He Became Sin for Us: What the Cross Meant to Christ

2 Corinthians 5:21

February 28, 1999 | Ray Pritchard

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“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is one of the most magnificent verses in the all the Bible. Spurgeon called it the heart of the gospel. It is the gospel in one verse. Everything you need to know about how to go to heaven can be found in these 23 words. There is an amazing simplicity here–21 words of only one syllable, one word of two syllables, and one word (righteousness) of three syllables. It could hardly be simpler than this–yet whole books could be written on the meaning of each phrase. [1]


How important is this verse? Miss this and you’ve missed the truth of God. If you get this right, you can be wrong in a lot of other places and still go to heaven. In these days of rampant theological confusion, it is vitally important that the church of Jesus Christ be firmly settled on the gospel message. That is, after all, our only message. God has not committed to us a message about political power or military might. We are not called to right all the wrongs in the world or to pass judgment on every passing trend. The church has been given one major task–to preach the gospel to every person on earth (Mark 16:15).

If that is our God-given task, then it behooves us to make sure we know what the gospel is. In these Sundays leading up to Easter we are looking at the Cross from five perspectives–what it meant to God, Christ and Satan, and what it means to the world and to the church. My earnest prayer is that you will be strengthened as we return to the heart of our faith. Perhaps you recall that the famous Star Wars movie trilogy was re-released several years ago with additional computer-generated footage that was not included in the original version. It was advertised with this slogan: “Star Wars: See it again for the first time.” I hope something like that happens as we consider the deeper meaning of the Cross of Christ–that we will “see it again for the first time.” [2]

Our text this morning tells us what the Cross meant to Christ. Each phrase tells of a miracle that cannot be fully explained but must be accepted by faith. Let’s begin by considering the character of the One who was crucified.

I. His Character: He had no sin.

Paul begins with the fact that Christ “had no sin.” Some versions say that he “knew no sin,” stressing the sinless nature of his inner being. There was no sin outwardly because there was no sin inwardly. When Jesus Christ walked on the earth, he was perfectly righteous. Stated negatively, he was without fault, without sin, and without evil. He never did anything wrong, never broke any laws of God, and never deviated in the slightest degree from the path of God’s will.

This is crucial because if Christ had sinned, he could not be our Savior. A sinner could not pay for the sins of another sinner. The sacrifice must be made by One who was without spot or blemish–like the lambs slain on the night of the final plague in Egypt (Exodus 12). God ordained that the lambs must be one-year-old males, in good health, free from disease and physical defect. The lambs that were slaughtered in Egypt pictured the coming “Lamb of God” who by his bloody, sacrificial death would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

How do we know that Christ had no sin? Primarily from the testimony of his adversaries. When the Roman governor Pontius Pilate examined him, he declared, “I find no fault in him” (John 19:4 KJV). When Herod and the Jewish leaders put him on trial, they could find no witnesses against him so they rounded up false witnesses who lied under oath (Matthew 26:59-60). When Christ hung on the Cross, the Roman centurion cried out, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).

He knew all about sin, but he never sinned–not even once. He lived in a sinful world, but the stain of sin never tarnished his character. Of all the billions of people who have lived on planet earth, he is the only one about whom it can be truly said that he never sinned in word, in thought or in deed. There is no hint of moral contamination surrounding his name.

He faced temptation head on, full strength, all that the devil could throw at him, but having felt its full weight, he never gave in, never flinched, never even came close to sinning. He never confessed a fault because he had no faults to confess. He never asked for a pardon because he never needed one. He claimed that no one could convict him of sin (John 8:46) and he was right. To use an old term that is precisely accurate, Christ was and is a “moral miracle.” [3] That is why the writer of Hebrews could say that he was tempted in all points as we are, yet he was without sin (Hebrews 4:15).

