Sunday, September 2, 2007

The righteousness of God in 2 Cor 5.21

Have you read the introduction?

2 Cor 5.18 – 21 is one of the five (or six) passages in which Paul uses the phrase "righteousness of God" (Rom 1.17, Rom. 3, Rom 10.3, 2 Cor 5.21, 2 Cor 9.9; arguably in Eph. 4.24). Wright exegetes this passage in a way that supports his idea that the "righteousness of God" in Paul refers to God's covenant faithfulness, rather than a quality of righteousness that is given to men. A close reading of the passage reveals, however, that Wright's exegesis is unlikely. Whatever the "righteousness of God" might mean in 2 Cor 5.21, it is certainly a quality conferred to us in some way as a solution for the problem of sin.

Central to Wright's repackaging of the term "justification" is the insistence that Christendom has misunderstood Paul's phrase "righteousness of God" since the time of Augustine. Rather than a phrase referring to an abstract moral quality or status, either possessed by or conferred by God, Wright understands the "righteousness of God" to mean "God's covenant faithfulness." That is, God is righteous because he faithfully executes the covenant promises he has made, first to Israel and then also to the Gentiles included in the scope of the Abrahamic covenant (WSPRS, chap. 5 and 6). Wright's case for reunderstanding the "righteousness of God" is built on an exegetical survey of the passages in which this phrase is used by Paul. One of these is 2 Cor 5.18 – 21, which Wright addresses in a separate essay.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Cor 5.18 – 21 ESV

ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ οὖν πρεσβεύομεν ὡς τοῦ θεοῦ παρακαλοῦντος δι' ἡμῶν: δεόμεθα ὑπέρ Χριστοῦ, καταλλάυητε τῳ θεῳ. τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁμαρτίαν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτοῦ. 2 Cor 5.20 - 21 (BibleWorks Greek, apparently Nestle-Aland 27).

Historically, Luther focused on the first half of v. 21, that Christ became sin for us (Commentary on Gal., 3.13). Calvin on the other hand drew out the parallelism:

We may now return to the contrast drawn in this verse between righteousness and sin. How can we become righteous before God? In the same way as Christ became a sinner. For He took, as it were, our person, that He might be the offender in our name and thus might be reckoned a sinner, not because of His own offences but because of those of others, since He Himself was pure and free from every fault and bore the penalty that was our due and not His own. now in the same way we we righteous in Him, not because we have satisfied God's judgment...but because we are judged in relation to Christ's righteousness which we have put on by faith, that it may become our own. (Calvin, 5.21)

Wright believes that this way of reading 2 Cor 5.21 was a mistake on the Reformers' part.

His understanding is that v. 21 is connected not to a discussion of justification but rather to a discussion of the covenantal character of Paul's ministry. It is Paul and his fellow ministers who "become the righteousness of God."

Paul is not talking about justification but his own apostolic ministry; that he has already described this in chapter 3 as the ministry of the new covenant; that the point at issue is the fact that the apostles are ambassadors of Christ, with God making his appeal through them; and that therefore the apostolic ministry, including its suffering, fear, and apparent failure, is itself an incarnation of the covenant faithfulness of God. (WSPRS 104 – 105)

The reasons he gives for rejecting Calvin's analysis are four:

(a) that once again Paul never actually says this anywhere else; (b) that here it is God’s righteousness, not Christ’s, that “we” apparently “become”; (c) that there seems to be no good reason why he suddenly inserts this statement into a discussion whose thrust is quite different, namely, a consideration of the paradoxical apostolic ministry in which Christ is portrayed in and
through the humiliating weakness of the apostle (4:7-6:13); and (d) the verse, read in this way, seems to fall off the end of the preceding argument, so much so that some commentators have suggested that the real break in the thought comes not between 5:21 and 6:1 but between 5:19 and 5:20
(BRG 3).

Wright's exegesis raises two questions. First, what is the set of people in 5.21 who "become the righteousness of God"? Second, what is the relationship of 5.21 to the surrounding context?

Wright's answer to the first is that Paul and the apostles, those involved in the ministry, are the ones who embody God's covenant faithfulness. His ground is the answer to the second question: 5.21 must refer to Paul's ministry, else "…[i]f you insist on reading 2 Corinthians 5:21 with a meaning … [like] 'imputed righteousness' – you will find, as many commentators have, that it detaches itself from the rest of the chapter and context, as though it were a little floating saying that Paul threw in here for good measure." (WSPRS 105). In other words, surrounding context forces Wright into his reading.

