A Study of 2 Corinthians 5:21

Notes of Sermon preached at Manchester, Gospel Standard – 1954.

“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.”
(II Corinthians 5:21)

This great Scripture contains one of the most profound and glorious doctrines of our most holy faith, the doctrine of substitution, without which there can be no salvation, without which every sinner must be eternally damned, without which there can be no reconciliation of sinners with a holy sin-hating God.

But the mystery of it, and the wisdom manifested in this divine contrivance for the salvation of lost sinners, will never be fully explored by the mind of man. “He”, that is, the eternal God, holy, just, omnipotent, pure, hating sin “He hath made Him who knew no sin,” that is, His own Son incarnate, holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, “to be sin for us” us men, sinful men deserving hell, “that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”

This is a work of divine grace, a work of divine wisdom. It is the effect of divine love, and it embraces the exercise of divine justice. Only God who is the Creator, and Law-giver, and Judge, can deal with sin and sinners. From His high and holy throne in heaven God could eternally deal with sin and sinners in condemning them.

But it pleased God in His infinite goodness, in His loving purpose and determination, to save sinners, to bless some of the human race with eternal blessedness.

Man was created perfect in holiness, able to keep every commandment and to serve God acceptably without any fear or sin or default. This beautiful state of innocence had a glory about it, but it lasted but a brief period; for sin came in and marred the whole.

Oh what a horrible thing, what an awful fact, what a dreadful event it was when sin entered into the world, and death by sin!

And what is more, when by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, it passed upon us all; for we all sinned in Adam who was the federal head of the human race a terrible, awful, real truth that!

No exception; no single person since Adam’s day has been innocent, pure, and sinless; but we are all infected by that dreadful thing, that deadly soul-killing disease, that God-dishonouring thing, sin. We are all unrighteous.

How little we think about it, and the fell consequences of it!

How much religion and profession there is in the world of religion without any adequate sense of sin!

But if we are taught by the Holy Ghost and convicted by Him of our personal guilt and sinnership, it will be a very serious business with us. I believe everyone taught by the divine Spirit, as convinced, will be brought down to a sense of condemnation and helplessness in experience, so that he is shut up feelingly to the wrath of God against his sin.

Now here comes in experimentally the solemn realisation of man’s utter inability by any rational power that he possesses, to devise or obtain a way of relief and deliverance. One may have been brought up under the sound of truth, and have more or less become acquainted, and indeed not a little pleased it may be, with the sound and form of truth, but never yet convicted so as to be condemned and brought before the judgment seat of God in the conscience. But now a very solemn thing takes place, and that is an experience of the utter futility of any mere notional acquaintance with the gospel.

You will prove that notion will never do you any good when your sins are real, when your guilt is felt, and when your sentence is passed upon the conscience, and you fall down under a sense of condemnation and ruin. You then want more than notion, you need the substance of the text, to bring you forth, to enable you to hope for mercy.

I can remember in my own little experience, the time when I could not see notwithstanding all my natural acquaintance with religion how I could possibly be saved, though I had known the external form of truth from the cradle. When real conviction comes home, it seems to obliterate everything, and the dark cloud of condemnation and the dreadful load of guilt seems to preoccupy the whole mind, and there is a dread of hell.

Where to go the sinner knows not, what to do he cannot tell. He finds himself helpless, and in himself hopeless. But in that solemn state, I believe the Holy Ghost does lead people to the doctrine of the text in some measure of clearness and power. An abstract God in all His divine attributes is terrible to a guilty soul, but a God revealed in Christ, in the Person of the Lord Jesus, the Man of God’s right hand, is attractive and gives a hope.

“He hath made Him” Him, His co-equal and divine Son.

If we read and accept the truth of the Scriptures, we cannot avoid the doctrine of the Trinity. It is written throughout the Scriptures implicitly and explicitly a sacred truth. “He” the eternal Father “hath made Him” the eternal Son “to be sin for us.”