II. His Sacrifice: He became sin for us.

Here is the second miracle of our text. Jesus the sinless Son of God became sin for us. How could this be? Some translations attempt to soften the blow by translating “sin offering” instead of “sin.” Although that is acceptable in terms of the Greek language, it is not necessary. Paul is not suggesting that Christ literally became a sinner. Such a thing would be not possible. Christ remained personally sinless while hanging on the cross. He never committed a sin and therefore never became a sinner. However, in some sense that is beyond our understanding he “became sin” for us. Perhaps the best way to understand this is to say that God treated his Son as if he were a sinner. He so identified with sinners that he was numbered among the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12). He not only died between two sinners, he was numbered with them and died as they died–a criminal’s death on the Cross.

Historically Christians have used two phrases to describe how Christ “became sin” for us.

A. He took our Place — “For us”

When Christ died on the Cross, he took my place–and he took yours. This is the doctrine of substitution–that Christ died in the place of guilty sinners. Think of it this way. His nails were meant for you, the crown of thorns should have been on your head, the spear should have pierced your side, and the cheers and insults were meant for you. It should have been you hanging on a tree–but it wasn’t. It was Jesus dying in your place.

Having said that, we must quickly add that this has been a controversial doctrine across the centuries. Not everyone believes it is true. Some have mocked the doctrine of substitutionary atonement saying that it is a holdover from the primitive pagan religions of the ancient world. Some have derided it as a “slaughterhouse religion.” Years ago some Protestant denominations started removing all the hymns that mentioned the blood of Christ from their hymnbooks because they were embarrassing to modern men and women.

Be that as it may. True biblical religion is an offense to the natural mind. The world by wisdom did not know God (1 Corinthians 1:21) and has always stumbled over the cross. The death of Jesus offends the sensibilities of those who want a cultured, bloodless religion. I don’t have the time to refute that notion except to say that the Bible is a book of blood from beginning to end. Take out the blood and you have taken out God’s plan of salvation. Without the shedding of blood this is no forgiveness of sin (Hebrews 9:22).

You cannot avoid the doctrine of substitution because this is the teaching of the New Testament. It is not just that men treated him so badly; it is that God ordained his death on the Cross. When he died, he died taking the place of the very people who put him to death.

B. He took our Penalty–”He became sin”

This follows from the first truth. On the cross Jesus became the sinless Sin-Bearer. He paid the price we owed to God, the debt we could never pay. His death satisfied God’s righteous decree that sin must always be punished.

In my last message I mentioned the blood of the goat that the high priest sprinkled on the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16 for details). The sprinkled blood signified the covering of the sins of the people for one more year. Did you know that two goats were involved on the Day of Atonement? One was killed and the other was not. After the priest offered the blood of the first goat, he then placed his hands on the head of the second goat, confessing the sins of the people. Leviticus 16:21 specifically says he is to “put them” (the sins of the people) on the goat. Then the goat was taken into the wilderness and released. This pictured the removal of sin through placing them on an innocent victim. That goat was called the scapegoat because he symbolically took the sins of the people on himself (Leviticus 16:20-22). What the goat did symbolically, Jesus did literally. He removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12).

Isaiah 53:6 says that “the Lord has laid on him (that is, on Christ) the iniquity of us all.” Let’s suppose that all your sins have been written in one massive book. That book is heavy because it records every rotten thing you’ve ever said, every unkind word you’ve ever spoken, every mean thought, every lustful fantasy, every evil imagination, and all your bad attitudes from the day of your birth till the day of your death. Picture yourself trying to hold that massive book in your hands. Now picture Jesus standing next to you. He is holy, perfect, pure, and good. He has no book in his hands because he has never sinned. You want to be rid of the book but you can’t seem to find a place to put it down. What will you do? Now picture Christ on the Cross, with the weight of millions of books upon his bleeding back. He bears that crushing weight as long as he can, then he dies. Look closely and you will see that each book is the personal record of someone who lived on the earth. If you look closely, you can see your book too. He took your sins–the record of all your evil and all your failings and all your shortcomings–he took it all upon himself when he died on the Cross. Truly, the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.

