2 Corinthians 5:18 – 6:3
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. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 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. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6 Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
When the First Adam rebelled against his Creator, he did so with his eyes wide open. He made a calculated decision. He let his own wife be the lab rat to observe what would happen to her when she followed the advice of the serpent-dragon. He began to see God as less than good and disregarded God’s command. But nothing appeared to happen to Eve. So, Adam also decided that God must be less than trustworthy because Eve clearly remained alive. He joined into that sacramental meal with the serpent-dragon in their newly-invented religion of self-trust and self-worship.
His act split heaven and earth apart. It split him apart from both God and his wife. Moses writes that the first consequence of their new religion was shame. In an attempt to cure their shame, they sewed together fig leaves to cover over their shame. When they heard the voice of God, they ran away separately – every man for himself. They were cut off from God, the source of peace and safety and unity. They were cut off from one another. Eve followed the serpent-dragon. Adam followed Eve, and nobody followed God. The result was total cosmic rebellion. “In an instant the original couple had passed from life to death, from sinlessness to sin, from intimacy to alienation.”
From that moment on, Adam’s condition became the condition of every man, woman, and child that followed. All of us were born separated from God and entirely reliant on ourselves and entirely unreconciled to the One, True, Covenant, Creator God. Just like Adam, our rebellion is not a minor misunderstanding that requires some reasoning together.
Rebellion against the Creator is a radical, incessant, deadly condition. Its consequences do not merely involve only us as individuals. God has responded to our rebellious condition with wrath and judgment. We are not merely at odds with God. God is at odds with us and decreed us to live under the sentence of physical death and the eternally-executed sentence of his wrath. Paul wrote to the congregations of Rome (Rom. 1:18), “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
The two great realities (our rebellion, God’s wrath) frame our text this morning. As one scholar explains it, “This passage is the crux of the exposition of the apostolic office (2:14–7:4) and of the entire letter. It is a message on a grand scale. The God of the cosmos and of history has reconciled rebellious humankind to himself through the “one” (v. 14) whom he “made sin,” on account of whom trespasses are no longer reckoned (vv. 19, 21). The “righteousness of God” imputed to those who are “in Christ” is the basis of their reconciliation to God.”
This is THE great text on our reconciliation with God. The word “reconcile” is used in either its verb or noun forms five times in these seven verses.
GOD DOES IT (5:18-20)
Last week I repeated the statement, “If it’s good, God did it. If it’s bad, man did it.” Is being reconciled to God a good thing? Yes. Who does it, man, or God? GOD DOES IT. God is the creator of the messenger (Paul), the ministry, and the message of reconciliation. This passage is entirely God-centered. God is the mover behind every instance of reconciliation in these verses!
Paul describes the ministry of reconciliation in verse 19, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” Reconciliation is NOT something we do. It is something God has done, and we receive. The ministry of reconciliation is NOT telling people to reconcile themselves to God but announcing to them that God has made peace with the world. As he wrote in Romans, Paul noted:
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. 
Humans are not called to make peace with God. That is God’s work from start to finish! The method God uses is “reckoning” – counting, imputing – God “not counting their trespasses against them” (5:19, which will be explained in v. 21). God sees, God judges, but he does not reckon that sin to those trusting into the person and work of Christ. He reckons our sin not to us but to Christ, our substitute!
Paul is defending his apostolic office and the very heart of the gospel message at the same time. It’s likely the false teachers were denying (at least to some extent) that God the Father imputed, reckoned, our sin to Christ. Further, as we know, they were alleging Paul was not a real apostle. Paul, having been entrusted with the message of reconciliation, uses a strong analogy to describe his apostolic ministry. He uses the example of an ancient ambassador, an imperial legate of the Roman Empire – someone of great authority to act in place of the emperor.
Like an imperial legate, Paul did not speak out of his own authority. He did not invent his own message; it came directly from Messiah Jesus. Paul stood in the place of Christ, exercising Christ’s authority. That meant that what Paul spoke, God was speaking through Paul. This was the reality of an apostle called directly by God the Son. When Paul appealed to the Corinthians, it was Christ making the appeal, not Paul.
Paul Barnett writes, “Paul’s is a momentous assertion, analogous to the declaration of the OT prophet, “Thus says Yahweh.” He is claiming for the apostle the same authority as a prophet like Isaiah. Paul’s appeal—which is God’s appeal—expresses in its own way the apostolic nonresignation, the revelation, the breaking forth of light referred to earlier (4:1, 2, 6).”
