August 12, 2020

A Disputed “Justification” Text

By Chaplain Mike

Since we’ve been talking about N.T. Wright lately, and examining some Scriptures together, I thought it might be timely to look at one text that became a point of controversy in the debate about justification between the more traditional Reformed view and the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP), at least as Wright represents it—2 Corinthians 5:21.

This has always been a favorite verse of mine. I have long considered it to be one of those great summary texts, which express the Gospel message in a nutshell. Here it is in the ESV translation:

For our sake he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

After looking more carefully at these words and their context, I recently realized that I differ with both perspectives.

Traditional View: The Great Exchange
The traditional interpretation of 2 Cor 5.21 is represented by this quote from Phil Johnson in his blog post, “The Great Exchange”:

Here is the apostle Paul’s most succinct statement about the meaning of the cross. This could be the shortest, simplest verse among many in the Pauline epistles that make the meaning of justification inescapable: “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”

That text is all about the atoning work of Christ. Its meaning can be summed up in a single principle: substitution. It describes an exchange that took place through the atonement that Christ offered—our sin for Christ’s righteousness. He took the place of sinners so that they might stand in His place as a perfectly righteous man.

Notice the graphic language: He was made sin (that’s the very epitome of all that is despicable and odious), so that we might be made righteousness (that’s everything that is good and pure and acceptable in God’s estimation). This was the exchange: our sin for His righteousness. Our sin charged to His account; His righteousness credited to our account….

This is the view I held and taught for years.

  • I am of sin.
  • Christ is righteous.
  • On the cross, he was made sin on my behalf.
  • As a result, God credits Christ’s righteousness to me.

Before I express the reservations I have now about this view, let’s look at N.T. Wright’s novel interpretation.

Wright’s View: A Ministry that Embodies God’s Covenant Faithfulness
Tom Wright takes a typically creative, but radically different approach in interpreting this text. Trying to remain faithful to the context, which focuses on Paul as a minister of reconciliation and an ambassador for Christ, he takes the words , “that we might become the righteousness of God,” as a phrase that describes the nature of the apostolic ministry. It turns out something like this:

“God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be made a sin-offering for us, so that we (the apostles) might become (embody or become representatives of) the covenant faithfulness (i.e. righteousness) of God.”

How could he come up with an interpretation that is so different than the traditional understanding?

Wright appeals to the context to ground his argument.

First, he says, the whole section from 2Cor 2:14-6:13 is a defense of Paul’s ministry. That is the context in which we must understand the text, according to him.

Second, Wright notes that Paul begins to conclude his argument in 2Cor 5:11—

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience.

Third, in the following verses, he finds three parallel statements that explain the words in v. 11—“what we (the apostles) are.” Each one of these statements contains: (1) a reference to Christ’s death, and (2) a reference to the apostolic ministry that results from Christ’s death.

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (5:14-15)

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… (5:18)

And finally, the text we’re looking at:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (5:21)

In Tom Wright’s view, each of these passages serve to show the nature of Paul’s apostolic ministry.

  • Christ’s love controls us (the apostles)—he died for us (the apostles) so that we (the apostles) might live for him.
  • God reconciled us (the apostles) to himself through Christ, now we (the apostles) have the ministry of reconciliation.
  • God made him to be sin for us (the apostles), so that we (the apostles) might become the righteousness of God.

Now, in order to make the last statement fit, Wright has to show (1) that “we” and “us” refer to the apostles, and (2) interpret “the righteousness of God” as “God’s covenant faithfulness, God’s action in reconciling the world to himself.”

Those moves enable him to interpret the verse as meaning: Christ’s death enables the apostles to embody the covenant faithfulness of God in their ministry, to represent him as ministers of reconciliation.

My View: Becoming the Righteousness of God
Lest this post become overly long and dense, let me state my position in bullet points.

  • There are two themes in the overall context, not just one. This section in 2Corinthians is not just about (1) Paul’s ministry, but also about (2) his appeal to the Corinthian church.
  • Paul begins to summarize his defense and appeal in 2Corinthians 5:11-21 (“Therefore”).
  • There are four paragraphs in 2Corinthians 5:11-21—5:11-13, 5:14-15, 5:16-17, 5:18-21.
  • The first and fourth paragraphs talk specifically about Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians.
  • The second and third paragraphs explain the nature of the apostolic ministry.
  • Therefore, the main focus of 2Cor 5:21 (the final verse in the fourth paragraph), is part of Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians, not part of Paul’s defense of his ministry.

This last point undercuts Wright’s view. Paul writes 2 Corinthians 5:21 not as another statement about the apostles and the nature of their ministry, but as basis for his appeal to the Corinthian church. IMHO, Wright is wrong here.

Back to the text. Paul is appealing to the Corinthian church in 5:18-21. What is his appeal?

  • We find it in 5:20—“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
  • The appeal is addressed to Christians. Paul is calling this church to accept his ministry (and reject those who are troubling them) and thus be at peace with God.
  • Verse 21 is used to reinforce this appeal.

And this is where the problem comes in for the traditional view. Not only are these words addressed to Christians, but Paul states his point so as to emphasize something beyond what the traditional interpretation sees here. Let’s read the verse again:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The key to understanding this passage, and the problem with the traditional interpretation is found in the phrase, “so that in him we might BECOME the righteousness of God.”

