Message 11, A Curse for Us: The Death of Christ:
Christianity centers on the cross of Christ. From the justice of God in dealing with sin to the love of God in sending His Son to die, the cross is the supreme display of the character of God. Through His atoning death, Christ secured eternal life for His people. In this session, Dr. Ian Hamilton focuses on the substitutionary atonement of Christ and the importance of upholding the doctrine of double imputation.
I hope you were all present during the last session, when Steve Lawson so wonderfully opened up to us the act of obedience of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. At one point, I couldn’t help smiling because I was remembering when we were having family worship, perhaps 25 years ago, and our almost five-year-old daughter Rebecca was looking at me with a pained look in her face.
We had been reading Romans 5, I think, 12 through 19, and she was looking very, very pained. And I said, “Rebecca, what’s the matter?” And she said, “Daddy, it’s all Adam’s fault!” She had an early grasp of her theology.
When her soon-to-be husband contacted me to ask my permission to date Rebecca, court Rebecca — he was a delightful fellow, we had got to know him and we chatted for a bit, and I said, “It would be a delight for us to have you court our Rebecca, Graham. Let’s talk together.” And we chatted a little and I said, “Now tell me, Graham, do you read good books?” And he said, “Well, Mr. Hamilton, I try to read good books.” “What are you reading now, Graham?” He said, “Well, I’m reading Calvin’s sermons on Ephesians.”
To which I wanted to reply, “Let’s set the date now.” But it gets a little better because my daughter then phoned me, after Graham came off the phone, and she said, “Is it okay, Daddy?” I said, “That will be a pleasure, Rebecca.” I said, “I was so impressed with Graham. He’s reading Calvin’s sermons on Ephesians!”
And there was a pause. And Rebecca said, “I’ve a confession to make, Dad. I said to Graham, ‘When you talk to my dad, at some point in the conversation he is going to ask you what books you read. So, if I were you, start reading Calvin or Owen.’” He was as wise as a serpent, and almost as harmless as a dove.
Well, it’s my great privilege to be with you again this morning. Please turn with me in your Bibles, to the book of Leviticus, chapter 16. Let me preface what I am about to say with these few words: the death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ — His sin-bearing, sin-atoning, wrath-quenching, God-glorifying, sinner-saving death — is the central, foundational and climactic glory of the Christian faith. Paul was not only speaking for himself in Galatians 6 when he wrote, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Because, you see, the cross of Christ is not simply a truth we confess; it is a truth we glory in. It is our only boast in this life and in the life which is to come. As Steve was speaking to us a little earlier, I was thinking of that great verse in one of Horatius Bonar’s hymns, when he wrote:
“Upon a life I did not live.
Upon a death I did not die;
another’s life, another’s death
I stake my whole eternity.”
So, as we consider together this morning the Lord Jesus Christ becoming a sin-bearing curse for us, we will do so, please God, not dispassionately, but as men and women, boys and girls who, by the grace of Almighty God, have found life in that death.
So, as a background to our reflection this morning on 2 Corinthians chapter 5, verse 21, we’re going to read these opening verses of the 16th chapter of Leviticus, which depicts for us the day of atonement which gloriously and typically prefigures for us the sin-bearing, sin-atoning, wrath-quenching, curse-enduring death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died, and the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
And he shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house.
Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house.
He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. He shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
Then, having made atonement for his own sin and the sins of his household, and having been purified ceremonially, then he shall take the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus shall he make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.
No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.
And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.’”
And then, much more briefly, 2 Corinthians chapter 5, reading from verse 16:
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
I’ve been asked, in this session, to focus on the substitutionary atonement of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the importance of upholding the doctrine of double imputation — the imputation of our sin to God’s sinless Son, and the imputation of His perfect righteousness, the very righteousness of God, to us who believe. And with that in mind, please consider with me these magisterial and ultimately inexplicable words that we find in verse 21 of 2 Corinthians 5: “For our sake he” — that is, the Father — “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
I’d like to ask four questions of this 21st verse. Number one: why does Paul mention Jesus’ sinlessness? Number two: how could God justly make His sinless Son to be sin for us? Number three: why did God make His sinless Son to be sin for us? And finally: how do we get into Christ that we might thereby “become the righteousness of God”?
