2 Corinthians 5:21 “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
I am claiming that God’s work of imputation is the very heart of the gospel and that is why we must have some understanding of the subject. Imputation is attributing something good or bad to someone and dealing with that person in the light of that imputation. For example in 1 Samuel 22:15 we read these words, “Let not the king impute any thing unto his servant, nor to all the house of my father; for thy servant knew nothing of all this, less or more.” Let me tell you the story that lies behind those words and then you will understand them.
David was being hunted by king Saul, and David had come to a place called Nob the city of the priests, and there a priest called Ahimelech had been kind to him. He had prayed for David, given him food and provided him with the sword of Goliath. Saul had heard that the priest had done this, and he summoned all the priests of Nob to come to his palace. The king was very angry with them; “You’ve been conspiring against me. Why else should you have done all this to assist David? Isn’t it that he might rise up against me?” Ahimelech protests to Saul that no one had been more loyal to him than David, Saul’s own son-in-law. Then the priest says those words, “Let not the king impute anything unto his servant, nor to all the house of my father; for thy servant knew nothing of all this, less or more.” “Don’t charge us with something that is false,” says Abimelech. “What you are saying about David isn’t true. Don’t impute anything evil to David. He is your loyal subject, and a faithful man for whom I pray.”
Abimelech is pleading with Saul that he doesn’t treat David as a criminal. “Don’t impute evil to him.” That is, do not classify him as your enemy. Don’t attribute wickedness to David. Don’t regard him as a rebel. He is a faithful man. Imputation is to attribute something good or bad to someone and then deal with him like that. We can all appreciate the serious consequences of such actions. Someone spreads evil reports about a man of God, that he is an egomaniac, that he always has to have his own way, that he is a one man band, that he is negligent as a pastor. This fellow is imputing wickedness to a man of God; he treats him as if he were an evil man. He won’t acknowledge him; he can barely look at him or his family, and we know how such imputations are all very painful.
Adam’s sin and guilt has been imputed to us because he was our federal head; we were involved in all the decision-making processes of his rebellion against our God, just as we are involved in decisions our prime minister makes for our good or ill. We were all in Adam when he defied God, and it is perfectly right for the Lord to treat us as he does. It is not as though day after day we have to be forced to defy God. There’s no command from heaven that says to us every morning, “Now ignore God today. Just think about yourself and please yourself today,” and we reply reluctantly, “All right then.” We freely choose to keep the living God outside our lives every day. How men choose to live is exactly reflecting God’s assessment of them. Imagine if God spoke about us in the way sentimental people talk about children, “Aren’t kids little angels?” We protest, “Don’t patronize us! Don’t try to sweet-talk us. We know better; there isn’t one child who is righteous, no not one.”
So Adam’s guilt is our guilt. We’ve gone the way of our father Adam; we share his identical nature. In Adam all die, and we deserve eternal death because we are sinners. That sinful nature is original to us, and so forgiveness is essential; atonement is necessary; Christ the Lamb of God has to die; new life is required. We need the cross because of what we are; through Adam’s sin we are all constituted as sinners. Is there a way that our sins can be removed?
One of the most intriguing questions we must ask is why did the Lord Jesus die? We know at a purely human level one real answer, that it was because of the testimony of false witnesses. They were bribed or threatened or sweet-talked into imputing wickedness to our Lord. They testified, “We heard him blaspheming,” and blasphemy was a capital offence in theocratic Israel so he was condemned to be crucified to death. But everyone here in this ‘jury room’ without exception agrees that Jesus was set up; the men were false witnesses; ‘Jesus of Nazareth guilty of blasphemy’? It is beyond contempt. What could the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount have done worthy of being crucified to death? What did the man who went about doing good suddenly do to receive such a condemnation?