God cannot be made sin, but He who is God, and eternally was with God and was God, as His eternal Son, took our nature for that purpose, that He might be made sin, that the Father might deal with sin in our nature, not in our own persons; in our nature united to the divine nature in the Person of Immanuel. This, the justice of God, and the grace of God, and the love of God, and the mercy of God necessitated in pursuance of God’s purpose to save. For sin cannot go by default; it cannot be commuted and disregarded by God. When sin has been committed, it must be dealt with by God.

Oh how solemn it is!

Every sin we commit, every sinful thought we entertain, and our very sinnership must be dealt with by God, either in His vindictive justice in condemning us eternally to perdition, in banishment from Him in hell, under the curse, or be dealt with by God in the Person of a Substitute. In His infinite wisdom, mercy, and grace, God contrived the plan to permit and provide such a Substitute as should be able to receive by divine imputation all the sins of His chosen people. It was for this purpose the Son of God took human nature.

Oh the mystery, the mercy, the blessedness of the incarnation of God the eternal Son!

As revealed by the Holy Ghost, it is made I believe to convinced sinners a most precious truth, that God the Son took our nature into union with His eternal Person, the Word was made flesh, and was made in the likeness of sinful flesh. But without sin; He knew no sin.

Jesus Immanuel, never was tainted with sin, never had a sinful thought. Holy, pure, spotless, and separate from sinners, was Jesus of Nazareth.

Blessed truth!

Oh what nourishment that truth has been to my own heart many a time: “Yet without sin.” And again in the Hebrews: “He was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin.”

“He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin.”

Now this means that the Lord Jesus Christ stood in the place of the election of grace; stood in their law-place, God imputing to Him the sins against His law that His people had committed. In the 53rd [chapter] of Isaiah, that wonderful portrait as it were of a suffering Saviour, it is said : “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”

An act of sovereign grace!

Oh dear friends, think of it, that God should take, in the initiative of His will, in His love, in His wisdom, and in His grace, that He should take this course in order to secure the salvation of those who deserved eternal ruin!

There was no compulsion in God. It was free grace in God to lay these sins on His dear Son. It was mighty grace in the Son of God to condescend in the covenant to engage to be a Substitute and a Surety, and to take our nature, to receive that imputation and to obey His divine Father in submitting to the curse, in laying down His life a ransom. And it is great grace in the Holy Spirit to reveal this through the Scriptures, and to reveal it in some measure to the understandings, the hearts and consciences of those whom He convicts of sin.

“He hath made Him to be sin.”

This imputation of sin to Christ involved the cross.

Though He were a Son, though He were the holy and eternal Son of God in human nature incarnate, though He were a spotless and holy Man, though through the whole of His spotless life He ever did that which was perfectly holy, just, and pure, and pleasing to His divine Father, “yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him, and to put Him to grief.”

There is no exhibition in the universe, and never will be, of the heinousness of sin, the holiness and justice of God, and the grace and mercy of God, as is made in the cross of Christ nothing to equal it, nothing to come near it.

Hell itself will not display the nature of sin like the cross of Christ displays it. In the 8th [chapter] of Romans the apostle speaks of it like this:

“He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all.”

He was not spared, notwithstanding the dignity of His Person, the holiness of His human nature, the perfection of His obedience He was not spared from the unmitigated wrath of outraged justice in the law.

He was made sin so really, that He stood in the exact place in which His people stood as sinners, and received in His holy Person the solemn vindictive wrath due to their sins.

It is beyond our imagination, but if we get a little sacred manifestation of this in our hearts, it will embitter sin to us, and make the grace of God wonderful, and give us to see what nothing else will, how a sinner deserving eternal damnation can be saved.

But the great point in our experience concerning this substitution will be this: “Was it for crimes that I had done He groaned upon the tree?”

My dear friends and fellow-sinners, here we are to-day, and we may be in eternity tomorrow. Our late dear friend, Mr. Raven, was here last year, and in heaven a fortnight after. We may be in eternity soon.