The widely-accepted Protestant understanding of this text is that it speaks of a forensic declaration, based on the economic concept of imputation. Our sin is placed on Christ’s account and counted against him, and in exchange his righteousness (the merit earned by his sinless life) is reckoned to our account. This “double imputation” leads to a change in the believer’s status. We are declared righteous; our legal position before God the Judge is changed from that of “sinner” to that of “righteous.” Imputation does not describe an actual change within us, but a change in our legal standing before the Divine Court. Justification is a forensic matter. We are acquitted of any charges of law-breaking, and furthermore, God declares us perfectly righteous.

But this is not what 2 Corinthians 5.21 says. Note:

  • It does not read, “that in him we might be declared righteous by God.”
  • It says “that we might BECOME the righteousness of God.”

In other words, Paul is not talking about some divine verdict that changes our legal status and puts Christ’s righteousness on our account. Rather, it bespeaks a change in who we actually are, in our identity, our character, our lives.

  • Paul says to the Corinthians: Be reconciled to God!
  • Why? Because Christ took our sins so that we might become God’s righteous people.

Of course, this interpretation does not deny the importance of being declared righteous (the forensic verdict of justification as in the traditional view). But Paul’s concern here goes beyond that change of legal status to something eminently practical and observable. Jesus did not die for us just so we could receive the “righteous” verdict from the Divine Judge, as foundational as that is. He also “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).

In fact, in the same passage as 2Cor 5:21, there is another text that says the same thing in different words—verse 15: “He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” Contra both Wright and the traditional Protestant “forensic” interpretation, I think that this expresses the meaning of the text.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

This is not about Paul embodying God’s covenant faithfulness in his ministry. Nor is it about God declaring me righteous. Instead, it sets forth another important purpose of Christ’s death—that we might live as God’s righteous people in the world.


  1. Hmmmm…..I like it, makes me think more about the passage which is always a great thing…

  2. My off-the-cuff take on 2 Cor 5:

    Paul in this message, per 2 Cor 2:14-17, is a fragrance of God to both the saved and the lost, so his message here is to both the Corinthians and to non-Christians. He is telling the Corinthians about the glory of the new covenant and new life in Christ, and not to lose heart, for though he has suffered much in his calling and ministry, he perseveres for the things that are unseen. He will also later exhort them thus to be holy in their behavior. We now come to Chapter 5:

    Paul tells the Corinthians that he desires to be rid of this earthly body and be clothed with the heavenly one and be with the Lord, to satisfy the groanings that are in him by the Spirit:

    As all will appear before God to be judged for the deeds done in the body, Paul is anxious to urge all to be reconciled to God, a reconciliation that God has made and has made possible by the death of Christ, and any boasting of his ministry is for that end, to encourage the Corinthians:

    Paul and his fellows are driven and controlled by the Gospel – i.e., what God has done in Christ – as all who come to be in Christ become New (and also should live by and for their new life):

    God has given Paul and his fellows this message to preach to others, as if God Himself is beseeching men through them (to whom they are an aroma from life to life for some, and from death to death for others):

    In my reading somewhat hurriedly through the Greek of 2 Cor 5, it seems that Paul in 5:19-21 is not so much speaking to the Corinthians as telling them what he preaches to men who don’t know Christ.

    I don’t know if it’s significant that the “we might become” in 5:21 is an aorist subjunctive rather than a present subjunctive. Without searching how Paul uses subjunctive γινομαι ginomai I don’t want to guess whether that affects how Paul views or understands us being/becoming δικαιοσυνη θεου dikaiosunê theou “the righteousness of God,” whether in accordance or not with the “Traditional” (Reformed?) understanding.

    Then in Chapter 6 (I know that the seeming sudden breaks in thought at parts of 1 and 2 Corinthians have scholars debating how to fit the 2 letters together) he seems to revert back to speaking to the Corinthians about being receptive to Paul’s ministry and authority both in the Gospel and in their lives.

    Just some thoughts….

    • Eric, I did take out all the Greek text for the sake of length. Thanks, though, for being so thorough.

      Good thoughts.

      No matter what the verb form, I don’t think “become” would be used to refer to a legal declaration of righteousness.

    • Okay, I see the Greek text has been stripped from my post. 😕 Anyway, FWIW, a Logos search shows that Paul uses hina + the present subjunctive of ginomai in only one verse, 1 Cor 16:2:

      1 Corinthians 16:2
      On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.

      All of Paul’s other instances of hina + subjunctive ginomai (Romans – Philemon) use the aorist subjunctive (16 verses):

      Romans 3:19
      Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God;
      Romans 7:13
      Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.
      Romans 15:16
      to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
      Romans 15:31
      that I may be rescued from those who are disobedient in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may prove acceptable to the saints;
      1 Corinthians 3:18
      Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise.
      1 Corinthians 9:15
      But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things so that it will be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one.
      1 Corinthians 9:23
      I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
      1 Corinthians 11:19
      For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.
      1 Corinthians 16:10
      Now if Timothy comes, see that he is with you without cause to be afraid, for he is doing the Lord’s work, as I also am.
      2 Corinthians 5:21
      He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

      2 Corinthians 8:14
      at this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, so that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality;
      Galatians 3:14
      in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
      Ephesians 6:3
      Philippians 2:15
      so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world,
      Colossians 1:18
      He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.
      Titus 3:7
      so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

      For those who assume Pauline authorship of Hebrews, the aorist is used in 2 verses, the present never:

      Hebrews 2:17
      Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
      Hebrews 6:12
      so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

      So this may help one decide if the use of the aorist subjunctive of ginomai affects the meaning of the nature of “become” in 2 Cor 5:21 in the clause “so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

      All Scripture quotations are from the NASB 1995 Update.

