2 Cor. 5:21 says this: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (ESV)
When we sing the song “Jesus, Messiah”, we sing an abbreviated version of that verse: “He became sin, who knew no sin, that we might become His righteousness.” Now, I love the song. It contains several other direct Scripture references. For instance, the very next line of the song (“He humbled Himself, and carried the cross…”) is a direct reference to Philippians 2:8. In many songs that contain direct Scripture reference, though, words can be left out for the sake of lyrical flow. Such is the case here.
Notice how the original verse begins with 3 dumbfounding words: “for our sake…” Pause for a moment and let that sink in.
For our sake, He (God the Father) made Him (Jesus the Son) to be sin. “God regarded and treated “our” sin (the sin of all who would believe in Christ) as if our sin belonged not to us but to Christ himself.” (ESV study Bible note) Thus begins a direct, concise statement of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Christ died for us, having received in Himself the punishment for sins that He never committed. Again, the ESV study Bible says it well: Christ took our sin upon himself and, as our substitute, thereby bore the wrath of God (the punishment that we deserve) in our place (“for our sake”).
Where else in Scripture do we see this kind of description of Christ’s work on our behalf? Well, look first to Isaiah 53. Several verses, quoted below, make similar statements of this staggering, humbling truth. (Note that the word for “sin” is translated in several different ways, highlighted in bold italics.)
As a devotional thought, before reading each of these verses, say “for our sake, in our place.”
“surely he has born our griefs” (Isa. 53:4); “He was crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5); “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6); “he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11); “he bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12).
So then, Christ, as a substitute for us (“for our sake”) has paid the penalty for our sins. A few verses earlier, Paul says this: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV) Our newness of life was purchased through a death: the death of a sinless, perfect Savior. As we rejoice in our position as new creations in Christ, let us never lose the impact, the sobering impact of the cost paid for our new life. “For our sake…”