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).

ABSTRACT

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.

 

INTRODUCTION

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.”[1] 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”.[2] Paul’s assertion that we become God’s righteousness is not the same as saying that we are justified, or pronounced righteous.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.

[1]  All translations are the author’s own unless stated otherwise.

[2]  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.

[3]  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.

[4]  This view accords with the New Perspective on Paul in recognizing the apostle’s central interests in participation in Christ and ecclesiology.

[5]  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.

The Impulse toward the Disadvantaged in the Gospel Preached by Paul

The journal Scriptura, based at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, recently published my article by the above title. Here’s the link: http://scriptura.journals.ac.za/pub/article/view/1177/1117

Or read the intro below…

Christians have long recognized a strong concern for the vulnerable in certain parts of the New Testament, such as the teachings of Jesus (e.g., Luke 4:16-30) and the letter of James (e.g., James 2:1-6). Yet, what about the writings of the apostle Paul? This apostle’s letters have been vital in originating what Christians believe. Since the Reformation almost five hundred years ago, Protestants have relied particularly on Paul for the gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, by means of his death on the cross. Yet Paul’s letters, with their emphasis on the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection, are sometimes thought to overlook social concerns, and even to disregard the poor. In this essay, I will argue that Paul had an impulse toward the disadvantaged and that he experienced this impulse arising from the same gospel he preached for people’s salvation. Paul’s convictions about the gospel of Jesus’ death on the cross shaped his concern for justice and for the disadvantaged.

I will concentrate on 1 Corinthians, a letter which, along with 2 Corinthians, provides the most in-depth portrayal of Paul’s interaction with a particular congregation. 1 Corinthians also affords the opportunity to see how the apostle handles congregational issues which have a clear socio-economic component. After a brief bird’s-eye view of the situation in Corinth and its fledgling congregation of believers, we will examine two major sections, 1 Cor. 1:10-4:21 and 8:1-11:1. 3 As two of the largest segments of 1 Corinthians, they offer substantial material for a clarifying analysis. However critically important Christ crucified is for the gospel Paul preached for believers’ salvation, we will discover that in these broad sections of 1 Corinthians, Paul focuses on the gospel of Christ crucified in order to re-align relationships among believers. The gospel becomes Paul’s resource for working toward relations which are just and unified, especially for the sake of the church’s less advantaged members. Our analysis will trace the gospel’s role in Paul’s tendency towards elevating the disadvantaged.

The Prosperity Gospel and the Use of Context when Interpreting the Bible*

Is the gospel of prosperity biblical? That is, does it communicate what Scripture itself teaches, and does it express what is true of the Bible as a whole?

Certainly those who preach prosperity present it as a message from Scripture. They point to a wide array of key verses that seem to guarantee financial breakthroughs. For instance, prosperity preachers repeatedly quote 2 Corinthians 8-9, including: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9, NIV).  They also repeat, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8, NIV).

However, these verses which prosperity preachers quote tend to be removed from their original context of 2 Corinthians. This is one of the biblical books most quoted by prosperity preachers, but as a whole it teaches something very different than the prosperity gospel. It is the same letter where the Apostle says twice that he has often gone hungry (2 Cor 6:5; 11:27) and where he teaches that the sufferings of Christ are abundant in the lives of believers (2 Cor 1:5). It is also in 2 Corinthians that Paul tells of the thorn in his flesh that would not leave him, despite his repeated pleas to God (2 Cor 12:7-10). In fact, one of the main themes of 2 Corinthians is that the Christian life is not about escaping or moving beyond weakness and suffering; this letter teaches that we experience and administer God’s power and presence in the midst of hardship. For this reason, it is quite strange to use verses from 2 Corinthians to guarantee success to believers.

If 2 Corinthians as a whole does not promise prosperity to believers, then how is it that prosperity preachers keep turning to 2 Corinthians for promises of financial breakthrough? The answer lies in their interpretive method: They tend to rely upon scattered verses in the New Testament that are removed from their original context, and they tend to overlook the main aims, major lines of thought, and key themes of biblical books from where the verses originate. Prosperity preachers’ removal of verses from where they originate leads them to misinterpret the verses they quote. In the case of 2 Corinthians, the result is a contradiction of the overall message of the book. As preachers, we need to be careful about relying upon a few scattered Bible verses pulled out of their historical and literary context. We need to be wary of utilizing these as proof texts that run against the main themes of the books of the Bible where they were originally found. Yet this is precisely the error that many who preach the message of prosperity fall into.

Understanding communication, and interpreting it wisely, always requires context. Imagine trying to view an impressionist painting by looking at only a few of the artist’s dots, while ignoring the whole. Or imagine the proverbial blind person trying to describe an elephant by touching only one part of its body. In both cases, the resulting picture is quite different than reality. The same might be said of prosperity preachers’ approach to quoting the Bible.

* A version of this was published earlier in this blog and also in In Search of Health and Wealth: The Prosperity Gospel in African, Reformed Perspective, ed. Hermen Kroesbergen (Wellington, Republic of South Africa: Christian Literature Publishers, 2013; Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2014).

“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.

A Very Short Guide for Interpreting a Whole Book in the New Testament

We used this guide as fifteen students (from Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi) and I have studied Hebrews through Jude in six weeks. I led class the first three weeks, and they took turns leading class the last three weeks. It’s been rich.

Read the following guide and then read through the whole biblical book with these questions in the back of your mind, taking notes as you go.
1. What stands out the most to you as you read this book?
2. What clues do you find regarding the audience’s situation to which the author is speaking?
3. What rhetorical aims do you find? That is, what does it seem the author was seeking to accomplish by writing the book? Where and how does the writing express these aims?
4. What strategies does the author use to carry out these aims? (Examples: Can you detect a structure of an argument? Is there repetition of key words and concepts? Do quotations of the OT seem significant? Are certain phrases or ideas important at the beginning and re-appear at the end? Does making an outline of the book help you see the strategies better?)
5. What are the main themes of this document? How are they described?
6. Try to describe, in depth, how this book portrays the Christian life. What contributions do you think this book makes for understanding the Christian life?
7. What situation(s) in your own life, or in the life of your congregation, does this book remind you of? If you wrote your spiritual autobiography with this letter in front of you, how might you use it to tell your story? And are there ways this letter helps you to understand things you have witnessed or experienced in your congregation?
8. How does this book speak to your life? How might it speak to the life of a congregation you are serving or have served? How might it speak to the church as a whole in your home country?
9. If you were to prepare a series of sermons (and/or teachings) based on this book, how would you do that in a way that is true to what the book is saying and also on target for the lives of the people you are ministering to? What passages would you choose? What would the main focus be for each of the messages you would share? Take notes for possible sermon outlines.

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.

Windows into the cultural (especially philosophical) context of the New Testament

 

http://www.kcl.ac.uk/ikings/index.php?id=409&start=20

I’m enjoying these podcasts from King’s College London on the history of philosophy. I’m listening to podcasts numbered in the 50s to 80s because of the focus on Hellenistic philosophy and especially Stoicism.