The Heart of the Gospel
Scripture References are from the ESV translation, copyright 2001.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV).
THE heart of the Gospel is redemption, and the essence of redemption is the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ. They who preach this truth preach the Gospel in whatever else they may be mistaken; but they who preach not the atonement, whatever else they declare, have missed the soul and substance of the divine message. In these days, I feel bound to go over and over again the elementary truths of the Gospel. In peaceful times, we may feel free to make excursions into interesting districts of truth that lie far afield; but now we must stay at home and guard the hearths and homes of the church by defending the first principles of the faith. In this age, there have risen up in the church itself men who speak perverse things. There be many that trouble us with their philosophies and novel interpretations, whereby they deny the doctrines they profess to teach and undermine the faith they are pledged to maintain. It is well that some of us, who know what we believe and have no secret meanings for our words, should just put our foot down and maintain our standing, holding forth the Word of life and plainly declaring the foundation truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...I have no desire to be famous for anything but preaching the old Gospel. There are plenty who can fiddle to you the new music. It is for me to have no music at any time but that which is heard in heaven: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Rev 1:5-6).
I have found, my brethren, by long experience that nothing touches the heart like the cross of Christ. When the heart is touched and wounded by the two-edged sword of the Law, nothing heals its wounds like the balm that flows from the pierced heart of Jesus. The cross is life to the spiritually dead...When we see men quickened, converted, and sanctified by the doctrine of the substitutionary sacrifice, we may justly conclude that it is the true doctrine of atonement. I have not known men made to live unto God and holiness except by the doctrine of the death of Christ on man’s behalf. Hearts of stone that never beat with life before have been turned to flesh through the Holy Spirit causing them to know this truth...The story of the great Lover of the souls of men Who gave Himself for their salvation is still, in the hand of the Holy Ghost, the greatest of all forces in the realm of mind.
FIRST, THEN, WITH AS MUCH BREVITY AS POSSIBLE, I WILL SPEAK UPON THE GREAT DOCTRINE. The great doctrine, the greatest of all, is this: God, seeing men to be lost by reason of their sin, hath taken that sin of theirs and laid it upon His only begotten Son, making Him to be sin for us, even Him Who knew no sin. In consequence of this transference of sin, he that believeth in Christ Jesus is made just and righteous, yea, is made to be the righteousness of God in Christ. Christ was made sin that sinners might be made righteousness. That is the doctrine of the substitution of our Lord Jesus Christ on the behalf of guilty men.
Now consider, first, who was made sin for us? The description of our great Surety here given is upon one point only, and it may more than suffice us for our present meditation. Our substitute was spotless, innocent, and pure. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,” Christ Jesus, the Son of God, became incarnate—made flesh—and dwelt here among men; but though He was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, He knew no sin. Though upon Him sin was laid, yet not so as to make Him guilty. He was not, He could not be a sinner: He had no personal knowledge of sin. Throughout the whole of His life, He never committed an offense against the great Law of truth and right. The Law was in His heart. It was His nature to be holy. He could say to all the world, “Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? ” (John 8:46). Even His vacillating judge enquired, “And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” (Mat 27:23). When all Jerusalem was challenged and bribed to bear witness against Him, no witnesses could be found. It was necessary to misquote and wrest His words before a charge could be trumped up against Him by His bitterest enemies. His life brought Him in contact with both the Tables of the Law, but no single command had He transgressed. As the Jews examined the Paschal lamb before they slew it, so did scribes and Pharisees, and doctors of the Law, and rulers and princes examine the Lord Jesus without finding offense in Him. He was the Lamb of God, without blemish and without spot.
As there was no sin of commission, so was there about our Lord no fault of omission. Probably, dear brethren, we that are believers have been enabled by divine grace to escape most sins of commission; but I for one have to mourn daily over sins of omission. If we have spiritual graces, yet they do not reach the point required of us. If we do that which is right in itself, yet we usually mar our work...either in the motive, in the manner of doing it, or by the self-satisfaction with which we view it when it is done. We come short of the glory of God in some respect or other. We forget to do what we ought to do, or, doing it, we are guilty of lukewarmness, self-reliance, unbelief, or some other grievous error. It was not so with our divine Redeemer. You cannot say that there was any feature deficient in His perfect beauty. He was complete in heart, in purpose, in thought, in word, in deed, in spirit...No pearl has dropped from the silver string of His character. No one virtue has overshadowed and dwarfed the rest: all perfections combine in perfect harmony to make in Him one surpassing perfection.
