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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.

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