Everything came down to the gospel for the Apostle Paul. Never would he allow the gospel to be changed (Gal. 1:6–9), and this should not surprise us. If the gospel alone is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16–17), we dare not ever alter it.
Today’s passage makes clear once more the centrality of the gospel in Paul’s thought. Having described the reality of our being new creations in Christ and receiving a ministry of reconciliation, he gives us today the foundation for all this—that God made Christ to be sin even though He knew no sin in order that we would become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). This succinct statement encapsulates the precious truth of the gospel—namely, that Jesus died in our place for our sins according to the Scriptures and was raised so that we would be declared righteous before God (Rom. 3:21–4:25).
Second Corinthians 5:21 assumes the historical events of Christ’s death and resurrection while looking behind them, so to speak, to see what God was doing in the cross. When Paul says that God made Christ “to be sin,” he cannot mean that God regarded Jesus as personally guilty of sin, for Paul affirms in the same breath that Jesus knew no sin personally, and Jesus’ sinlessness is affirmed throughout Scripture (e.g., see Heb. 4:15). The Apostle means that Jesus was regarded as sin in a legal sense, not in a personal sense. In other words, Christ was made to be sin by having the sin of His people imputed to Him, or put on His account. Our sin having been transferred to Jesus, our Savior died to pay the just penalty for it (see Rom. 3:21–26).
Our being made the righteousness of God parallels Christ’s being made sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Thus, we are righteous by imputation. Our sin is placed on Christ; His righteousness is placed on us, on our record. This, then, is the heart of the gospel and the foundation of our salvation. John Calvin comments: “How are we righteous in the sight of God? It is assuredly in the same respect in which Christ was a sinner. For he assumed in a manner our place, that he might be . . . dealt with as a sinner, not for his own offenses, but for those of others, inasmuch as he was pure and exempt from every fault, and might endure the punishment that was due to us—not to himself. It is in the same manner . . . that we are now righteous in him—not in respect of our rendering satisfaction to the justice of God by our own works, but because we are judged of in connection with Christ’s righteousness, which we have put on by faith, that it might become ours.”