      • Okay, I understand the “length” concern (I posted the above before I saw your explanation). I raised the issue of the “tense” of the verb because the present vs. aorist subjunctive could indicate the difference between something being viewed as being a continuous process vs. it being viewed as a whole. I.e., if Paul had used the present subjunctive of ginomai, it might have meant that our becoming God’s righteousness was a developmental thing and not what we fully became when we became a new creation when we were born again. But one would I think first have to study the other instances of Paul’s use of the aorist subjunctive of ginomai to make any initial conclusions about whether the aorist subjunctive in 2 Cor 5:21 has interpretive implications.

        • I’m impressed that you know the Greek, EricW.

          Where did you learn?

          • Jo Ann Peterson says

            Brevity is the soul of wit…

          • I took 2 years on NT Greek at The Criswell College (Dallas, TX) in the 1990’s and have been reading the Greek NT and Greek grammar stuff on my own off and on since then. We learned during our first year from William Mounce’s book in its first edition/first printing.

            But my advice to others, which I haven’t yet followed for myself, is to take 1-2 years of Classical/Attic Greek (or maybe a year of Homeric and a year of Classical? But I don’t know enough about Homeric Greek to know its value) before one takes any Koinê/NT Greek. I have come to think more and more that unless one is also well exposed to ancient Greek outside the NT, one’s understanding of the NT will be hindered. On the other hand, a highly knowledgeable Greek expert and acquaintance has told me that there is enough Koinê literature outside the NT – e.g., the LXX, Philo, Josephus, I think – that one can sufficiently broaden one’s knowledge that is necessary for understanding the Greek NT by sticking with the Koinê without needing to learn Attic Greek. But then on the other other hand, Sarah Ruden’s new book Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted And Reimagined In His Own Time shows what a person who eats and breathes Classical Greek can get from the NT by bringing that familiarity to bear on one’s reading of the Koinê NT.

            So much to learn, so little time…. 🙂

          • Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says


            I took a semester of NT Greek form Mounce’s book… 2nd ed, I think. Good stuff.

  3. Jo Ann Peterson says

    Are you saying because of Christ’s death on the cross we can now live a sinless life? How much righteousness is good enough to prove we are really God’s?

    • No, Jo Ann. I wouldn’t want to go there at all.

      I’m just asserting that Paul is reminding the Corinthians that one purpose of Jesus’ death was to bring actual change in their lives.

      Note the parallels I quoted: verse 15 and Titus 2:14.

      • Jo Ann Peterson says

        This is the struggle I am having in understanding the Bible. Is it grace or works or both? If both how much is enough to prove your truly saved? I never feel confident in my “salvation” because I’m a sinner.

        • It is grace alone. Look only to Jesus. Yes, God is forming a righteous people, but he is doing that through the past, present, and future work of Jesus. There is never enough in ourselves to give us confidence and assurance. Perhaps that is one reason Paul pointed the Corinthians to the cross. He took our sins so that we might become the righteousness of God. All forgiveness, cleansing, and hope for righteousness are found in him.

          • Jo Ann Peterson says

            I guess I don’t understand the meaning of “the righteousness of God”. How do we live righteously in this world?

          • In the context of the whole letter, Paul is appealing to the Corinthians to follow the teaching of those who are true apostles, and not other teachers who were leading them astray. The big answer to your question is that there is no quick way. It requires that we participate fully and deeply in a community of faith that honors the apostolic teachings as revealed in God’s Word and the Great Tradition of the church.

        • Love your neighbor as you love God is all the righteousness you need. I think we all fail at that, and that’s why all we can do is depend on God’s grace.

          I think being assured of your salvation is not a good thing. Every day we need to get up and work harder at loving our neighbor, not rest on our laurels.

          • Is being assured of your future salvation considered “resting on your laurels?” I would think the more assured one is of Jesus’ work, the faster one would “run the race.”


  4. Chaplain Mike,

    I think my thinking on this is somewhat of an extension of your own. I see a strong parallel between verse 20 and vs 21.

    “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”

    “we might become the righteousness of God.”

    As Christ’s ambassadors, the world is introduced to God through us. If we represent God well, God is seen as holy, just, and righteous. If we represent God poorly, others will want to have nothing to do with him.

  5. As a total aside, one of my favourite songs is John Michael Talbots “Create in me a clean heart”. (Not the same song as the Keith Green version.

    I mention it because in the lyrics it says “For we are your righteousness, if we’ve died to ourselves and live through your death.”

    Here is a link to the song sung by Mike Villar. Have a listen. It is well worth it. I especially like the harmonies half way through.

