The Holy Spirit has a reason for the words he uses. Many have, many would like to, explain the words away, “He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” It’s too much. It’s impossible. This must be just an expressive way of saying Jesus died to take away sin. It must mean only that God allowed him to be treated like a sinner, by allowing him to die on a cross. But no, it says what it says, and these words don’t come about accidentally, haphazardly, they don’t fall from the Spirit unawares.
He says that Jesus was without sin. Here is the first amazing and beautiful claim. What can be said of no man who has ever lived on this earth can be said of Jesus. Even the pagans, at least the wise among them, admitted this much, that humanity and sin go together; it was so obvious they turned it into a proverb – errare est humanum, to err is human (or as we say now, to air is human). That is, to get things wrong, to miss the mark, to sin, this defines what a human is and does. There is, in fact, no point of Christian teaching that is more obvious, more observable, truer to our experience than that we sin and everyone we ever come into contact with sins. So this statement – He made him who knew no sin – is like a lightning bolt to direct our attention to this one Man who knew no sin.
And this One man shows us true humanity. It is not true this saying of the pagans; it is not true what reason concludes from its own experience, that sinning is natural to man. No. Behold the man, Jesus, and He will show you a humanity that does not err, a man who did not sin, whose heart was pure, who never had a selfish thought or desire, who loved perfectly, who even when he yelled and got angry did so in defense of the innocent and out of love for His Father. Here is what God created humanity to be. Not to err is human but to love is human, to love God and to love one another, this is human. And what is anti-human, what degrades humanity and so thoroughly corrupts it, this is humanity’s enemy not its friend, an alien intrusion into humanity not humanity’s nature. In Jesus and in Him only you see this truth. Your eyes and all your experience will tell you man’s nature is selfishness and greed and hate and lust and strife and war and envy. But you see in Jesus humanity as God meant it, as God made it.
More than this, you see humanity joined to God Himself. It’s not that Jesus tried harder than any man to be perfect and so obtained his goal – that’s the Mormon Jesus (you can be like Jesus if you work hard enough, if you’re a good enough Mormon). And it’s not that Jesus was so good that God wouldn’t even let him die, but replaced him with a look alike at the last minute and whisked Jesus up to heaven – that’s the Muslim Jesus (as if Jesus were nothing but a second Elijah, a prophet spared death instead of a Savior who saves from death). No, Jesus didn’t become good at all. He was good. We are conceived in sin, He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. We are born alienated from God; He was born united to God in one Person. Here is what it took to have the perfect man, the man who did not sin, the man God created us to be in the beginning – it took God Himself becoming a man.
So there is the first amazing statement spoken by the Holy Spirit. He made him who knew no sin.
It’s Ash Wednesday, the day above all other days in the church year where we concentrate particularly on this fact, that we are sinners, that we are therefore doomed to death, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. So amazing as it may be that this Man Jesus knew no sin, it would only be a cold fact of history, or worse, a divine provocation, a “look what you are not and cannot be,” if the sentence didn’t end with the terrible words “to be sin for us.” God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us.
It remains true that Jesus never sinned. He remained pure and holy to his last breath and into eternity through his resurrection. But just as true is that Jesus became the sinner, became sin, for us. So also it remains true that you are a sinner, that you the Christian continue to sin, and yet you have become holy, you have become righteous in Jesus. Just as your Christian righteousness is not fake, your holiness before God is not a ruse, not pretend, He really does see you as His own child, really does say and mean that He sees no spot or wrinkle in you, so Jesus’ sin was not fake, his guilt and his shame, not fake. It was imputed to Him. God made it belong to Him. So God looked at Jesus and He was angry. He looked at Jesus and His wrath burned; He extended His curse against this Jesus and His justice fell on Him. That’s what happened on the cross, that’s why you may not pass that cross unheeding, breathing no repentant vow, though you see Him wounded bleeding, see His thorn encircled brow.
Take this literally and personally. God made him sin, saw your sins on Him, saw they belonged to Him, and took all His wrath out on Him. God is angry when you lust in your heart, and He took that anger out on Jesus literally, His anger burned against Jesus because your lust belonged to Him. God is angry when you make excuses for not praying, not reading the Bible, finding church a chore, and that anger God directed at Jesus, punished Him for this apathy and arrogance. Jesus who had been nothing but obedient, God cursed because of your disobedience. Jesus who spoke nothing but the truth, God punished, flogged, crucified, damned because of the lies you have spoken and the gossip you have uttered. This was not play acting. God was really angry at Him, really punished Him, and the sin He punished really belonged to Jesus, because Jesus took it from you. That’s what it means that Jesus became sin for you. It is as we sing, “Whence come these sorrows, whence this mortal anguish. It is my sins for which Thou Lord must languish.”
