Good morning Reggie. I do pray that things are smoothing out there and the ministry is back on its feet. I pray almost daily for you.
I have a question that I hope you can find time to answer. It deals with 2 Cor. 5:21. Do you have insight into Jesus being “made sin” or having our sins “placed upon Him”?
I have studied and prayed and still see good men on both sides of this.
Thanks my brother,I am so encouraged that you felt constrained to pray for me. It happens that I am in a great deal of difficulty these days with much uncertainty as to outcome.
It is a pleasure to respond to this question, as I think it represents THE most essential and foundational doctrine on which all others stand. All others support it. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if one misses it here, then correct belief concerning any other doctrine, however important or correct, is worthless. Many will be in hell that were completely clear on the deity of Christ. Indispensable as many great truths and doctrines are, unless we get the gospel right, we are subject to fatal, soul damning, error.
I can’t imagine exactly what you might have been reading, or precisely what tensions you have found among good men on this topic. I’m not surprised, because I know something of the swirl of controversy that has always surrounded this centerpiece of the ‘mystery’ of the gospel.
First of all, I don’t know if you’ve delved into any of the fetching, but I believe dangerous, innovations of E. W. Kenyon, who conceived and taught that Christ was ‘made’ sin in the sense of ‘became’ the sin nature on the cross, that the sin nature itself was judged in Christ’s body. I am more than a little certain that this theory is a far remove from the way in which Jesus experienced the wrath and abandonment of the Father. Rather, I believe the idea is better understood in the context of Paul’s language of imputation and divine reckoning. God was imputing our sin to Christ and actually judging our sins in His body in terms of due punishment, but this does not mean that there was any change in His holy human nature. He suffered the judgement due us in His human nature, but He did not become sin in that sense. I’m not sure if that’s what you’re asking about. I can say, however, that the protestant view of imputation since the Reformation is considered false and dangerous by Roman Catholic theologians; they call it a ‘legal fiction’. Many zealous charismatics and deeper life proponents are definitely on their way back to Rome and do not know it, as they would agree with Rome’s unhappiness with the classic protestant view of imputation, as would also the modern advocates of the so-called “new perspective on Paul.”
Properly understood, there is no greater truth so full of gospel comfort and power than the doctrine of the imputation of the totality of Christ’s righteousness to the least believer (provided, of course, that believer is no mere professor, but has passed through the straight gate of authentic regeneration). Yes, it is quite capable of abuse and miscarriage; show me a doctrine that is not. The Roman church could not see that God could never impute righteousness on any other basis than what was wrought in Christ, and not only at the cross, but this imputation includes the righteousness that was that was tested and proved through the thirty three and half years of spotless obedience that Christ fulfilled UNDER the law. Only through the imputation of this totality of Christ’s righteousness can God lawfully ‘quicken whom He will’ (Eph 2:1; Jn 5:21; Ro 9:18). In fact, IF the righteousness wrought out in Christ’s humanity were not freely and unconditionally imputed in the full, there could be no new creation, no regeneration, not even faith. Why? Because to grant righteousness on any other basis than Christ’s perfect obedience would indeed be a repudiation of the justice of God. The righteousness required by the law must be fulfilled in full. The debt must be paid in full. The punishment must be suffered in full in order for God to justly justify the ungodly. Otherwise it would be a ‘legal fiction’ indeed.
In other words, apart from such imputation unto the everlasting righteousness of New Covenant justification (compare Jer 32:40; Dan 9:24), forgiveness, or remission of sins, would indeed be arbitrary and unjust. Without the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, there could be no Spirit wrought faith in the heart. In my view, even the Old Testament believers could not have believed were it not for the surety of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world in the predestinating counsel and foreknowledge of God. Therefore, in a sense, the only righteousness that God can accept is His own ‘perfect and complete’ righteousness as fulfilled in the One, the righteousness that He perfected in the One humanity that qualified to represent the sinner, namely, the second Adam, the Lord from heaven, hallelujah!
Therefore, the only righteousness that God can accept and reward in us, though it be only by the measure (Jn 3:34), is really never our righteousness at all, but Christ’s righteousness in us through the Holy Spirit. It is “He alone that does the work.” That is, any work that counts must be His alone through us, just as it was not Jesus but the Father that did the work through Him (Jn 5:19, 30; 8:28; 14:10, 24). Only God can do the work of God. As a brother once said that Art was fond of quoting, “it takes God to love God.” That’s true. Anything else is idolatry and pride. As Paul said, “nothing counts (avails) but a new creation” (Gal 6:15). It is the mystery of incarnation; not only of the Father in Christ, but of Christ in the believer. Incarnation is the consummate offense to legal and humanistic rationalism. But this incarnational phenomenon of the Spirit’s work in and through the believer is the result of faith in the gospel of the finished work of Christ, else one could end up in the deception warned of in Mt 7:21. (Somewhere I read the account that when the renowned reformer, Thomas Hooker, was on his death bed, a well meaning brother exclaimed, “you go now to receive your great reward!” At which remark, Hooker stirred himself a last time to reply, “No, brother, I go to receive mercy!” He dared trust nothing to one of the most fruitful ministries of the Reformation, but cast his all on the mercy of God through Christ alone. Where is such holy diffidence in this dark day of spiritual boasting?)
