The Holy Scriptures say:
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).
Through the law of God we come to know that we are sinners. As sinners, we transgress God’s law and fall short of His glory. Although Paul was considered blameless under the law, the above statement includes him as well. Through the law, Paul too was shown his sin, and through the law even he could not be justified. In Romans 7, Paul expresses his struggle with sin even after his conversion. Paul also says:
“For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15).
Sins are transgressions against God’s law. Where there is no law there is no transgression. Because there is a law there are transgressions.
Did our Savior need to be without sin? Did our Savior need to keep the law perfectly? Would it have made a difference if our Savior was a sinner or not? Of course it matters! A sinner/law breaker is not a savior of sinners, but is a sinner himself. Jesus is our Savior and He knew no sin. Paul says:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Why did the Apostle Paul say that Jesus “knew no sin?” If the perfect life of Jesus Christ was not important why does he include it here? If as preachers we are not to include the perfect life of Christ in the preaching of the gospel, are we following the example of Paul? This is the verse that inspired Martin Luther to coin his famous words: the “wonderful exchange.” Jesus takes our sin in exchange for His righteousness. By grace through the faith in the work of Christ, God the Father remembers our sins no more and only sees Christ! More then once the writers of the New Testament remind us that Jesus Christ knew no sin and never transgressed God’s law.
“He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22).
“You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
In God’s perfect timing God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, fully divine and fully human. This fully divine and fully human person, Jesus Christ, fulfilled the law on our behalf, was cursed for us on the cross, and arose bodily to redeem us from our transgressions of God’s law. The Apostle Paul says:
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5).
Does it matter that Jesus Christ was born of a woman? Does it matter that Jesus fulfilled God’s law on our behalf? Absolutely! Jesus Christ was fully human and he was born under God’s law. By keeping it for us he redeemed us who could not keep it. He who knew no sin became sin for us on the cross so that we might receive the adoption as sons. He who knew no sin took upon himself the sins of the whole world on the cross. On the cross Jesus received the punishment for the sins every person on this earth! And in exchange, by grace through faith, we receive his righteousness! Martin Luther said:
“When the merciful Father saw that we were being oppressed through the Law, that we were being held under a curse, and that we could not be liberated from it by anything, He sent His Son into the world, heaped all the sins of all men upon Him, and said to Him: ‘Be Peter the denier; Paul the persecutor, blasphemer, and assaulter; David the adulterer; the sinner who ate the apple in Paradise; the thief on the cross. In short, be the person of all men, the one who has committed the sins of all men. And see to it that you pay and make satisfaction for them” (Lectures in Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, Luther’s Works, vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1963), 280. Also quoted in Kolb, Robert. The Christian Faith: A Lutheran Exposition (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1993), 143.)
Although Jesus Christ knew no sin He became sin for us so we might become the righteousness of God. He could not have become sin for us if He were a sinner. We could not be redeemed by a sinner. We could not be redeemed by a law breaker. We could only be redeemed by Jesus Christ who is our Savior.
The Old Testament Prepared the Way
Under the sacrificial system, the Israelites were told to sacrifice a ram or lamb without spot, wrinkle, blemish or defect (Leviticus 5:14-6:7; 7:1-6). This prefigured Jesus Christ: “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The Apostle Peter says:
“…you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19).
One problem with the Old Testament sacrifices is that a sinful priest made the sacrifice. Of course, anytime a human being is involved in making atonement for other people’s sins there is going to be a problem. However, the good news is that Jesus Christ laid his life down on His own accord (John 10:18). In addition, Jesus Christ is our High Priest! The writer of Hebrews says:
“For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:26).
“For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:13-14, my emphasis added).
The Work of Jesus Christ in the Lutheran Confessions
(All quotations from Kolb, R. 2000. The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, my emphasis added in quotations.)
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father in eternity, and also a true human being, born of the Virgin Mary, is my LORD. He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent [Unschüldigen
: literally, “not owed” or “not guilty”] suffering and death (SC, 2nd Article of the Creed).
That is to say, he became a human creature, conceived and born without sin, of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin, so that he might become Lord over sin; moreover, he suffered, died, and was buried so that he might make satisfaction for me and pay what I owed, not with silver and gold but with his own precious blood (LC, 2nd Article of the Creed).
However, because, as has been stated above, the obedience is that of the entire person, it is a perfect satisfaction and reconciliation of the human race, which satisfied God’s eternal, unchangeable righteousness, revealed in the law. Thus, it is our righteousness before God and is revealed in the gospel. On this righteousness faith relies before God, and God reckons it to faith, as is written in Romans 5[:19; Luther’s translation]: “For just as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience will the many be made righteous,” in 1 John 1[:7]: “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin,” and in Habakkuk 2[:4]: “The righteous will live by faith.”
For this reason, neither the divine nor the human nature of Christ in itself is reckoned to us as righteousness, but only the obedience of the person, who is at the same time God and a human being. Therefore, faith looks to the person of Christ, as this person submitted to the law for us, bore our sin, and in going to his Father performed complete and perfect obedience for us poor sinners, from his holy birth to his death. Thereby he covered all our disobedience, which is embedded in our nature and in its thoughts, words, and deeds, so that this disobedience is not reckoned to us as condemnation but is pardoned and forgiven by sheer grace, because of Christ alone (Solid Declaration, III, 55 p. 572).
Thus, the righteousness that out of sheer grace is reckoned before God to faith or to the believer consists of the obedience, suffering, and resurrection of Christ because he has satisfied the law for us and paid for our sins. f For since Christ was not only a human being but both God and a human being in one inseparable person, he was thus as little under the law—since he was Lord of the law—as he was obligated to suffer and die for himself. Therefore, his obedience consists not only in his suffering and death but also in the fact that he freely put himself in our place under the law and fulfilled the law with this obedience and reckoned it to us as righteousness.
As a result of his total obedience—which he performed on our behalf for God in his deeds and suffering, in life and death—God forgives our sin, considers us upright and righteous, and grants us eternal salvation [This was directed against the position of George Karg, the leading theologian of Brandenburg-Ansbach, who taught that the active obedience of Christ had no vicarious value since Christ was obligated to keep the law] (SD, III, 15, p. 564).