We will never understand this. If someone says, “It doesn’t make sense,” I heartily agree. From the world’s point of view, we cannot fathom how one man could die in the place of another, bearing his penalty, and thus providing him a right standing with God. We can imagine human illustrations of one man dying for another’s benefit, but the benefit ends with this life. We cannot conceive how a death in time could provide eternal benefits. Yet that is precisely what the Bible teaches. The issue is not does it make sense, the issue is whether it is true and do you believe it? [4]

We do not worry about what the world says or what it thinks. The world does not know God and cannot know him apart from divine revelation. This is what we know–That Christ died for the sins of the world and that in his death God himself has suffered on our behalf. We believe that God in Christ made himself sin for man, and that man in Christ is now made the righteousness of God. This is a true miracle, and like all miracles cannot be explained but it cannot be refuted either. It can only be believed or denied.

Ponder these two truths from the sacrifice of Christ: 1) Sin must be exceedingly sinful 2) God’s grace is beyond all comprehension. How much God must love us to do something like this!

III. His Gift: We might become the righteousness of God.

We come to the third and final miracle in this verse–that in him we become the righteousness of God. This is what we all want–to be made right with God, to have our record cleared, to know that when we go to sleep at night there is nothing between us and our Heavenly Father.

In this final phrase we have the Great Exchange:

He was condemned that we might be justified.

He bore our sin that we might be set free.

He died that we might live.

He suffered that we might be redeemed.

He was made sin, that we might be made righteous.

Theologians have a term for this exchange. They call it the doctrine of imputation. That’s a term from the banking world. It means that when we trust Christ our sin is credited to Christ’s account and his righteousness is credited to our account. He takes our debt and we get his credit. He paid what we owed (and could never pay) and he gives us what he has (and we could never earn).

As Spurgeon notes, you could find 100 books that say this is impossible. Skeptics call this a legal fiction. How can the righteousness of one man be given to another? On earth I cannot literally take your sin and you cannot literally take my righteousness. The answer to the dilemma is profoundly simple: With man this is impossible, with God all things are possible. “I cannot accept it,” you say. Then you will never be saved. There is no salvation apart from this because receiving his righteousness by faith is what salvation is all about. It’s not as if God has a Plan B for people who don’t like Plan A. You come to God by way of the Cross or you don’t come at all.

The Four Turnabouts

Many years ago Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, illustrated God’s attitude toward sinners this way. His illustration is called the Four Turnabouts. First he took his hands and placed them together with palms touching each other. That pictures God and Adam and Eve in perfect harmony with God in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Then he took his right hand and turned it so that the palm faced outward and away from the left hand. That pictures Adam and Eve turning from God after the Fall. Then he took his left hand and faced it outward away from his right hand. This pictures God judging Adam and Even (and the whole human race) by casting them out of the Garden. Now both hands are facing away from each other. Finally, he took his left hand and brought it slowly back around so that the palm faced inward–in its original position. This pictures God having been reconciled by the cross of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). Even though the right hand is still facing outward and away from the left, the left hand now faces toward the right–just as God faces the sinner and begs him to be reconciled. “Won’t you come home?” God calls out to the guilty sinner. That is God’s word to the world–Be reconciled to God! [5]

Let me say it as plainly as I can. There is nothing except your sin that stands between you and God. God’s wrath was turned away in the death of his Son, his justice has been satisfied, his love poured out to the world. Now you must choose–your sins or Jesus Christ! Damnation or salvation! If you come to God through Christ, you will be accepted. You will not, you cannot, be turned away.

“Can I be a Christian?”

About eight years ago I received a letter from an international student (from Japan, I believe) who had been attending Calvary for a short time. I hadn’t thought about her letter for a long time, but this week I happened to read it again. This is what she said:

Dear Dr. Ray Pritchard, I have come to your church about two months, and I like (it) there a lot. I began to read the Bible by myself, and I want to be a Christian. However, I don’t know how I can be a Christian. I want to talk to you about it, but I am a little shy, so I write to you. Can I be a Christian? Would you tell me how I am able to be a Christian? I am looking forward to hearing from you. Thank you very much. … (I’m sorry, my writing is not too good.)

