Driving back from visiting my mother yesterday I listened to a Premier Radio podcast of Tom Wright and James White debating the meaning of “justification” in Paul. It’s a difficult and rather disjointed conversation—Justin Brierley was clearly struggling to keep his head above water—but it’s worth listening to.
Wright has been enormously helpful in bringing into focus the Jewish-biblical—rather than Latin-medieval—background to Paul’s argument about justification and righteousness. But it seems to me that, in his reconstruction, the end of Israel’s exile is effectively the end of narrative—the end of theology as an engagement with the narrative of God’s people.
My view, developed in [amazon:978-1606087879:inline], is that we cannot understand Paul’s argument in Romans about the justification either of righteous Gentiles or of believers apart from the anticipated historical—that is, eschatological—framework. The story does not stop with Jesus or Pentecost. It moves relentlessly on.
Justification and righteousness are not theological abstractions in Paul. They are consistently narrative categories. They address historical circumstances. They presuppose the impending “wrath” of God, either against Israel or against the Greek-Roman world, which I think has to be understood in historical terms.
So the basic question can be put almost this bluntly: Whom will history prove to be in the right? When God eventually judges the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, who will be justified? Two groups of people will be found to be in the right: first, and somewhat incidentally, Gentiles who instinctively do what the Law requires, who will put the Jews of the diaspora to shame (Rom. 2:14, 27); secondly, and more importantly, those who put their trust in the proclamation that Jesus died for the sins of Israel and was raised by the living God to judge and rule over the nations (Rom. 3:21-26). The first has to do with the justification of human behaviour. The second has to do with the justification of a people loyal to YHWH.
The last section of the discussion centres on the interpretation of the statement “we might become the righteousness of God” in 2 Corinthians 5:21, which is what I want to look at in this post:
The one who did not know sin for our sake he made sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (My translation.)
White takes the traditional Reformed line: Jesus was sinless, he took upon himself the sin of the world; therefore, righteousness is imputed to us. He says that when Paul talks about being ambassadors of Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us, this is “deeply soteriological language”. This, in White’s view, has been pretty much the “universal interpretation of this text”, and woe betide anyone who dares to question that consensus.
Wright agrees that God gives us the status of being righteous in Christ but insists that this is not what the phrase “righteousness of God” means in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Righteousness from God (cf. Phil. 3:9) is not the same as the righteousness of God. What we have here, ironically, is a “John Piper-like concern for the utter glory of God”. Paul is talking about the faithfulness of God to his covenant.
So White understands the passage in traditional theological terms. Wright regards it as an appeal to the narrative of Israel’s relationship with God in history. This is the fundamental hermeneutical dilemma that we are having to deal with as we press towards an “evangelical theology for the age to come”. In my view, the narrative-historical approach does justice to Paul’s argument in the letter. The Reformed reading does not. Here’s why….
The first thing to note—probably the most important thing—is that this passage is not about the salvation of the people addressed. It has to do with the relationship of Paul and his fellow apostles to the “saints” in Corinth (2 Cor. 1:1). That relationship has broken down, and Paul, who believes that he speaks for God, appeals to them to be reconciled to God through the mending of their relationship with the apostles. The Corinthians are addressed in the second person; the apostles are referred to in the first person: “We implore you… we appeal to you” (2 Cor. 5:20; 6:1). Verse 21 sits in the middle of this as part of Paul’s defence of the apostles. It is not all Christians but we the apostles who have become the “righteousness of God”.
Secondly, as Wright points out, we need to take into consideration the quotation from Isaiah in the continuation of the argument at the beginning of chapter 6:
Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Cor. 6:1–2)
This is not a random dictum. Isaiah’s “servant” has been formed to restore Israel, to “set up the tribes of Jacob and turn back the dispersion of Israel”. God has listened to him in an acceptable time; he has helped him on a day of salvation; he has given him as a “covenant to nations, to establish the land, and to inherit a wilderness heritage” (Is. 49:5-6, 8 LXX). Kings and rulers will honour this servant because “the Holy One of Israel is faithful” (49:7 LXX). So it is through the work of the servant that the righteousness of God is established (cf. Is. 46:13), that he proves himself faithful to his covenant with Abraham.
Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is that the apostles are the “servants of God” (cf. 6:4) through whom God is seeking to reconcile these Corinthian believers to himself—just as in Isaiah 49 God used his servant to reconcile Jacob to himself. They are ambassadors, through whom God makes his appeal to the Corinthians; they implore the Corinthians to be reconciled to God (5:20).
The apostles are in a position to perform this task because they are in Christ, through whom “God was reconciling the world to himself” (5:19). Jesus became sin—he was crucified as an enemy of Israel and of YHWH, a blasphemer, a false claimant to the throne of Israel. But that led, paradoxically, to real enemies of God such as Paul becoming the “righteousness of God”, the means by which YHWH is justified. As Wright says in the podcast, the apostles embody the covenant faithfulness of God in their ministry.
In effect, what Paul is claiming is that the apostles are right, they embody the rightness of God, they are justified in making this appeal, because they are in Christ, as is clearly evidenced by their suffering (6:4-10)—they carry in their bodies the dying of Jesus (4:10). This is not an abstract argument about the imputation of righteousness through faith. It is a practical argument: the apostles make their appeal on the ground that they are acting out the role of Christ-like servants, who commend themselves by accepting, as Jesus accepted, hardships, persecution, distrust, abuse, and punishment.
Just a couple of comments on this.
First, it is true that 2 Corinthians 5:21 comes in a much longer discourse in which Paul is affirming the credentials of his apostolic ministry. In the course of this, much that he says is no less true of the experience of those for whom the apostolic ministry was intended. Apostles were role models for believers in their lifestyles, in suffering as well as in blessing. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul has already broadened out the meaning of what he is saying to include all believers, eg. 5:14, 15, 17. He is not restricting the scope of his experience to the apostolic ministry of the few, such as himself.
How does this work in 2 Corinthians 5:21? Immediately before 5:21, Paul says, “Be reconciled to God”. How was this to be? Those whom Paul was addressing were also to become “the righteousness of God”, by living out in their own lives the same kind of life that Paul himself experienced. However, this included covenant status as well as covenant experience of suffering, which was primarily demonstrated in apostles, but was nevertheless spilling over into the lives of believers all over the near-eastern world at that time.
It is evident elsewhere in Paul that covenant status was also how “righteousness of God” was to be understood, eg in Philippians 3:9, where Paul emphasises that is it is a transfer of a status from God, not simply ”the righteousness of God” as “God’s faithfulness to the covenant”. Wright’s argument (eg in What St Paul Really Said) that the prefix ek in “of God” distinguishes the meaning of “righteousness of God” in Philippians from its use elsewhere is equally arguable the opposite way. Philippians 3:4 was emphasising that “righteousness of God” could have the meaning of an imparted status as well as of “faithfulness to the covenant” in Christ. I have come to the view that Wright is wrong to split one meaning off from the other, and that both can be validly included in the phrase, not least in 2 Corinthians 5:21.
The second comment is to do with the Isaianic Servant reference in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Isaiah 49 is the one chapter above all which broadens the ministry of the Servant from Israel to include the Gentiles. It’s there in one of the verses you have highlighted — Isaiah 49:6. The only difference is that you would say this salvation came to the Gentiles in the more limited sense of something they observed in Israel, which convinced them of what YHWH was doing for Israel. Then. somehow, by believing in YHWH, the benefits of what He was doing for Israel came to include themselves, even though what He was doing for Israel was not what He was doing for them, or if He was it was only indirectly.
I think it makes more obvious sense to conclude that God’s intention all along was for Israel to be the vessel through whom He would bring the same salvation to the Gentiles as He was bringing to them, that salvation was a broader term than freedom from pagan oppression, and that this is what Isaiah 49:6 is affirming. But ‘you pays your money and you takes your choice’.
…much that he says is no less true of the experience of those for whom the apostolic ministry was intended.
This is beside the point. Exegesis sets out to determine what he does say, what argument he is making, not what he might say if he were talking about something else. He may well think that the Corinthians are also the righteousness of God, but that’s not what he says here. He says that the apostles are the righteousness of God and he says it for a reason: it is part of his attempt to explain his role in seeking to reconcile these estranged believers to God.