Philip Hughes, in his excellent commentary on 2 Corinthians, writes of these words in 2 Corinthians 5: 21 — “There is no sentence more profound in the whole of Scripture.” And James Denny, in his even more excellent commentary on 2 Corinthians, writes of this 21st verse, “It is the focus in which the reconciling love of God burns with the purest and intensest flame. It is the fountain light of all day, the master light of all seeing in the Christian revelation.”
In this 21st verse, Paul is completing the message which with which the Christian ambassador has been entrusted. He has written, in verse 20, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” “Be reconciled to God.”
Now, if Paul had stopped there, he would’ve been announcing the ultimate counsel of despair. Be reconciled to God? Would to God that I could be reconciled to Him! Be reconciled to God? Paul, you are asking the impossible! I am a man filled from head to foot with sin! I’m condemned in Adam and with Adam! I’m fallen! I’m a rebellious sinner! I’m dead in trespasses and sins! Be reconciled to God!? As well tell me to fly to the sun with wings of wax.
But Paul does not stop at the end of verse 20, does he? “For our sake” — and here, he is completing the message of reconciliation that the Christian ambassador has been commissioned to proclaim — “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This verse answers the question of all questions, does it not? “How is God — the thrice Holy One who is of purer eyes than to look on sin — how is this God able to forgive, and accept and welcome into His family unholy, unrighteous, judgment-deserving sinners? Here is how: “He made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
It’s striking, more in the Greek text than in the English text, that Paul begins actually with establishing and affirming the sinlessness of Christ. “Him who knew no sin” is how the Greek text begins in this 21st verse. And this, of course, is a truth that the New Testament is at pains, again, and again, and again, to affirm to us.
At His baptism, the heavens are opened and the Heavenly Father declares, “This is my beloved Son. With Him I am well pleased.” There is not a grain, not a taint, not an iota, not a scintilla of sin in Him or attaching to Him. And very strikingly, towards the end of the gospel narrative, in Luke 23, on four occasions in that chapter, the sinlessness of Christ is declared.
Even out of the mouth of his enemies, twice. Pontius Pilate affirms, “In Him I find no wrong.” And the dying thief declares that Jesus Christ is where He is not because of any personal sin in Himself. And then the centurion is constrained by Almighty God to proclaim, “Truly, this man was righteous. He is the Son of God.”
But why then does Paul here feel the need to state what every Christian believer knew to be true? It was Christianity 101, wasn’t it? Jesus Christ is the sinless Son of the sinless God. Why does Paul feel the need to mention it here at this point? To establish, once again, that only He — who had completely and uninterruptedly obeyed the Law of God, as we heard so gloriously in our previous session — only He was fitted to suffer the punishment due to those who have willfully disobeyed that Law.
Only He who was entirely without sin of His own was free to bear the sins of others. No other could suffer for sins — the righteous for the unrighteous — to bring us to God. We were helpless to reconcile ourselves to God. Our sin had utterly both disabled us and damned us before God. But there was One. Blessed be God, there was One like us whom sin had not disabled and not damned. There was One fitted to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.
If I could be permitted, in an audience like this, to quote a deceased Roman Catholic cardinal. Dangerous! “Oh loving wisdom of our God, when all was sin and shame, a Second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.”
And then, secondly, Paul goes on to tell us that He made Him to be sin for us. That He — who is this “He”? It is God the Father. It is the heavenly Father who made His own Son sin for us. Maybe you know these words of Octavius Winslow: “Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Pilate for fear, not Judas for money, not the Jews for envy, but the Father for love.” The Father for love. It was God who did not spare His only Son, but delivered Him up for us all. It was He who made Him who had no sin to be sin for us. Isn’t this where so many people stumble, and where liberal Christianity has gone so foundationally astray?
They say God is love and doesn’t require a propitiation to deal with sin. But the whole testimony of the Bible is the contrary. It is because God is love that He therefore provides a propitiation to deal with our sin. He made Him to be sin.
Now, what does this actually mean? Well, I’m not sure. I’ve read many books on this, reflected on many commentaries. I’m not sure anyone really knows. There is language we can use, but what infinities, and depths, and unfathomablenesses there are in these words. We know what it does not mean. It does not mean that God made Christ a sinner. He was holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners.
