When you think of Jesus as your substitute, it is likely that you most often think of Jesus as the sacrifice for your sins. This is, of course, correct. If you are under the grace of Jesus, you know that he walked to the cross as a perfect sacrificial lamb. Blameless, spotless, Jesus took the wrath of God for every wrong that separates you from the Lord.
But there is another side to substitution that is beautiful. We call it imputation, and we see a hint of it in one of my favorite Bible verses.
2 Corinthians 5:21 – For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The first half of this verse is the sacrificial substitution that we know so very well. God the Father treated Jesus as our sin, even though Jesus knew no sin. Jesus suffered the right and just consequences for our rebellion and failure. And the punishment that Jesus took on our behalf was of such a degree that it would have cost us an eternity in hell.
But the other side of substitution comes in the end of the verse. Jesus suffered on our behalf so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God. Just as God the Father counted Jesus as guilty of our sin when God the Son died on the cross on our behalf, so God the Father also counts us as possessing the righteousness of Christ. That is the side of substitution that I think we consider less often, though it is so very beautiful.
Understand that for you or me to be welcomed into the presence of God, we must be clean. God is holy. That does not mean that God is only mad at sin. It tells us that God demands utter righteousness, absolute perfection. Having my sins covered is not, on its own, enough to make me desirable to the Lord. Being clean, being not a criminal or not dirty, is not enough to grant a person access to the throne room of the King. No, in order to be adopted into God’s family, to be welcomed into God’s presence, the Lord must see us as more than neutral. He must see us as righteous.
When God saves a person, he makes a two-sided trade. The sin of the believer was placed on God the Son and proper justice was carried out by the Father on the Son at the cross. In Exchange for our sinfulness, Jesus places over us his perfect record of righteousness. Though we have never lived a moment of Christ’s perfection, though we will not live out his perfection while we still stand on this sin-cursed earth in our fallen flesh, God looks at our accounts and sees them showing the balance of the absolute perfection of Jesus.
Friends, Jesus did not only die for you, he lived for your benefit too. Jesus perfectly fulfilled all righteousness so that he could be a worthy sacrifice. And he fulfilled all righteousness so that the Father can now look at you and me as having lived out a righteousness that we received as a gift. There will come a day, when Jesus returns, that we will be transformed, glorified, and for the first time actually perfectly righteous in our experience. But for now, we can give God thanks that there are two sides of substitution. We can thank Jesus for imputing to us his perfection so that we might enter the presence of the Lord.