We Are Reconciled to God… Through Christ
Today’s evangelicals often speak about the gospel as if it were a means of discovering one’s own purpose, a message about how to have a happy and prosperous life, or a method of achieving success in one’s relationships or business. In the minds of many, the best starting point for sharing the gospel is an announcement that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
All those ways of presenting the gospel have become such common clichés among contemporary Christians that most people in the church today do not flinch when they hear the gospel framed in such language. They don’t notice how profoundly all those narratives deviate from the gospel Paul proclaimed and defended. A major problem with all of them is the way they turn the gospel into a message about “you” — your life, your purpose, your prosperity. You become the center and subject of the story.
Those are concepts that would have appalled and outraged Paul. One truth that should stand out boldly in every text we have looked at is that the central figure in the gospel according to Paul is always “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The apostle takes great care never to let the narrative drift.
Here in our text (2 Corinthians 5:18-21), Paul’s intention is to explain how
God… has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ. — 2 Corinthians 5:18
He mentions both verses, he mentions God by name at least once in every verse (five times total). Three additional times he refers to God with pronouns (Himself twice and He once). He uses the Messianic title Christ four times. And in that final verse he refers to Christ twice with the pronoun Him. The entire passage is decidedly God-centered, not man-centered. That should be the case any time we talk about the gospel. It’s first of all a message about God’s purpose in the work of Christ; the sinner’s own purpose in life is secondary.
The gospel is a declaration about the atoning work of Christ.
Nevertheless, we are by no means left entirely out of the picture.
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us. — 2 Corinthians 5:21
Christ is the subject of this narrative; His people are the objects. All told, pronouns referring to redeemed people are used nine times in the passage. People from every tongue, tribe, and nation constitute “the world” whom Christ has reconciled to God.* Everything Christ did, He did on our behalf.
* Paul isn’t suggesting that every individual who ever lived will be reconciled to God. Both Jesus and Paul emphatically reject universalism (Matthew 7:21-23; Romans 2:5-9). “The world” in this context refers to humanity as a race, regardless of gender, class, or ethnic distinctions (Galatians 3:28).
Why? Not for our comfort or self-aggrandizement, but for His glory. So “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
In what sense do believers “become” righteousness? The answer again is simple and obvious. This is the mirror image of how Christ was “made… sin.” Just as the sins of His people were imputed to Him, His righteousness is imputed to them. They “become the righteousness of God” by imputation, through their union with Christ.
Notice the expression “in Him” in 2 Corinthians 5:21. It’s an echo of verse 17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” The expression speaks of a spiritual union that occurs at salvation, when the Holy Spirit takes residence in the believer and thereby makes us spiritually one with Christ. “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free — and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). That’s true of every believer. We are “in Christ,” or as Paul says in Ephesians 5:30, “We are members of His body.”* The church—the fellowship of true believers—is metaphorically spoken of as “His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). In that sense, believers embody the very righteousness of God.
So 2 Corinthians 5:21 is describing a double imputation — believers’ sins are imputed to Christ, and He pays the due penalty in full. His righteousness is imputed to them, and they are rewarded for it. Our Lord’s perfect righteousness is like a glorious mantle that covers all His people’s imperfections and gives them a right standing before God.
He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness. — Isaiah 61:10
In other words, God treated Christ as if He sinned all the sins of everyone who would ever believe, so that He could treat them as if they had lived Christ’s perfect life.
That’s a fitting paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 5:21. Christ, as our perfect Substitute, not only died for our sins and thereby “canceled out the certificate of debt” (Colossians 2:14 NASB); He also embodied the perfect righteousness God requires for entry into the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:20). Both His life and His death therefore count vicariously for all those whom He reconciles to God.
Excerpted with permission from The Gospel According to Paul by John MacArthur, copyright John MacArthur.
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The Gospel According to Paul
John F. MacArthur
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