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.
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."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.”
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....
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.