What Do We Say? (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Best News Ever

Big Idea: Communicate the gospel — that Jesus took our sin so we could take his righteousness — clearly.

One of my heroes is a man named Haddon Robinson. Haddon is now 85 years old, and his health is poor. But I had the privilege of studying under Haddon for three or four years. The impact of his life is profound.

Haddon has said a number of things I’ll never forget. As a preaching professor, he listened to thousands of sermons. Sometimes he commented on the fact that he had listened to so many sermons and hadn’t become an atheist yet! One thing he said, though, really stuck with me:

We don’t preach the gospel! As I listen to some preachers, if I were an outsider, I honestly wouldn’t know what I was to respond to…
We want to reach people, but the clear terms of the gospel are seldom enunciated. It’s probably an exaggeration, but I don’t think in my lifetime I’ve heard twenty messages that I would say were clear gospel messages. If you didn’t know any jargon, didn’t have any religious background—if you came to church and wanted to know how to have a relationship with a holy God—the sermon would not tell you.

“We don’t preach the gospel,” he said. In the thousands of sermons he’d heard, he could only think of about twenty that were clear gospel messages. Those words haunt me. If true, we need to do better.

So today I want to do better. At least, I want to try. Why? Because I don’t think that pastors are the only ones who struggle to explain the gospel. We all get tongue-tied. So I want to look at how we can explain it as clearly as possible.

Mark Dever, a pastor in Washington, D.C., always asks his potential members to explain the gospel in one minute or less. That’s a great exercise, and it’s worth trying. Thats the whole point of this sermon. At the end of this, I want you to be able to explain the gospel in one minute or less. In order to do this, we need to know what to exclude, and what to include. So let’s go. Let’s talk about how to get to the heart of the gospel in one minute or less.

What to Leave Out

Here’s what to leave out. I didn’t make this up. I stole this list from Mark Dever’s book The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, and I like it.

Here are things we don’t want to include in our one-minute gospel message. In fact, they don’t even belong in our one-hour gospel message.

It’s not that we’re okay. Sometimes we communicate a message that doesn’t take our biggest problem. The gospel is sometimes presented as a way to live a better life. The gospel isn’t a message about reaching our full potential or improving our lives. It cuts much deeper.

It’s not simply that God is love. It’s not that this message is untrue. It’s just incomplete. It gives a one-dimensional picture of God and leaves out other qualities. As D.A. Carson says, “I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God—to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity.”

It’s not simply that Jesus wants to be our friend. Jesus does want to be our friend, but again, there’s more to the message. There’s a real past to be dealt with. Real sins have been committed. “Christ isn’t just our friend. To call him supremely that is to damn him with faint praise. He is our friend, but he is so much more! By his death on the cross Christ has become the lamb that was slain for us, our redeemer, the one who has made peace between us and God, who has taken our guilt on himself, who has conquered our most deadly enemies and has assuaged the personal, just wrath of God” (Mark Dever).

It’s not that we should live rightly. Some people think the gospel is that we should live moral lives. “Christianity is sometimes presented as nothing more than virtues – public and private. Christians are thought to be simply about doing religious things, such as baptism, and communion, and going to church. The Christian life is nothing more than obeying the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, reading our Bibles, and praying. Being Christian means building up the community, giving to others, contributing to soup kitchens, and preserving historical buildings rather than making parking lots.” But, surprising as it may be, this isn’t the gospel. The gospel isn’t about anything we do or can do. It’s about what Jesus has done for us. It’s “not simply an additive that comes to make our already good lives better. No! The gospel is a message of wonderful good news that comes to those who realize their just desperation before God.”

No matter how long we have to present the gospel, we want to be clear. We want to avoid distortions of the gospel. Here’s what the gospel isn’t: it’s not that we’re okay, or simply that God is love and Jesus wants to be our friend. It’s not that we need to live good lives. Leave all of those out, and if they come up, be ready to clarify that these aren’t the gospel.

What to Say

The most important concept to remember as we prepare to speak is this: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). Keep it focused on Jesus!

I want to use one word, one verse, and one sentence for what I hope is the simplest gospel presentation ever. Here’s the one word: exchange. And here’s the one verse:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV)

This verse is 15 words in the original language. It’s two clauses. And yet it takes us to the heart of the gospel. Someone said of this verse:

It is not the puzzle of the New Testament, but the ultimate solution of all puzzles…the key-stone of the whole system of apostolic thought…it is the focus in which the reconciling love of God burns with the purest and intensest flame. (James Denney)

Here’s what this verse tells us: Jesus took our sin so that we could take his righteousness. That’s it. It’s the greatest exchange in history.