How do you answer a letter like that? Even though she was just learning English, you can sense the deep desire of her heart coming through those simple words. Here is part of what I wrote her:

You asked, “Can I be a Christian?” The answer is Yes. You can be a Christian. The most important thing I can say to you is that being a Christian means having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

In order to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, you must trust him as your Savior. Does that sound strange? I hope not. Already you know much about Jesus. You know that he worked many miracles and helped many people. But the most important thing to know about Jesus is that he died on the cross for your sins. That is, when he died on the cross 2,000 years ago, he took your place. You should have died there. But he died in your place, as your substitute, and by his death he paid the price for all your sins.

That’s a lot to think about, and you don’t have to fully understand it (no one fully understands it), but you do have to believe it. That’s what trusting is. It’s believing, really believing in your heart that something is true. Trusting is what you do when you get on an airplane. You trust your life to the fact that the airplane will safely take you up in the air and then safely get you back to the ground again. That’s trust. It’s staking your life upon something you believe to be true.

Trusting Jesus Christ means staking your life upon the fact that when he died on the cross, he really did pay the price for your sins and he really did take your place. So, do you believe that Jesus Christ died for you? Are you willing to stake your life upon that fact? If you are ready to say Yes, then you can be a Christian.

Let me give you a simple prayer to pray. This prayer is not magic. You should only pray it if it expresses the real desire of your heart. But if it does, then you can pray this prayer:

Dear Lord, Jesus, Thank you for dying on the cross for me. Thank you for taking all my sin away. I believe you are the Son of God and the Savior of the world. I gladly take you as my Savior. Come into my life and make me a Christian. Please help me to live a life that will be pleasing to you. Thank you for hearing this prayer. Amen.

That’s simple, isn’t it? If you will pray that prayer and mean it from your heart, you can become a Christian right now. I hope you will just stop right now and pray that prayer to God.

Did you pray that prayer? I hope so. If you did, I would be honored if you would tell me so. On Sunday, if you do not feel too shy about it, you can just come up to me and say, “Pastor Ray, I prayed that prayer.” I would be so happy if you would do that.

I put the letter in the mail and wondered how my new friend would receive it. Would it make sense? Would she understand it?

The very next Sunday she came up to me after the second service and said with a shy smile that she had gotten my letter. I asked her if she had read it. She said yes. I asked her if she had prayed the prayer. She said yes. I asked if she understood what the prayer meant. She said yes. I asked if the prayer expressed the desire of her heart. She said yes.

Then I said, “Welcome. You are now a Christian.” “That’s all I have to do to be a Christian?” she replied. When I said, “Yes,” the most beautiful smile I have ever seen spread across her face from one side to the other.

That is the power of faith when it is directed toward the right object–Jesus Christ. Sometimes we forget how powerful the gospel is and how easy it is for a sinner to be saved. I have been preaching for 30 years and I can say with conviction that I have never known a sinner whom Christ would not receive. I know thousands of people who have experienced the life-transforming power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If you have the slightest desire to know the Lord, run to the cross. Do not hesitate, do not delay, do not wait for a better moment. Christ died for you. He took your place and bore your penalty. Receive him into your heart. Welcome him as your own Savior and Lord. I beg you in the name of Christ, be reconciled to God. Amen.


I received much inspiration from Surgeon’s sermon on this text: “The Heart Of The Gospel”.

The Star Wars Illustration comes from Dave Redick “The Good News: Hear it Again for the First Time”.

Several of the points in this section were suggested by material from the Biblical Illustrator.

I am not suggesting that the Christian faith does not commend itself to rational thinking or that it doesn’t “make sense”. In the end nothing is more rational than to believe the word of the One who created you. I am simply pointing out that apart from the knowledge of God, no one can truly understand the gospel.

Ray Stedman tells this story in his sermon “The Word for This Hour”.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?