17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, this person is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their wrongdoings against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21He made Him who knew no sin to be sin in our behalf, so that we might BECOME the righteousness of God in Him (2Cor5:17-21)
A key observation from my last post was that whenever Paul refers to Christ’s death on the cross, he speaks of Christ dying for sin, in fact that He became sin. Clearly it is for the benefit of sinners, but Christ is not presented as a representative sinner (which might more lend itself to the idea of substitutionary or limited atonement), rather He represented sin itself: He “became sin” (2Cor5:21) and “gave Himself for our sin” (Gal1:4).
Likewise, Peter: “He suffered once for sins (1Pet3:18)” or as foretold in Isaiah: the iniquity of us all was laid upon Him (Is53:6). “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (v19), not just the people whom God had chosen for Christ (“those whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me – Jn17:6). The atonement was for the sin of the world, not a particular party of sinners, albeit a particular party of sinners benefit from it in ways that others do not – by participating in Christ’s resurrected Life by which they can “be saved” (Rom5:10).
So, everything is hunky-dory for everyone then? By no means – “As Christ’s ambassadors, we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” (v20). Why? – because those who are outside Christ are currently alienated from the Life of God. They may have been excused for falling short of what as a result of the Fall becomes the impossible demand to keep God’s Law to the letter, but they will have not been cleansed from their sin. The unsaved are not empowered by the Holy Spirit and an indwelling Christ to live the kind of life that is pleasing to God; rather His anger against their sinful activity has been propitiated (1Jn2:2). They do not have access to the means of grace required to be holy so as to “inherit the blessings of those who are being sanctified” (Acts26:18). Neither shall they be delivered (raptured) prior to the approaching awesome Day of the Lord when those the bible defines as the children of the devil are to be ignominiously removed (Mt24:40-41; Mt13:49; 1Jn3:10). [Note from the Matthew references that it is only God’s elect who are to be raptured, for Christ shall be coming with His saints to judge the rest of world and sort the wheat from the chaff / the sheep from the goats (1Thes3:13)].
As I have also been explaining (Paul had already had done so but no one appears to have listened), human sin derives from the procreated intellectual vessel temporarily inhabited by the God-given soul, not the soul itself, being the spiritual essence of our true, eternal self (Rom7:20-23; cf. 1Thes4:4). The sinful vessel the soul inhabits can nevertheless damage the soul (1Pet2:11: Rom7:24; Eccles12:7) and such damage can potentially be irreparable (Mt16:26). So whilst Paul’s “body of this death” can and will be replaced by a resurrection body, repairing or purging the soul (being the person we truly are or have become at the end of our life) cannot be an entirely forensic matter. Pardon for sin is one thing, cleansing and rectifying its effects quite another. Potentially more drastic post-mortem action shall be required for some, and in the worst cases shall be of no avail, merely acting as retributional punishment. “For everyone is to be salted with fire, whilst every sacrifice shall be salted with salt [note 1]. Salt is good, but if the salt has entirely lost its saltiness, how shall it then be seasoned? Be sure you have salt in yourselves” (Mk9:49-50).
Thanks to the Atonement, where not only universal sin but the “the handwriting of the ordinances that were against us and were hostile to us” were nailed to the cross (Col2:14), no one is to be punished for what is innately impossible for them to achieve – perfectly keeping the letter of God’s Law or responding to a gospel that has either been misrepresented or in the case of many has not been heard at all. Yet everyone is required to keep the spirit of God’s law by faith, a law which Paul summarizes in one word: “to LOVE your neighbour as yourself” (Gal5:14). As just indicated, even that cannot be achieved with anything like perfection so that is where “faith” comes in. For truly, anyone who loves at all has demonstrated a measure of faith and fulfilled the spirit of the Law (Rom13:8&10).
The one cannot exist without the other. Love is the efflux of faith, faith must be present for that love to flow out from it; love and faith being quite inseparable, faith being the agent of love and love being the product of faith. That is why there are three human qualities that shall endure: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love (1Cor13:13). As Paul also wrote – in Christ, what matters is not circumcision and the like (works of the Law) but faith working through love (πίστις δι’ ἀγάπης ἐνεργουμένη – Gal5:6).
Did I say a human quality? Correction: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God for God is love” (1Jn4:7). Is it any surprise that God delights in and rewards the practice of human love? Jesus’ teaching on final judgement in Mt25 confirms what love (Greek: ἀγάπη) really is – in this context it has nothing to do with romance or the act of delighting in something or someone (a devil can do that) but is compassion and empathy for the needs of one’s fellows. The “sheep” who practiced it were justified and accepted into God’s Kingdom – but not by the actions themselves. That would have been justification by works, which many reluctantly conclude that passage to be teaching. That is because they don’t understand the nature of justifying faith. The “sheep” were justified by the faith that had motivated their acts of kindness.
