When it comes to discussion about baptism for the forgiveness of sins, most Christians know all the steps of the dance. If we’re studying with a non-Christian and we show them passages like Acts 2:38 and 1 Peter 3:21, one of two things is going to happen. Either they are going to submit to the word of God, or (because of past denominational indoctrination), they are going to hunt for a reason to object.
The most popular objection resides in Luke 23:39-43. “What about the thief on the cross?” they ask. “He wasn’t baptized for the forgiveness of sins, but Jesus told him that he would be with Jesus in paradise.”
I don’t see much basis for the assumption that the thief wasn’t baptized (for all we know, he may have been), but there’s an even more significant problem for the argument than that. It presumes that we find forgiveness of sins through Jesus now in the same way that people did during Jesus’ ministry, and we know for certain that isn’t true.
Consider, for instance, the account of Mark 2:1-12. This story is a favorite in children’s Bible classes because of its dramatic story arc (“They dug a hole in the ROOF and lowered their friend through!”), but the faith of the friends, and even Jesus’ healing of the paralytic, are not the true point of the story. Instead, in Jesus’ own words, all of this is recorded because it establishes that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.
In other words, alone of all people who ever have walked the face of the earth, Jesus could say to somebody, “Your sins are forgiven you,” and it would be true. For anybody else to make such a claim would be blasphemy. For Jesus, it was a statement of fact.
The paralytic is not the only recipient of grace through the spoken word of Jesus. The same thing happens to the sinful woman in Luke 7, another sinful woman in John 8, and Zacchaeus in Luke 19. To that list, we can add another—the thief on the cross. Even granting the assumption that he wasn’t baptized, why did Jesus tell him he would be with Him in paradise? Because the Son of Man had authority on earth to forgive sins.
These stories provide powerful illustrations of the power of the grace of Jesus, but they can’t provide us with a pattern to follow. The Son of Man is no longer on earth. He no longer has conversations with people to tell them that they are forgiven, and no other human being has the authority to issue grace by fiat.
Today, then, rather than presuming that Jesus has forgiven us in the absence of confirmation from Him, we need to look to the pattern of salvation established by His disciples. We cannot expect to hear His voice telling us that our sins are forgiven, but we can expect forgiveness as we submit to His will—through belief, repentance, confession, and baptism.
I don’t enjoy working out. I’m not the same man I was when I was 22, or even when I was 35. I’m about as flexible as a 2x4. My knees hurt. I get embarrassingly sweaty. My conditioning improves slowly and painfully and declines with ridiculous speed.
Nonetheless, several times a week, I steel myself and trudge into the schoolroom to exercise. This is not because I am a masochist and enjoy suffering. Rather, it is because I know that the consequences of not exercising are worse than the pain of exercising.
My weight would skyrocket. My physical fitness would plummet. I wouldn’t be able to play soccer with my son, help brethren move, or go on hikes with my family. As my core strength declined, sooner or later I would do something to blow my back out.
In short, I would rather suffer now and lead the life I want to rather than suffering later and losing things I value. Planting myself on the couch wouldn’t avoid pain. It merely would defer it.
Not surprisingly, our pleasure-loving society prefers not to believe this. Most Americans are self-indulgent and short-sighted, and they are not good at recognizing the holes that they are digging for themselves. The holes are numerous: health holes, financial holes, relationship holes, and spiritual holes. They think that by postponing pain, they are dodging it. Sooner or later, however, the bill comes due, often in crushing fashion.
As Christians, we must be wiser than that, especially when it comes to the things of the Spirit. Nobody ever said that following Jesus would be easy. Indeed, in Matthew 7:13-18, the Lord says the opposite! If we want to inherit eternal life, we are going to have to suffer and give up things we enjoy. If we choose pleasure instead, we will not inherit eternal life.
This is true most obviously of our favorite sins—the ones that enthrall us rather than disgusting us. Maybe it’s a porn habit. Maybe it’s a self-righteousness habit or a gossip habit. Regardless, we can rest assured that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Less obviously, it can be true of people. As Jesus says in 10:37, those who love family more than Him are not worthy of Him. I once baptized a woman on Monday who fell away by Wednesday. She called me and apologetically informed me that she wouldn’t be coming back to church. Her husband had learned that she had been baptized, he flew into a rage, and it was more important to her to keep him happy than to serve God. Anyone who seeks to turn us aside from righteousness is a deadly spiritual danger, no matter how much we love them.
The world’s prescription in these cases is to avoid the pain. Indulge the favorite sin. Placate the godless spouse or friend. Life is too short to be unhappy, after all!
Rather, we should remember that eternity is too long to be unhappy in it. The pleasures of sin are passing, but the pain of separation from God is eternal. We cannot avoid suffering. All we can do is choose when we want to suffer: Here, for the Lord’s sake, or there, for our sins’ sake.
Either way, we will have a long, long time to savor the consequences of our decision.
O Lord, according to Your pledge
Have You dealt well with me;
Teach wisdom to my trusting soul;
Instruct by Your decree.
Before distress, I went astray,
But now I serve with awe;
In heart and action, You are good;
O Lord, teach me Your law!
Though men besmear me with their lies,
I keep to what is right;
Despite the hardness of their hearts,
Your law is my delight.
The grief was good that taught my mind
To hear what You have told!
Your spoken word is better far
Than silver joined with gold!