  6. Not meaning to get too G(r)eeky on y’all, but the meaning of the ινα hina clause in 2 Cor 5:21 “that we might become” can become somewhat colored when translated into English because of the common understandings and assumptions most translators make about the particle. Read Margaret Gavin Sim’s PhD dissertation A Relevance Theoretic approach to the particle ινα in Koine Greek available here (she provides translations for all Greek examples):

    as it may change your understanding or assumptions about the meaning/force of ινα hina, which may affect the meaning of this verse.

  7. Chaplain Mike, your overall premise is correct: all true believers will become the righteousness of God in the transformative sense through the work of the Holy Spirit. However, I seriously disagree with your exegetical outworking of the verse. Why? Whenever the Greek “dik” clause is used it NEVER refers to MAKING someone righteous, good, or holy. It is always in the declarative sense. In the OT the verbal “sdq” is always about pronouncement or declaration, never about making someone into something else. The judges in the OT DECLARE a person either righteous or wicked, they never MAKE a person righteous or wicked. Same with the NT passages that use the justificatory word group (and you as a Lutheran should know this).

    Having studied this issue for quite some time, there is no way that any of the justification language in Scripture is about making someone into something else. It is always about declaring someone based on a fact (in this case, all believers are declared righteous because Christ took away all their sins and imputed them with his righteousness). That is why Catholics are just plain wrong when they insist that justification is also transformative. We are just before God not because of anything inherently good in us but because God has imputed Christ’s righteousness freely to us through faith alone.

    • Jo Ann Peterson says

      Thank you!

    • I agree with your theology. I think other verses teach what you are saying.

      But the word “become” simply cannot bear the meaning of “declare” righteous in 2Cor 5:21. Becoming something is just plain different than having a legal status declared.

      However, Mark, it does not follow that it must then carry the meaning of “infused” righteousness, as Roman Catholic theology holds, either.

      I don’t think that’s the view I set forth. If I say to a congregation, “God has called us as his people to become righteous,” that doesn’t mean I am promoting works-righteousness. Those words can just as accurately express a call to godly living.

      Practiced righteousness vs. positional righteousness.

    • The 10 basic definitions that BDAG (Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich) gives for the NT use of γίνομαι (translated as “become” in the ESV of 2 Cor 5:21):
      1 to come into being through process of birth or natural production, be born, be produced
      2 to come into existence, be made, be created, be manufactured, be performed
      3 come into being as an event or phenomenon from a point of origin, arise, come about, develop
      4 to occur as process or result, happen, turn out, take place
      5 to experience a change in nature and so indicate entry into a new condition, become someth.
      6 to make a change of location in space, move
      7 to come into a certain state or possess certain characteristics, to be, prove to be, turn out to be
      8 to be present at a given time, be there
      9 to be closely related to someone or someth., belong to
      10 to be in or at a place, be in, be there

      Of course you can’t just pick whichever meaning you want; context and the other words used with it determine the word’s most probable or sensible meaning in a given verse. BDAG does not cite 2 Cor 5:21 in its examples of the uses/meanings of ginomai (the word occurs 669 times in the Greek NT).

      • Another thing to consider here is that many scholars believe Paul may be quoting an early hymn or creedal statement here. In that case, what we have here is something like a Christian axiom summarizing the whole work of Christ: He took our sins to make us righteous people.

    • MAJ Tony says

      I think you misstate Catholic theology when you say “We are just before God not because of anything inherently good in us…” which implies an inherence that is not there; it is ALL Christ.

  8. I’m rather new to this debate, but Chaplain Mike, I think you have me convinced. Your summary of the two positions, regardless of how accurate they truly are, seemed very clear to me. And I bite for your conclusion. Tell me, where does that theologically land me? Is that the 39 articles perspective, or the Ausburg perspective? Or is your PoV not the position of any major doctrinal tradition?

  9. For about the last two years, my project has been in reading Paul’s letters to identify just who he references in his pronouns “we,” “us,” “you,” and “they.” It does not sound revolutionary, but once you do that effort, many tried and true verses you used turn out to have entirely different meanings altogether. Sometimes “we” means the Jews, sometimes the apostles, sometimes all members of the Community. It is context that drives the identity of the “we” of whom Paul speaks.

    This sounds like rudimentary analysis, but you would be surprised how incendiary it is. People have turned purple when I point out that the “we” of “we are Christ’s ambassadors” in context means the apostles and not each and every believe. Everyone wants “we” to be all believers at all times in all situations. When you challenge that you get into trouble.

    This passage is much the same. In fact it is a little harder as the “we” does seems to shift about. I agree with Wright that throughout this passage, the “we” is primarily the Apostles and not the Corinthian Community. However, I agree with you that verse 20 makes the shift and the “we” becomes expanded to include both the Apostles and the Corinthian Community (and by extension, the Church). The call to be Reconciled to God has a purposed in our lives; that purpose is for us to become (or take on the task) of being the Righteousness of God.

    I think this is “Priesthood” language, much as the High Priest’s headpiece had a panel that declared “Holy to Yahweh” imprinted on it. We are reconciled to God into a Priesthood whose task is to properly “image” God to the world. That is why the rest of the next section talks about separation, holiness, and cleansing.