Everything about Jesus was good through and through. His friends who lived with him for three years compared him to a lamb without spot and blemish. They quoted the Scriptures about him, “He did no sin neither was any guile found in his mouth,” in other words, he spoke utterly sincerely in all he said. A Roman citizen like Pilate’s wife said to her husband that Jesus was an innocent man. A criminal dying alongside him said that Jesus had done nothing wrong. The centurion who was superintending the execution said that surely he was a righteous man – the son of God. Paul preaching in the Acts said to his hearers that in Jesus there was found nothing worthy of death. Even Christ himself asked those who knew him best if any of them could point out anything he’d done wrong, and his Father, who knew everything about him, inwardly and outwardly, said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Imagine a special X-ray-type of security machine that detects any evidence of sin. You stand the Lord Jesus in front of it and you switch it on. When you look at him through the scrutinizing eyes of this imaginary machine in his whole being there’s not one tiny cell of sin. So here is a man who had lived in an ordinary home with his parents and siblings, and worked with his father in a carpenter’s workshop for seventeen years, debated and argued with inquirers and enemies for three years, and yet he remained as holy as God. His meat and drink was to do the will of God. There was never one off-guard moment when he came short of the glory of God
So I am asking why did such a blameless man die? Why didn’t God protect him and prevent him from dying? If you had the power and some ruffians were torturing your beloved only son then wouldn’t you rescue him? Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t even a bad man do that for his son? If you just watched, and let him go on suffering terrible pain until they finished him off by cutting his throat – and you did nothing when you had the power to save him – wouldn’t you be as bad as his killers? Why didn’t God deliver Jesus if he delighted in Jesus? Was there some sin he’d committed? None whatsoever. Then why is his Father permitting him to die like that? Why is God standing back and doing nothing? Where’s the fair play? Where is the love of God? The Lord can deliver Elijah from starvation, and Jonah from death in the belly of a whale, Daniel from lions, the three men in Babylon from the furnace’s flames, Lazarus from death, the Gadarene demoniac from a legion of demons, Peter from prison and Paul from drowning. They were all sinners and yet God delivered them, but here is the blessed sinless Jesus, the Word who was with God and who was God from the beginning, the one whom he calls his “beloved Son” and where is the rescue mission? Why aren’t a squadron of angels swooping down in a heavenly commando raid? Why are the hosts of heaven mere spectators of the suffering of their Lord? Why should Jesus endure all of this, or any of this for longer than a second? He’s done nothing worthy of such an end, yet he hangs there impaled to a cross with the heavens dark above him. He cries, “My God, my God why hast Thou forsaken me?” Why should God add such horrible insult to the injury of the lash and the nails, turning his back on the one he loves the most at his hour of greatest need? Is there knowledge with God of things below? Does the Almighty know what’s going on? Yes he does; he is omniscient. Then the question of questions is why should Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God suffer like that under the wrath of a sin-hating God when he is pure and kind, holy and sinless, without a single blemish of character? He loves God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength; the only man ever to have done so. He loves his neighbour as himself; the only man ever to have done so. If God was counting Christ’s sins against him he didn’t have many to count, in fact he never got to ‘One.’ Yet God was standing by and watching Jesus his own Son suffer such a horrendous death, nailed naked by his hands and feet to a cross. Why? How can the reputation of Almighty God be saved?
It can be saved if you understand this term ‘imputation.’ Paul in this fifth chapter of the second letter to the Corinthians is speaking as someone who has been commissioned to go as a herald and apostle of Jesus Christ, and you see what he says, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:20&21). So Paul is saying something absolutely breathtaking about Golgotha. Something great was actually achieved in the agonizing death of Jesus which could not have been achieved if Jesus had not died that death. It was this, that on Calvary “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.” God was there imputing our sin to Christ. He was really laying sin on him. We can say it in a dozen ways but the message is always the same: He was accounting Christ to be a sinner. He was charging Jesus with our guilt. He was ascribing to the spotless Son the shame and blame of our bad behaviour. He was reckoning to the account of our Lord our sins and making him answer for us. In our place God the Son was being condemned. Jesus was being made accountable for what we have done. God was making his Son answer for our wrongdoing, and Jesus was willingly and freely choosing to be made sin for us. The Father and the Son were in harmonious agreement that because of their great mutual and eternal love for us this could be the only way that we fallen sons of Adam most certainly will be redeemed. Something in the very nature of who God is requires that death inevitably has to be the wages of sin. Without the shedding of blood there can be no remission. That is how the only God that exists is. So let me break it down. What do we see on Golgotha? [I’ve got four splendid headings from Iain D. Campbell]
