Years ago in an Adult Bible Study session, I posed the following scenario for the consideration and comment of the class;
Suppose there is a vicious serial killer who has been duly tried and convicted in a court of law. As a result, that killer has been sentenced to death. Now suppose that another person steps forward who has fully kept the law, such that they've never needed to stand trial. This person then offers to die for the convicted killer. This would result in the killer being set free and the innocent person dying, and thereby fulfilling the sentence.
I then asked the class to explain "what was wrong with this picture”? Without hesitation, several class members pointed to the fact that nothing had changed regarding the serial killer, he was still a killer and deserved to die. The death of the innocent person may have allowed the death sentence to be performed, but the root problem still existed. The serial killer would continue to kill! The judge in this case, therefore, is not ultimately a just judge who would allow a convicted killer to continue to walk the streets.
This "story" sounds unbelievable and we're immediately repelled by the lack of ultimate justice. And yet, there are many who think this type of dealing with a lawbreaker is the type of justice that a holy God administers.
The gospel message in the present age has been trimmed down simply to; “Jesus loves you and has died for your sins. All you need to do is accept Him”. And so we see our Savior and Lord reduced simply to the hapless innocent who only took the penalty for our sins and we, therefore, like the unrepentant killer, have been set free to do whatever we please.
There is no doubt that "God made Him (Jesus Christ) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 2:21) and, "this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe" (Romans 3:22). And so these verses describe a marvelous exchange. The condemned sinner, the "object of (God's) wrath", by faith, is not punished for his transgression of the law, but is declared righteous before the judge, as if he were completely innocent. His sin has been exchanged for the righteousness of another. On the other side of this transaction, we see the keeper of the law, the innocent one, the righteous party, suffering the consequences of the other's transgressions. In this way, the former guilty party stands before the judge as justified or innocent, because the requirement of the law, death, has been met in the death of the sinless One.
Well now you say, I've just vindicated the judge in my story of the serial killer. But God, the righteous Judge, doesn't let the matter end here. A holy God proceeds to deal with the root issue or underlying cause, which is the sinful nature of the justified believer. By contrast, in the case of the serial killer, nothing was done to reform or make over the inherent evil heart resident in the killer.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, ... our righteousness, holiness, and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30). In this verse then, we comprehend the manifold grace of God in the salvation of the believer. We see the sinner released from slavery to sin, because Christ redeemed him, which is to say that He paid the penalty for the sins of the sinner. As a result, we see the believing sinner justified or acquitted before God the Judge by the free imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Therefore, "Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies" (Romans 8:33). But we also learn that hand-in-hand with redemption is a life lived in pursuit of holiness. Paul wrote, "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life" (Romans 6:22). Thus, the evidence of justification is the presence of holiness in the life of the believer. As we see in our verse above, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me”. God, therefore, not only declares the guilty lawbreaker to be innocent, but unlike the judge in the story, deals a deathblow to the root cause of the sinner's lawlessness by effecting the death of the unrighteous, unholy, God hating, sinful nature of the believer. "For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin - because anyone who has died has been freed from sin... Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him... In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires" (Romans 6:6-8,11,12).
In the case of the freed serial killer, you might say he "beat the system" since he's been released from the consequences of his crime and is now free to sin again. But, "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires" (Galatians 5:24). Thus, the integral indwelling principle of sin is put to death and, "...the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:24) becomes the new disposition and orientation of the true professor's life.
The implications of this truth are sobering. A professor of faith who claims forgiveness of sins from Christ's dying for him on the cross, but whose life is not characterized by an active "turning away" from sin, is like the one John describes, "...who says, ‘I know Him,’ but does not do what He commands..." John writes that this person "is a liar, and the truth is not in him... This is how we know we are in Him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did" (1 John 2:4,6). Paul wrote the Romans, "We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Romans 6:4). Therefore, justification and the aggressive pursuit of holy lives cannot be separated. We cannot say we're a Christian and at the same time excuse known sin in our lives with, "Well, I just haven't surrendered that part of my life to Christ yet". These are the words of a hypocrite and a fraud in whom the active sinful nature thrives unchecked by any work of recreating grace. "Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:9b-11).
Make no mistake; I do not say that a professing Christians' life is without sin. But I do say that a true believer has died with Christ, and a new principle is at work such that the hallmark of his life is active and ongoing repentance and renewal of true righteousness and holiness. "For it is God Who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose" (Philippians 2:13).