I have this problem all the time with your criticism: you refuse to respect the boundaries of argumentation. Good exegesis does not consist of indiscriminately stuffing as much theology into a word or phrase as possible. Clearly, our modern minds have a hard time seeing the contingency and focus of Paul’s argumentation, but I think we just have to get over our obsession with universals.
…Paul has already broadened out the meaning of what he is saying to include all believers…
This is correct, but in verse 20 he returns to the issue at hand, which is the relationship between the Corinthians and the apostles. Verse 21 serves that argument, and 6:1-2 provides the Old Testament rationale. In this argument Christ’s death is put forward as the basis for the ministry of the apostles, who have been included in his servant ministry and who therefore are qualified to extend this appeal for reconciliation. That is Paul’s argument. There is no need to read extraneous ideas into it.
Even in 5:12-15 he is speaking of the apostles, not of all believers: the apostles have concluded that because Christ has died, they too have died, so that they might live for others—including the Corinthians (cf. 2 Cor. 4:12).
Those whom Paul was addressing were also to become “the righteousness of God”, by living out in their own lives the same kind of life that Paul himself experienced.
This is not what Paul says. He does not say that the Corinthians have become righteousness of God. He says that the apostles, as God’s servants, have become righteousness of God.
And it has nothing to do with covenant status. It has to do with God’s choice of a servant to fulfil a particular historical purpose.
Philippians 3:4 was emphasising that “righteousness of God” could have the meaning of an imparted status as well as of “faithfulness to the covenant” in Christ.
I don’t follow. Philippians 3 does not have the phrase “righteousness of God”.
Nor is there any suggestion of “imparted status” in Philippians 3. Or do you mean “imputed”? Either way, nothing is transferred from Christ to Paul—as far as I can see, that whole notion is a myth. Paul thinks that he is in the right because he has faith (3:9). This is from God. It is God’s doing. It is God’s response to the eschatological crisis of the coming wrath against Israel (cf. Rom. 3:21-22).
Believing in Jesus is simply counted as righteousness. Abraham believed the promise, and that belief was counted or reckoned (elogisthē) as righteousness. The thought is very simple: God judged Abraham to have done the right thing. God judges Paul to have done the right thing in not trusting in his Jewish heritage at this time of eschatological crisis but trusting instead in the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The idea of the “righteousness of God” is illustrated from Psalm 21:31-32 LXX:
…the coming generation will be announced to the Lord, and they shall announce his righteousness to a people to be born, because the Lord acted.
God is righteous in what he does, in his actions. The force of the quotation from Isaiah 49 in 2 Corinthians 6:2 is that God sometimes acts through a servant. Clearly that servant is also justified in doing what he does, but what is at issue here is not covenantal status but the particular action of a particular servant, on behalf of God, in a particular context.
Andrew – what an extraordinary outburst! Exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:21, as supported by 2 Corinthians 3, 4 and the first part of 6, is precisely what I was doing. In all the preceding chapters, Paul goes beyond what applies purely and simply to apostles, but describes deliberately and explicitly a great deal of what is common to all believers. In that respect he is describing what had been overlooked by believers in Corinth, and what actually applies to them, even if they were scarcely living it out in a truly apostolic sense.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul describes even more clearly what is common to all believers, in the verses I particularly mentioned. It is simply incorrect to say that in 2 Corinthians 5:12-15 he is describing the experience of apostles but not all believers. “One died for all, therefore all died” is not just describing the experience of apostles. I don’t know of anyone who thinks that — not even you, if I recall correctly from your previous exegesis of the passage. Paul is here talking in the third person, not a more limited and personal first person plural.
2 Corinthians 5:21 is not as clear cut as Wright (or you) maintain. Wright’s argument rests on the meaning of dikasiosyne theou in the LXX Psalms and Isaiah interpreted as ‘the faithfulness of God to the covenant’. I’m not even sure it’s an either/or argument in 5:21. If dikasiosyne theou has the sense of a demonstration of Christ’s covenant faithfulness here, I think the rest of the context is equally suggestive of the meaning of a righteousness status, simply because Paul is at this point talking in language which points more to the universally applicable benefits of Christ to believers in general than the particular characteristics of Christ which are reflected in the apostles. He is clearly doing both throughout 2 Corinthians 5, and in the preceding chapters, even in the course of defending the apostolic ministry itself.