1. ON THE CROSS THE INNOCENCE OF JESUS CHRIST IS BEING CONFIRMED.
“God made the one who knew no sin to be sin.” Four words about Jesus; don’t fail to see them. “He knew no sin.” So that clears for ever any thought that Jesus was suffering for secret sins he had committed. He wasn’t guilty of any personal act of sin, and so Paul here is in line with every other writer of the New Testament. They are totally united in affirming with one voice that the Jesus they knew so well was wholly without anything sinful at all. No sins of commission; no sins of omission. No sins of imagination, of thought, of emotion, of affection, of word, or deed. He loved his enemies. He turned the other cheek. He was tempted but he never received the temptation into his heart to dwell on it. Satan tempted him but he never yielded to the devil. So Jesus has left the world the supreme example of what a real man is. Here is God’s great definition of a man; here is the proper man . . . the archetypal man and as he lived so we should live, and walk through life in his steps.
His enemies were desperate to find some accusation that would stick, but they found nothing. The false witnesses did not agree among themselves. Even the sympathetic questioners in the court of the Sanhedrin wanting a cast iron case and a guilty verdict could see the charges brought against Jesus disintegrating. The witnesses spoke up but failed to agree as to the place and the time and the actual words which Jesus was alleged to have spoken. Their stories didn’t match; the case brought against Christ was pathetic and embarrassing. Jesus was a sinless man.
You remember that in the Old Testament there was the High Priest and one day in the year, the Day of Atonement, he had to enter the Most Holy Place on behalf of the people. He didn’t go empty-handed; he took with him the blood of the sacrifice, and it was as much for his own sins as for the people’s. Aaron and all his line weren’t sinless High Priests, but Jesus is. He needed no sacrifice for himself. Never did a day end with him having to say to God as we do, “Forgive me for the sins of today.” He never prayed that a single time. He taught his disciples to pray, “And forgive us our trespasses,’ but he himself never trespassed into forbidden territory. He never once left the narrow path which leads to God
But let’s note this particular word that Paul chooses here. He doesn’t say that Christ did no sin but that he knew no sin. In the New Testament the word ‘know’ means much more than being aware. In the Bible very often the idea of knowledge is more affectionate than cognitive. For God to know means to love. In Amos we read God saying to his people, “You only have I known of all the nations of the earth.” Of course God knows everything about the Egyptians and Syrians and Romans and Greeks and Welsh. He knows all about a sparrow falling and the hairs on our heads, but he loves just his people, all those whom the Father gave to the Son to save before the foundation of the world.
On the Day of Judgment he will say, “Depart from me I never knew you.” Well of course he had known everything about them. His banishing them from his presence was a consequence of his infallible knowledge of their hearts and lives, but he never loved them. Again, in the Bible we are told that Adam ‘knew’ his wife Eve, and that was not an intellectual knowledge, it was affectionate, and passionate, and loving. It is the message of the book of Hosea and the letter to the Ephesians, of Christ deeply in love with the church and giving himself for her. Christ went to Calvary for her loving her prodigally and passionately, deeply in love with the people he knew.
But Christ ‘knew’ no sin. Some sins seem so attractive, utterly irresistible, beautiful sins, not like others; “Surely God cannot oppose me doing this because it’s so lovely?” Christ loved no sin. The devil showed Christ the nations of the earth and all their glory. There was much that was glorious, staggering achievements of men, their works of culture, and yet sin was mixed through all of them and Christ was not bought by any of them. He could look at them all, but he did not go weak at the knees and fall down before Satan in worship. He ‘knew’ no sin whatsoever. So these words first confirm the innocence of the Lord Jesus Christ.