So it is critical that we understand that Christ fulfilled and satisfied all the demands of the law in our place. This is why he said to John, “it is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus had to fulfill every obedience that was incumbent under the law. This since nothing less than a spotless holiness under the law, tested in every point, can ever stand before the bar of infinite holiness. Nothing less is accepted. Where Christ is not imputed in the whole, there is no hope. (“Eat ye all of it!”) “He (the Father) shall see the travail of His (the Servant’s) soul, and shall be satisfied (propitiated).” Will we be satisfied? or will we try to add to the finished work and pollute the whole as did the Galatians?
No one that hope to stand in any lesser righteousness (“dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne”). There can be no mixture or partiality where justification through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is concerned. And while our sanctification (which is the working out of our salvation in a process of Christian growth and maturity) might be partial and in measure (a process), there cannot be any such partiality where our justification is concerned (Justification is not a process as in the Roman Catholic system of theology), simply because anything short of the totality of Christ’s righteousness, as perfected in His one humanity alone, is short of the glory of God’, and thus unacceptable. That is why it is only as we are “IN” Him, not having our own righteousness, that we can be accepted, simply because we are IN the Beloved. To add the least mixture to this holy unity is to ruin all (“I dare not trust the sweetest frame …”). Mixture where this is concerned will not be tolerated by divine holiness; it cannot. Heaven will reveal not the least toleration of mixture on this point. Here, it is all or nothing. How then is it a ‘legal fiction’? It is no farther for me to be counted the very righteousness of God than for Christ to be counted sin. Both are impossible propositions unless God is free through Christ to ” give life to the dead and call the things that are not as though they were.” Why, to call the glory of this exchange a ‘legal fiction’ is little short of blasphemy. Unless one plans to clime up some other way, it is our only hope.
Still, though scripture is clear on the matter, it is elusive to apprehend except by the Spirit. A believer can lose sight of this and begin to sink. It remains even to believers a considerable mystery, since the idea that Christ could be made sin (not actually, but by imputation), and that I could be made the very righteousness of God (not actually but by imputation; but then actually because the Holy Spirit is pleased to indwell the heart that believes the gospel). These are both very ‘unnatural’ propositions. How can these things be? Therefore, I take the word “made” not to be speaking of an ontological change of nature whereby Christ ‘becomes’ something like sin itself, or the sin nature, as in Kenyon. (I cringe when I hear things like that). No, rather, this is the language of imputation. Christ was ‘made’ sin only in the sense of being counted and treated as sin, so that I might be ‘made’ the righteousness of God in the same sense of being counted and treated as though I had personally ‘fulfilled all righteousness’, which, in fact, I did in the person of my federal head, the second Adam. This is how it is that we partial, ‘on the way’ saints may grow and increase in terms of sanctification and reward, but not in our justification. Since to be justified by the imputation of Christ is to be “complete in Him,” and in that sense “perfected forever.” This is why we must never confuse inheritance with reward.
Yes, this so-called ‘great exchange’ sounds dangerous to the legalistic mind, but let someone get a hold of the implications of the glory of this, and you’ll see what the scripture means that the truth sets the heart free, as there will soon follow a far greater power and liberty to fulfill all obedience than ever otherwise. Then will be seen in far greater and more authentic measure the so-called ‘practical’ righteousness that works itself out into deeds of real love and faith, the outward testimony and evidence of “Christ in you,” which reality MUST result in true holiness and the true fruits of the Spirit, and not their laborious and proud religious imitations.
To truly lay hold of this is a resurrection event indeed. “They believed not for joy.” Many fail of it, simply because it’s just too good to be true. It’s just not ‘rational’. Exactly! No wonder Rome is offended. What devout and well meaning child of nature wouldn’t be? Especially those that are chomping at the bits to “become” sons by their own will power, and are nervous that if they just believed on Christ for their sanctification no less than their justification, why, they might be buying in to ‘cheap grace’ and lose their guarded restraint against their carnal appetites and impulses. I tell you that those that think in those terms no not the gospel or the power thereof! No wonder such a gospel makes legalism to stumble. Spurgeon once said something like “if you can preach a gospel that doesn’t lend itself to the kinds of accusations charged against Paul, then you’re probably not preaching the same gospel that he preached.”
If we want true holiness; if we want the real implications of true calling unto the fullness of mature sons, then let us approach the standard of holiness and the true fulfillment of the law in this glorious and holy gospel way. Then we will experience the Spirit’s liberating empowerment that follows really believing the testimony of God as set forth in the good news of the gospel. That’s where the power is; it is nowhere else. Any other source of power, however well meaning and religious, is deceitful and proud and threatens to bring one to the dread reply of Mt 7:21. This is where Israel stumbled; they approached the standard “as IF” it were a law of works” (ro 9:32). That’s where all stumbling occurs. Why, I’m certain that any lapse into carnality is only due to a lapse of faith and apprehension of the glory of this most foundational tenet of the unshakable foundation of God (see 2Tim 2:19). And since the Spirit that works the all and all of anything acceptable in the believer is received by faith alone apart from works or pre-qualification, there is no risk that this faith will not be vindicated by the Spirit’s liberating power unto true holiness, true sacrifice, because of true love created by the Holy Spirit and shed abroad in a heart set free by the gospel.
Yours in the Beloved, Reggie