    Our becoming the righteousness of God is not a one time declaration, but a mission or calling into which we enter and become.

    And no, I had not thought of any of this until I read your column. Thanks for sparking my thoughts to look further into this text. I probably would not have without such prompting.

    Michael would be proud of what he has put into motion.

    • Your point about identifying the pronouns is one of reasons I interpret the text as I do. Only in paragraphs one and four of this passage does Paul bring the Corinthians (“you”) into the discussion. Therefore, I think the words are part of his appeal to them, not part of his defense of “us” (the apostles).

    • I have read and re-read this section and now I am not so certain Wright is wrong.. In fact, I am starting to lean back in his direction.

      For an alternative to work from what Wright proposes, the “we” has to change from the Apostles in verses 11 (and probably most of chapter 5 and prior) through 20, switch to mean “the apostles and the Corinthians, and THEN BACK to just the Apostles in Chapter 6. I am doubting the switch takes place. It is easer in context to keep the “we”s being the Apostles throughout this section, if not the entire Epistle.

      That would mean that the “Righteousness of God” in Him (Jesus) is a title the Apostles took onto themselves rather than a status of all Believers (again, at least in this passage). This is not so far-fetched if “righteousness” can also mean “vindication” or “the proving the right or correctness of God” If the Apostles saw themselves in the process of “proving the Scriptures right” by fulfilling the promise of “bringing the Gentiles in” then they would be the Vindication of God (and his Promises) by their actions in this regard.

      Anyway, I am certain everyone moved on, but this bothered me so I had to revisit it.

  10. From what I understand, the following verses seem to teach that righteousness in the New Testament is based on belief, not on performance. (Actually Abraham in the Old Testament was deemed righteous as well by believing, not by his doing) As a person believes right, believing what God says, they are imputed or accounted righteous in God’s eyes.

    As for Christ taking the sin of the world via imputation, He did no sin, yet being imputed with our sin was enough to cause Him to bear God’s wrath on our sin. In our case, we do no righteous deeds, yet we are imputed with God’s righteousness which is just as effectual to the point of us being at peace with God through faith. Of course we as believers are to live out God’s commandments in love, yet it is purely on the imputed righteousness through faith that anyone is granted eternal life.

    Romans 4:
    3 For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. 4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. 5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

    22 And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. 23 Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; 24 But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; 25 Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.

    Believing God is counted unto us as righteousness and we are justified in Christ without deeds.

    Romans 5:
    17 For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) 18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.

    By the obedience of one (Jesus Christ), we (the believers) are made righteous.

  11. This imputation vs. actual change dilemma is a false dilemma.

    Anyone given saving faith which accounts him righteous WILL be changed.
    BECOMING the righteousness of God cannot be dissected into imputation vs. sanctification anymore than we can split the two natures of Christ.

    How will we be changed? By constant confession, repentance, absolution, and holy communion. We won’t be changed by buckling down and trying harder, that will only leave us more hopeless than when we started. Instead we will be sanctified by contrition, and true sorrow over our sin, and the receiving of true forgiveness for that sin.

    But our sanctification will not be complete until we are glorified, for that reason we will continuously fall short of what we really truly OUGHT to do. And so our confidence before God, our adopted Father, comes through the imputation, not though the sanctification. This is the only reason reformers stress imputation, not because sanctification isn’t there, but because it isn’t a source of confidence in our salvation. Christ is our only source of confidence.

    • Beon and Terry, you and others are making good THEOLOGICAL points, points with which I heartily agree. The question in the post is the meaning of this particular text. I think the focus here is on a practiced righteousness, not a positional righteousness. One does not take away from the other.

      Nor does Paul at this point get into the mechanics of how such righteousness is practiced or how it relates to our positional righteousness. He is making a very simple point. Christ took our sins so that we might become righteous people.

      If I were preaching on this, I would include many of the same thoughts you are expressing, in order to clarify that we don’t “become righteous” by our own efforts. However, the simple message of the text stands.

    • Beon, to clarify, I’m not really trying to set one view AGAINST the other. What I said in the post is that Paul goes BEYOND the idea of imputed righteousness here to view the whole plan of God for his people. He took our sins so that we might become his righteous people, not only legally, but ultimately in practice as well. The Titus 2:14 passage IMO is a good parallel: “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” No one argues that this verse teaches works righteousness; it just looks at the bigger picture.

      • My comments would apply for the Titus passage as well. While it doesn’t focus on imputation, imputation is already implied in any passage on sanctification, and sanctification is likewise implied in any passage on Christ’s imputed righteousness. It is clear from many passages that no zeal for good works bears good fruit apart from justifying faith. Likewise, no true faith fails to produce good works and love for the neighbor. It seems almost like a reckless post-modern deconstruction to try to separate out the one as distinct from the other.

        Imagine a class where we exclusively focus on the humanity of Christ, while failing to consider his deity. It may be a fun excercise with lots of suporting verses, but most of the students will end the course in theological error.

        • Uh, I think that’s kinda what I said.

          • That wasn’t clear at all because you used emergent-speak.

          • Beon, if you had any discernment, you would know I’m about as far from “emergent” as they get. And if you go back and actually read my comment instead of reacting according to your preconceived notions, you will find you are simply flat wrong.