As far as it goes, at least two of Wright's points are sound. Certainly 2 Corinthians 5 is a continuation of the discussion of the character of Paul's ministry carried out in chapter 3 (indeed, beginning as early as 1.8), and the point at issue in chapter 5 is certainly that the apostles are the suffering ambassadors proclaiming God's gospel. None of this is subject to serious dispute, and it connects in a delightfully organic way with the entire argument of 2 Corinthians that culminates in chapters 10 - 12: that the suffering of Paul validates his ministry over against the ministry of the superapostles.[*]

However, it is important to see that there are actually two strands of dialogue going on in chapters 4 and 5 of 2 Corinthians. The first, occupying the majority of the text, is Paul's description of the character of his ministry. Wright correctly identifies this with the discussion of the covenants in chapter 3. The second strand, which surfaces in 4.5, 4.14, 5.14 - 15, 5.17, and most explicitly in 5.20, is the content of Paul's ministry, his ambassadorial appeal: "Be reconciled to God."

In weaving these two strands together, Paul reveals his motivation for his appeal. The need for reconciliation is caused because men are in the process of perishing (4.3). They are perishing because of the guilt of their sin, which will result in an unfavorable verdict on the day when they appear before the judgment seat of God to receive according to what they have done, whether good or bad (5.10). Thus, people are naturally at enmity with God. The enmity requires that ambassadors such as Paul must be sent with a message of reconciliation.

At this point, it is clear that justification is precisely in view in Paul's mind. He is thinking of the eschatological verdict that must be rendered at the final judgment, in which the verdict of "righteousness" is required in order to belong to God's people. The coming crisis of justification or lack thereof leads to the need for Paul's ministry.

Hence, Wright is correct in claiming that the overall thrust of chapter 5 is Paul's covenantal ministry; he is incorrect to assume that therefore justification is not in view. The content of Paul's ministry is entirely wrapped up in offering men the opportunity to change the eschatological verdict pronounced upon them at God's judgment.

In light of this, the flow of thought of 5.18 – 20 is clear:

  • Paul himself has been reconciled (5.18a)
  • And has therefore been given the ministry of reconciliation (5.18b)
  • Which consists of God's reconciling the world to himself, NOT counting their sins against them (5.19a),
  • And which ministry he has committed to Paul (5.19b).
  • Thus, he is an ambassador as if God were pleading through him (5.20a):
  • "Be reconciled to God" (5.20b).

Notably, 5.20b is the explicit content of Paul's reconciliation proclamation. It is the ambassador's speech itself.

Where does 5.21 fit into this context? NTW believes that 5.21 is a restatement of Paul's explanation of his ministry, and that therefore the clause "that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" means that Paul in his ministry is becoming the embodiment of the covenant faithfulness of God, offering reconciliation to the world.

Wright's reading therefore comes to this: "God sent Jesus to the cross, taking on the sin of us apostles, so that we might have a ministry that embodies the covenant faithfulness of God (which includes the offer of reconciliation just mentioned in 5.20)."

This is an unsatisfactory train of thought. The "righteousness of God" in 5.21b is in clear opposition to the sins of men in 5.21a. God's purpose in making men the righteousness of God has directly to do with reversing the problem of sin, accomplishing this by making Jesus to become sin on their behalf.
In this light, it seems clear that 5.21 is a continuation of the ambassador's speech. The punctuation should read thus:

Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: "We implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God. For he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."

Paul's train of thought is made much clearer on this reading. He has a message of reconciliation: Be reconciled to God (v. 20). But that sentence is insufficiently clear on its own, and so needs a follow-on in verse 21. How can one be reconciled? Answer: You can be reconciled by becoming God's righteousness in Christ. Verses 5.20b - 5.21 are the content of Paul's ambassadorial speech.

What features demand this reading over against Wright's? First, as above, a clear parallel exists between Christ's becoming sin in order that "we" might become the righteousness of God. It is most natural for the set of people who become the righteousness of God to be the same set as those for whom Christ became sin, and whatever reading we adopt must account for the fact that becoming God's righteousness is parallel to Jesus' becoming sin.

Second, the repetition of the phrase "in Christ" in connection with the content of the reconciliation message strongly suggests that 5.21 also concerns the content of the reconciliation message:

  • Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (5.17)
  • ...that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.(5.19)
  • God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.(5.21) NIV

These two features appear to me to sufficiently answer the two questions, "Who are the set of people who become God's righteousness?", and "What is the relationship of the passage to its surrounding context?"