Paul’s message pulsed with divine conviction. His passion was God’s passion. His teaching was God’s teaching. “20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Paul’s enthusiastic plea is not “reconcile yourselves to God” but “be reconciled” (passive) – be reconciled BY God. Receive God’s offer of reconciliation. As God’s ambassador, Paul is making a peace offering from God to humanity. Christ’s atoning, substitutionary death brings reconciliation, peace with God (Rom. 5:1-11).
This offer was not given only to Paul as his message. The prophet Isaiah announced it centuries before Paul, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”  Only the person and work of the Man of Sorrows can bring peace with God. No amount of arranging our own flesh can bring peace. No fig leaves we wear can take away our guilt and shame. The gospel is not “reconcile yourselves.” The gospel, the good news, is that we receive reconciliation from God alone. Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe.
HOW GOD DOES IT (5:21)
How does the perfect, holy God accomplish reconciliation with sinful mankind? Paul proclaims, “21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Those 15 words in the Greek text draw us into the mystery of how God reconciles himself to us. It’s not a puzzle, but the ultimate solution of all earthly puzzles. It is the keystone of all apostolic teaching. The reconciling love of God is THE beacon in a dark and sin-cursed creation. “Nothing could be clearer than that Christ—crucified and risen (vv. 14–15)—is the locus and the means of fulfilling God’s purposes for history, humanity, and the world and creation.”
This verse explains how the “one”/ “he” effectively “died for all,” how he revealed his “love” for them (vv. 14–15), how eschatologically and personally a “new creation” occurs “in Christ” (v. 17), and how God reconciled the apostle/his people/the world to himself (vv. 18–19). Above all, the vicarious death of Christ in v. 21 provides the emotional and spiritual basis for the heart-rending appeal of the previous verse. That God made the Sinless One sin for us leaves sinful ones like the Corinthians, and all readers since, with no real alternative but to heed the apostolic call, “Be reconciled to God.”
The first clause of this sentence is the most explicit statement in scripture of the sinlessness of the Lord Jesus Christ: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin….” Jesus Christ knew no sin. There are other scriptures that announce this fact. 1 Peter 2:22 reads, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (see also: Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 1 John 3:5; Romans 5:19; 8:3). Jesus was born of a sinful woman. He was a human being. And yet, at every moment of his 33 years of earthly life, he knew no sin. He was conscious of the fact that he was sinless (Jn. 8:46). Yet even though he was without sin, he became sin for us.
Scripture does not say the Father made Jesus to be a sinner. That would destroy the ground of our redemption since a perfect sacrifice demands a perfect substitute. So how did Jesus, who never stopped being sinless, become “sin”? Some scholars suggest that Paul simply means Jesus was a “sin offering.” Certainly, he was that since he was the Lamb of God who fulfilled all the Old Testament laws of sacrifice and their promises. But there is more depth here than we normally contemplate.
Paul is writing more than that Christ was made a sin offering, but less than Christ became a sinner. Because of Jesus’ connection with our sin, including its deep shame, crushing guilt, and separation from God the Father, Paul can proclaim, “God made him…to be sin for us.” Inwardly and outwardly, the savior was impeccable even as he became sin as our substitute and perfect sacrifice. This happened in three dark hours while hanging on a cross outside Jerusalem in the shadow of God’s temple and one the temple mount.
Every attempt to explain this great exchange (our sin imputed to Christ; his righteousness imputed to us) fails in the face of the glorious mystery. But we can still fish for a few analogies to help us. Think of Christ’s heart as a bottomless lake hemmed in by the smoldering festering volcanic mountains of our sin. Then imagine that putrid lava flowing into the lake until the volcanoes are spent and the lava has disappeared forever. Or think of a magnifying glass. If held in the sunshine, you can focus the rays of the sun, concentrating its light, and burn pieces of paper or leaves. Our sins were focused on Christ like light through a magnifying glass, and he suffered the fiery wrath of God for each and every one of them –even the ones we don’t remember or of which we have never even been aware.
Hanging on the cross, Christ was clothed with the dead, scratching fig leaves of our sad attempts to regain the holiness that the First Adam destroyed. Wave after wave of our sinful corruption assaulted his sinless soul. Over and over, he recoiled in horror, convulsed by every lie we have thought or told, all of our hatreds, all our jealous coveting, all our false pride, every droplet of our wicked plans and horrid thoughts splattered his perfect purity. There is no sin you have ever done or will ever think, do, or say with which the Savior was not intimately acquainted. He knows ALL your sins more intimately than you ever could. Yet, out of pure, holy love for you he willingly took them upon himself.