            I get the impression that you have this small lectionary of approved theological terms, and if anyone tries to speak outside its bounds, they are labeled at least misguided and at worst heretical. You’re going to have a hard time getting along on this blog unless you lighten up a little bit and learn to talk with others who don’t say things exactly like you do.

    • What about Paul’s formula/advice in Romans 6:12-13,19 and 8:13? Paul seems to put the work(ing) of the Spirit foremost in terms of how we live in a way pleasing to God. ISTM that he doesn’t place “constant confession, repentance, absolution, and holy communion…and contrition, and true sorrow over our sin” as the primary means for this, or at least not in Romans.

      Besides, where does the Bible use the term “holy communion”? Just askin’.

      • Pls ignore my comment/queston re: “holy communion”; that’s not relevant to my remarks, but a case of too much Zyrtec.

  12. It appears to me that however Christ became sin is the same way the believer became righteous. Did Jesus do sin? No. The sin of the world was imputed to Him and God did not say, “Well, since it’s only imputed sin, I’ll be easy on Jesus and not punish Him as if He did sin.” No, the imputed sin carried the full force of sin whether it was imputed or actually done. So wouldn’t the same apply for God’s righteousness being applied to us as believers? I believe it would. Having God’s righteousness imputed would carry the same benefit as if we had never sinned and were pure, wouldn’t it?

    Then after being made acceptable to God by faith, as we behold the Son, we are changed into the image of Christ experientially through the power of the resurrection doing it all as we count ourselves dead to sin through the body of Christ. Not having our own righteousness which is of the law, but having the righteousness which is of faith.

    • Terry, once again I think you make good theological points, but I’m afraid we’re reading too much of that justification theology into a simple statement here. IMHO, Paul is making a general statement, “Christ took our sins so that we might become God’s righteous people,” to remind them, not primarily of their imputed status, but of their ultimate calling.

      • Chaplain Mike, thank you for taking your time to help me to understand your point of view on this. But I’m afraid you’ve got a big job getting your points to sink into my “thickness”. 🙂 It just seems to me that maybe your focus is on being able to “live” righteously in these ol’ unredeemed bodies while mine seems to be looking to the spiritual side.

        Are you saying that by the act of Christ taking our sins, that makes us God’s righteous people since we then would have no sin and would be only left with righteousness? Or are you looking at this as a progression thing where we sin less and less to the point where we stop sinning all together?

        Thank you for taking your time to help me understand your belief in this.

        • Terry, I think you are analyzing too much. Paul is simply setting forth the “big picture” here of God’s calling for his people—Christ died for us so that we would become righteous (in both position and practice). He is appealing to the Corinthians to remember this calling, because they are being led astray by other teachers.

          As I said in the post, Paul’s words are equivalent to Titus 2:14: “[Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

          Is there anything unclear or troublesome about that verse?

  13. A good thoughtful look at this passage Chaplain–thanks.

    My opinions:
    1) I don’t think too much should be made of the word “become”. The text could just as well have said Christ “became” sin that we could “become” the righteousness of God. I do think it’s just saying the usual double imputation—Christ wasn’t sinful but God made him sinful on the cross, and we aren’t righteous but God makes us acceptable (“righteous”) in His sight through Christ.
    2) I think your linking up vs 21 with vs 15 is a strong parallel and indicates the effects of a righteous lifestyle. That parallel makes a good case for your point.
    3) But one could just as well make a parallel with vs 19 which more strongly supports the case for imputation.

    I think good theology is important but that often we make too much of academic differences and forget the practical aspects that faith/imputation will/should lead to righteous living. In that sense, your view and the traditional imputation view both have a valid place and complement each other. Incidentally, Wright’s view, though I understand where he’s coming from, seems the most foreign to the text from my perspective.

    • Jeff, thanks for your good comment. I do think in this case words make a difference. Paul said Christ was “made” sin, which may actually be referring to OT texts that denote the making of a sin offering; it’s probably a little more of a technical term for sacrifice and wouldn’t just be understood in a general sense.

      I’m not sure what your point is with verse 19, because in verse 20, Paul appeals to the Corinthian church to be reconciled to God. There is a difference, I think, between the gospel ministry of reconciliation that calls sinners to Christ (which would highlight imputed righteousness), and what Paul is saying to the church here. IMHO, he is calling them to remember not only their status in Christ but their calling.

      • In vs 19, I was getting at the mention of our sins not being counted against us (or imputed in some translations)—the point being the contrast between not having sin imputed against us but rather righteousness imputed to us as the meaning of reconciliation. That’s what I was getting at as far as a parallel with vs 21. And also, I know it says “made” for Christ but some translations also say “made” for us in terms of righteousness.

        Whatever the case, we can all agree (I hope!) that we should, as you say, remember both our status and calling!

  14. What did Jesus say on the matter?

    Broadly, I see his statements are all about ‘becoming’ and not simply a change in legal status. When we’re divided into sheep and goats, for example, it speaks to a transformation not a substitution.

    But then again I am not a theological scholar nor do I really want to be. Why God made the Bible like Congress and the IRS made the tax code is beyond me 🙂 That would be an interesting analogy to explore, now that I think about it!