How stands the case with us?

If you have a solemnizing sense of your own sin, if you possess your sins in your conscience by the effectual convincing of the Holy Ghost, and therefore cannot dispossess yourself of them, I would say this to you, that the only way to be delivered from your sin and to be experimentally reconciled to God, is to know by the Spirit’s witness that Christ stood in your place. Now if the Lord Jesus really stood in your place, in my place, we shall never be condemned. The justice of God forbids that. Not only the mercy, and love, and grace of God, all of which were blessedly active in the work of substitution, but the inflexible justice of God was there, and was there satisfied.

Oh but what this involved, to the harmless Lamb of God!

I believe it would be good for us, if led by the Holy Ghost reverently to contemplate what this meant to the dear Redeemer.

He was made sin, a sacrifice for sin; God dealt with Him as if He were the sinner, as He stood Surety and Substitute for an innumerable company of elect persons who were sinners; all the curse due to all their sins was there poured upon Him.

He paid to justice all its due. How inconceivable were the billows of divine wrath, the huge load of guilt, and the awful curse!

We have a few solemn and sacred indications of what His holy soul underwent when He was thus standing as Substitute and Surety. When He was in the Garden there came from His sacred sinless body great drops of blood, as it were, falling down to the ground.

Man did not produce that sweat of blood; man had not then touched Him; but it was the agony of His holy soul on account of imputed sin.

O sinner! does not sin look black?

Do not you feel sometimes you can hardly bear yourself as a sinner, in view of what sin caused the holy Lamb of God?

I wish we might get a sin-killing heart-melting sight by faith of an agonizing Redeemer. It would make us holy, and yet would make us confess very freely our unholiness and great sinnership. “Sweet the moments, rich in blessing,” when glimpses of Gethsemane and Calvary are granted to a sinful, poor, condemned creature.

There is hope you will never sink to hell if Christ agonized for your sins, seeing He exhausted all the curse. If He drank down the cup of penal wrath for you, there is no drinking it afresh. But everyone for whom Christ stood will, must of necessity, through the faithfulness and immutability of God and His grace, come into a state to feel his need of all this, and to seek an interest in it, to repent of sin, and trust alone for salvation in the Person and work of Christ.

“He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin.”

And an end was made of sin, when Christ was made sin for His people.
His sacrifice, the hell that He drank up in that cup, the curse that He exhausted in His sufferings and death, was all in expiation of sin, obliterating it, casting it into the depths of the sea. The Son of Man came to undo, to obliterate, to destroy, the works of the devil, by obeying and suffering.

Oh the mystery of it!

But though the mystery is profound, the truth of it will be a strength to you, my friends, a solid ground of hope. You may call this doctrinal; it is doctrinal. But if our experience does not derive from the doctrine of Christ, it is spurious experience.

“That we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”

Not only that we might escape the wrath to come, which is a vast thing. Oh I have known in my early days something, just a little, of what Paul speaks of in this chapter, the terror of the Lord : “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.”

For a poor wretch of a sinner, drenched in sin, suffocated by guilt, burdened with intolerable loads, and with the sword of justice hanging over him, it is indeed a terrible experience. But that is removed by the death of Christ, and removed from the conscience by the Spirit when He brings the atonement into the conscience. That is the experience of divine remission; the “knowledge of salvation by the remission of sin” (Luke 1:77).

Christ Himself, by His Holy Spirit, remits sin in His kingly authority as now exalted: “Him hath God exalted to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.”

But that remission of sin flows through His death, is the consequence of His sufferings.

But not only is a person for whom Christ stood Surety and Substitute, forgiven and delivered from condemnation, he is made righteous, made the righteousness of God in Christ.

Oh that is something very great!

Some of you may feel it is too great even to think about, much less to experience. But if God imputes the righteousness of Christ to you, reckons to your account the perfect obedience of His beloved incarnate Son, and gives you to know that you are justified by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, that will bring peace with God, and a sense of standing before Him accepted, guiltless, justified, righteous.

