Our Sin Transferred to Christ

The second truth to note in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is that “for our sake he made him to be sin.” This is Paul’s way of saying God caused Jesus to bear our sin. Peter wrote something similar: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). So did the prophet Isaiah: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Paul is telling us that God the Father took our sin and charged it to God the Son in such a way that Christ was made to be sin for our sake.

Now we can see what Paul meant in Galatians 3:13 when he said, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” He became a curse for us because he’d become sin for us. And by those words for us, Paul indicates that Christ did this in our place and as our substitute.

Imagine there’s a moral ledger recording every event of your entire life—all your thoughts, words, actions, even your motives. You might think of it as a mixture of good and bad deeds, with hopefully more good than bad. The Scriptures, however, tell us that even our righteous deeds are unclean in the sight of God (Isaiah 64:6). So Jesus has a perfectly righteous moral ledger, and we have a completely sinful one. However, God took our sins and charged them to Christ, leaving us with a clean sheet.

The biblical word for this is forgiveness. In and of itself, forgiveness is a monumental blessing. Paul echoed David on this when he wrote, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin” (Romans 4:7-8; Psalms 32:1-2). But how did God do this and yet remain perfectly holy and just?

He did it by causing the sinless Son to bear our sins, including everything that goes with them: our guilt, our condemnation, our punishment. That’s what it took for God to wipe our moral ledger sheet perfectly clean and at the same time preserve his holiness and justice—the price had to be paid on our behalf; so the sentence was executed on our Substitute.

Christ’s Righteousness Credited to Us

But it wasn’t enough for us to have a clean, but empty, ledger sheet. God also credits us with the perfect righteousness of Christ “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This happens the same way Jesus was made to be sin—by transfer. Just as God charged our sin to Christ, so he credits the perfect obedience of Jesus to all who trust in him. In what is often called the Great Exchange, God exchanges our sin for Christ’s righteousness. As a result, all who have trusted in Christ as Savior stand before God not with a clean-but-empty ledger, but one filled with the very righteousness of Christ!

The theological term for what we’ve just described is one of Paul’s favorite words, justification. The word justified in Paul’s usage means to be counted righteous by God. Even though in ourselves we’re completely unrighteous, God counts us as righteous because he has appointed Christ to be our representative and substitute. Therefore when Christ lived a perfect life, in God’s sight we lived a perfect life. When Christ died on the cross to pay for our sins, we died on the cross. All that Christ did in his sinless life and his sin-bearing death, he did as our representative, so that we receive the credit for it. It’s in this representative union2 with Christ that he presents us before the Father, “holy and blameless and above reproach” (Colossians 1:22).