I know that many of you have been following the municipal election. So I was interested to open the latest issue of Toronto Life magazine, and to read a cover story on the leading candidate. This candidate has been getting under the skin of some of the other candidates, so much so that, as the editor’s letter says, they lose “the ability to speak in coherent sentences.” In a recent debate one of the candidates said, “You divide people up, and you make people belittled.” “I sort of understood his point,” the editor writes, “but just barely.”
I’m not one to criticize others for mangling words. Earlier this year I had finished preaching. I try to be clear and careful with my words and communicate as effectively as I can. I don’t always succeed. After the morning service, I was going out for lunch with someone. I gave them directions as clearly as I could using all of my communication skills. What came out was this: “Turn red at the right light.” We got to the lights, and I’m glad that they could figure out that they should turn right at the red light rather than turn red at the right light. Sometimes we all have a hard time communicating.
We may have trouble getting our point across sometimes. The best of us get tongue-tied. It’s one thing if we stumble when we’re in a political debate or when we’re giving directions. But it’s very important that we are clear when we’re communicating a message that’s important, a message that’s a matter of life and death.
In 2 Corinthians 5:19, Paul says that God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” You know what it’s like when someone calls and leaves a message. You pick up the phone and you’re half paying attention. The time comes to relay the message on to the person who’s supposed to receive it, and by then you can barely remember who called. Paul says that God himself has entrusted a message to us, the message of reconciliation. God has given us a message of unparalleled importance. And in order for us to be agents of reconciliation, we need to understand the message of reconciliation.
So this morning I want to simply ask: What is this message of reconciliation that God has entrusted to us? In order to communicate this message clearly, we have to understand the message coherently. From the passage in front of us we’re going to understand three things about this message: the heart of the message, the effect of the message, and the how of the message.
First: the heart of the message is the death and resurrection of Jesus.
If we are going to be agents of reconciliation, we need to understand the message of reconciliation. And if we are going to understand the message of reconciliation, we need to get to the heart of the message of reconciliation, which Paul gives to us in verses 14-15:
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
The heart of the message of reconciliation, Paul says, is very simple. It’s the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The heart of the message is an historical event that took place almost two thousand years ago. It’s about Jesus Christ, who died on a cross and who rose again. This is at the very heart of the message of reconciliation that’s been entrusted to us.
Don Miller is a writer from Portland. He was teaching a class in Canada. His students were all freshman college students who had grown up in the church. The class was called “The Gospel and Culture.” He started the class with an experiment. He told the class that he was going to share the gospel of Jesus, but was going to leave something out. He wanted them to figure out what was missing from what he was going to say.
So he told them about sin, about how we are all fallen creatures. He told some stories and used some illustrations. He talked about repentance, and again told some stories. He talked about God’s forgiveness, and then he talked about heaven. He went on like this. Listen to what happened:
When I finally stopped and asked the class to tell me what I’d left out, after twenty or more minutes of discussion, not one student realized that I’d left out Jesus. Not one. And I believe I could repeat that same experiment in Christian classrooms across North America.
The same thing is possible today. We can share our testimonies, which is good. We can talk about sin and forgiveness and heaven and hell. But until we talk about Jesus we haven’t talked about the gospel. The heart of the gospel, the heart of the message of reconciliation, is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That’s why Paul begins here. Paul says in verse 16 that he used to have a very different idea of who Jesus was. Paul used to oppose Jesus Christ, to see him as just another teacher, and a misguided one at that. What changed? Paul encountered the risen Jesus Christ. When he understood the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it completely changed the way that he saw Jesus, and the way that he viewed everything else.
This is a little like the highways that are in every major city. They bypass the city so that you miss the traffic in the downtown core. You ask somebody if they’ve been to Toronto, and they say, “Yes, I drove the 407 through Toronto one time.” You’d say, “Well then you haven’t really been to Toronto. You drove past Toronto. You got close to Toronto. But you didn’t really see Toronto.”
There’s a lot of talk these days about different ways to share the gospel. We give testimonies. We talk about “living the gospel.” We quote St. Francis of Assisi, who supposedly said, “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.” But hear this: until we have told people about Jesus, especially about his death and resurrection, we have not told them the gospel. You’ve driven past the gospel; you’ve gotten close but you haven’t got downtown. Deeds and testimonies are fine, but they can never replace what’s at the heart of the biblical message of reconciliation: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we are going to communicate the message of reconciliation, we can’t take them on the 407. We’ve got to get them downtown to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the very heart of the message of reconciliation that’s been entrusted to us.
The heart of the message of reconciliation is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Second: the effects of the message of reconciliation are that we’re made new and made right.
Now I have to explain this a little. There are two problems with us. One is internal: we’re broken. One is relational: we’ve offended God. Paul says that the gospel, the message of reconciliation, addresses both of these problems.
Our first problem is that we’re broken. No matter how good we are, we are realize that there’s something wrong with us inside. We don’t think and act the way we want to. How does the gospel deal with this?