Suggested tune: BROWN
(“How Sweet, How Heavenly”)
If we are to be honest students of the Bible, we must squarely address not only the passages that conform to our preconceptions but also the ones that challenge them. Most of us would put 2 Corinthians 5:21 in the latter category. Calvinists love 2 Corinthians 5:21 because it appears to support the Calvinist doctrine of imputed righteousness (my sin is imputed to Christ; Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me).
If, on the other hand, we aren’t prepared to accept imputed righteousness and its implications (which are enormous in scope), the straightforward Christ-became-sin reading of the text poses problems for us. Usually, I’ve heard brethren say that rather than becoming sin, Christ became a sin offering for us.
While that’s true, as an interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21, I think it is more convenient than strictly faithful. After all, the text doesn’t say “to be a sin offering”, and I am not aware of any textual basis for so rendering it. It says, “to be sin”.
I am suspicious of rewriting the Bible to avoid the difficulty in difficult passages. It seems like a marvelous way to get into trouble.
Instead, I prefer to resolve the difficulty by considering the apparently less challenging half of the verse. Jesus did [bracketed thing] so that we could become the righteousness of God in Him. So far, so good, except the second half of the statement is not literally true. I am not God’s righteousness. The church is not God’s righteousness. He is ours.
Clearly, Paul is speaking elliptically here, but that leaves open the question of what lies within the ellipsis. We must ask what the relationship is that Christ creates between Christians and the righteousness of God.
Numerous passages answer that question, most notably the discussion in Romans 9:30-10:13. Through Christ, we obtain God’s righteousness. We receive it. Our nature does not change, but He credits righteousness to us on the basis of faith.
Once we’ve figured out the second half of the 2 Corinthians 5:21 parallel, we can return to the first. If “become” carries the elliptical meaning of “receive”, it is contextually likely that “be” carries a similar meaning. Otherwise, the parallel doesn’t balance.
Thus, we ought to read the text as saying that just as we received God’s righteousness, Christ received our sins. This is an uncontroversial statement. 1 Peter 2:24 says explicitly that Christ bore our sins in His body on the cross, and many other passages make the same claim.
At this point, some might ask, “What’s the difference between Christ receiving our sins and Christ becoming a sin offering?” Practically, not much, but the former is founded on a careful parsing of the text, and the latter isn’t.
I am convinced that it’s important for us not only to be right about the Bible, but to be demonstrably right. We can’t merely know the right answer and say, “This is right! Trust me!” We must be able to start with the evidence of the text and reason to the correct answer, even with texts that appear to teach something different.
Nothing in the Bible is an affront to the truth, 2 Corinthians 5:21 included. A difficult passage is nothing more than a passage that we have not taken the time and trouble to understand. When we do invest that time and trouble, it will bear the fruit of renewed confidence in the word of God.
How do you convict a sinless man of a crime serious enough to warrant His execution? It might sound like a logic puzzle to us, but for the chief priests, it was a serious problem. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, they determined that He had to die. However, they couldn’t just murder Him because of the pushback from the people and maybe the Romans too. Instead, they had to find a way to sentence Him to death under color of law.
We tend to assume that the game was over after Jesus’ arrest in the garden, but the arrest was only the beginning of the process. The chief priests needed not merely to arrest Him, but to convict Him of a crime. As Mark 14:55-64 reveals, they rounded up a bunch of false witnesses, but none of them could agree that Jesus had done anything criminal. By Mark 14:59, the prosecution has failed, and the chief priests are going to have to release Jesus unless something changes.
At this point, Caiaphas the high priest takes a gamble. He asks Jesus a question: “Are You the Christ?” This is very dangerous; Jesus has spent the past several years humiliating opponents who ask Him questions. However, much to Caiaphas’ delight and probable surprise, Jesus gives the answer that will condemn Him—that He is the Son of God. Caiaphas declares that the whole Sanhedrin are witnesses to Jesus’ “crime” of blasphemy, so they vote to convict Him.
However, this does not end the chief priests’ difficulties. They can convict Jesus, but they can’t sentence Him to death. That’s a Roman prerogative. Thus, their next hurdle is to convince Pilate, the Roman governor, that an innocent man ought to die.
This does not go well. Even an unrighteous man like Pilate doesn’t want to condemn the guiltless. The Jewish leaders, however, prompt Pilate to ask Jesus if He is a king. This is another massive risk, but it pays off too. In John 18:36-37, Jesus affirms that even though His kingdom is not of this world, He is a king.
Thereafter, Pilate continues to press for Jesus’ release, but now the Jews have leverage. In John 19:12, they threaten Pilate. If he lets Jesus go, they’re going to report to Caesar that he is a friend to rebels, not Caesar. When he hears this, Pilate agrees to Jesus’ crucifixion. Doing the right thing is infinitely less important to him than saving his own skin.
In this narrative, two main forces are evident: the chief priests’ persistent hatred. . . and Jesus’ acquiescence in His own death. As Isaiah 53:7 predicted would happen, Jesus does not speak to defend Himself. Rather, He is the prosecution’s star witness. His twin affirmations of His deity and kingship are the two reasons why He is condemned.
In worldly terms, this is madness. Jesus knew, though, that it had to happen for Him to carry out His Father’s will. If Jesus is not the victim of great injustice, there will be no sinless sacrifice to enable God to be both just and the justifier. Jesus knowingly brought that injustice upon Himself—all so that He could ransom us.