Wright's analysis, on the other hand, relies too much on the overall covenantal reading without paying attention to the features mentioned above:

In the light of this exegesis of chaps. 3-5, and this reading of 5:11-20 in particular, the thrust of 5:21 emerges into the light. It is not an aside, a soteriological statement thrown in here for good measure as though to explain how it is that people can in fact thus be reconciled. It is a climactic statement of the whole argument so far. The “earthen vessel” that Paul knows himself to be (4:7) has found the problem of his own earthiness dealt with, and has found itself filled, paradoxically, with treasure indeed: “for our sake God made Christ, who did not know sin, to be a sin-offering for us, so that in him we might become God’s covenant-faithfulness.” The “righteousness of God” in this verse is not a human status in virtue of which the one who has “become” it stands righteous” before God, as in Lutheran soteriology. It is the covenant faithfulness of the one true God, now
active through the paradoxical Christ-shaped ministry of Paul, reaching out with the offer of reconciliation to all who hear his bold preaching. What the whole passage involves, then, is the idea of the covenant ambassador, who represents the one for whom he speaks in such a full and thorough way that he actually becomes the living embodiment of his sovereign — or perhaps, in the light of 4:7-18 and
6:1-10, we should equally say the dying embodiment. Once this is grasped as the meaning of 5:21, it appears that this meaning fits very well with the graphic language of those other passages, especially 4:10-12.
(BRG 4-5)

At the same moment, Wright wants the righteousness of God to be "reaching out with a message of reconciliation" on the basis of Christ's sin offering, yet he wants the "righteousness of God" to be the quality that Paul and his ambassadorial friends embody in their ministry of suffering and dying. The set of people who become God's righteousness is confused in Wright's analysis.

Contrary to Wright's assertion, reading "the righteousness of God" as a quality that He imparts to men is not "an aside, a soteriological statement thrown in for good measure." Rather, it is the content of the ambassadorial speech, made necessary by the paradoxical nature of the gospel message. We appeal to you, be reconciled to God -- not by the natural way of changing your behavior to please him, but through the great exchange of your sin for Christ's and his righteousness for yours.

Luther and Calvin, as it turns out, were on the right track. And therefore in this instance, the "righteousness of God" is indeed a quality that God imparts to men (all for whom Christ became sin) so that they "become" it.

So what of Wright's four objections above? Clearly, (a), that Paul never mentions becoming the righteousness of God anywhere else, is a matter of considerable debate. In my view (influenced by Luther and Calvin), 5.21 is simply a rephrasing of the argument in Galatians 3, in which we become righteous not through works of the law but through faith in Christ who became a curse for us. Similarly, I find it impossible to read Romans 10.3-4 without seeing the "righteousness of God"
as a quality which the unbelieving Jews have failed to become or receive. Objection (b), that "we" are becoming God's righteousness rather than Christ's (and thus that imputation is impossible here), seems hair-splitting in light of Paul's ready switching back and forth between persons of the Trinity (cf. Romans 8.9). And objections (c) and (d), that reading "God's righteousness" in a soteriological sense causes verse 21 to become disjoint from the rest of the argument, are based on a false choice stemming from Wright's failure to discern the two threads of dialogue in chapters 4 and 5. Verse 21 as a soteriological statement is not a non-sequitur but rather joins 5.20b as a succinct statement of Paul's ambassadorial appeal.

None of this denies that "God's righteousness" includes his covenant faithfulness, or that 5.21 is integrally related to Paul's larger argument about his ministry. Rather, it simply makes the point that the set of those who become the righteousness of God is the set of those for whom Christ became sin, not Wright's more limited set of apostles, or perhaps ministers of the gospel. The immediate context demands a reading of 'becoming righteousness' that relates clearly to the reading of 'becoming sin.'

Finally, this argument does not address the question of whether the righteousness in view is one that is imputed forensically per Luther or imparted by infusion per Trent, or both or neither. The only point is to demonstrate that in this instance, at least, the "righteousness of God" is a quality imparted to us in a salvific sense.

Here I take the view, argued elsewhere, that 2 Corinthians forms a whole argument that culminates in chapters 10 - 12.


WSPRS - What Saint Paul Really Said
BRG - On Becoming the Righteousness of God
Calvin - Calvin's Commentaries, II Corinthians, ed. Torrance.

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