The Gospel and the Great Exchange1
Ask an average congregation of Christians gathered on a Sunday morning, “What is the Gospel?” and you will be amazed by the array of answers.
“Well,” says one, “the Gospel is God’s commitment to the poor and oppressed of the earth. The good news is that God wants to bring liberation to those in bondage to social injustice.” Yes, that is definitely good news and God is committed to bringing liberation to the captive poor. But that is not the Gospel.
“OK,” says another, “I’ve always believed that the Gospel is to love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, mind, and will, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Well, that’s a critically important commandment in Scripture and we are certainly responsible for loving God and neighbor, but that’s not the Gospel.
I’ve heard some suggest that the Gospel is the power God provides to help us move beyond self-contempt into a healthy sense of self-esteem. Whatever else one may say about that, it certainly is not what the NT has in view when it speaks of the Gospel.
Then again, I hear often today that the Gospel is God’s purpose to restore creation to its pristine condition, as it was in Eden before the Fall of Adam. The Gospel, so they say, is the good news that God will eventually bring justice to bear in the earth and eliminate all environmental pollution caused by sin and subdue every enemy of the kingdom. Well, yes, God will one day do all that in the new heavens and the new earth. But I still don’t think that’s what the NT means by the Gospel.
Perhaps we could say that all these things I’ve mentioned, or at least most of them, are the consequences of the Gospel. But they are not the content or core of the Gospel. They are the effects of the Gospel, but not its essence.
So, what, then, is the Gospel? No better or briefer answer is given to us than the one we find in 1 Peter 3:18a – “For Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”
The Gospel, in brief, is the gracious and redemptive work that God has accomplished through his Son Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection, whereby the sin and guilt that alienated us from God and made us subject to his wrath and judgment has been overcome. That is the good news we proclaim. That is what Peter describes ever so briefly here in 3:18.
Notice five things Peter says about the death of Jesus that sets him apart from every other death of every other person.
(1) When Jesus suffered, he suffered “for sins”.
The words “for sins” = literally, “concerning” sins, with regard to sins, which is to say, because of sins and as a substitutionary sacrifice bearing the penalty that our sins merited or deserved. Cf. 1 Peter 2:24.
Christ died because of my “sins” in the capacity of one who took the penalty for them upon himself. If it was because of my sins and your sins that he suffered and died, then this must be what has separated all of us from God. The greatest threat to my soul, then, is not Satan, or big government, or low self-esteem. The greatest threat is my own sin. My greatest need, therefore, is for someone to address this problem and by doing so to bridge the chasm between me and God. Isaiah 59:2, "Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God."
It is only because Jesus has died for my sins that I don’t have to.
(2) When Jesus suffered for sins, he suffered only “once” and for all time.
This single word that Peter uses here, translated “once,” points to the finality of Christ’s death and therefore the sufficiency of his death. There was nothing defective in his death. He left nothing undone. The sacrifice he made for you and me was altogether perfect. There is no need for it to be repeated.
Listen carefully to what the author of the book of Hebrews said concerning this. Listen to how often he speaks of it and how emphatically he makes the point:
“For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (7:26-27).
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, . . . he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (9:11-12).
“Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (9:25-28).
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (10:11-14).
If he offered this sacrifice of himself only once, then nothing you or I do could ever do would put him back on the cross to do it all over again. That one offering of himself to suffer our death was enough. Enough! Enough! Once for all time! Never again! Once! Enough!
(3) When Jesus suffered for sins, it was as a righteous person dying in the place of unrighteous people.
Although he suffered for sins, they were not his own! He is the only person who has lived and died who didn’t suffer for his own sins.
The death of Jesus will mean nothing to you, will make no sense to you, unless you affirm both halves of this statement. You must know that you are “unrighteous” and that he is not. If you hold yourself in high regard, and think of yourself only as a victim of the unrighteousness of others and not a guilty sinner in your own right, you will find no need for the death of Jesus.
This is generally the situation with the world at large. They envision themselves as filled with shame, but not guilt. They do not see themselves as “unrighteous” because they do not see themselves in relation to the one true God who is infinitely righteous.
As I’ve often said, the most difficult thing in getting people saved is in first getting them lost!
And you must see Jesus as righteous, as undeserving of death, as perfect and pure.
But wait a minute! We have to address a massive issue that virtually stares at us from within this passage. When Peter says that the “righteous” person has died in the place of “unrighteous” people, does that not strike you as a colossal miscarriage of justice?
Our legal system is based on the timeless principle that “righteous” people should not be punished for crimes or sins they have not committed. Equally essential to our system of justice is that “unrighteous” or guilty people should indeed be made to suffer for their crimes and sins. So how is it that we as Christians rejoice and celebrate in the idea of a sinless and righteous man suffering and dying and enduring the penalty that should have been inflicted on unrighteous men and women? Does this not seem like a miscarriage of justice, a massive mistake in which the rule of law has been utterly abandoned?
Several things need to be said in response.
First, it would have been a miscarriage of justice only if the penalty of the law had been ignored altogether. For God to have given us his eternal moral law and to have made it clear that violation of that law requires punishment, only then to simply set aside the penalty and ignore what the law demands would truly be a violation and miscarriage of justice. But that is not what happened. The penalty of the law was indeed fully inflicted. It is just that it was inflicted on Jesus Christ, our substitute, rather than upon us.
According to Psalm 103:10, God “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” The reason he does not deal with us according to our transgressions and repay us according to our iniquities isn’t because he has ignored the demands of his law or simply waved the wand of mercy and made it all disappear. It is because he dealt with Jesus Christ, his Son and our substitute, according to our transgressions and repaid him what our iniquities deserved.
Second, this would have been a miscarriage of justice were it not for the fact that Jesus died as our substitute voluntarily. He willingly and joyfully offered up himself in our place. He was not forced or coerced or compelled against his will (see John 10:14-18).
Third, the way this all happened is through what theologians call imputation. The guilt that was ours was imputed or reckoned to Jesus, or accounted as his, in the sense that when he hung on the cross he was treated and punished as if he were in fact the one who committed our sins and was thus deserving of our punishment. But remember, he embraced this voluntarily. His love for us was so deep and profound that he happily took up our burden.
The other side of imputation is that just as our guilt was imputed to Christ and he was punished accordingly, his righteousness was imputed to us and we are blessed and rewarded accordingly! Just as Jesus was reckoned as guilty, we are reckoned as righteous. Our sins were imputed to him. His righteousness was imputed to us!
This is what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther called “The Great Exchange!” Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
To be continued . . .