“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This can never be demonstrated by human language, but if the Holy Spirit causes us to know that we have a standing in, and are covered by, the merit and righteousness of Jesus Christ, because He stood in our sins and was covered by the wrath of God, and died and rose again for our justification, then we shall have something, at least in hope, of what the apostle had in this chapter. He said that He knew that if the earthly house of his tabernacle were dissolved, he had a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Then he said:
“Not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, with our house which is from heaven, if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked; that mortality might be swallowed up of life.”

A justified person before God is delivered from death, and has before him immortal glory, acceptance with a holy God. Sinlessness will ultimately be his enjoyed experience. But even here, Christ is made wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, as the Holy Spirit forms Him in the sinner’s heart, and gives union with Him, and power to believe and plead His merit.

“When thou shalt make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.”

The Lord Jesus was “made sin”, but by His death He made an end of
sin, and when He rose from the dead the third day, according to the Scriptures, it was clearly manifested that God could be just, and the Justifier of all convinced people who feel and mourn over their ungodliness, and who believe on Jesus Christ.

Now is that where our hope is?

There is no other ground of hope, and I believe it is not an exaggeration for me to say that no one truly convicted of sin, and brought down to repentance and faith in the substitutionary work, merit, righteousness, blood, and intercession of Christ, will ever stand condemned before God.

May the Lord give us to try our interest.

What is an interest tried and proved?

It is what is in this chapter: “We that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened; not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. Now He that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit.”

An earnest is a part of the inheritance. It is a receiving into the conscience, by the Holy Ghost, an assurance of interest in Christ. It is like a title for heaven.

The doctrine of Christ is inscribed in the Scripture, the work of redemption was effected by Christ on the cross ; but that work of Christ is in the fruit of it brought by the word of reconciliation into the soul’s experience by the Spirit of Christ.

Then a sinner rejoices in his portion, and can say in his measure: “Surely in the Lord have I righteousness and strength.”

And occasionally some of the Lord’s people have been enabled humbly to hope and believe that they will one day stand unashamed and accepted before God in perfect holiness; and all because Christ died, because He died as a Surety and Substitute, and because He lives in heaven as Mediator and King of grace, and there has all authority to bestow the fruits of His precious death by His Spirit upon poor sinners who are convicted.

It is declared in the prophet: “He shall see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied; by His knowledge shall My righteous Servant justify many” not only not condemn, but “justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities.”

And if I may for a moment just refer to that phrase: “By His knowledge”, did not the Lord Jesus know when in the Garden, when on the tree, and did He not from eternity know those for whom He died?

“For He hath made Him to be sin for us.”

How many of us can say we really hope that we are included in that “us”?

“That we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”

Only God can make us righteous, make us the righteousness of God. Only God could make Immanuel to be sin for us.

No righteousness of our own will do; but this will be sufficient. Christ knows for whom He suffered and died.

Oh blessed be His Name, He knows, and He will tell you if you ask Him, in His own time, if He died for you!

I hope never to forget while I have my memory, what that word was once made to me, and even to-day has been a little revived, where the Lord Jesus said in the prophet: “I have blotted out as a thick cloud thy transgressions, and as a cloud thy sins; return unto Me, for I have redeemed thee.”

It will never be undone, and if we return to Him by the Spirit’s power with fresh convictions and repentance and confessions, that precious suffering death is sufficient, His righteousness is sufficient, His merit is enough. Having forgiven you all trespasses a thick cloud.

Well, we must die to know the fulness of this text, but as by faith we are favoured to enter into it a little here below, it will endear the Redeemer to us, and cause us to admire the Father’s love in not sparing His own Son but delivering Him up, for the redemption of poor sinners, and the dear Redeemer’s willingness to endure it all.

“How willing was Jesus to die!” to bear sin, to bear it away.
May He endear Himself to us, and may we ever remember our obligations to Him, for a hope in the mercy of God, and a hope of heaven.

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