The allusion to the servant in 5:21 identifies the servant with Christ, the sinless one made to be sin so that “in him we might become the righteousness of God”. Sin is contrasted with righteousness. The universalising is difficult to overlook. Our sin taken by him, God’s righteousness given to us. “We/us” here continues the apostolic first person plural of 5:12, 13, 14, 16, 18, 19, 20. But the use of the same first person plural was broader than Paul/apostles in 5:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10 (especially), and throughout 2 Corinthians 3, 4 and 5 there is an interplay between what is specific to Paul the apostle, and what is true of all believers. Common sense determines the meaning.
I think Wright is too determined to defend dikaiosyne theou from any other shade of meaning apart from the one he asserts. I think context has to be allowed to have a say as well. Here, I think context strongly says something different, or at least something more. What did the covenant faithfulness of God in the apostles or even in believers demonstrate? Righteous status before God, which was vicariously accomplished by the servant for all, not just the apostles.
Philippians 3:9 has the phrase ek theou dikaiosynen. Wright asserts that this is deliberately to be distinguished from dikaiosyne theou. I think we are in the same semantic territory. It is covenant language. It is not simply as you say, “Paul thinks that he is in the right because he has faith”. Ek theou implies something given or transferred from the subject, where dikaiosyne theou implies something belonging to or a part of the subject.
To quote http://biblesuite.com/greek/1537.htm
ek (a preposition, written eks before a vowel) – properly, “out from and to” (the outcome); out from within. 1537 /ek (“out of”) is one of the most under-translated (and therefore mis-translated) Greek propositions – often being confined to the meaning “by.” 1537 (ek) has a two-layered meaning (“out from and to”) which makes it out-come oriented (out of the depths of the source and extending to its impact on the object).
I don’t think any of this can be seriously in dispute. Ek theou gives a different shade of meaning from dikaiosyne theou, but I understand here that it extends the meaning of dikaiosyne theou rather than providing a totally different meaning.
“Imparted/imputed righteousness”: the translation of the words used in Hebrew and Greek is ‘credited’, which simply means, as you say, “counted”. However, something more is happening than God simply regarding Abraham or Paul as having “done the right thing” — to quote you. Abraham’s faith in God was counted as having covenant significance in Genesis 15. Paul’s trust in Jesus, in his death and resurrection, works not only on the same principle, but reflected the fulfilment of the same covenant story. This is the basis of the argument in Romans 4, repeated here in Philippians 3. Righteousness was something given, as a status, from God. In that sense it was imparted or imputed. It didn’t belong to Abraham any more than it belonged to Paul. It actually belonged to God, and through Jesus, the servant, was given to those who believed in him. It was his righteousness, not their own on the basis of ethnicity, heritage, history or accomplishment of any kind.
In Philippians 3:9, this righteousness is a covenant status which is given, as opposed to law which is “my righteousness”. The contrast couldn’t be clearer in that verse. It is also a righteousness which is accompanied by resurrection power, sufferings, death, and ultimately physical resurrection.
The force of the quotation from Isaiah 49 in 2 Corinthians 6:2 is that God sometimes acts through a servant. Clearly that servant is also justified in doing what he does, but what is at issue here is not covenantal status but the particular action of a particular servant, on behalf of God, in a particular context.
No; the force of the quotation from Isaiah 49 is that Christ was the servant referred to, and it is precisely in covenant terms that Paul is describing his vicarious actions in 2 Corinthians 5:21. He was a particular servant because he was uniquely able to address and fufil a covenant need, which Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5:21.
I have this problem all the time with your criticism: you refuse to respect the boundaries of argumentation. Good exegesis does not consist of indiscriminately stuffing as much theology into a word or phrase as possible.
Please don’t spoil a carefully thought-out position with this kind of bluster.
