IF JESUS is the son of God, why did God let him be killed? In fact, why is the death of Jesus central to the Bible’s message?
This is a hugely important question, and throughout the Bible there are statements which provide answers to it. Here is one such statement: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NASB).*
Now this might leave you with more questions! What do those words mean—‘reconciling’ and ‘trespasses’? Why did the world need to be reconciled to God? How did it involve Jesus Christ? These questions are well worth exploring, as the answers contain the essence of the Gospel message itself.
Reconciliation with God
First let’s look at the word ‘reconciling’. To be reconciled means to be brought together, for there to be no separation. For example in 1 Corinthians 7:11 the word is used of a husband and wife who were separated, coming back together again. SoGod was ‘reconciling the world to Himself’. But why was there a separation between the world and God in the first place?
Here we come to the second word, ‘trespasses’, which means wrong-doing. One of the overarching themes of the Bible is that an emphatic separation has occurred between God and His world; a great chasm exists between the Creator and the people He created. The prophet Isaiah summarises this sombre theme perfectly: “… Your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).
This hard-hitting rebuke was delivered to God’s people living in the land of Judah in the 8th Century BC, but its message is applicable to (almost) everyone who has ever lived: a separation exists between you and God because of your sins. Sins are the things which you do which are wrong in God’s sight. It is essential that we accept this harsh truth about ourselves in order to recognise our need for reconciliation. The outcome of this is inexpressibly positive: it involves being at peace with God, and being accepted as one of His children!
This leads to the next question: why do my sins cause a separation to occur between me and God? To answer this question, we need to consider the character of God. He is not a human being like us: mortal, fallible and capable of committing sin. Instead, He is completely different from us: immortal, infallible and incapable of committing sin! This is how the prophet Moses described the character of God: “His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
Once we appreciate what God is like, it becomes a lot easier for us to understand why the sins we commit cause a separation between us and God: sin is so contrary to the perfect character of God that it is impossible for us to have an intimate relationship with Him without something or someone to bridge the gap. Thankfully for us, God has ‘in Christ reconciled the world to Himself’.
Forgiveness of Sins
What does it mean, “not counting their trespasses against them”? And what does this have to do with reconciling the world to God?
If someone you know does something wrong and you ‘count it against them’ it means you make a point of remembering exactly how they have wronged you, and this will necessarily have an impact on your relationship with them. However, if you do not ‘count it against them’ you will instead forget whatever it was that they have done to upset you. Another way of saying this is that you will forgive them. Well, this is similar to what God has offered to do for His creation. It is as if God is saying, “If you accept the gift of My son Jesus, I will not count against you what you have done that is wrong in My eyes; I will instead forgive you.”
If God were to forgive people for what they have done that is wrong in His eyes—if He were to forgive us our sins (or trespasses, iniquities, transgressions etc.)—then no separation would exist between us and God. We would be reconciled and be at peace with Him. This is absolutely amazing to consider—it does not matter what we have done or how many times we have done it, God is willing to forgive us! The joyful result of this is expressed perfectly in the words of King David (who lived long before Christ but had faith that God would eventually provide a Saviour to bring about His forgiveness):
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity… (Psalm 32:1–2).
The Righteousness of God
To summarise, God forgiving people for their sins is how He has offered to reconcile the world to Himself. The question ‘What did Jesus Christ have to do with reconciling the world to God?’ can now become ‘What did Jesus Christ have to do with God forgiving people for their sins?’ To explore this question, it will be helpful to continue reading the passage with which we started:
God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them… He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:19, 21 NASB).
The passage involves two different individuals (God and Jesus Christ) who are both called ‘He’/ ‘him’ so it might be helpful first of all to clarify who is being spoken of each time ‘He’ and ‘him’ are mentioned.
He [God] made him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him [Christ].
What does it mean that Christ ‘knew no sin’? What does Christ being ‘sin on our behalf’ mean? How does this result in someone becoming ‘the righteousness of God’?
Made Sin on Our Behalf
Almost every person who has ever lived has sinned against God. The Apostle Paul sums it up like this: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But it is clear from elsewhere in the Bible that there was one exception to this statement: the Lord Jesus Christ. What sets Jesus apart from any man or woman who has ever lived is that he never once did anything that was wrong in the eyes of God—he never sinned. This is absolutely astonishing and becomes even more so through experience —when we attempt to follow Christ’s perfect example and we realise just how frequently we sin. As the sinlessness of Christ is so astounding, it is not surprising it is mentioned in several different places in the New Testament. For example:
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth (1 Peter 2:22).
And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin (1 John 3:5).
Based on the above passages, it is evident that the statement that Jesus ‘knew no sin’ is a further declaration about the sinlessness of Jesus. But if he ‘knew no sin’, what does it mean that he was made to ‘be sin on our behalf’?
If you do something ‘on someone’s behalf’ it means you do it for that person’s benefit or support, or because you are representing their interests.
The punishment for those who sin is twofold: suffering
and death. You can read how it all started in the Garden of Eden in Genesis
chapter 3. Jesus was born with the same nature that we have: a nature that
wants to do its own thing regardless of God’s law. But Jesus was wholly
obedient, and he surrendered his life as a sacrifice to save us from sin. He
died a public and excrutiating death, to show us how awful sin really is and to
encourage us to turn away from sin and turn to God. He did not deserve to experience
the punishments of scourging and crucifixion, but he voluntarily submitted to
them in order to save
others—Jesus’ life was the embodiment of self-sacrificial love.
Sharing Christ’s Victory
In the act of a sinless man dying, the relationship between sin and death was fundamentally altered. Because Jesus never sinned and instead lived a perfect life, God raised him from the dead to live for ever! Jesus is the first human being to have been made immortal; and now that he has experienced this phenomenal transformation, God is willing to extend His salvation to us as well, even though we ‘have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’.
When a person is baptised, they are associated with Jesus—both with his death and with his resurrection from the dead. (This is explained in detail in Romans chapter 6.) This allows us to share in his victory over sin and death; we can then rejoice in the hope of eternal life!
By having faith in Christ and by being baptised into him, we can be ‘credited with righteousness’.
But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account” (Romans 4:5–8 NASB).
For such believers, God no longer looks at them as disobedient sinners who deserve His wrath but as beloved children who have peace with Him because of what His Son accomplished by ‘becoming sin’ on their behalf. In this sense, believers become ‘the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21): through faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Once we have been reconciled to God, we will still sin frequently. However, providing these are sins that are reluctantly committed—sins of weakness for which we ask forgiveness, rather than wilfully choosing to disobey God without asking forgiveness—we can be sure of God’s continual and abounding forgiveness.
If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet
walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth… If we confess our
sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us
from all unrighteousness
(1 John 1:6, 9).
We have looked at some profound topics, such as why the world needed to be reconciled to God, how God’s forgiveness is the means by which He has offered us reconciliation to Him, and how Jesus Christ is integral to God’s forgiveness and salvation. Though we will no doubt be left with plenty of questions and areas to explore further, the big picture is that God sending His Son Jesus to die is the ultimate expression of His love towards His creation. Christ’s death and resurrection from the dead was the means by which God has offered reconciliation to Him for all who are willing to accept His unspeakably gracious gift. The Apostle Paul summarises the blessed state of the baptised believer in Christ:
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly… God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation (Romans 5: 6–11).
* Usually in Glad Tidings we use the New King James Version of the Bible (NKJV). This quote is taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The two Bible versions say the same thing, but this verse reads more easily in the NASB.