2. ON THE CROSS THE GRACE OF GOD IS BEING REVEALED.
There are people who imagine that the main problem that Christianity solves is how we sin-loving men can be reconciled with God, but that is not so. The greatest problem facing the heavens and the earth is this, how God can be reconciled to us. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. God dwells in light unapproachable that no man has seen or can see. Our God, says the author of the letter to the Hebrews, is a consuming fire. The wrath of our God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. God is angry with the wicked every day. Buddha shrugs in indifference at mankind’s folly. The Sphinx continues to give that enigmatic smile, but the abuse of a woman, the cutting up of an unborn child of 24 weeks old, the crack dealer selling his addictive poison to thirteen year olds, the torturing to death of three Christian men in Turkey recorded on video, dogs trained to tear one another to pieces for betting and for entertainment, a baby violated in the hope of delivering the perpetrator from his Aids – all such horrors move heaven to holy anger. Shouldn’t it? Would you worship a God who couldn’t care less what happens in this world? God dwells in absolute perfection. What glory to know that this world is gripped by a God in whom there is no sin at all. You shine the light of his own omniscience throughout his being. You search out his inner places, his deepest thoughts, his nooks and crannies, his past and present and all you find is utter perfection. He cannot clear the guilty, sighing weakly at them and saying, “All right then, come on you God-hating blasphemers and unrepentant murderers and thieves . . . come on into my presence in heaven still loving your sins for ever and ever, Amen.” No. He will by no means clear the guilty. You sin and you answer to God for it. You act and there is a consequence for the action. God delights in manifesting his justice. God is willing to show his wrath and to make his power known; he will most certainly fit out vessels of wrath for destruction as he will fit out vessels of mercy for glory. We sow and then we reap. We sin and there is always the problem of the wages of sin.
I tell you the greatest problem is the one of divine reconciliation. How can God be reconciled to the way you’ve lived? We see the around us on a human scale; how can parents of a teenage girl be reconciled to the man who raped and murdered their daughter? Multiply by infinity; how can God be reconciled to sinners? The answer is by imputation. The cross of Golgotha announces that it is through the death of Jesus Christ, because there the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. The great prophet Isaiah tells us that it pleased the Lord to bruise him. He did not turn Jesus Christ into a sinner. There was no transfusion of our sin to him – Jesus kept his honour and integrity intact, but God showed his amazing grace to worthless trash like ourselves by refusing to spare his Son from the wages sinners are paid. He alone took their debt and he cleared it, all by himself.
What obligation was upon God to act like this? None whatsoever. He was certainly obliged to punish sin; he was not obliged to punish his Son. Here is the most astonishing fact since creation, that once on a green hill far away God the Father smote God the Son; God the Father forsook God the Son, and he acted like that out of love for sinners. On that day when the sun refused to shine God looked for sin all over the world – as he does every day – and he found it at Calvary. He had no obligation to make Christ our substitute for sin. It was simply his good pleasure to do that. Think of it! My escape from damnation is going to depend on the good pleasure of God. The only thing that will keep me from hell for ever is the sovereign will of God. Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble, that I am at the sovereign disposal of the will of God. If I am to escape hell it is because that Father chose to impute to his Son my sin, and Jesus received it lovingly. God made Christ to be sin, and so his grace is revealed there.
3. ON THE CROSS MY SINS ARE BEING PUNISHED.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us;” it was for us. Paul standing in solidarity with the whole Corinthian congregation says “for us”; “me too” he’s saying. Paul had earlier reminded these people, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (I Cor. 6:9-11). They had sins, and those sins had defiled them. They had left them with a reputation, and a past. There were great chains of guilt that bound them to those sins. Those sins defiled them, they made them dirty, needing an inward washing and liable to answer to God. But the Son of God has come, and he has done something for our sins; he as taken them; he has taken responsibility for them; he has been made them; while he hangs on the cross no power on earth or in heaven is going to separate him from those sins of ours. That was the climax of his life; that is why he become flesh and in my nature bore my judgment.
