For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin… (2 Corinthians 5:21).
On one hand, of course, Jesus’ excruciating death on the cross was wholly undeserved. The only perfect man to ever live should not have been tortured and then executed as a criminal.
Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest disciples, to whom he had shown only love. Surely, if we had been in Jesus’ place, we would respond like the Jews when Jesus told them a parable in which a landowner’s son is murdered by his own field workers: “put those wretches to a miserable death!” But Jesus did not respond this way — he suffered unjust and traitorous acts against himself, because he came to save unjust and traitorous people.
As a further sign of how undeserved Jesus’ whole trial and death was, we then hear the very one adjudicating his execution declaring his innocence! Pilate declares that “nothing deserving death” has been done by Jesus (Luke 23:15).
Jesus died in our place, taking our sin on himself and paying the price for it.
How true is the description of eyewitness Peter: “Christ … suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
Yet, in this very substitution to which Peter refers — Jesus taking the place of sinners, the just taking the place of the unjust — we also must come to realize that Jesus’ death was completely deserved.
It is absolutely crucial to understanding the gospel for us to see that Jesus’ punishment and death was well deserved!
Jesus died as a liar. Jesus died as a thief. Jesus died as a rebellious teenager. Jesus died as an adulterer. Jesus died as a drunkard and a drug addict. Jesus died as a proud, self-righteous hypocrite. Jesus died as all these things because Jesus died in our place, taking our sin on himself and paying the price for it.
As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5:21, God made Jesus “for our sake…to be sin,” although Jesus knew no sin himself, so that we might be made the righteousness of God in him!
Those then who are trusting in Jesus for their salvation are assured that, in God’s eyes, they are as good and humble and selfless as Jesus himself. This biblical doctrine is called “substitutionary atonement.”
By Jesus becoming our substitute on the cross, we have been made “at one” with God. We have been reconciled to God.
This is the significance of what may otherwise seem like a minor miracle that immediately followed Jesus’ death: “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51). This huge curtain in the house of God, which had for hundreds of years separated the holy from the unholy, refusing sinners admittance into the presence of God, was torn from top to bottom because through Jesus’s cross-work we now have access!
In God’s eyes, we are as good and humble and selfless as Jesus himself.
Yet the necessary implication is that Jesus’ death was wholly deserved. If we don’t see — in Jesus’ scourging, beating, mocking, and crucifixion — that he deserves to be there and suffer that, because he is taking our place, then we will never see the gospel as good news. But if we come to see, as the hymnwriter P.P. Bliss, that “in my place condemned He stood” then we will also sing with him, “Hallelujah! What a Savior!”