Neither did our Lord know a sin of thought. His mind never produced an evil wish or desire. There never was in the heart of our blessed Lord a wish for any evil pleasure, nor a desire to escape any suffering or shame that was involved in His service. When He said, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” He never desired to escape the bitter potion at the expense of His perfect lifework. The “if it be possible” meant “if it be consistent with full obedience to the Father, and the accomplishment of the divine purpose.” We see the weakness of His nature shrinking and the holiness of His nature resolving and conquering as He adds, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Mat 26:39). He took upon Him the likeness of sinful flesh, but though that flesh often caused Him weariness of body, it never produced in Him the weakness of sin. He took our infirmities, but He never exhibited an infirmity that had the least of blameworthiness attached to it. Never fell there an evil glance from those blessed eyes. Never did His lips let drop a hasty word. Never did those feet go on an ill errand or those hands move towards a sinful deed. Because His heart was filled with holiness and love within as well as without, our Lord was unblemished. His desires were as perfect as His actions. Searched by the eyes of Omniscience, no shadow of fault could be found in Him.
Yea, more, there were no tendencies about our Substitute towards evil in any form. In us, there are always those tendencies, for the taint of original sin is upon us. We have to govern ourselves and hold ourselves under stern restraint, or we should rush headlong to destruction. Our carnal nature lusteth to evil and needs to be held in as with bit and bridle. Happy is that man who can master himself. But with regard to our Lord, it was His nature to be pure, right, and loving. All His sweet wills were towards goodness. His unconstrained life was holiness itself: He was “the holy child Jesus.” The prince of this world found in Him no fuel for the flame that he desired to kindle. Not only did no sin flow from Him, but there was no sin in Him, or inclination, or tendency in that direction. Watch Him in secret, and you find Him in prayer. Look into His soul, and you find Him eager to do and suffer the Father’s will. Oh, the blessed character of Christ! If I had the tongues of men and of angels, I could not worthily set forth His absolute perfection! Justly may the Father be well pleased with Him! Well may heaven adore Him!
Beloved, it was absolutely necessary that anyone who should be able to suffer in our stead should himself be spotless. A sinner obnoxious to punishment because of his own offenses—what can he do but bear the wrath that is due to his own sin? Our Lord Jesus Christ as man was made under the Law; but He owed nothing to that Law, for He perfectly fulfilled it in all respects. He was capable of standing in the room, place, and stead of others because He was under no obligations of His own. He was only under obligations towards God because He had voluntarily undertaken to be the surety and sacrifice for those whom the Father gave Him. He was clear Himself, or else He could not have entered into bonds for guilty men.
Oh, how I admire Him! That being such as He was—spotless and thrice holy, so that even the heavens were not pure in His sight, and He charged His angels with folly—yet He condescended to be made sin for us! How could He endure to be numbered with the transgressor and bear the sin of many? It may be no misery for a sinful man to live with sinful men, but it would be a heavy sorrow for the pure-minded to dwell with a company of abandoned and licentious wretches. What an overwhelming sorrow it must have been to the pure and perfect Christ to tabernacle among the hypocritical, the selfish, and the profane! How much worse that He Himself should have to take upon Himself the sins of those guilty men! His sensitive and delicate nature must have shrunk from even the shadow of sin, and yet read the words and be astonished: “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin.” Our perfect Lord and Master bare our sins in His own body on the tree. He, before Whom the sun itself is dim and the pure azure of heaven is defilement, was made sin. I need not put this in fine words: the fact is itself too grand to need any magnifying by human language. To gild refined gold or paint the lily would be absurd, but much more absurd would it be to try to overlay with flowers of speech the matchless beauties of the cross.
THIS LEADS ME ON TO THE SECOND POINT...WHAT WAS DONE WITH HIM WHO KNEW NO SIN? He was “made sin.” It is a wonderful expression: the more you weigh it, the more you will marvel at its singular strength. Only the Holy Ghost might originate such language. It was wise for the divine Teacher to use very strong expressions, for else the thought might not have entered human minds. Even now, despite the emphasis, clearness, and distinctness of the language used here and elsewhere in Scripture, there are found men daring enough to deny that substitution is taught in Scripture. With such subtle wits, it is useless to argue. It is clear that language has no meaning for them. To read the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, to accept it as relating to the Messiah, and then to deny His substitutionary sacrifice is simply wickedness. It would be vain to reason with such beings: they are so blind that if they were transported to the sun they could not see. In the church and out of the church there is a deadly animosity to this truth. Modern thought labors to get away from what is obviously the meaning of the Holy Spirit that sin was lifted from the guilty and laid upon the innocent. It is written, “and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:6). This is as plain language as can be used; but if any plainer was required, here it is, “For our sake he made him to be sin.”