Paul says that one of the effects of the gospel is that we are made new. Paul explains one of the effects of the message of reconciliation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” Paul is saying that when we are united with Christ, we are made new. What’s broken isn’t just repaired; it’s made new.
Caterpillars are ugly, slimy and slow. You don’t worry very much when you step on one. But caterpillars convert to butterflies, and everything changes. Tony Evans explains:
After the cocooning process is over, and the shell flips open, all of a sudden the thing that used to be grounded can now fly. The thing that used to be a parasite now pollinates. Something beautiful has come out of something that was ugly…
Now, a butterfly is not a fixed up caterpillar. A butterfly is a totally new creature that was birthed out of a caterpillar. But it’s not a caterpillar. It is a brand spanking new being.
That’s exactly what happens with us. When we come to Christ we are made new. God sets to work at restoring our souls and setting everything right again. This is what theologians call regeneration. It’s an act of God by which he imparts new spiritual life to us. The prophet Ezekiel put it this way: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). When we come to Christ, every part of us is somehow affected, and we’re changed from the inside out. This deals with the problem in us. There’s something wrong with us. The gospel changes us from the inside-out and makes us new.
But there’s something else wrong with is. We were broken, and the gospel makes us new. But there’s still another problem: we’ve offended God. D.A. Carson puts it this way:
At the most profound level, whenever we sin, God is the most offended party. If, like David, we commit adultery, God is the most offended party. If we cheat on our income taxes, God is the most offended party. If we puff ourselves up in pride, indulge in slander, demean a colleague, or nurture bitterness, God is the most offended party. If we watch porn on the internet, God is the most offended party…Whatever forgiveness we try to secure, we must have God’s forgiveness, or we have nothing.
So we have a big problem. The Bible teaches that we’ve offended God. Because of our sin, we are enemies with God. How does the gospel help? Verses 18 to 20 say:
All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore God’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God.
God has taken the initiative. Through Jesus Christ, God has reconciled us to himself. The most offended party has taken action to remove the offenses that stand between us and him so that he doesn’t count any of those offenses against us anymore. God has removed the obstacles to peace with him.
Paul says in verse 19 that God no longer counts people’s sins against them. He uses an accounting word. When you charge something to your credit card, it is debited to your account. Eventually, at the end of the month, a bill comes with a summary of all of your charges, and you’re expected to pay. Paul says that God has taken action so that the charges we have incurred are not billed to our account. Our account has been made right with God.
In order for us to be agents of reconciliation, we need to understand the message of reconciliation that’s been entrusted to us. The heart of this message is the cross. And the effects of this message are that we are made new and we are made right. Are you following so far?
We’ve looked at the heart of the message. We’ve looked at the effects of the message. There’s only one thing left to look at in this passage.
The how of the message is the exchange that took place at the cross.
You may be here this morning thinking, “Okay, this sounds interesting. I get that the heart of this message is the cross. I get that the effects are, according to Paul, that we’re made new and that we’re made right. But I don’t get what happened at the cross. This isn’t adding up to me.”
Paul tells us how the gospel works. Verse 21 is one of the most profound verses in all of Scripture to help us understand what took place at the cross. It says: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Here’s what this means. Jesus Christ is the only person who ever lived who was sinless. But at the cross, Christ became so identified with our sins – all the guilt and all of its consequences – that in essence, the sinless one became sin for us. One person puts it this way:
In a sense beyond human comprehension, God treated Christ as “sin,” aligning him so totally with sin and its dire consequences that from God’s viewpoint he became indistinguishable from sin itself. (Murray Harris)
God assigned responsibility for our sins to Christ, which makes it impossible for us to be punished for our sins. God reckons our sins to Christ’s account.
And in return, God transferred Christ’s perfect record to our account. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” God now reckons Christ’s perfect obedience to our accounts, so that we are counted as having kept the law perfectly. God does not count sins against those who have put their faith in trust.
It’s no wonder that Paul could say, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
We’ve covered a lot of ground this morning. What have we learned? If we are to be agents of reconciliation, we need to understand the message of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us. What is this message? Well, it centers on the cross. It makes us new and it makes us right with God. How? At the cross, a great exchange took place: Christ took all of our sins, and we were given all of Christ’s righteousness.
Paul says that God has entrusted this message of reconciliation to us. It’s the most important message that anyone will leave with you. Two questions: Have you experienced it? And will you commit to understanding this message so that you’ll be ready to pass it on?
Father, as Paul says in the next chapter, “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” It may be that someone is here today who has never understood this message before. Would you now draw them to Christ so they see what he did for them at the cross. Make them new. Make them right with you. Allow them to experience the great exchange.
And Father, we worship you. The gospel never gets old. It moves us every time. So move us today by what Christ has done for us. And may we learn this message of reconciliation so well that we can become agents of reconciliation. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.