So what, then, can it mean — God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us? It means, when I say simply this — I don’t know any other way to put it for I feel totally out of my depth, but if it means anything it means this — that God the Father made His innocent, incarnate Son the object of His wrath and judgment for our sakes with the result that, in Christ, our sin is judged and taken away. That’s why we read Leviticus 16.
What a glorious depiction, typical depiction that chapter is of the sin-bearing, sin-enduring, sin-atoning death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. One goat is slain and the blood is sprinkled over the mercy seat and this other goat — often called the “escape goat,” the “scapegoat” — is set free, but only after the hands of the high priest have been placed on its head, testifying publicly that God has accepted the atonement, that there has been a transfer and an exchange. And this second goat is publicly set free because God would have His people know that, typically, He has covered over their sin.
And behind all of that imagery, that we don’t have time to unpack or begin to unpack this morning, we see there this magnificent depiction of the Lamb of God provided by God to be our sin-expiating, God’s wrath-propitiating sacrifice. But the question, to me, that lies, not only on the surface, but embedded in these words, is this: is this not some kind of legal fiction? Is this not some kind of charade?
How could Jesus Christ the innocent, sinless One righteously, justly be punished in my place and for my sake? Is there not something hokey going on here? Is there not sleight of hand? What’s the connection between Jesus Christ and me? Well, would that we had time this morning to dwell much on this. But the answer to that takes us to the very heart and glory of what God has done in His wisdom, and grace, and love in pursuing His plan to justify the ungodly.
Because, you see, Jesus Christ came into the world, and was appointed before the worlds began, not only as a representative Head, but as a covenant Head who would come not as a private man, but as a public man representing all the elect of God in all the ages of history. And in our place, He would not only represent us, but substitute Himself for us. There is no legal fiction whatsoever. There is no sleight of divine hand.
He is condemned justly and righteously by God because He is my covenant Head, who has taken upon Himself all the liabilities that are mine and yours and stood before God, enduring righteously, not unrighteously, as the sinless and innocent One, the wrath and judgment that our sin against God deserved.
And perhaps something even more glorious than that is that, even as the Lord Jesus Christ finds the shadow of the cross beginning to penetrate His human soul as He makes His way to Calvary, and as He finds Himself in Gethsemane with the unimaginable horror of what yet lies before Him beginning to penetrate into the utmost depths of His human soul, He is nonetheless saying, “Not my will but yours be done.” It’s not as an unwilling, non-rational animal that Jesus Christ is offered up.
He is offered up as the willing, loving Son of the Father who, as our covenant King, has taken upon Himself, in covenant with God — Father, Son, and Spirit — to endure all our liabilities, to take all that was ours upon Himself so that, ultimately, all that was His would come upon us.
And if we were then to ask the question, thirdly, but why? Why did the Father make His own Son to be sin? The apostle tells us, “So that” — a clause of glorious consequence — “so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Paul is describing here the sinner’s justification. How can we ever be acceptable to God? How can we ever be reconciled to God? Do you know that the word “reconciliation,” katallagé, the verb “to reconcile,” katallasso, has the idea of an exchange?
You see, there was an exchange going on, ultimately and climactically on Calvary’s cross. But, as Steve so gloriously helped us to see this morning, from the very moment of his conception, and even back into the ages of eternity, there was an exchange going on. The right hand of the Father’s blessing, that had eternally rested on His Son, was being laid upon our heads. And the left hand of His cursing and judgment, that was ours by our fallen Adam and by our willful sin and disobedience subsequent to Adam, that left hand of cursing was being placed on Christ. There was an exchange going on.
Do you wonder why the sun was darkened? All creation couldn’t bear to look on the exchange that God was effecting in His Son for the sake of His people!
“Well might the sun in darkness hide
and shut its glories in,
when Christ the mighty Maker died
for man the creature’s sin.”
God did this to His Son so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. And you’ll notice it’s not to sinners as such that God is reconciled; it’s to sinners in Christ — “so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” He is the righteousness of God. “He is our wisdom from God” — 1 Corinthians 1:30 — “even our righteousness, our sanctification and redemption.” Christ Jesus is the righteousness of God, and it is in Him that we are reconciled to God. Because, in Christ, we are clothed with righteousness divine. Isn’t it the most staggering of thoughts?
