Salvation in Christ Alone: What Is "The Great Exchange"?

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Because of God’s holiness and righteousness, sin must be punished. As humans, we tend to take a lenient view of sin, but God can’t do that. He has set his laws in place and revealed them to us. When they are broken, the transgressor must be punished. Christians know Christ paid their debt on the cross, but he did even more for every believer.

God regards sin as cosmic rebellion.

God’s first “law” was given to Adam, and he was warned that on the day he disobeyed he would die. From the start, the Bible tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), and that message does not change throughout Scripture (see Gen. 2:17; Deut. 24:16; Ezek. 18:20; Rom. 5:12; 6:23). When we sin, we have earned “wages” as it were, and God must pay what is due if he is to be just; and just he must be. We may minimize our sin or attempt to justify our sinful actions, but God regards sin as cosmic rebellion, punishable by death for the rebel. He has clearly stated the punishment for sin is the “shedding of blood,” for life is in the blood (Lev. 17:14). 

But an early shadow of God’s grace came immediately through the animal coverings God made for Adam and Eve after that first sin (Gen. 3:21). A clearer shadow of God’s final means of redemption for sin followed later in the Passover Lamb sacrifice that began in Exodus 12:11. A spotless lamb foreshadowed the sinless man Jesus Christ as the Passover continued throughout the history of Israel.

“The wages of sin is death.”

The sacrifice and several other elements of the Passover celebration were for Israel a vivid reminder of the “wages” of sin and the “cost” of redemption. God does not need the blood of bulls and goats; God’s people needed to see life drain away as a visual picture of the punishment God requires for sin (Isa. 1:11; Heb. 10:4). Thus, the sacrificial system served, for those who offered the sacrifices in faith, to point to the coming Messiah, Christ Jesus (Heb. 8-10). 

God’s first and final plan, however, was that he would pay the price for sin, because sin is an offense against an infinite being and only the infinite could bear the cost. So in eternity past, before the foundation of the world, the Son committed to glorify his Father and the Spirit by being the voluntary sacrifice for the sins of every person who, by faith, would believe (Gen. 3:15; Eph. 1:3-14).

Animal sacrifices could never secure forgiveness. 

We must also recognize that the Old Testament sacrifice of the shed blood of an animal substitute for the sinner could only cover sin. Apart from faith in Christ Jesus, whom the sacrificial system pointed to, the sacrifices in themselves could not secure forgiveness. The solution to our problem could only be God in the flesh, who alone was born sinless, lived a sinless human life, and was therefore qualified and able to bear the punishment required for sin.  

So God the eternal Son (the word “begotten” used in our English translations is a Greek word that means “to bring forth” or “to produce,” not created) left heaven and, by agreement with the Father and Spirit, veiled his deity as he took on flesh. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin and did not inherit the sin of Adam (Luke 1:35). 

Jesus faced greater temptations than the first Adam.

Jesus, the man, continued sinless throughout his life as God required in his original covenant with Adam (Gen. 2:15-17). As a man, Jesus faced even greater temptations than what was set before Adam. Where Adam was commanded to obey God in a lush garden, Jesus obeyed God in a fallen world. Where Adam was tempted in that lush garden/temple, Jesus was tempted in a barren wilderness (Luke 4:1-2). In constant contact with his Father in heaven through prayer and depending on the power of the Spirit, Jesus lived a sinless life and was obedient to the very end, even to death on the cross (Ps. 2:7; Isa. 42:1; Eph. 1:3; Phil. 2:6-10). 

Jesus is the “last Adam” who earned life for all who trust in him.

In his humanity, Jesus is the “last Adam.” He was born under the law, kept it perfectly, and was qualified as the perfect Adam (man) to save God’s people (Rom. 5:15-19). The apostle Paul makes it abundantly clear in Romans, chapter 5, that Jesus succeeded where Adam failed, and as death came to all through Adam, righteousness and life come to those who are in Christ Jesus by faith. 

But it’s not just the forgiveness of sins that came on the cross. Because Christ Jesus lived a perfectly obedient life, God the Father imputes (that is, credits) Christ’s perfect righteousness to his people by faith in Christ alone. Martin Luther called this “the great exchange,” where our sin is credited to Jesus and the earned righteousness of Jesus is credited to all who call upon the name of the Lord (Rom. 10:9, 13; 2 Cor. 5:21; Eph. 2:8-9; 2 Tim. 1:9). Where Adam brought death through his rebellion, Christ earned eternal life for all believers.

In the great exchange Christ’s righteousness is credited to us, and our sin is credited to Christ.

It was God the Father who put all the sins of believers—past, present, and future—on Jesus, who had no sin. The Son took those sins freely and died to redeem all who would believe—that is, all whom the Father had eternally given to him as his “bride” (Heb. 12:2; John 6:37; 10:29; 17:6, 9, 24; see also Ps. 23:5; Isa. 54:5; 61:10; John 17:2; 18:9; Eph. 1:5; Heb. 2:13). The agony of the Father turning from the Son who was made sin then turned to joy as the Father raised him from the grave and seated him at his right hand. And the joy continues as the Spirit gives life through the Son as the Father determined before time began.   

The redeeming plan of the Triune God set in place before the creation is an act of love and grace that is beyond human imagining. When we allow these truths to settle in our hearts, we find the necessary gratitude for continuing to live to please God with the help of the indwelling Spirit until the day our Savior returns. Then we will each hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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Justified by Faith Alone by R. C. Sproul

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