2 Cor. 5.18-21
If asked for a concise, biblical definition of the gospel, indeed, a definition of Christianity itself, one could hardly be faulted for pointing to the following paragraph in 2 Corinthians 5.
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:18-21).
One could (and probably should) spend weeks in this text. It is a rich and wide-ranging treasure house of theological truth. But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the brief comments of James Denney will suffice. After reading them, I strongly suspect you’ll agree. So, I ask that you do more than merely read his words (please, for your own sake, don’t skip over them). Meditate on the profound implications of what he says. I’ll interject a few relevant comments along the way.
Denney begins with a question, the answer to which is foundational to understanding the core of Christianity:
What is it that makes a Gospel necessary? What is it that the wisdom and love of God undertake to deal with, and do deal with, in that marvelous way which constitutes the Gospel? Is it man’s distrust of God? Is it man’s dislike, fear, antipathy, spiritual alienation? Not if we accept the Apostle’s teaching. The serious thing which makes the Gospel necessary, and the putting away of which constitutes the Gospel, is God’s condemnation of the world and its sin; it is God’s wrath, ‘revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men’ (Rom. 1:16-18). The putting away of this is ‘reconciliation’; the preaching of this reconciliation is the preaching of the Gospel.”
Here Denney touches on something rarely considered by most Christians. Let me put it in slightly different terms. From what is it that we need to be saved? Certainly not “from ourselves” (although one often hears such language, even in the church). Most Christians would say: from hell. In a sense, they are correct. But why is hell a threat, and what is it that accounts for the existence of hell and the experience of those who end up there?
The answer, as Denney points out, is divine wrath. Our only hope is for God to save us from God! This is the great glory of the gospel, that God in his grace takes action in Christ to save us from God in his wrath. God is not pitted against himself in this marvelous act of mercy, for God honors God when his love makes provision to satisfy the demands of his wrath.
Divine justice and its expression in divine wrath against sin, to use Paul’s words, calls for the reckoning or “counting” of our trespasses “against” us (2 Cor. 5:19). So how is it that, instead, I am forgiven the guilt of these wicked deeds? The answer of the apostle, in v. 21, is that God “made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Don’t ever think that the love of God means that the wrath of God was ignored. Because God is just and righteous, there must be a reckoning or “counting” of trespasses. But because God is loving and gracious, the “counting” or “imputing” and the punishment it entailed fell on Christ.
I’ve often said to people that the reason why the psalmist declares that God “does not deal with us according to our sins” (Ps. 103:10) is because God dealt with Jesus according to our sins! Grace and mercy do not mean that sin is not dealt with, as if to suggest God merely swept our sins under the carpet of his compassion and ignored the horrid offense of our rebellion. Far from it! God the Father “counted” our trespasses against God the Son and in doing so brought about the reconciliation.
This “counting” or “reckoning” of our sins against him is what he means in v. 21 when he speaks of Jesus being “made to be sin” on our behalf. Paul is talking about the liability to suffer the penal consequences of the law. Our guilt, incurred because of our trespasses, has been imputed to him so that we, through faith in his sufferings on our behalf, might have his righteousness imputed to us!
We must not overlook the fact that all this was achieved by him who “knew no sin”. That as God he is without sin goes without saying, “but what is of vital importance for us and our reconciliation is that as Man, that is, in His incarnate state, Christ knew no sin, for only on that ground was He qualified to effect an atonement as Man for man” (Philip Hughes, 212).
Now, back to Denney:
“When St. Paul says that God has given him the ministry of reconciliation, he means that he is a preacher of this peace. He ministers reconciliation to the world. . . . It is not the main part of his vocation to tell men to make their peace with God, but to tell them that God has made peace with the world. At bottom, the Gospel is not good advice, but good news. All the good advice it gives is summed up in this – Receive the good news. But if the good news be taken away; if we cannot say, God has made peace, God has dealt seriously with His condemnation of sin, so that it no longer stands in the way of your return to Him; if we cannot say, Here is the reconciliation, receive it, — then for man’s actual state we have no Gospel at all.
When Christ’s work was done, the reconciliation of the world was accomplished. When men were called to receive it, they were called to a relation to God, not in which they would no more be against Him – though that is included – but in which they would no more have Him against them. There would be no condemnation thenceforth to those who were in Christ Jesus” (James Denney).
Becoming the “righteousness of God” (v. 21) is not simply a tall order, but an impossible one. Yet, there he says it: in Christ Jesus we have “become the righteousness of God”!
As inconceivable as it may seem, from a human point of view, “such we are in the sight of God the Father as is the very Son of God himself. Let it be counted folly or frenzy or fury or whatever. It is our wisdom and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this: that man hath sinned and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God” (Thomas Hooker).
What a glorious gospel indeed!
– Sam Storms