John Piper thinks that 1 Corinthians 1:30 “stands as a signal pointing to the righteousness of Christ that becomes ours when we are united to him by God through faith”.1 He is pleased to be able to quote Tom Wright’s “concession” to the Reformed position regarding this text:
It is the only passage I know where something called ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ,’ a phrase more often found in post-Reformation theology and piety than in the New Testament, finds any basis in the text.
In fact, in his response to Piper, Wright strongly rejects the view that we have here “something called ‘the righteousness of Christ’ imputed to them, in the full sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sense so emphasised by John Piper”.2 Wright’s view is that those who are “in Christ” share in his vindication but not in a perfect moral righteousness that is somehow “credited” to their account. I agree, but I think the case becomes much stronger—and Paul’s argument more coherent—when we take the narrative-historical-eschatological context into consideration.
And from him you are in Christ Jesus, who became wisdom for us from God, indeed righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that as it is written, “Let the one boasting boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:30-31, my translation)
As with 2 Corinthians 5:21, it is the Old Testament background that shows up the error of the Reformed position. Behind Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 is this passage from Jeremiah:
This is what the Lord says: Let not the wise boast in his wisdom, and let not the mighty boast in his might, and let not the wealthy boast in his wealth, but let him who boasts boast in this: that he understands and knows that I am the Lord when I do mercy and justice and righteousness (dikaiosynēn) in the earth, because in these things is my will, says the Lord. (Jer. 9:23–24)
This forms part of a lament over the impending devastation of Jerusalem, which will come about because Israel has departed from the Law (9:12-16). The days are coming when God will punish the house of Israel because they are “uncircumcised in heart”. At such a time of crisis there is no point in the wise man boasting in his wisdom, or the strong man in his strength, or the rich man in his wealth. These things will be of no value. They will not save Israel from destruction. The quotation of Isaiah 29:14 earlier in the passage (1 Cor. 1:19) reinforces the point. The only thing to boast in is the recognition that in this crisis YHWH is doing “mercy and justice and righteousness”. ”Righteousness” in this argument is what God does in a time of eschatological crisis.
Paul’s thought runs along very similar lines. The current age is doomed to pass away (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6; 7:29, 31). God is bringing to nothing the wisdom, strength and status of the present Greek-Roman world. This will have profound implications both for the Jews and for the Greeks. The basis on which he is turning the oikoumenē upside down is the cross of Christ, which Jews and Greeks, for different reasons, are having a hard time understanding.
But the Corinthians themselves are also part of the process: God has chosen the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, the despised to expose the hollowness of social standing. Why? So that no one might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor. 1:27-29). The saints in Corinth have become players in the eschatological drama.
Just as Paul later regards the apostles as agents of the “righteousness of God”, servants of God, in bringing about the reconciliation of the Corinthian church to God (2 Cor. 5:21), here he regards the Corinthians as human embodiments of what God is doing in this moment of eschatological transformation. Just as the apostles are Christ-like on account of their suffering (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7-12; 6:3-10), the Corinthians are Christ-like on account of their wretched social standing.
This gives us the argumentative context for verses 30-31.
To be “in Christ Jesus” was to be part of what God was doing in the ancient world, to be a community of eschatological transformation, to be a corporate sign of the massive political-religious upheaval that was about to take place.
For Jeremiah “righteousness” was what God did in the midst of the eschatological crisis. For Paul “righteousness” was what God did in Christ in the midst of the eschatological crisis.
As far as Paul and the apostles were concerned, God had shown his wisdom in the cross; he established his rightness in the cross, he acted justly in the cross; he consecrated his people in the cross; he redeemed his people in the cross. So Christ was for them wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.
There is no imputation of righteousness here—any more than there is an imputation of wisdom, to which the words “for us” are actually attached. “For us” simply means “as we understand it” or perhaps “for our benefit”. Paul does not say that Christ became “our righteousness”.
But again as with 2 Corinthians 5:21, though on a broader basis, there is the idea that to be in Christ means to be actively engaged in what Israel’s God is doing to bring about his righteous purposes at the end of the age both of second temple Judaism and of classical paganism.