Saturday, May 16, 2009

Becoming the Righteousness of God

Crucifixion
Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306

I have been reading N.T. Wright’s new book, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. It is a well-written defense of certain aspects of the so-called “new perspective” on Paul, which has caused a great deal of controversy, especially among those who hold traditional (“old perspective”) Reformed and Lutheran views of justification by faith. More on that debate another time.

For this post, I want to focus on a verse that has become central to the controversy—2 Corinthians 5.21. This has always been a favorite verse of mine. I have considered it to be one of those great summary texts, which express the Gospel message in a nutshell.

Here it is in the NRSV translation:
For our sake he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The immediate context for this verse is the section that runs from verses 18-21. This passage has as its focus the ministry of Paul as a “minister of reconciliation,” and here is how he develops that focus:
  • God reconciled the apostles to himself through Christ.
  • God then gave them the ministry of reconciliation.
  • Their message is that God reconciled the world to himself through Christ, that he did not count their trespasses against them, and that the apostles are the authorized proclaimers of this message.
  • Therefore, the apostles are God’s ambassadors and God is making his appeal through them.
  • And so, Paul appeals to them to be reconciled to God for Christ’s sake.
I think it best to interpret 2 Cor 5.21 as the CONCLUSION to this emphasis on Paul's ministry. It states the Gospel truth the apostles proclaim that leads to reconciliation with God.

2 Cor 5.21 is an expansion of what Paul introduced in v.19—that God reconciled the world to himself and did not count their trespasses against them. Some commentators think Paul may be quoting a creedal statement of the church that sums up what Christ has done for us. If so, this solidifies the interpretation that Paul's purpose here is to state the apostolic message in concise form.

The traditional interpretation of 2 Cor 5.21 is represented by this quote from Phil Johnson in his blog post, “The Great Exchange”:
Here is the apostle Paul's most succinct statement about the meaning of the cross. This could be the shortest, simplest verse among many in the Pauline epistles that make the meaning of justification inescapable: "He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him."

That text is all about the atoning work of Christ. Its meaning can be summed up in a single principle: substitution. It describes an exchange that took place through the atonement that Christ offered—our sin for Christ's righteousness. He took the place of sinners so that they might stand in His place as a perfectly righteous man.

Notice the graphic language: He was made sin (that's the very epitome of all that is despicable and odious), so that we might be made righteousness (that's everything that is good and pure and acceptable in God's estimation). This was the exchange: our sin for His righteousness. Our sin charged to His account; His righteousness credited to our account....
Now, N.T. Wright takes a radically different approach in interpreting this text. Trying to remain faithful to the context, which focuses on Paul as a minister of reconciliation and an ambassador for Christ, he takes the phrase, “that we might become the righteousness of God,” as synonymous with these other vocational descriptions. So, it turns out something like this: “God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be made a sin-offering for us, so that we (the apostles) might become (representatives of) the covenant faithfulness (i.e. righteousness) of God.”

I understand Wright's concern to respect the context, but I don’t think his is the best reading of 5.21 in relation to its context. I believe it makes more sense to see it as a summary statement of the message that the apostles bring as God’s ambassadors. This interpretation fits the context just as well. Wright's view seems forced.

Even though I don't accept that position, nevertheless, on other grounds this verse does present problems for the traditional view. Most notably, what are we to make of the verb, “become” in the second half of the "great exchange" described here. What does it mean that, “in him we...BECOME the righteousness of God”?

The Lutheran and Reformed understanding, based on the economic concept of imputation, is that our sin is placed on Christ’s account and counted against him, and in exchange his righteousness (the merit earned by his sinless life) is reckoned to our account. This "double imputation" leads to a change in the believer's status. We are declared righteous; our legal position before God the Judge is changed from that of "sinner" to that of “righteous.” Imputation does not describe an actual change within us, but a change in our legal standing before the Divine Court. Justification is a forensic matter. We are acquitted of any charges of law-breaking, and furthermore, God declares us perfectly righteous.

This traditional Protestant view has been defended against other interpretations of justification, such as that of Roman Catholicism, which holds that justification consists of a real, interior change in a person—imparted righteousness or infused grace—rather than an external legal transaction.

It is at this point that 2 Corinthians 5.21 causes Protestants problems. Listen again to the text:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
If Paul wanted to describe justification as a declaration of righteousness based upon imputation, would he have said, “that in him we might become the righteousness of God”? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say something like, “that in him we might be declared righteous by God,” or “that in him we might receive righteousness (i.e. a righteous status) from God”?

What does it mean to “BECOME the righteousness of God”?

Please share your thoughts and the insights you have gained from your own study as I work through this text in the days ahead and try to grasp Paul's meaning.

61 comments:

katiekind said...

This is all very interesting to me and I want to figure out more about it.

I agree that it's uncomfortable and interesting that Paul didn't choose exactly parallel wording when he said Christ was MADE sin so that we MIGHT BECOME righteousness. In those words, the great exchange isn't quite as neatly balanced as my theology likes it to be.

I want to get that book. Wright has really helped me a lot (and so have the Presbyterians and Lutherans of the world) but I'll probably be in way over my head.

Nick said...

I'm a big fan of the exegetical principle: Interpret 'difficult' texts in light of more 'clear' texts.

Given that, I consider 2 Cor 5:21 to be one of the most abused passages due to it's overemphasis and over use. It's amazing how often this verse comes up, it's literally one of the top 3 passages that comes up in a justification discussion.

The problem is that a lot is read INTO the text, and this has gone on for so long that people have been trained to see what is not actually there. For example, the term "double imputation" is almost always attached here, but the fact is the term "impute" doesn't appear here, nor does the Bible ever use "impute" in regards to our guilt going to Christ. Paul was well aware of the term "impute," but he did not divide up salvation into categories of imputation.

People take it for granted that "made sin" means "imputed with our guilt and took the punishment." But really that is taking liberties with the text.

There are 3 general possibilities I see for interpreting 2 Cor 5:21, though they are not necessarily mutually exclusive:

1) In Hebrew the word for "sin" and "sin offering" was often the same word. Early Church Fathers (eg Augustine) made this argument that 5:21 is "sin offering." In the KJV, the same Hebrew word is translated as "sin" about 100 times and "sin offering" about 100 times. One place I often point to is that there are examples in the OT where the Hebrew word can mean sin and sin offering in the same sentence, Lev 4:28f is an example of this. This would fit "knew no sin was made sin," where the first "sin" is actual sins while the second "sin" is sacrifice.


2) Romans 8:3 says Jesus was sent "in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin" which puts the "made sin" more on the concept of Incarnation itself than any sort of imputed guilt and from there was a sacrifice for sin.


3) I see a clear parallel of 5:21 with 2 Cor 8:9=
"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich."

This to me is a clear parallel, and clearly the "made rich" and "made poor" are not literal (any more than "made sin" is literal). I read this as Christ "humbled himself" (cf Phil 2:5) and lived a life of obedience (His Sacrifice) so that we could in turn be exalted. Clearly the "rich" and "poor" for Jesus is not identical to our own "rich" and "poor."


People often read 2 Cor 5:21 as a parallel of 21a to 21b, saying just as Jesus was made sin (by imputation) so must we be "made righteous" (by imputation), but that's not strictly necessary. The term impute nowhere appears here, and I regularly call people out on that. It simply means 21a caused 21b to happen, not demanding a 1 to 1 parallel. The term "made the righteousness of God IN HIM" to me corresponds to v17 where it says "anyone IN CHRIST is a New Creation," which has nothing imputational about it.

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