  15. Dana Ames says

    Chaplain Mike,
    I like your understanding of practiced vs positional righteousness. I would “weigh” it a little more toward the Wrightian flavor, and here’s why.

    For a long time I’ve read “trust” when I see the word f-a-i-t-h, because pistis seems to “weigh” more as that meaning, rather than bare intellectual assent. Lately (yes, influenced by Wright) I’ve been reading the righteous/justified dik- words as “faithfulness”. Try it on and see if it doesn’t make sense, in that Christ is making us (or Paul or both) faithful because we are In Christ- not because of imputation, single or double, but because we participate in his faithfulness- the faithful Adam (human being) with whom God has always wanted a relationship of union. So if we are in Christ and participate in his faithfulness, we will have a “leg up”, so to speak, on actually living that out, and becoming even more faithful.

    (I’m EO, and Orthodox understanding doesn’t go anywhere near “imputation”- it’s all about “participation”, being united with Christ, and what that means now that Christ has conquered death and united human nature to the Godhead. And I saw that vision mostly through Wright’s work on Jesus; much better to start there than with his Paul stuff, I think, even though the latter came first.)

    Grateful for your faithful service.

    • Dana, thanks for your comment.

      In his paper addressing Wright at the Wheaton conference, Kevin Vanhoozer suggested that one way of bringing the two “sides” together in the question of justification is to see adoption and union with Christ as a main category under which we understand how God considers us righteous.

      • Dana Ames says

        Haven’t listened to the Vanhoozer talk yet; I’m going through them in order as I have time. I’m not sure I’ll agree with V. because of other quotes of his I’ve read, but at least he’s dealing with Wright from a place of understanding what Wright is talking about.

        The main point for me, I guess, is that God considering us righteous isn’t about imputation of some kind of sinless moral state. I think it actually has to be deeper than that, much more related to true life and being, because of the word “become” and because of our participation in Christ.


  16. Hi. From my limited reading of NT Wright, I thought the reference to “the righteousness of God” is about God demonstrating his righteousness, not about making us righteous. Hence I thought 2 Cor 5:21 could be translated thus:

    “God made Jesus who knew no suffering to experience suffering for us, that in Jesus we might become God’s faithfulness [to us in fulfilling his covenant promises to us]”

    So “the righteousness of God” refers to God’s righteousness, not our righteousness. I seem to recall reading something from NT Wright along these lines. I may have misunderstood the writing.

    • You can find his full interpretation of the text in his book Justification. As said in the post, he relates the phrase to the apostles embodying God’s covenant faithfulness in their ministry.

    • In “What Paul Really Said” Wright uses the explanation that you have given KC.

  17. If we become the righteousness of God in a realistic, as opposed to merely a forensic, sense, then the parallel nature of the verse would imply that God made Christ sin in a realistic, rather than in a merely forensic, sense. Thus, Chaplain Mike, your interpretation leans strongly in the direction that Christ actually was made a sinner, i.e., one who had personally committed sin. Orthodox Christology (and the explicit teaching of Scripture elsewhere) forbids such a view.

    The traditional reading is, IMHO, still the most natural reading of the passage. Wright’s view is completely bizarre.

    • “made sin” probably means “made a sin-offering” as in Isaiah 53. Though broadly parallel, the two parts of the verse need not be identical.

      • Whether it means “made sin” or “made a sin offering,” the concept of imputation is still present, for a sin offering (like that in Isaiah 53) is nothing other than an innocent life to whom our sins are imputed.

        I don’t see how the use of the word “become” must be taken to imply a realistic notion. If God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us, then we really have become righteous. We shouldn’t think that forensic justification is some kind of lower level, not-really-there righteousness. If Christ really became our sin (or a sin offering) by imputation, then we really become righteous by imputation. Compare 1 Corinthians 1:30.

        • I hear your point, but I’m not sure imputation makes sense in a context where he is appealing to them on a practical level.

          • But it is clear that imputation is the doctrine that drives the first part of the verse, namely, the part about Christ being made sin (or a sin offering).

            The traditional reading makes perfect sense in context. Here is how the argument goes:

            – God reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (vv. 18-19).

            – Therefore, as ambassadors for Christ, we extend God’s appeal to the world (v. 20a).

            – And this is God’s appeal: Be reconciled to God (v. 20b; note that this is not an appeal that is given specifically to the Corinthians; it is Paul’s summary of the general appeal that he gives in his gospel proclamation. The pronoun “you,” which appears in many English versions, is not in the Greek).

            – The theological basis for this appeal is that God has made Christ sin for us so that we might be counted righteous in him and thus be reconciled to God (v. 21).

            I’m not sure how this relates to a “practical level.” Personally, I find the doctrine of forensic justification to be extremely practical. But that’s really not the point. The point is that verse 21 represents the theological basis upon which the appeal of v. 20 is issued, an appeal that is itself a summary of the message of reconciliation that Paul has been entrusted to present to the world. Reconciliation hinges on the doctrine of imputation: that of our sins to Christ and of his righteousness to us.

          • Good work, Aaron. I still think that “practiced righteousness” is the preferred view, but you make a good case for the traditional interpretation.