The Lord God laid upon Jesus, Who voluntarily undertook it, all the weight of human sin. Instead of its resting on the sinner, who did commit it, it was made to rest upon Christ, Who did not commit it. And the righteousness that Jesus wrought out was placed to the account of the guilty, who had not worked it out, so that the guilty are treated as righteous. Those who by nature are guilty are regarded as righteous, while He who by nature knew no sin whatever was treated as guilty. I think I must have read in scores of books that such a transference is impossible. But the statement has had no effect upon my mind: I do not care whether it is impossible or not with learned unbelievers. It is evidently possible with God, for He has done it. But they say it is contrary to reason. I do not care for that either: it may be contrary to the reason of those unbelievers, but it is not contrary to mine...God saith it and I believe it. And believing it, I find life and comfort in it. Shall I not preach it? Assuredly, I will...Christ was not guilty and could not be made guilty. But He was treated as if He were guilty because He willed to stand in the place of the guilty. Yea, He was not only treated as a sinner, but He was treated as if He had been sin itself in the abstract. This is an amazing utterance! The sinless One was made to be sin.
Sin pressed our great Substitute very sorely. He felt the weight of it in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He sweat “and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44). The full pressure of it came upon Him when He was nailed to the accursed tree. There in the hours of darkness, He bore infinitely more than we can tell. We know that He bore condemnation from the mouth of man, so that it is written, “and was numbered with the transgressors” (Isa 53:12)...It was a cruel scorn that exhausted itself upon His blessed Person. This, I say, we know. We know that He bore pains innumerable of body and of mind: He thirsted, He cried out in the agony of desertion, He bled, He died. We know that He poured out His soul unto death and yielded up the ghost. But there was at the back, and beyond all this, an immeasurable abyss of suffering. The Greek Liturgy fitly speaks of “Thine unknown sufferings.” Probably to us they are unknowable sufferings. He was God as well as man. The Godhead lent an omnipotent power to the manhood, so that there was compressed within His soul and endured by it an amount of anguish of which we can form no conception...“He made him to be sin.” Look into the words. Perceive their meaning, if you can. The angels desire to look into it. Gaze into this terrible crystal. Let your eyes search deep into this opal, within whose jeweled depth there are flames of fire. The Lord made the perfectly innocent One to be sin for us. That means more of humiliation, darkness, agony, and death than you can conceive! It brought a kind of distraction and well nigh a destruction to the tender and gentle spirit of our Lord. I do not say that our Substitute endured hell: that were unwarrantable. I will not say that He endured either the exact punishment for sin or an equivalent for it. But I do say that what He endured rendered to the justice of God a vindication of His Law clearer and more effectual than would have been rendered to it by the damnation of the sinners for whom He died. The cross is under many aspects a more full revelation of the wrath of God against human sin than even Tophet and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, (Rev 14:11). Who would know God’s hate of sin must see the Only Begotten bleeding in body and bleeding in soul even unto death. He must, in fact, spell out each word of my text and read its innermost meaning: “he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” Oh depth of terror, and yet height of love!...How acceptable with God must those be who are made by God Himself to be “the righteousness of God in him!” I cannot conceive of anything more complete.
As Christ was made sin and yet never sinned, so are we made righteousness, though we cannot claim to have been righteous in and of ourselves. Sinners though we be, and forced to confess it with grief, yet the Lord doth cover us so completely with the righteousness of Christ that only His righteousness is seen; and we are made the righteousness of God in Him. This is true of all the saints, even of as many as believe on His name. Oh, the splendor of this doctrine! Canst thou see it, my friend? Sinner though thou be and in thyself defiled, deformed, and debased; yet if thou wilt accept the great Substitute that God provides for thee in the Person of His dear Son, thy sins are gone from thee, and righteousness has come to thee. Thy sins were laid on Jesus, the scapegoat! They are thine no longer; He has put them away. I may say that His righteousness is imputed unto thee; but I go further and say with the text, “Thou art made the righteousness of God in him.” No doctrine can be more sweet than this to those who feel the weight of sin and the burden of its curse.
From a sermon delivered on Lord’s Day morning, July 18, 1886, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle