus’ death was for sinners; His resurrection means the Father accepted the sacrifice and sinners who believe can go free. But how can the Lord God show mercy to rebels who deserve none? How can He be just and the justifier of sinners?
Before we celebrate the resurrection, we must understand the death Jesus died that led to His resurrection. Today’s text encapsulates for us the “great exchange” of the cross, the exchange the Father planned and the Son executed, the exchange the Father embraced as satisfying His holy justice and sufficient to save.
A. God Initiates Reconciliation (v. 21a)
God is the “He” of this verse (cf. v. 20). He is the one doing the action. He is the great Doer! He is the Initiator! He chose to show mercy to sinners; He chose which sinners He would save. He entered into a plan with Jesus and the Spirit to accomplish redemption and apply it. He sent His Son and They sent the Spirit. There would be no reconciliation with a holy God unless He planned, initiated, activated, accomplished, and applied it.
“Reconciliation,” of course, implies that God and a world of sinners are at enmity. Having inherited a sin nature and spiritual deadness from Adam, all people are inclined towards rebellion against God’s authority and trusting their own thinking and reasoning over God’s (this could almost be understandable in an unfallen world, but it is sheer lunacy when sin has so corrupted the mental faculties that we do not possess all of the facts nor interpret correctly the ones we do admit into evidence). Have you ever wondered why some person you know will know submit to some aspect of God’s revelation? It’s because it is part of fallen human nature, as old as Adam, to choose one’s own way over God’s. Jay Adams wrote that we are designed to need counsel, and in the Fall we chose to accept Satan’s counsel over God’s. We have chosen to listen to the Great Liar over the One who is Truth only. We did this positionally in Adam, and we each do it every day ourselves. This posture of autonomy and rebellion has placed us squarely at enmity with the Triune God. God created us to glorify Him, which at least involves trusting Him and submitting to His authority as Creator and Lord (believing He actually exists, of course, is assumed). This posture glorifies God because it does not assume we know better than Him. Indeed, it assumes we know nothing He does not in some way enable us to understand. It knows God is God and therefore the starting point for thinking and reasoning. It does not trust one’s own understanding of the data (or even that it has all the data). It is a humble posture of open hands, waiting to be taught by and receive from God.
But by nature, we have shaken our fist in the face of our thrice-holy Maker and have said that we know better, that we will make our own way (in His world!), that He will not rule over us, that we will be as gods, knowing (= determining) good and evil. Before the foundation of the world, God contemplated the entire human race in this way. This was a world He dearly loved. He knew what each person, by name, would become. His heart broke. And yet, seeing only fallen rebels, He said, “I choose you…and you…and you…you will be heirs with My Son. You will know my grace, not My wrath. You will be ushered into Heaven. You will be restored to right relationship with Me and glorify me. You will know my many blessings. You, and not another. Not because of you, but because I have chosen you to be Mine.” He chose. He planned with Son and Spirit the only way to save sinners and restore the created order. Then, 2,000 years ago, “He made.” The plan was underway. And it would be successful.
B. Christ is the Perfect Substitute (v. 21b)
Notice I did not say what God made. That is the subject of this point: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us”! Here are Father and Son. The Spirit, too, is here (Hebrews 9:14). “Made” here does not mean to make something into something else. Rather, it carries the idea of judicial constitution and causation and appointment. Jesus was judicially reckoned as carrying the sins of His people. God appointed Him to be the Substitute and Sin-Bearer. God caused Him to be so. This is a legal exercise. Legally, Jesus was counted as committing the sins of His people and punished for them. This phrase is parallel with “become” later in the verse; both are judicial and legal terms. They do not mean something changed in the nature or essence of either party.
How is Christ the perfect substitute? Because He is both God and Man. Think of it this way: Who sinned? Man. Thus for men to be reconciled to God, a human being had to be the substitute. But in order for the substitution to be accepted, the human could not be a sinner; a sinner could not offer an unblemished acceptable substitution and atonement to a holy God! The Substitute had to be God. Only God knows how to satisfy the justice and wrath of God; only God is sinless (indeed, cannot even be tempted by sin); only God can make an infinitely sufficient and perfect sacrifice to an infinitely holy and offended God for innumerable sins and their guilt in the span of a few hours. The Substitute must be both man and God; He must be truly human and truly God—one glorious theanthropic person. In love, Jesus took to Himself a sinless human nature while not ceasing to be holy eternal God. The Father sent Him on a mission; He was here to do His will and would not fail. He would accomplish the work the father gave Him to do and would be honored with being exalted—not merely as God, who is always glorious, but as the incarnate God-Man—to a position of highest authority, a Man ruling on the throne of heaven over men.
C. We Receive a Great Benefit (v. 21c)
When the Triune God sets out to do something, He cannot fail. He is omniscient, so there is nothing He does not know that could surprise Him. He is sovereign, so there is nothing that can frustrate Him or thwart Him. He is omnipotent, so He can do all that He wills. And He is omnipresent, so He can effortlessly control all things in the fullness of His presence at every point in space. Hallelujah! When God intended to do something for elect sinners. He intends to secure that benefit for them. And He has not failed. While we are not saved at the cross (this contradicts “propitiation through faith in His blood,” Romans 3:25), the Lord died in such a way that He infallibly secured the application of saving benefits to His people by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. There is no way an elect person can be lost because Jesus’ death secures for them the application of that great exchange. His intent was to save a people and He has and will.
Notice how this verse ends: Jesus was made sin for us so that (hina! Purpose clause in Greek) “we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Recall that “become: is parallel to “made”; both are positional, judicial, reckoning terms. Jesus took on Himself the sins of His people so that we might be constituted with the very righteousness of God-in-Christ Himself “in Him.” This is union with Christ, Paul’s beloved distinct contribution to the Canon. How are we counted righteous? We must be united to the Righteous One so that His life is our life, His death our death, His resurrection our resurrection. We are only given the righteousness of Christ in the context of personal, vital, Spirit-enabled union with Him. The same idea is in Romans 5:19. Just as Adam’s sin caused the world (all “in him”) to be reckoned, constituted, appointed sinners, the obedience of the Lord Jesus in life and death constituted His people (all “in Him”) as righteous before holy God! If Jesus takes our sins upon Himself, and if they are punished in Him, then we are free. But, we still cannot stand before a holy God as blank people, neither sinful nor righteous. Rather, the Lord God must credit to us the perfect righteousness of His Son, so not only do we have no sins for which to answer, but we have perfect and flawless righteousness so that we cannot be anything but accepted by our ineffably holy Triune God.
The word that ought to be shouting in your head as we close is “mercy.” How good is our God to show His grace and kindness to us because of Christ. How glorious that this “great exchange” has been accepted by the Father in raising Jesus from the dead so He lives to rule, bless, save, conquer, heal—and return! Place your faith in Christ alone for your acceptance with God and look ahead to your own glorious resurrection wherein, like the psalmist, you will know fully the rest of God (Psalm 116:7-9)! You can be accepted by a holy God, sinful though you be, because of the death and glorious resurrection of Jesus. Cry out to Him today; He stands ready and able to save anyone who calls upon Him!
N.B.: I am most grateful to Dr. Rolland McCune, author of the three-volume A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity (Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009-2010) for the help the third volume on soteriology gave me in articulating the nature of imputation.