“For our sake [God the Father] made [Jesus the Son] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21, ESV)
This verse expresses the beautiful doctrine of substitutionary atonement: Jesus dies for, and, in the place of, sinners. At the cross, Jesus is treated as sinful as a sinner bearing the full weight of the wrath of God, and sinners who trust Jesus are treated just as righteous as Jesus is. As a result of the death and resurrection of Christ, God no longer counts sinners sins against them but counts them righteous (5:19).
Some have called this The Great Exchange: Jesus takes my sin and I receive his righteousness. Others think this is far too transactional and even some have called it a legal fiction because sinners are named what they in reality are not, namely, righteous. Regardless of these critiques, the weight of this text stands, and The Great Exchange and the imputation of an alien righteousness that belongs to Jesus is given to sinners so that God views those who trust Jesus as pure and blameless in his sight.
Don’t simply engage in developing a good theology of justification and lose the experience and daily benefits of adoption and reconciliation.
But there is something else at work here too. Substitutionary atonement is not only transactional, but is also thoroughly relational. If you are a Christian, you don’t have righteousness like you have a handful of one hundred dollar bills in your hand. You are righteous. This takes place at the level of your identity not at the level of your pocket. New Testament scholar David Garland writes,
“We do not simply have righteousness from God, we are the righteousness of God as a result of being in Christ.” [2 Corinthians, NAC, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishers, 1999), 302. Emphasis added.]
Your identity itself is caught up in Jesus himself, because you have been placed in him. God has not only initiated The Great Exchange but also The Great Reconciliation. You are not simply a beneficiary of money or credit from the family estate, but you are tightly knit to and in relationship with the Father. Not only did God conduct a transaction, but he also created a new creation and made enemies friends through reconciliation (5:17-18). In Jesus God has made sinful rebels sons of God. Garland puts it this way:
The judge enters into a personal relationship with the accused. This is necessary because the judge is the one who has been sinned against and is the focus of the personal hostility. God does not simply make a bookkeeping alteration by dropping the charges against us. God gives himself to us in friendship. [Ibid., 290]
Jesus work on the cross is transactional and personal. Yes, you are righteous before God and you are also friends of God. God is Judge and God is Father. He is your “Abba”. Don’t simply engage in developing a good theology of justification and lose the experience and daily benefits of adoption and reconciliation. God has accomplished The Great Exchange and made you righteous to give you the enjoyment of The Great Reconciliation by making you friends.