Some pertinent questions were asked by Jon and Geoff in the comments in response to my last post on Wright and White on the “righteousness of God” in 2 Corinthians 5:21. This is an extended answer to them. The questions overlap a little, so I may be repeating myself in a couple of places.
It may help before we start, though, to clarify two assumptions that I make.
First, I think that the underlying correlation in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is practical rather than than abstract, historical rather than theological. The lived realities would have been much more alive to Paul’s mind than they are to ours. On the one hand, Jesus, despite being God’s son, was forced to suffer as a “sinner”—to be condemned by the Pharisees as a lawbreaker, by the high priest as a blasphemer. On the other, the apostles are ambassadors, servants, co-workers with God, agents of the righteousness of God.
The language is certainly condensed, to the point of abstraction: “sin” is set against “righteousness”. But I would argue that this is a rhetorical encapsulation of the realistic historical account.
Secondly, as will become clear in my answer to the first question, I think that it is misleading to discuss righteousness and justification in Paul apart from a pressing eschatological framework shaped by Old Testament narratives of judgment and vindication. Reformed theology struggles to give a coherent account of Paul not least because it tries to make his argumentation work in a post-eschatological—indeed, Christendom—setting.
So, to the questions….