Jesus took our sin. Jesus never sinned. He’s the only human who’s ever lived who never sinned. But Jesus took our place. You see, we were separated from God because of our sin. We were enemies of God. But God sent his Son Jesus to come to earth to become our substitute. This means that he became the enemy of God in our place. Even though he had never sinned, he took our place. It was if he had done all the sinful things that we had done. He bore our sins on the cross.

Think about all the sins you’ve committed in your life. None of us can think of all of them, but maybe think of a couple. Think of a recent one. Think of one that left you deeply ashamed. You would be embarrassed if anyone in the room knew that you had thought or done what you did. Imagine that we could put the sins of just the people in this room right now on the screen and watch them. We would go running out of this room. We would never look each other in the eye again.

But Jesus didn’t run away. He stepped in and, even though he was perfect, he took your place. He suffered our separation, took our place, and secured our salvation.

In Hunger Games, contestants are forced to kill each other to stay alive. When contestants are chosen from each district, the name Primrose Everdeen is plucked from a large bowl. As the authorities lead Primrose away, her older sister Katniss suddenly yells out. The guards stop Katniss from approaching Prim, but Katniss shouts, “No! I volunteer! I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!” So Katniss becomes the representative for District 12. She takes her sister’s place. She becomes a substitute.

Katniss a moving example of courage and sacrificial love. She voluntarily substitutes herself for another human being. But it’s also an understandable substitution. She does it for her little sister. It’s admirable, but it’s the kind of thing we hope we’d all do for our younger siblings or our children or our spouses.

But Jesus’ substitution doesn’t work like that. Whose place does Jesus take? He takes the place of cowards, hypocrites, criminals, sinners. Jesus took our place. When we were being lead away to face our just punishment, Jesus volunteered. Jesus willingly took our place so that we could live.

The reason we could take his sin is so that we could take his righteousness. Here’s the reason why Jesus took our place: so that we could take his righteousness. We gave Jesus all of our sin, and he gives us all of his righteousness. Right now, if you are a Christian, when God looks at you, he doesn’t see all that sin. He sees the righteousness of Jesus.

The famous preacher Charles Spurgeon called this the heart of the gospel: the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ:

The Lord God laid upon Jesus, who voluntarily undertook it, all the weight of human sin. Instead of its resting on the sinner, who did commit it, it was made to rest upon Christ, who did not commit it … Christ was not guilty, and could not be made guilty; but he was treated as if he were guilty, because he willed to stand in the place of the guilty…
As Christ was made sin, and yet never sinned, so are we made righteousness, though we cannot claim to have been righteous in and of ourselves. Sinners though we be, and forced to confess it with grief, yet the Lord doth cover us so completely with the righteousness of Christ, that only his righteousness is seen, and we are made the righteousness of God in him. This is true of all the saints, even of as many as believe on his name.

How do we get this? Don’t miss the one simple phrase in verse 21: “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” It is only when we identify with Christ, coming to him and receiving his gift, that we get this benefit. So come.

You’re Ready

Tonight I’ve given you one verse, a one-word summary, and an eleven word explanation. I’ve gone on to explain and illustrate it a bit more, but that’s all you need. You can add in your own illustrations. I’ve noticed over the years that there are tons of them. Watch movies, read novels, and keep your eye open for illustrations of substitution. You’ll notice them all over.

Here’s the one word at the heart of the gospel: exchange.

Here’s the one verse:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV)

Here’s the short explanation: Jesus took our sin so that we could take his righteousness.

But here’s the most important thing I want you to realize. If you are hearing this for the first time today, you’re ready. And when I say you’re ready, I mean two things.

First, you’re ready to respond. In verse 20, the verse right before, Paul says:

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)

The idea is of an ambassador who has an urgent message. An ambassador was an imperial legate in the Roman Empire. This would have been a man of immense authority. He didn’t speak in his own name or act on his own authority. His message didn’t originate in him, but from a higher authority. He stood in his Sovereign’s authority.

Paul, through Scripture, makes the appeal, but it’s not from Paul. It’s from God. And it’s an appeal with passion and urgency. He says: be reconciled by God. Receive God’s offer of reconciliation. Jesus took our sin, so we could take his righteousness. I urge you not to just hear this message. Receive it today. Be reconciled to God. Put your trust in what Jesus has done for you, and receive his gift today.

Second, you’re not just ready to respond, but to share. If you have heard this message today, you’re ready to share it. Most conversions don’t take place instantly. You don’t share the gospel once, and someone believes. It takes many people and many conversations to see someone move to the gospel. And you have what it takes. You can play an important role in pointing someone to the gospel. Just take this one verse, one word, and one sentence, and you have everything it takes to share the gospel.

So here’s my encouragement: memorize the one verse, one word, and one sentence. You probably won’t ever use it word for word. You definitely won’t use it as a formula. But when you get a chance to explain the gospel, you’ll be able to do so clearly in a minute or less. It’s a great starting point for sharing the gospel when God gives us the opportunity.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada