I contributed this week’s edition of the ABTS blog here in Lebanon. It begins: I recently joined the faculty of ABTS and, given ABTS’s new hybrid format, I’ve been asked several times how I feel about beginning to teach from a distance…
So that We Might Become the Righteousness and Justice of God: Re-examining the Gospel in 2 Cor 5:21 for the Church’s Contribution to a Better World
Here’s the abstract and introduction of my article coming out before long in Missionalia (Southern African Journal of Missiology).
This article interprets Paul’s summary of the gospel in 2 Cor 5:21 as saying that Christ died so that believers might be transformed into God’s righteousness (not only deemed as righteous by God). The article explains the powerfully generative nature of God’s righteousness and then demonstrates that dikaiosunē also means justice. The interpretation of 2 Cor 5:21 clarifies that the gospel Christians believe for salvation also transforms them to embody God’s righteousness and justice. This enlarged angle on Paul’s view of the gospel serves as a basis for teaching a seamless continuity between believing in Jesus Christ and becoming a force for justice in the world.
This article explores the nature of the Christian gospel in an effort to understand what the gospel may contribute toward establishing righteousness and justice in the world. Sometimes the gospel we Christians proclaim promotes escaping the reality that this world is neither righteous nor just, whether through focusing on questionable promises of health and wealth in this life (see Ellington 2014:327-342; Gbote & Kgatla 2014:1-10), concentrating on promises of the life to come (however true to the witness of Scripture), or appreciating almost exclusively the individual and personal benefits of salvation. A motivating concern for this article is that Christians may be failing to contribute as much as we could toward a better world, because we fail to recognize the resources for human transformation toward righteousness and justice which reside within the gospel. This investigation turns to Scripture for a description of the gospel that responds to the need for transformation toward both personal righteousness and social justice, for the sake of the church’s contribution to Africa and beyond.
Paul’s letters to the Corinthians give extended attention to the relationship between the gospel and the formation of a Christian way of living in the world. This essay will focus on one of Paul’s key summaries of the gospel. The apostle states in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He (God) made him who did not know sin to be sin for our sake, in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” This essay concentrates mainly on the final portion of 2 Cor 5:21. Margaret Thrall states: “The traditional understanding of ‘becoming God’s righteousness’ is that it means ‘being justified by God’” (1994:442). I affirm that Paul’s gospel includes the change in status from guilty to justified, but this does not do justice to the statement of the gospel in 2 Cor 5:21. While we might expect Paul to say, “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, in order that we might be justified”, Paul actually says, “that we might become God’s righteousness”. Paul’s assertion that we become God’s righteousness is not the same as saying that we are justified, or pronounced righteous. This essay does not downplay justification or soteriology; it would be more accurate to say that it takes soteriology more expansively, as including the establishment of a transformed and world-restoring community through the gospel and through our union with Christ.
When we interpret 2 Cor 5:21 in the literary context of 2 Corinthians, we can find insight into the relationship between God’s righteousness and justice and believers’ own righteousness and justice. This insight includes discovering that the gospel itself is a basis of human transformation. The article argues that, when 2 Cor 5:21 is interpreted properly, the gospel paves the way for believers’ transformation toward embodying, and becoming agents of, God’s righteousness and justice in this world.
 All translations are the author’s own unless stated otherwise.
 Morna Hooker (2008:369) observes that most interpreters have tended to interpret dikaiosunē (righteousness) in 2 Cor 5:21 as a genitive of origin (“righteousness from God”) with the ultimate meaning of dikaiōthentes (“having been justified”), as though Paul meant that we are given the verdict that we are righteous. While this interpretation is conceivable, in light of the literary context of 2 Corinthians as a whole, it is not persuasive. Moreover, Paul chose the noun dikaiosunē, not the participle dikaiōthentes, even as he does in 2 Cor 3:9; 6:7, 14; 9:9-10; and 11:15. In 2 Corinthians, Paul does not use the participle related to dikaioō, though he frequently utilizes it in Romans and Galatians. We should not assume the same line of thought in 2 Corinthians as in Romans and Galatians.
 Richard Hays (1996:24) states: Paul “does not say … ‘that we might receive the righteousness of God.’ Instead, the church is to become the righteousness of God”. This contrasts with the positions of Harris (2005:455) and Collins (2013:126), who interpret dikaiosunē in 2 Cor 5:21 as essentially meaning “justification”. Thrall (1994:444) speaks mainly of a “change in status”, though affirms that Paul has in mind more than simple imputation, on account of our being united with Christ. Thrall rightly states: “In the first half of the verse Paul has described the first element of a dual process of identification and exchange” (1994:442). I take Thrall’s assertion as less than correct when she says 5:21 relates reconciliation to justification. The accent of 5:21 is upon exchange that brings transformation, which is more than justification. I commend Stegman (2011) for demonstrating that Paul’s language related to dikaiosunē, in 2 Corinthians and beyond, is not only juridical but also deeply concerned with transformation.
 This view accords with the New Perspective on Paul in recognizing the apostle’s central interests in participation in Christ and ecclesiology.
 The focus of this essay does not allow us to deal with righteousness and justice in relation to all the varied expressions of the gospel in the New Testament, including the literature of the synoptic gospels. Moreover, the article deals with many interpretive questions related to 2 Cor 5:21, but it does not attempt to cover them all.
“So that we might become the righteousness and justice of God”
This is an essay topic I’m exploring … It reconsiders 2 Cor 5:21 and reflects on the gospel’s implications for social witness.
The church’s witness and contribution to the world both suffer when believers misconstrue the gospel. I would like to build upon interpretations of 2 Cor 5:21 which read Paul as saying that Christ died so we who believe may become genuinely righteous in our way of life (not only deemed as righteous by God). However, I will interpret dikaiosunē as indicating not righteousness solely, but also justice. This explanation of 2 Cor 5:21, interpreted in the context of 2 Corinthians 4 and 5 as a whole, and in light of conceptions of dikaiosunē as including justice in the Septuagint, clarifies that the gospel Christians believe for salvation is also the basis of our holistic transformation for justice. We become an embodiment of God’s active righteousness in service for justice. A fuller knowledge of the gospel, which explains Christians’ relationship to God’s righteousness and justice, helps to repair the church’s role in society. This perspective supports seamless invitations to faith in Jesus Christ and to become a force for justice in the world. The proposal may be especially apropos to contexts where a form of the gospel has spread with rapidity but where righteousness and justice have perhaps lagged behind. The paper reflects on this reading of 2 Cor 5:21 for such issues in Zambia and Southern Africa as Christians’ involvement in financial corruption and in violence against women and girls.
The gospel is the message of salvation, but it also shapes our lives
I’m exploring an area of the apostle Paul’s thought that was right at the heart of his vision for Christian life, leadership, and mission. The basic idea is this: We’re called to be people of the gospel – to share it with our words but also to embody the gospel with our lives. The gospel is the message of the cross, forgiveness, and salvation. But the gospel is not just the message of salvation; it also shapes the direction of our lives. I’m thinking about the basis of this idea of embodying the gospel. Believing the gospel brings us into union with Christ, and union with his death and resurrection, and that union transforms us into people who manifest Jesus and represent him and his life with our lives. Our bond with Christ and the gospel transforms us, with the result that, individually and corporately, we believers can become a picture of what God is offering to the world.
The main way Paul taught this approach to the gospel was through his personal example. Paul talked a lot about himself. This tends to turn off and turn away some readers today. We too often conclude that if someone is talking about himself, he must be narcissistic and there must be nothing of value for us. But Paul’s frequent talk about himself was not really about him (I believe), but about the life of embodying the gospel. When Paul spoke of himself, in his mind, there was something far larger involved than himself. Paul has been scathingly criticized for being self-focused and egotistical and for pressuring sameness in the Christian community, among other things. At least mostly, these criticisms miss what Paul was about. Instead of emphasizing sameness with himself or the erasure of distinct personalities, when Paul invites people to follow his example, he is offering his readers a general pattern of life based on the model of Christ’s death for others. Paul crafts his example to teach the vocation of embodying the gospel, the calling which arises from union with Christ.
I’m especially thinking about this topic of embodying the gospel in 1 and 2 Corinthians. In the case of 2 Corinthians, there’s also this big issue: What about weakness and vulnerability? How can difficulty and weakness coincide with representing Jesus and the gospel, being a leader, and doing ministry? This is an issue in the Corinthian church and in Paul’s relationship with them all the way through the Corinthian letters, but especially in 2 Corinthians. Paul answers that weakness and hardship in us and around us, instead of things to shrink from or be ashamed of, are openings for God. Weakness and difficulty are a means for going deeper in our union with Christ, and when that happens, we are changed and transformed to be more like Christ.
Transformation for Mission: A Presentation for the GOCN (Gospel and Our Culture Network) Forum on Missional Hermeneutics
The GOCN is having a forum on “The Corinthian Correspondence and Missional Praxis” at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in November of 2013, in Baltimore. The following is a description of the paper I’ll be presenting.
“Corinthian Transformation for Mission: Re-Interpreting 2 Corinthians 4”
New Testament scholars writing on 2 Corinthians 4 have observed that the chapter includes some of Paul’s deepest reflections on his apostolic life and vocation. The same scholars discussing the same chapter, however, have been reluctant to speak substantially about the missional life and vocation of the church. At the foundation of this essay is the claim that, contrary to many readings of 2 Corinthians, Paul deals not only with his own vocation, or that of himself and his apostolic partners. This study marshals evidence that Paul seeks to inculcate essentially the same missional vocation in the Corinthians themselves. In fact, Paul interprets his own calling through the vocation of all who are in Christ. On this foundation, the presentation will interpret Paul’s statements about his “we” as indicative of what is true of the church’s transformation for mission.
The presentation will begin with a condensed argument that Paul is not writing solely about his own vocation or that of his apostolic team. We will observe the following evidence: The Corinthians will naturally read 2 Corinthians 4 in light of what precedes. Through his prior correspondence with them, Paul has trained the Corinthians to treat his extended self-descriptions as exemplary of their vocation (1 Cor 4:16; 11:1). Moreover, in 2 Cor 1:3-7, where Paul affirms that not only he but also the Corinthians share in Christ’s sufferings, the letter’s introduction guides how the congregation should read what he is about to say. Moreover, in 3:18, “we all” are being transformed. In 4:11, “we who are alive” (hoi zōntes) – all who are alive in Christ – are being handed over, “so that the life of Jesus may be manifest”. Paul also affirms that Christ died for all, and all have died, that “those who are alive (hoi zōntes) might no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised “(5:14-15).
The main substance of the presentation will be to sketch Paul’s vision for believers’ transformation for mission, as described in 2 Corinthians 4, though with insights from the wider context of 2 Corinthians 1-7. God’s light shines into the hearts of believers (4:6), granting a vision of Christ which leads them to be transformed from one degree of glory to another (3:18). The fruit of this transformation is that believers become illuminators as people experience through them “the illumination of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (4:6). Believers preach Christ Jesus as Lord (4:5), but their whole embodied existence (sōma and sarx in 4:10-11) also expresses the life of Jesus. Believers are clay jars containing the treasure of the gospel for others (4:7). Believers suffer in their bodies, but doing so is a means toward a greater end: they are transformed to become revelators of Christ and his life (4:10-11). In the midst of hardship, believers experience renewal of the inner person as they gaze on what is eternal and unseen, walking courageously by faith (4:16-18; 5:7-8). Christ’s death and love propel them to live not for themselves, but for Christ (5:14-15). Moreover, God has placed the message of reconciliation “in us” (5:19) – in the body of believers. Finally, read in light of what precedes, when Paul says that Christ was made sin “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”, this describes God’s project of transforming the church to be the image of what God desires for all humanity.
It is not sufficient to say with most scholars that the purpose of Paul’s self-references is to explain his apostolic office and defend himself. Instead, the paper argues that Paul is deliberately and tactically using his self-references to exemplify a broader missional vocation for believers: one arising from a transformative union with Christ. What preoccupies Paul is not so much his own apostolic standing as his relationship with the Corinthians, and their union with Christ and with the gospel. Through this union, the Christian life becomes a picture of Christ for others. Believers live to illuminate, to help people see the face of Jesus, for this leads to thanksgiving and glory for God (4:15).
Cooperating with the Gospel
Thanks to friends at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte for the idea of making this video. It lasts nine minutes, and here’s the beginning in case you want to know more about it before deciding to watch:
If in your reading of 1 Corinthians you made it into chapters 8 and 9, you may be asking, “What’s the big deal with meat that’s been sacrificed to idols?”
Well, let’s remember that a letter in the New Testament, such as 1 Corinthians, is rooted in a particular place and time. There’s a historical gap between us and the original group of people to whom the letter was sent.
Let’s see if we can fill in the gap a little: Some members of the Corinthian church figured out that since they knew idols were not real gods, it would technically not be wrong to eat the meat that had been sacrificed to them. The most readily available meat was that which had been used in pagan worship, so this knowledge of theirs gave them new freedom, freedom to enjoy meat as they pleased.
All of this sounds fine, but the apostle Paul responds: “Hold on. It’s not quite that simple.” We have to think critically about our freedom. It’s not just knowledge that informs our choices. Love for others, and a desire to build them up, needs to shape what we choose. He also says in 8:9, “Be careful… that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”
Then, in chapter 9, Paul goes on to talk a lot about his choices and about the gospel. Now many of us are accustomed to thinking about our relationship with God and how that impacts our choices. But Paul also thought a lot about the relationship we have with the gospel. He talks about his relationship with the gospel throughout chapter 9 and how that relationship affected what he did with his freedom. This may be where a first-century issue of food sacrificed to idols overlaps with our lives. So let’s let Paul help us to see what he saw about the role of the gospel in his life and how that affected his choices.
He mentions the word “gospel” and preaching the gospel probably more in 1 Corinthians 9 than in any other passage in the Bible. It’s also one of the passages where Paul talks about himself about as much as anywhere else. But he isn’t just talking about himself. We need to remember that chapters 8 and 9 are part of this section of 1 Corinthians that ends with the conclusion, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” in 11:1. So when the apostle talks about his choices, he’s also saying something about us, about our choices, and our calling…
Communion and Mission
Much can be said about the Lord’s Supper. I want to share about it as a way that God makes the good news of Jesus real and tangible for us, so that we can be ready to make it real and tangible for others.
Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). And the apostle Paul said, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).
In the Lord’s Supper, we remember the story of Jesus’ death, and what we do proclaims the Lord’s death for us in a picture. But we don’t just remember it as a historical event. We remember that the event of Jesus’ death happened for us. As Jesus said, “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 19).
The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic memorial, but it’s also the case that something happens when we take the supper. Communion happens between Christ and us. Paul says, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a communion (sharing/participation) in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a communion (sharing/participation) in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16 ).
The Lord’s Supper is more than a retelling of what happened, and it’s more than a picture. It’s a means that God uses to work the good news of his grace into our lives. It’s true that this can happen through our daily life as we commune with Christ through prayer and as we live in his presence and obey him. But it also happens in an ongoing, special way through taking communion. Communion is a means for God to work his grace and love into the fabric of our lives. God wants the good news of Jesus to become part of who we are. Communion helps us to become, in a deep and tangible way, people of the gospel.
Jesus gave us a symbolic picture through the bread and cup (his body, his blood). We take that picture into our hands. And, audacious as it is, we eat and drink the picture. We consume the pictures and symbols, and they literally become part of who we are. It’s as though we take the raw elements of the good news into our bodies. The Lord’s Supper works the good news into us. It’s something God uses to make the gospel part of who we are. In a deep and tangible way, the treasure of the gospel lives in the earthen vessels or clay jars of our bodies (see 2 Cor 4:7).
Why does God do this? God does all of this because he loves us. He wants his love and forgiveness to be real, tangible, something we can get our hands on, trust, and believe in.
Yet there’s also another reason God does this: Communion makes the gospel real and tangible to us that we might receive what we need to go make it real and tangible to others. God wants to prepare us to embody the good news for the world around us. Communion is something Christ has given us that helps us to be his body in the world.
I appreciate how 2 Corinthians describes our role of embodying the gospel for the world. 2 Cor 2:14 says that God manifests through us the aroma of the knowledge of him. 2 Cor 3:3 says that we show that we are a letter from Christ. 2 Cor 4:6 says that God has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of his glory that’s found in the face of Christ. In 4:7, we carry around a treasure (Christ and the gospel) in clay jars, the earthen vessels of our bodies. In 4:10, 11, the life of Jesus is revealed through us as we walk through difficulties. 2 Cor 5:18 says that God has put inside us the message of reconciliation. Two verses later, we read that we are ambassadors for Christ. In 5:21, we learn that God made the one who knew no sin, Christ, to become sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. We become a sign on the earth of God’s righteousness. (God’s righteousness is his power to save – Rom 1:16, 17.)
Christ became like us, and died, that we might become like him, and live. And so we’re able manifest the good news to the world through our lives. When we take communion, it helps to make all of this possible.