God hates sin. According to Prov. 6:16, “There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him…” Then follow seven specific sins that God despises: pride, lying, murder, devising wicked plans, running to evil, false witness, and schism. Elsewhere other specific sins are identified as hated by God or abominations to him: idolatry (Deut.12:31), blemished sacrifices (Deut. 17:1), transvestism (Deut.22:5), false balances (Prov.11:1), and homosexuality (Lev. 18:22). Because God is holy, he hates all sin, not just the ones that are specifically mentioned in Scripture. God’s holiness compels him to hate all sin.
Yet 2 Cor. 5:21 says that, for our reconciliation to God, Jesus was made to be sin. You have to let that sink in. Jesus became sin – he became what God hates, what he abominates. But how can that be? After all, Heb. 4:15 says that Christ is our high priest “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” And 1 Pet. 1:19 says that the blood of Christ is “like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” Jesus was and is sinless and perfect. So, if he was impeccable, how can the Holy Spirit say that Jesus was made to be sin? How could he possibly become what God hates?
The answer has to do with the gospel. The good news includes a crucial biblical concept known as imputation. Imputation is the way that someone can be one way in themselves, but considered another way by someone else. This is something God does in the gospel of Christ crucified.
Jesus hung on the cross as someone who had never himself committed any sin. He didn’t deserve to be there. Yet the sins of all the elect were reckoned to Christ, placed on his shoulders so that he would bear God’s wrath against them. All the sins of believers were placed on Jesus’ account before God as it were. In 2 Cor. 5:21, the Holy Spirit is saying that the infinite weight of our sins imputed to Christ made it so that — there’s no other way to say it — he became sin. He became the target of God’s wrath in our place. The imputation of our sin to Christ made it so. Had all our sins not been reckoned to him, he would not have experienced God’s hellish wrath. We would be without a Saviour.
But there’s more. The gospel tells us of another imputation. Jesus became what he was not (sin), so that we would become what we are not (righteous). The Holy Spirit says further in 2 Cor. 5:21 that in Christ we “become the righteousness of God.” Righteousness is what God loves. Ps. 33:5 says, “He loves righteousness and justice…”
Yet we’re sinners. Gal. 5:17 speaks of a conflict Christians experience between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit. In 1 Tim. 1:15, Paul says that he, a Christian, is the foremost of sinners. Jesus commended the tax collector who, in Luke 18:13, prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” We sin every day. That means that in ourselves, we’re sinners. If we say otherwise, we deceive ourselves (1 John 1:8). So how can we possibly become “the righteousness of God”? How can we become what God loves?
Again, it’s through imputation. Though we remain sinners in ourselves, all the righteousness of Christ is credited to our accounts. We become what we are not though imputation, just as Christ became what he was not through imputation. On the cross, he became sin, but remained sinless. Through the cross, we become the righteousness of God, though we remain sinners in this age.
I often call this “the sweet swap,” an expression I learned from Robert Bertram. Luther called it “the joyous exchange.” Whatever you want to call it, it’s an essential part of the good news which encourages our souls and lifts our spirits in praise. Because Christ has so completely borne your sins, you now completely bear his righteousness in the sight of God. Through you’re still a sinner in this world, in God’s eyes you’re regarded as righteous as Christ. Indeed, Jesus became what God hates for the purpose of your reconciliation.