John Chrysostom (c. 347–407)
(Homilies on the Second Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, from Homily XI)
2 Co 5:21 He made the one who did not know sin to be sin on our behalf, in order that we could become the righteousness of God in him.
‘I say nothing of what has gone before, that ye have outraged Him, Him that had done you no wrong, Him that had done you good, that He exacted not justice, that He is first to beseech, though first outraged; let none of these things be set down at present. Ought ye not in justice to be reconciled for this one thing only that He has done to you now?’ And what has He done? “Him that knew no sin He made to be sin for you.” (2 Cor 5:21) For had He achieved nothing but done only this, think how great a thing it were to give His Son for those that had outraged Him. But now He has both well achieved mighty things, and besides, has suffered Him that did no wrong to be punished for those who had done wrong. But he did not say this: but mentioned that which is far greater than this. What then is this? “Him that knew no sin,” he says, Him that was righteousness itself, “He made sin,” that is suffered as a sinner to be condemned, as one cursed to die. “For cursed is he that hangs on a tree.” (Gal. 3:13) For to die thus was far greater than to die; and this he also elsewhere implying, saying, “Becoming obedient unto death, yea the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:8) For this thing carried with it not only punishment, but also disgrace. Reflect therefore how great things He bestowed on thee. For a great thing indeed it were for even a sinner to die for any one whatever; but when He who undergoes this both is righteous and dies for sinners; and not only dies, but even as one cursed; and not as cursed [dies] only, but thereby freely bestows upon us those great goods which we never looked for; (for he says, that “we might become the righteousness of God in Him;”) what words, what thought shall be adequate to realize these things? ‘For the righteous,’ he says, ‘He made a sinner; that He might make the sinners righteous.’ Yea rather, he said not even so, but what was greater far; for the word he employed is not the habit, but the quality itself. For he said not “made” Him a sinner, but “sin;” not, ‘Him that had not sinned’ only, but “that had not even known sin; that we” also “might become,” he did not say ‘righteous,’ but, “righteousness,” and, “the righteousness of God.” For this is the righteousness “of God” when we are justified not by works, (in which case it were necessary that not a spot even should be found,) but by grace, in which case all sin is done away. And this at the same time that it suffers us not to be lifted up, (seeing the whole is the free gift of God,) teaches us also the greatness of that which is given. For that which was before was a righteousness of the Law and of works, but this is “the righteousness of God.”
Reflecting then on these things, let us fear these words more than hell; let us reverence the things they express more than the kingdom, and let us not deem it grievous to be punished, but to sin. . . . . Every one in a manner will see this. If any love Christ as it behooves to love Him, he knows what I say; how, even when He forgives, he will not endure to go unpunished; for thou undergoes the severest punishment in having provoked Him. And I know indeed that I am speaking what will not be believed by the many; but nevertheless it is so as I have said. If then we love Christ as it behooves to love Him, we shall punish ourselves when we sin. For to those who love any whomsoever, not the suffering somewhat because they have provoked the beloved one is unpleasing; but above all, that they have provoked the person loved.
And if this last when angered does not punish, he has tortured his lover more; but if he exacts satisfaction, he has comforted him rather. Let us therefore not fear hell, but offending God; for it is more grievous than that when He turns away in wrath: this is worse than all, this heavier than all. And that thou may learn what a thing it is, consider this which I say. If one that was himself a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his Son, (who was himself of no such character,) that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation; and then if, having subsequently promoted him to great dignity, he had yet, after thus saving him and advancing him to that glory unspeakable, been outraged by the person that had received such treatment: would not that man, if he had any sense, have chosen ten thousand deaths rather than appear guilty of so great ingratitude? . . . . . These things then bearing in mind, let us above all things be afraid of sin; for this is punishment, this is hell, this is ten thousand ills. And let us not only be afraid of, but also flee from it, and strive to please God continually; for this is the kingdom, this is life, this is ten thousand goods. So shall we also even here obtain already the kingdom and the good things to come; whereunto may we all attain, through the grace and love towards men of our Lord Jesus Christ; with Whom to the Father, with the Holy Spirit, be glory, might, honor, now and for ever, and world without end. Amen.