God does get angry. He does punish. Sin is serious. The pagan statement, “To err is human,” is almost an excuse. Yes, yes, I know I’m not perfect. After all, to err is human. But that’s all wrong. The worst funeral sermon I ever heard – well, not the worst, but it felt like it at the time – recounted all the good works of the Christian lady who died and then the pastor said, “And of course she was a sinner, but who isn’t?” As if it weren’t that bad a thing! As if you can’t blame her for that. Imagine saying that or thinking that as death, the wages of sin, lies in the casket staring you in the face. No, no. If you are not convinced by your own experience, by your own heart’s desires, if God’s law doesn’t move you to understand and confess that your love is sorely lacking, that you are a sinner who deserves God’s punishment, then look, behold the man, look at the God-man who knew no sin, that God makes sin for you.
Why does He do it? Why does the Father will it and why does the Son obey it? Why does the Holy Spirit point to it and insist on it? Why does God pour out punishment on God and involve Himself in such a strange display of love and anger and mercy and justice? So that you might become the righteousness of God in Him. So that today can be the day of your salvation. So that you can be reconciled to God and enjoy His love and really be His child. This is the great and happy exchange. Jesus’ suffering, his punishment, his death, these are undeniably real, facts of history. And just as real as this is, that Jesus suffered the punishment of your sin, even though Jesus knew no sin, so real is your forgiveness, though you have sinned. As real as the shame of his nakedness was, so real is the honor of your being clothed in His righteousness. As real as God’s anger against him burned, so real is His kind smile toward you. As real as Jesus’ death was, so real is the life God has prepared for you. As real as His agony was, so real is your peace and joy. Because Jesus didn’t just become sin, He became sin for you.
This is all Paul wants the Corinthians to ponder and to think on. This is why he says today is the day of salvation. This is why he says today is when God hears. Everything depends on this – your sin, so real that it separates you from God, your sin separated the sinless One from God, and now God offers His sinlessness to you, pleads with you in fact to take it, wear it, love it, boast in it. And Paul says everything else he does, everything else he preaches, everything else that could possibly be done in life, all of it can serve no other end than this – to make sure this grace is set before you, that it isn’t offered to you in vain, that you realize this treasure.
So you may fast this Lenten season. You may make reforms in your life. You may wish to. You may need to. If you’re drinking too much, if you’re addicted to your smartphone, if you need to get healthy or lose weight, if you don’t pray enough or read your Bible enough, if you’re reckless with your money or stingy with it, whatever it is, now is as good a time as any to exert self-control and work hard toward living a better life, but no amount of fasting, no amount of self-control and self-sacrifice will amount to anything in the end, unless your goal is Paul’s goal. This is the Paul who said, “I determined to know nothing among you save Christ and Him crucified.” The Paul who said, “I have counted all things as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ my Lord.” The Paul who said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
The goal is for everything we do to work to this end, at the end of the day at the end of the week, at the end of Lent, at the end of our life, to be found in Christ, knowing well our sin and knowing better that He became sin for us so that we can live by His righteousness. So treasure for yourself treasure in heaven. Slow down, that’s what Lent means, slow down. Take time to meditate. Don’t be so busy. Think on Jesus your sin bearer. Think on the Father’s love for you. Remind yourself every morning that He has placed His name on you, that you are His child, that you have taken Jesus’ body and blood in your mouth, that you have an eternal purpose. Take the time to do it, before you play candy crush on your phone or look up what’s happening in Ukraine. Take the time. And whatever in your life hinders the goal of belonging to Christ your Lord, learn to cut it off, and God will give you treasure after treasure, the greatest treasure, because there is no treasure greater than to have your sin placed on Jesus and for Jesus to be placed in you.
Let us pray:
On my heart imprint thine image, blessed Jesus King of Grace, that life’s riches, cares, and pleasures, have no power thee to efface, this the superscription be, Jesus crucified for me, is my life my hope’s foundation and my glory and salvation. Amen.