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….
How do you define “righteousness” and “justify” in general and as Paul used the words?
Setting aside the matter of righteous Gentiles for now, I think that Paul addresses two fundamental questions regarding righteousness that arose from his understanding of Israel’s condition. These are theologically plausible questions, but they are also historically plausible.
1. In view of the intensifying crisis of Israel’s existence in the ancient world—the volatile situation in Judea, the wretched state of diaspora Judaism, and the long hegemony of imperial paganism—Israel’s God faced a massive credibility problem. How would YHWH show himself to be righteous? How would he vindicate himself? How would he prove himself in the eyes of the nations? How would he act to put things right?
This is the righteousness of God issue.
God showed his righteousness to the world, vindicated himself, apart from the Law, by putting Jesus forward as an atonement by his death. This was how he dealt with the problem of Israel’s former sins, and on this basis he would eventually vindicate those who had faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-26). This was how he demonstrated his commitment to the promises made to Abraham and gave assurance that he would turn the ancient world on its head.
2. How would the people of this God be justified? What did their rightness consist in? What type of behaviour would mark them out in this period of eschatological transition as legitimate representatives of the one true, living and sovereign God? Not adherence to the Law. Not circumcision. Not any works of the Law, because over and over again the Jews had fallen short of the standards of righteousness required by the Law. Instead Paul insisted that only those who believed that Jesus had died for the sins of his people and been raised to the right hand of the Father would be found to be in the right as the crisis of the wrath of God worked itself out.
This is the righteousness of the believer issue.
So Paul repudiated whatever “righteousness” he formerly had under the Law and chose instead to identify with Christ, knowing that no matter how perverse this course of action might appear to Jews and Greeks alike, in God’s eyes it was the right thing to do for the sake of the future of the family of Abraham. Because at this difficult time he had put his faith in Christ rather than in his Jewish identity, he would gain the “righteousness from God” (cf. Phil. 3:2-11).
A similar question might be asked today, in our own “eschatological” crisis at the end of the Christendom. On what grounds can the church claim to be in the right? We certainly don’t have much of a righteousness of our own to boast of—it appears that we don’t even tip generously. We are justified in setting ourselves up in the world as the people of the true and living God only insofar as we believe in, trust in, and conretely identify ourselves with the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So in answer to the next question….
How is one “reconciled to God?”
We are reconciled to God by believing in the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection and by acceding to the new reality which his death and resurrection have created. We are reconciled to God when we understand and accept what he did to transform the status of his people in the world. We come to see it his way. Therefore we are reconciled to him.
What does it mean that “he made him to be sin?”
My suggestion, as noted already, is that we should understand this not in abstract theological or ontological terms but realistically. Paul is thinking quite concretely of the fact that Jesus suffered and died as a sinner, judged by the Jewish authorities to have brought the name of Israel’s God into disrepute by his ambiguous attitude to the Law and his implausible pretensions to kingship. God had sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3). By Israel’s best standards he looked like a sinner, a bad man. He was thought to have deserved crucifixion—to be cursed according to the Law, marked as an apostate, a lawless person, outlawed from the community of Israel. Paul himself had for some time been convinced that Jesus, even when dead, was a serious a threat to the political-religious security of Israel and that any movement in his name needed to be suppressed.
That’s how things had appeared, but the outcome of Jesus’ willingness to accept this humiliation proved to Paul that this assessment of Jesus was entirely mistaken.
Are you suggesting that we stand before God on our own righteousness?
It seems to me that for Paul the idea is very simple one, once we get inside the eschatological mindset. Both the Jew and the Greek faced the wrath of God—judgment against Israel followed by judgment against the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, the pagan world. Some Gentiles would be found righteous qua Gentiles because they had lived according to the standards of the Law even though they did not have the Law by nature. But that is not Paul’s main area of concern. His main concern is how God’s people would escape destruction.
He is convinced that under such conditions of eschatological crisis the Law was powerless to save because Israel had proved itself incapable of living according to its statutes. The Law, therefore, only condemned. YHWH, however, had proved himself to be in the right—the “righteousness of God” had been manifested—apart from the Law through the faithfulness of Jesus (Rom. 3:21-22). Those who believed that this was the case, whether Jews or Gentiles, would be found to be in the right when judgment came first on Israel and then on the pagan world.
In this simple argument there is no requirement for righteousness to be imputed or imparted or infused. Abraham was judged to be in the right because he believed in the promise. David was judged to be in the right because he trusted in the God who forgives the sins of the ungodly. Nothing is imputed or imparted or infused from one person to another. Likewise, those who believed that God had acted to vindicate himself by raising Jesus from the dead, etc., would be judged to be in the right, and would therefore be part of God’s future. Jews who, out of loyalty to the Law, did not believe that God had done this, would not be judged to be in the right. They would be left in the outer darkness, where there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Or is it simply that this particular verse does not speak to imputed righteousness?
As I said, I question whether Paul has any notion of imputed righteousness at all. The grace of God was demonstrated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Those who believed in or had faith in this fact received the Spirit of God and so became part of this movement of renewal.
What Paul means by “we might become the righteousness of God” is indicated in 6:1: it is a matter of “working together with him”. Or in view of the reference to Isaiah 49:8 in 2 Corinthians 6:2, the apostles are servants of YHWH in bringing about the restoration of Israel.
Could you please do a better job explaining the connection between the first part of verse 21 with the last part?
Probably not, but I’ll have a go….
God did something in Christ that made it possible for the apostles to “become the righteousness of God”, to work together with him in reconciling his people to him, to become the means by which he fulfilled his righteous purposes.
As far as the passage goes, there appear to be two ways of explaining the connection.
First, it has something to with the participation of the apostles in the suffering of Jesus: they carry in their bodies the dying of Jesus, they are always being given over to death, so that the life of Jesus might be manifested in their bodies (4:8-12); Jesus died for all, therefore all have died, which means that the apostles might live no longer for themselves but for the churches (5:14-15).
Secondly, Paul says that God reconciled the apostles to himself through Christ and gave them the ministry of reconciliation—of reconciling the wayward Corinthians to God, which is what Paul means when he speaks of becoming the righteousness of God. We have a similar argument in Romans 15:8-21. Christ became a servant to Israel so that the nations might glorify God for his mercy towards his people. The task given by God to Paul is “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles… so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable”. Paul fulfils the purpose entailed in Christ’s servant role as one who suffered because of Israel’s sins.
So it seems to me that the argument runs something like this: by reconciling the world to himself through Christ God made it possible to involve the apostles (and, of course, others) in the work of establishing his righteousness in the eyes of the nations; but the manner of their involvement is by way of participation in the sufferings of Jesus; there is no way for YHWH to be vindicated at this time of eschatological crisis other than through the suffering of his servants.
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.
This is answered in the previous question: Christ in his death as a “sinner” made it possible for God to use his followers—the apostles most prominently—to reconcile his people to himself and establish his rightness among the nations. Paul does not talk about the imputation of righteousness here, and there is no need to introduce the idea. We could, of course, make use of it ourselves as a metaphor, if we find it helpful. But it is not a Pauline metaphor.