God said the very worst things about you at the cross. And each and every thing he said was perfectly true. There is nothing any other person can say about you, no matter how horrible, that God did not say about you as he sacrificed Christ in your place. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). Look with the eyes of faith and you will see him writhing like a snake, lifted up for our sins to draw all men to him (Jn. 3:14-15). The Son of Man in full, lucid consciousness, took on your sins and mine and bore them in full understanding and pain that none of us can fully know. And he did it willingly.
Paul gives the purpose of this mysterious act in verse 21b, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Not only were our sins imputed, reckoned to Christ, his righteousness was imputed, reckoned to us who trust into his person and work. God reconciles us to himself by reckoning our sin to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to us. This is the great exchange, and it’s more than a mere legal declaration. It is certainly a legal declaration. But it also the means for our transfer from an old creation into the new creation where we begin to live righteously because God has declared us righteous and given us the Holy Spirit as the guarantee of our new citizenship.
Living as a citizen of the new creation was a great concern for Paul. It means living out our earthly lives in view of our unearned, declared righteousness to be fully revealed at the final judgment (5:10). It means serving God because we recognize that Christ has purchased us off the auction block so that we are no longer slaves to our sinful flesh. It means no longer regarding Christ or anyone else according to the flesh. It means seeing all our brothers and sisters in Christ as new creations. It means living out our freedom from the fleshly urge to sin because, in Christ, we have made the exodus from bondage (5:17) and truly become “the righteousness of God” (5:21).
WHAT WE DO WITH IT (6:1-2)
In 6:1-2, Paul ends his discourse on reconciliation with an exhortation: “Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Paul uses Isaiah 49:8 as his source material. Through Isaiah, God promises Israel’s restoration. Paul says God’s restoration of Israel comes to Jew and Gentile alike by our being made part of the new creation in Messiah Jesus. Isaiah’s promised day of salvation has come by means of the reconciliation of Christ’s cross work. There are not separate days of salvation for Jew and Gentile. There is only one means of reconciliation and God alone has done all the work necessary. The Corinthians should not let false apostles lead them into a vain, “Jesus plus my working Jewish faith” false religion. Doing so leads them away from their true opportunity for salvation by grace alone.
Kent Hughes, in his preaching commentary, writes:
The day of salvation is here. How unthinkable that they might “receive the grace of God in vain.” How tragic is the thought that they might at one time have given apparent assent to Paul’s proclamation, but now through unbelief and disobedience the wonders of the new covenant (with the new creation in Christ and the ultimate exodus from bondage) were being nullified. Paul was saying, you have been assenting to God’s saving purposes; do not let it be in vain.
Paul amps up the urgency of his appeal by twice inviting them to “behold,” or “look.” “Look, now is the favorable time; look, now is the day of salvation.” He makes this appeal to several of the subgroups within the Corinthian congregation: the newly-arrived Judaizers (2:17–3:1; 5:11–13; 11:13–23), his super-spiritual prophecy and tongues critics (10:3–7), and those who remain perilously involved with the pagan cults of Corinth (6:14–7:1). If the Corinthians continue to regard Paul according to the flesh, they will naturally assume his message of the “grace of God” is merely one perspective among many. What they initially received with joy they will have received in vain if they reject Paul as God’s apostolic prophet.
It’s tempting to wonder if these factions in the Corinthian church bruised Paul’s ego. After all, he was still human. But Paul did not believe his ego was what was at stake. What was at stake for them, and is at stake for us, is this: as an apostle, his words are the very words of God. If there were people in Corinth who had heard him preach and once accepted his words but then turned away to another gospel, those people are in grave danger of being lost.
There is nothing more tragic than to see someone initially respond joyfully and enthusiastically to the message of reconciling grace only to be distracted and wander off into the weeds of false doctrine and moral decay. It is equally tragic to watch young people grow up hearing the gospel faithfully preached in the divine service and taught in Sunday School and yet never come to trust the person and work of the crucified, risen, ascended, and glorified Messiah Jesus. Many appear as if they will continue their entire lives without ever responding in trust of God’s reconciliation.
For them, we pray the grace of God will not be in vain. As for you, I appeal to you as one who speaks in the place of Christ, do not receive his words in vain. Look! Now is the time. Now is the day of salvation.
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 5:18–6:2.
 Hughes, R. Kent. 2 Corinthians. Crossway. Kindle Edition.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 1:18.
 Barnett, 300. Emphasis added.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 5:10–11.
 Barnett, 311.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 53:5.
 Barnett, 302.
 Id., 315.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Pe 2:22.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ga 3:13.
 Hughes, op. cit.
 Barnett, 317.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Re 22:17.