I can never get over this. I think about it, and the thought often surfaces, “You know, Ian, this just cannot be true.” But if it wasn’t in the Bible, I wouldn’t believe it — that God looks on me with the same approbation as He looks upon His Son because I’m clothed with the selfsame righteousness as His Son. The gospel is out of this world! You wouldn’t have imagined it in 10,000 times 10,000 light years! But it is the wisdom of God. And this alone is the ground or basis of our acceptance with God. We are accepted in the Beloved.
And you know, the great thing is that nothing you and I could ever do could ever be, can add one iota to our justified standing before God in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t rise or fall depending on how you feel. It does not rise or fall, ebb or flow depending on whether you sin. You think that’s dangerous doctrine? People thought Paul taught dangerous doctrine. That’s why he wrote, at the beginning of Romans chapter 6, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” People heard this gospel.
They said “Does this unfettered grace mean that we can then just go and live any way we please? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” Meganoito — “by no means,” because in this exchange God unites us to His Son, and it’s in union with Christ that God counts the righteousness of Christ to our account, because He’s our covenant Head. We are rightly, by grace, accounted righteous because everything He did, He did not for Himself, He did for us who believe.
My time is really gone and there’s so much here to focus on. In our Lord Jesus Christ, God has exhausted and annihilated our sin. And He did so in the annihilation of His Son, in the immolation of His Son. And maybe we should pause, simply for a moment, to take this in. It was God who made Christ sin, who counted our sin wholly to His Son. It was God who did this. The Father was no passive spectator at Calvary. He was the great Initiator of Calvary.
He spared not His only Son, but delivered Him up for us all. He treated his sinless Son as the sin of the world deserved to be treated because He loved us and would have us to be His children. “Here is love, vast as the ocean; loving kindness as the flood.” Where would we be if we didn’t have these great hymns to sing?
“And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in.
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.”
That leaves me just finally and — I’ve got 1 minute and 34 seconds left — to say, if it is in Christ that the righteousness of God that makes sinners acceptable to God is found, how do I get into Jesus Christ? How do I get out of where I am into this righteousness of God? And the scandal of the gospel is this: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.
In no other way, by self-abandoning, self-denying casting of all that we are on the grace and sufficiency of all that Jesus Christ is, other refuge have we none, hangs our helpless souls on thee. By faith alone. What a glorious thing that is. And it’s not great faith that saves us; it’s faith. And it’s not weak faith that condemns us; it’s the absence of faith. Your faith may be weak. It may be trembling. It may be lacking. But if it is wholly directed to Jesus Christ, it is the faith that brings to you the righteousness of God.
There’s much more I would like to say, but let me quote to you some words of John Bunyan in Grace Abounding. John Bunyan, in Grace Abounding, writes this:
“I was all this while ignorant of Jesus Christ and going about to establish my own righteousness, and would have perished therein had not God, in mercy, showed me more of my state by nature. One day, as I was passing into the field, this sentence fell upon my soul: ‘Thy righteousness is in heaven.’ And I thought I saw, with my eyes in the soul, Jesus Christ at God’s right hand.
There, I say, was my righteousness, so that, wherever I was and whatever I was doing, God could not save me. He lacks my righteousness, for my righteousness was standing before Him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself. Now did my chains fall off my legs. Indeed, I was loosed from my afflictions and irons. Now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.”
What should our response be to all of that? Praise Him is right. What is the third mark of the Spirit-filled life? The first mark of the Spirit-filled life, Ephesians 5:17: addressing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Number two, the second present participle: making melody in your heart always to the Lord. And the third present participle: giving thanks always to God for everything. Thanksgiving. Amazed wonder and thanksgiving. Unceasing praise and thanksgiving should be our great, great response to what God has done for us in His Son in making Him who had no sin to be sin for us.
I heard Sinclair Ferguson say this once: that “even as the Father was executing on His Son His righteous wrath that we deserved, even as the Father was pouring the eternal vials of His just judgment on His Son, He was surely singing, “If ever I loved thee, my Jesus ‘tis now.” Let us pray.
Lord, we are wholly out of our depths. We paddle in the shallows of Your amazing grace. Forgive us, Lord, that unceasing thankfulness is not the response of our hearts always to the glory of your grace in Christ. Please make us men and women who abound in thankfulness to you for the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.