So if I am in him then all the sins of my life, and my heart, and my nature; my original sins and my actual sins; my sins of omission and my sins of commission have all been nailed to that cross in Christ. Think of every sin that you are aware of and if you are in Christ then he was made that sin for you. Take every sin that you are not aware of and if you are in Christ he was made those sins for you. That means I cannot acknowledge my sins in isolation. I can think of them only as they have been made Christ’s. They are no longer mine, in the sense that I will never answer for Christless sins to God, because Christ has comprehensively answered for them already. There are no undealt-with sins for the people of God. It is a magnificent and even an incredible concept, that our sins no longer control or modify our relation to God today. It is as if they weren’t there. There is no guilt at all; there is no defilement at all; there is no blame at all; there is no shame; that does not exist; they have all been removed by God and laid on his Son. He has been made sin for me. He has taken our sin, our past sin, our present sin and our future sin and he has put it all away for ever.
I am not sure that my conscience believes it. I am not sure that there is not in me something that wants to cling in self-pity to some remnants of my guilt so that I wallow in my past, and turn my eyes on my yesterdays and tell people how badly I have lived, and so can feel sorry for myself. I plead with you to let the truth of our text be the whole truth about the way things are between you and God today. There is no barrier whatsoever; there is no impediment; there is no closed or limited access. It has all been forgiven; it has all been remembered no more. There are people who cling to the fantasy land of ‘purgatory’ where they themselves will deal with the pollution of their sins. They are going to handle their outstanding sins until they are all dealt with. So that actually encourages them to sub-Christian living, a little less dedication, a little less commitment, a little less sanctification because they feel they are going to have to deal with those sins and their consequences after they die, and in the end they are going to be delivered from them by their own sufferings. So they are not perturbed to let out the odd swear word and the odd explosion of anger and the odd drunkenness and the odd sexual sin. They shrug because they’ll face up to the consequences of their sins on the fantasy isle of purgatory. I am telling you that the only purgatory there is in this world or the next is the cross. Only there are our sins dealt with; only there you will find the blood of Christ. God has not imputed our cleansing to purgatory.
I am saying that the sins of all the people of God, as many people as the sands on the seashore, have all been forgiven; he has borne them all, every speck, every spot, every such thing has been imputed to Christ there. There is absolutely nothing left, do you know it? The single determinant today of your relationship with God is what happened on the cross. Nothing else matters; nothing else is relevant. There are only two factors in the equation, what God did and how Christ responded. God made Christ sin and he received that sin lovingly. And how you feel about your life, and how sometimes you doubt, and what you are doing for Jesus, and how you fail is not remotely relevant to Golgotha. The one thing that matters is that God made Christ to be sin. And I don’t for a moment believe that the heart that knows that will take advantage of it and go from this meeting to get drunk or steal or deceive or live a life without law because the cross won’t let you.
I believe on the contrary that if imputation has no place in your thinking, if you are living your life with the smallest consideration of what Jesus Christ did for you on Golgotha, and if you are feeling that God still has things against you, then that often serves as some unconscious grudge against God, that somehow justifies you from being less than perfect and permits a relapse here and a shortcoming there. I want to know in the depths of my heart that when God made Jesus Christ sin for us that Christ made a good and decent and proper job of that sin, that he dealt with it all 100%, that he cleared it all away, that he experienced its hell in my place, that he entered its outer darkness instead of me so that I shall never, never know the outer darkness of hell. When God comes to me searching for my sin he finds it on the Cross of Jesus condemned and covered, and on that fact is my whole confidence of forgiveness grounded.