I listened to the podcast this morning, and enjoyed the thoughtful exchange between Wright and White. As I had been saying something similar to Wright of Philippians 3:10-17 in the morning meditation at our local ministers’ prayer meeting today, I forwarded the link to them. I thought it was interesting that there was considerable focus in the podcast discussion on 2 Corinthians 5:21. Interesting that I have moved away from Wright’s interpretation here, in the light of careful criticisms of it also made elsewhere. I think that White also had cogent arguments to put forward, and I would adopt exactly the same tactics in talking to Muslims about the basis on which we can know peace before a righteous God, as I have already done on a number of occasions. It works because it’s true.
Abraham’s faith in God was counted as having covenant significance in Genesis 15.
I don’t really follow your argument here. The covenant is given because Abraham asks God, “how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (Gen. 15:8). The covenant comes after the assertion of Abraham’s righteousness and is not obviously dependent upon it. But more to the point, in the New Testament there is no covenant made in response to the faith of the believer. Perhaps it could be applied to the faith of Jesus, but that is not what you are arguing for.
“Credited as righteousness” is always used as a covenant term. In Genesis 15, Abraham’s faith was “credited as righteousness” because he believed God would give him a son and heir. The significance of the son was to be the worldwide reach of his descendants, and the worldwide blessing which would follow. So it is not simply the faith in itself that is significant, but the inheritance it would release. The promise of blessing was the overarching significance of the covenant, and all the covenants which went to make up “the covenant”.
“Credited as righteousness” is then a covenant term repeated in Romans 4:5, 4:6, 4:9, 4:11, 4:22, 23, 24. The covenant began when Abraham believed God. It operated before the covenant of circumcision, having an overriding intent which was for Jew and Gentile — Romans 4:9-12. The law coming 430 years later did not supersede it — Galatians 3:17. It found its fulfilment in Jesus, and those who would believe in him — Romans 4:23-25, where the significance of being “delivered over for our sins and raised to life for our justification” extend to a story which began outside Israel’s story, and continue beyond it.
But I still see no imputation or impartation. Abraham was the “father of all who believe without being circumcised”, but all who believe are not justified by Abraham’s faith; they are justified by their own faith. Paul is not saying in Romans 4:11 that the righteousness of Abraham is imputed to those who later believe. They are simply justified, counted righteous, in the same way.
This is what I actually said about imputed/imparted:
“Imparted/imputed righteousness”: the translation of the words used in Hebrew and Greek is ‘credited’, which simply means, as you say, “counted”.
Neither I, nor anyone else as far as I know, thinks anyone is justified by Abraham’s faith or anyone’s faith but their own. I don’t even know why you’ve said this.
‘Credited as righteousness’ is a term of covenant inclusion, which is how it is used for Abraham in Genesis 15 and Romans 4.
The only reason for not seeing a righteous status coming from God in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is to defend a strict word study of ‘righteousness of God’ which doesn’t, to my mind, really work or apply in context. (Even Wright has a hard time explaining it). ’Righteousness of God’ in this verse means much the same as ‘righteousness out of or from God’ in Philippians 3:9. The latter I argued, instead of meaning something totally different from 2 Corinthians 5:21, was in the same semantic territory, and a different way of saying more or less the same thing.
Wright’s interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 (and by contrast Philippians 3:9) is convincing until you begin to look more closely at the evidence he produces to support it, and what Paul actually says in 2 Corinthians 3-6. Even Wright concedes a righteousness coming from or ‘out of’ God in Philippians 3:9, as something transferred from one person (God) to another (Paul, in this case). If it’s something declared (as in a law court verdict), it’s because of something that had actually happened, which describes a reality, not a presumptive fiction.
I wouldn’t have used the words imputed/imparted if I’d realised they were going to be so seized on and misinterpreted. My fault entirely. The words are loaded.
So for clarification:
How is one “reconciled to God?”
What does it mean that “he made him to be sin?”
Are you suggesting that we stand before God on our own righteousness? Or is it simply that this particular verse does not speak to imputed righteousness?
Could you please do a better job explaining the connection between the first part of verse 21 with the last part?
“What does it mean that “he made him to be sin?””
I would second this.
Also the following…
1) How do you define “righteousness” and “justify” in general and as Paul used the words?
2) What does it actually mean that we become the righteousness of God if not imputed righteousness? Especially since parallelism seems to be a common Hebrew manner of communicating.