    • MAJ Tony says

      I don’t think a view leaning toward imparted righteousness, at least as a process more than an event, is bizarre at all, especially when taken in the context of other bible verses, such as the “Great Physician” passages. Jesus came to actually heal the sick, not just pronounce them well. These passages are not merely talking about physical ailment but moreso their wounded sinful human nature.

      • I agree, Tony, with the theological reality that you bring up here. Yes, salvation is a multidimensional reality that involves not just legal but transformative aspects.

        But the key question is, what is Paul saying here in 2 Corinthians 5:21? I think the parallel between Christ and us in the verse demands a doctrine of double imputation.

        But this theological reality is not divorced from the total salvation that we experience in Christ. Because we are counted righteous in Christ, we receive the blessings of those who are righteous in God’s eyes. The chief of these blessings is the Holy Spirit. And this explains how Paul can virtually equate the event of justification with the event of receiving the Spirit in Galatians 3:1-5.

  18. Good scriptural analysis, Mike. I think it is consistent with Christ’s two-part work on the cross — to bear the penalty of our sins and also to open the door for us to live in a new way and in a new reality. He did not suffer and die for our sins in order to leave us under the dominion of sin. That would be like pardoning a criminal and then just turning him out on the street, where he, more likely than not, will fall back into his criminal ways. Jesus didn’t just release us from prison, but He has also invited us into His home, to eat at His table, and to become a permanent part of His family. It’s in Him — in His household, under His lordship and guiding hand — that we become the righteousness of God.

  19. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    You know, I haven’t done much work on this verse, but I am noticing that the problem of how the parallelism actually works (with ginomai) is a similar problem to Ro 4:25. “He was handed over for our sins, and raised for our justification” where the Greek (dia) is more like “He was handed over because of our sins, and raised because of our justification.”

    Anyone else seeing some parallelism here? Might these two difficult verses help interpret each other?

  20. I think you have a wrong view of imputation:

    In my study on this topic of imputed righteousness, the Greek term “logizomai” is the English term for “reckon/impute/credit/etc,” (all terms are basically equivalently used) and when I look up that term in a popular lexicon here is what it is defined as:

    QUOTE: “This word deals with reality. If I “logizomai” or reckon that my bank book has $25 in it, it has $25 in it. Otherwise I am deceiving myself. This word refers to facts not suppositions.”

    The lexicon states this term first and foremost refers to the actual status of something. So if Abraham’s faith is “logizomai as righteousness,” it must be an actually righteous act of faith, otherwise (as the Lexicon says) “I am deceiving myself.” This seems to rule out any notion of an alien righteousness, and instead points to a local/inherent righteousness.

    The Lexicon gives other examples where “logizomai” appears, here are some examples:
    Rom 3:28 Therefore we conclude [logizomai] that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

    Rom 4:4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted [logizomai] as a gift but as his due.

    Rom 6:11 Likewise reckon [logizomai] ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    Rom 8:18 For I reckon [logizomai] that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

    Notice in these examples that “logizomai” means to consider the actual truth of an object. In 3:28 Paul ‘reckons’ faith saves while the Law does not, this is a fact, the Law never saves. In 4:4 the worker’s wages are ‘reckoned’ as a debt because the boss is in debt to the worker, not giving a gift to him. In 6:11 the Christian is ‘reckoned’ dead to sin because he is in fact dead to sin. In 8:18 Paul ‘reckons’ the present sufferings as having no comparison to Heavenly glory, and that is true because nothing compares to Heavenly glory.

    To use logizomai in the “alien status” way would mean in: (1) 3:28 faith doesn’t really save apart from works, but we are going to go ahead and say it does; (2) 4:4 the boss gives payment to the worker as a gift rather than obligation/debt; (3) 6:11 that we are not really dead to sin but are going to say we are; (4) 8:18 the present sufferings are comparable to Heaven’s glory.
    This cannot be right.

    So when the text plainly says “faith is logizomai as righteousness,” I must read that as ‘faith is reckoned as a truly righteous act’, and that is precisely how Paul explains that phrase in 4:18-22. That despite the doubts that could be raised in Abraham’s heart, his faith grew strong and convinced and “that is why his faith was credited as righteousness” (v4:22). This is also confirmed by noting the only other time “credited as righteousness” appears in Scripture, Psalm 106:30-31, where Phinehas’ righteous action was reckoned as such. This is confirmed even more when one compares another similar passage, Hebrews 11:4, where by faith Abel was commended as righteous.

    • The issue as presented in this post reflects historic debates between Protestants and Roman Catholics.

      Protestants teach that justification is a instantaneous legal declaration of one’s status as righteous, because Christ’s righteousness is credited to our account through faith alone. Protestants then say that sanctification, or the development of practiced righteousness in the believer’s life, happens over time through the means of grace.

      The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is that of “infused” righteousness. Justification is a process by which the righteousness of Christ is infused into the believer over time through through the sacraments. Protestants believe this confuses justification with sanctification.

      In my post, I set forth a Protestant interpretation and say that I think Paul is looking at the whole process of “righteousness” that God wants to work in his people, with an emphasis on the “practiced righteousness” part of the matter.

  21. I think that the following verse summarizes imputation / sanctification process / final righteousness issue succinctly.

    “because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy”
    Hebrews 10:14