4. ON THE CROSS GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS IS BEING SATISFIED.
You see the flow of the verse, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” What’s in it for me? Pardon? Yes. How magnificent, that God the just is satisfied to look on the cross of his beloved Son and pardon me, but there is more, I become the righteousness of God in Christ. In other words, everything that took place in the life and death of the Lord Jesus Christ is all that I need for a complete life with God in this world and in the world to come. At Calvary all God’s attributes meet, his mercy and his righteousness. See the angels watching in amazement as redemption unfolds before them. There is the righteousness of their Lord Christ; they have watched and served him all through his ministry and he has never been less than righteous. They have seen his mercy to the leper and to the grieving sisters and to parents in anguish over their son possessed by a demon. What a merciful man he is, but they have never seen such mercy as this, he now takes personal responsibility for all the sin of his people. He who knew no sin, the holy, perfect, sinless one is made sin, so that we cannot tell where sin ends and Christ begins. He clasps all that is filthy and depraved to himself and refuses to let go of it, to finish it off for ever, to bear its condemnation so that no condemnation might be mine! ‘Tis mercy all immense and free for O my God it found out me. What mercy, but what righteousness too in the holy Lamb, in the just and sin-hating God, in the one who spared not his Son, what righteousness, and that righteousness becomes mine by imputation.
God is absolutely satisfied with what Jesus did. Heaven has come down to earth that sinners might be saved, and henceforth there is no more for sinners to do. Sin has been dealt with; the blood of God the Son has been shed; every single one of our sins has been dealt with. Everything unacceptable to God has been imputed to Christ, and God is satisfied. The great satisfaction has been rendered to God. The price of our liberation has been rendered to God. There is nothing left undone and God is absolutely satisfied. The whole work of redemption by Christ, the fulfilling of all righteousness has been completed, and the price of our redemption has been paid and nothing more is needed.
I am asking you are you satisfied with what God did when he imputed all our sin to Christ? Are you absolutely satisfied with that? Are you totally satisfied with that? Are you completely satisfied with that? When you fall again and feel the power of remaining sin are you satisfied with the work of Christ? If you are satisfied with Jesus then you are a Christian. It is settled and that your soul knows well. Be content with Christ. You have left your salvation with Jesus long ago. Let your conscience be satisfied with that; let your intellect be satisfied with that; let your past be satisfied with that. If God’s mercy and God’s righteousness are satisfied with that you can be satisfied with it too. If God is saying, “That’s enough for me” then it is certainly enough for me too.
So what more is there to say? Just this, that we ask you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled with God. No. We entreat you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled with God. No, we beseech you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” Christ has died, but men may perish; full atonement has been made, but many are on the broad road heading for destruction; the sinless one has been made sin, but still men die without hope and without God; the full gospel has been preached but many still reject it. So we implore you not to refuse, not to harden your hearts, not to switch off, not to find fault. We beseech you in the light of eternity, in the name of a sin-hating God, in the certainty of death, in the light of the arms of love stretched out to you, be reconciled to God. He has been reconciled to favoured sinners, then be ye reconciled to him. Why should this estrangement between God and you caused by your sin go on any longer? Do not leave this building unreconciled. Do not take your sin and guilt away with you. The Son of God has been made sin so we plead with you to take advantage of God’s mercy. Entrust yourself to Jesus Christ. Receive him into your life as your great high priest, as your prophet and as your king. From now on walk with him; live for him; trust in him; flee from all your sins; flee from all your good works; hide in his wounded side. Jesus lover of my soul let me to thy bosom fly. Vile and full of sin I am, thou art full of truth and grace. Jesus will receive sinners; he will receive you. Do not reject him. We beseech in Christ’s name, that is, with the authority he has given to us as Christian preachers, be reconciled to the reconciled God. We assure you today that if you are reconciled to him life will be yours, pardon will be yours, heaven will be yours, all things working together for your good will be yours, a living Shepherd never leaving you will be yours, all your needs richly supplied will be yours. Who could refuse such an offer? Take him tonight as he is freely offered to us in the gospel and through him be reconciled to God.
12th August 2007 GEOFF THOMAS