Faith is digital – it is either demonstrably present or entirely absent whereas “works” are analogue, so worryingly uncertain. Are they good enough, pure enough, consistent enough, frequent enough? In Paul’s language, works are a wage, faith is a gift of God – all we have to do is exercise it. I described faith in an earlier post as “a virtuous quality that furnishes a guiding principle resulting in endeavour”. If you prefer to stick with biblical definitions, refer to Hebrews chapter 11.
Faith is derived from God and provided by God so can be nothing to boast about. On the contrary, the reason God condescends to justify us by faith is because our standard and consistency of good works simply wouldn’t hack it – in other words it is an act of grace on God’s part to justify us simply for being rightly motivated. I know it appears absurdly generous but that is what God is like towards everyone, and the point is it demonstrates that someone is of God and not a child of the devil (1Jn3:10-12). Defined in such way, faith can never be apart from works: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (Jam2:26).
Paul would wholeheartedly agree with James; not so Luther, who defined faith as “a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it”. That is simply a lie (read carefully through the evangelism in Acts; that identifies what is required for salvation and what is not). Irksome as it is for many, it is necessary (in view of Mt24:14) to show that every distinctive feature of Luther’s theology was in error. That largely stemmed from his understanding of the nature of justifying faith. For “justification by faith” was not an innovation of Paul’s. It has applied throughout the ages: “For as it is written, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom1:17; Hab2:4).
The Christian – a new creation in Christ
The object of faith in terms of gospel salvation is not in question – it is Christ and Him crucified. But saving faith is assuredly not an act of “trusting that God has favoured you with his grace” or anything like it; it is obedience to the Faith (Acts15:9 strictly Greek – note 2). As can be demonstrated by examining every sermon in Acts, it starts with baptism, being “that which saves you, not as the removal of dirt from the body, but the appeal of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1Pet3:21). It is again necessary to be wary of the translations, for some such as the NASB try to make it out to be an appeal for a good conscience rather than the appeal of a good conscience, which is quite different: (συνειδήσεως (Genitive) ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα).
Christ’s death pardons whilst participation in His Life saves (Rom5:10). Note also how the spiritual faculty of conscience has a role in Christian conversion. And it is paramount in the forensic justification of those outside the covenant of promise, determining who is of God and who is not (1Jn3:12; Gen4:7KJV). For everything that is not of faith is sin (Rom14:23). But as previously explained, the “faith” in that context did not pertain to believing in Christ or ascertaining the truth but the dictates of conscience, being a sufficient object of faith for justification within the universal covenant. However, salvation requires that one be a new creation in Christ (v17) such that one becomes the righteousness of God in Him (final verse/next post).
NOTE 1 – The latter phrase omitted from some manuscripts/bible versions – the “sacrifices” to be salted with salt must be referring to the elect – they have already gone through the sanctifying “fire” (Rom8:17) as have the many who (like Lazarus) have suffered in this life (Lk16:25). This necessary process (which Christ Himself endured, mainly for us but also for His own perfection – Heb2:10) will be better understood and accepted when the wondrous vista of what lies ahead in the ages to come is further revealed (1Cor2:9). It should also be evident from another passage in which Jesus refers to hell that he could hardly be referring to eternal punishment: “But I say unto you that whosoever is angry with their brother without a cause will be liable to judgement; and whosoever shall say to his brother Raca! [vain fellow] shall be in danger of the Sanhedrin; but whoever shall say Moros! [idiot or moron] shall be in DANGER OF HELL FIRE” [Mt5:22]. The idea that calling one’s brother vain, a Jew may still go on to enjoy eternal bliss after a hearing with the Sanhedrin, whereas calling one’s brother stupid or foolish may result in eternal torment is clearly absurd. Given the gradation of insults outlined in the passage and the fact that Jesus is adamant about the reality of punitive fire, it is indicating the need for final purification for those who grossly insult and belittle a fellow Jew. Even where hell or punishment is specified to be eternal in the Latin Vulgate or English translations, the Greek text reads “aionian”, referring to an age – and there are to be numerous ages.
NOTE 2 – Acts15:9: what was written was not “He purified their hearts by faith” but “their hearts having been purified by the Faith” [τῇ πίστει καθαρίσας τὰς καρδίας αὐτῶν]. If you check through Acts and also Paul’s epistles you will see that whenever the definite article precedes “faith”, it is always referring to “the Faith”, i.e. the Christian or Jewish Faith rather than faith as a quality or possession. What Peter was reported as saying in Acts 15 is that as a result of believing Gentiles being given the Holy Spirit, God made no distinction between their hearts and those of believing Jews – both had been purified through the spiritual provisions of the Faith (cf. 1Pet3:21; Jn6:53-57)
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Related post: The rich man and Lazarus & The righteousness of God