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.