Thanks for the questions, guys. Got a busy day today, plus the sun is shining at last, but I’ll attempt a response on Monday. Geoff, I’m not clear what you are getting at with your reference to Jewish parallelism.
It makes sense that parallelism would be in view here. Not necessarily. But that the “righteousness of God” would parallel Jesus being made sin.
Answers to the questions can be found here.
In addition to the excellent point that it is the apostles who are primarily in view here, it seems to me that one of the key issues White and others don’t address is the simple fact that Paul uses the word “become” in 2Cor 5:21, which is an odd expression if one were to be talking about “imputation.” The doctrine of imputation for those who speak of forensic justification has nothing to do with people “becoming” anything. It has to do with them being granted a status, being declared as having been credited with something to their ledger. It would be offensive to Protestant sensibilities to say that justification means I “become” the righteousness of God — that hints of Roman Catholic teaching about infused grace, or even the Orthodox doctrine of theosis.
My initial conclusion, simply based on that word, is that Paul is talking about something other than “forensic righteousness” or “justification” in the classic Protestant sense in this verse.
Thanks, Mike. That’s well stated. Wright does raise the point about “become” in the debate but doesn’t really explain it.
First, I want to say that I enjoy your writings. The discussions that go on here are a blessing.
I am not following completely when you say that the “passage is not about the salvation of the people addressed.” When I read the passage, it sounds like Paul is stating that the church at Corinth has departed from the teachings of Paul and the Apostles and has embraced another message, which I would guess was from the Judaizers based on verse 5:12.
When I read the passage, it seems that Paul is stating that the people in Corinth had separated themselves from God and would thus have their salvation at risk. I say this because Paul keeps contrasting the new nature from being in Christ as opposed to the old nature apart from Christ. God reconciled us (collectively) to Himself through Christ so that all sins are forgiven. Apart from Christ, the person is not reconciled and once again under the punishment of the Law.
I get that Paul is asking the people to be once again in agreement with what Paul and the Apostles are teaching, because the people will once again be reconciled to God. I agree in part that the relationship with the Apostles needed to be mended, as that would put the two groups in agreement with what God was saying, but not that it was the apostles who had become the righteousness of God, but all who are in Christ as they are reconciled to God.
What am I missing here?
I don’t see much in the letter to suggest that Paul believed that the salvation of the Corinthians was in jeopardy—perhaps 2 Corinthians 11:4. The emphasis throughout seems to be on their relationship with him as an apostle (cf. 2 Cor. 7:2-4), and the problem is that he does not conform to their expectations of what an apostle should look like. Paul bases his authority not on appearance or eloquence but on his weakness and suffering. So my argument is that in 2 Corinthians 5:21 what is at stake is precisely this: on what basis does Paul as an apostle work the righteousness of God? On the basis of Christ’s death and of his own participation in Christ’s sufferings (cf. Col. 1:24).
Note also that righteousness is what the apostles do through their faithfulness in the midst of suffering (2 Cor. 6:7).
This is not to say that the Corinthians weren’t also justified in Christ, only that this is not what Paul is getting at here, as is clear, I think, from i) he is appealing to the saints in Corinth, believers, to be reconciled; ii) “righteousness of God” is not the same as “righteousness from God”; the important reference to Isaiah 49:8; and the overall argument about the justification of the apostles’ ministry.
One further strong piece of evidence in favour of this interpretation is found in 2 Corinthains 11:13-15. The super apostles disguise themselves as apostles of Christ; they disguise themselves as “servants of righteousness”. it highlights the fact that the central issue here is not the salvation of the Corinthians but the nature of apostleship. And, keeping in mind the significance of Isaiah 49 for Paul’s argument, it suggests that he thinks of a true apostle as one who serves the righteousness purpose of God.
Many thanks for your excellent comments on 2 Cor. 5:21! I have recently produced a “structural analysis” of 2 Cor. 5:21 and surrounding verses which I believe strongly supports everything both you and NT Wright have said about this verse. If you or visitors to your site would be interested in looking at my article, it can be found at my website, www.biblestudyandhow.co.uk together with some other articles, mainly of a “structural” nature.
With very best wishes, Stewart Fleming