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The Great and Sweet Exchange

Martin Luther is famous for his expression of the imputation of righteousness that we call the “sweet exchange.”

Interestingly, Luther’s Augustinian mentor Johann von Staupitz – who crucially pointed Luther to look away from himself and consider instead the sin-remitting grace of God and man’s redemption in the Blood of Christ – preached a sermon that expressed this same “sweet exchange” idea.

And, to travel back much further in time than either Luther or von Staupitz, a mid-second century epistle, The Epistle to Diognetus, expresses the sweet exchange in even a more beautiful way.

Plus, of course, we can go back to where this doctrine is taught in Scripture, to both the Old and New Testaments ... .

Martin Luther:

“Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own.

Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits.

Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation.

Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?”

(Luther’s The Freedom of the Christian (1520)).

Johann von Staupitz:

Johann von Staupitz (1460-1524) was the vicar of the Augustinian order at the University of Wittenberg. Oberman’s 'Forerunners of the Reformation' includes a sermon from Staupitz.

“If you think that the mercy of the Lord has not been given its due by showing how He justifies us through His own righteousness and how He did not shun marriage with sinners, you must realise that He goes even further. He makes our sins His own. Just as the Christian is just through the righteousness of Christ, so Christ is unrighteous and sinful through the guilt of the Christian.

... For the time being let us be silent about other issues and let us see whether He who is sinless by nature can be convicted as a sinner. He stands clearly convicted by his own confession: ‘God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Why are You so far from helping me who is involved in transgressions?’

How can these be Your words, dearest Jesus? I see the answer clearly: God has placed upon You the iniquity of all and You alone are the Lamb of God Who bears the sins of the world. You are like the two goats at one and the same time. In Your human nature you are sacrificed by lot to the Lord for sin; as immortal God You live in eternity and hence are like the goat that was sent out. They put on Your head all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their trespasses and sins. You were sent forth into a barren land where no one dwells except God.

You are that matchless Spouse that is my possession, that is my concern, that is I. Therefore, You are mine and everything You have is my own and I am Yours and whatever there is in me is Your own. And because we are one, things which are Yours become mine while yet remaining Yours, and, likewise, things which are mine become Yours while at the same time they remain mine.

Therefore I am righteous because of Your righteousness and a sinner because of my guilt. You are a sinner because of my guilt and righteous because of Your own righteousness. (pp. 189-191)."

The Epistle of Diognetus:

“When our unrighteousness was fulfilled, and it had been made perfectly clear that its wages –punishment and death – were to be expected, then the season arrived during which God had decided to reveal at last His goodness and power.

O, the surpassing kindness and love of God! He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead He was patient and forbearing. In His mercy He took upon Himself our sins. He Himself gave up His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal.

For what else but His righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone?

O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of One should justify many sinners!”

(The Epistle to Diognetus, 9:2-­5, in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 709–710).

The apostle Paul:

2 Corinthians 5:21: “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”

And the prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 53:5, 11: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. 11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.”

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