He made Him who knew no sin to be sin in our behalf, so that we might BECOME the righteousness of God in Him (2Cor5:21)
I have highlighted “become” (Greek: γίνομαι) because it is one of several indicators that Paul does not mean what many understand him to mean – that the Christian receives God’s own righteousness in Christ in exchange for His act of atonement for human sin. If Paul meant that, he is more likely to express the matter in terms of possessing God’s righteousness. As a first step, observe how the phrase δικαιοσύνην θεοῦ is utilized elsewhere in the New Testament, especially by Paul:
Rom1:17 For in (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from Faith to faith; as it is written: “But the righteous one will live by faith.”
Rom3:5 But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He?
Rom3:21,22 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been revealed, witnessed by the Law and the Prophets. 22 It is the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction
Rom10:3 For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God
James1:20 A man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness of God.
2Pet1:1 To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ
[The above translations can be affirmed HERE (NASB) except Rom3:22 where NASB has “faith in Jesus Christ” whereas the Greek reads “faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ”
Is there a particular phrase or meaning to “righteousness of God” that works in each case? Here is one: “the righteousness of which God approves” except where the righteousness referred to is unambiguously subjective (i.e. pertaining to God rather than the believer) such as Rom3:5 and 2Pet1:1. In these cases it can pertain to God’s righteous judgement (Romans) or His saving activity in Christ (2Pet). In our featured text (2Cor5:21) where the believer becomes the righteousness of God, the Christian certainly possesses a righteousness of which God approves (through their faith in Christ). But there is also the subjective sense in which the Christian becomes God’s righteousness by acting out His saving purposes in the world. That includes what Paul has just been writing about in the previous verse regarding becoming ambassadors for Christ, seeking on Christ’s behalf to reconcile the world to God.
Different contexts – different meanings
So the term can mean different things in different contexts, but what I am saying that it can never mean is that the believer (or anybody) comes to possess God or Christ’s personal justice. That would make a nonsense of much of the rest of the New Testament teaching especially that of Christ Himself. But also that of Paul and his emphasis on the essentiality (not merely the desirability) of moral rectitude. In particular “putting to death the deeds of the body” in order to obtain eternal life (Rom8:13). He also describes God’s thoroughly intelligible justice in Romans chapter 2 where he writes:
God will render to every man according to his works:To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness – indignation and wrath.Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that does what is evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile but glory, honour, and peace, to every man that does what is good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile (Rom2:6-10).
This is Paul’s definitive passage on final judgement and it indicates people are to be judged on the basis of what they have done, not what Christ has done on their behalf (likewise Jesus in Mt25:31-46). However, as considered in a recent post, because of what Christ has done on their behalf, no one (Christian or otherwise) is to be judged against the perfect standards of God’s Law, which itself has been nailed to the Cross along with human sin (Col2:14). Nevertheless (indeed one might say consequentially), all who shall finally be accepted by God must have fulfilled God’s Law (Rom2:13-15), the heart and summary of which is love for neighbour (Gal5:14). Why? – because they can, not to the letter of the law but in accordance with its spirit/heart/intention. Neither is such a fulfilment of God’s law required to be perfect in execution (nor can it be), simply that their actions are motivated by faith. As explained in the previous post, that is either faith towards Christ Himself (in the case of those to whom the Father has revealed Him – Jn6:44), or it is a response to the Light He has provided to every man’s conscience (cf. Jn1:9KJV; Rom2:15). For as I also demonstrated from Paul’s teaching, a positive response to conscience is itself an act of faith (Rom14:23 – the lack of faith in this case pertaining to defying the dictates of conscience concerning what is eaten, not to religious faith).
The objective righteousness of God
This principle is more clearly demonstrated in the M25 passage (where religious faith is neither mentioned nor implied). Indeed, no other interpretation works if Jesus’ teaching is to be reconciled with Paul’s on a matter that could hardly be more important – the basis upon which a person is justified before God. If Jesus and Paul’s teaching on that subject cannot be reconciled, we are in dire trouble – but it can be and has been. Indeed, the understanding of faith I am presenting, defined in an earlier post as a God-given “virtuous quality that furnishes a guiding principle resulting in endeavour”, works (i.e. functions coherently) throughout the Bible. And it applies not just to those within the Covenant of Promise (Gal4:28) but all who respond positively to the light of Christ in the conscience. For it is that innate spiritual faculty which will have motivated the Mt25 “sheep” to act compassionately towards their fellows, unwittingly serving the Son of Man Himself in the process (v40).
As for the Christian, God wishes to have a relationship with them – or rather the people they become through their relationship with Christ. That is not to “receive His righteousness” in any forensic sense, rather Christ’s righteousness is imparted as a person becomes ever more conformed to His Master’s image through progressive sanctification (Rom8:29). Likewise, Christ’s wisdom could only ever be imparted not imputed, yet those advocating “alien righteousness” try to utilize 1Cor1:30 for that purpose where it states that Christ has become for us righteousness and wisdom. The whole concept is absurd when one thinks carefully about it, for our righteousness or lack of it is ultimately what we are. God already relates to His Son – He wishes in due course to relate more intimately to us, albeit in a glorified body, just as Jesus did with His disciples whilst both were in mortal flesh. As Jesus had to remind Philip, even whilst in human flesh the Saviour perfectly reflected His Father’s nature and attitudes (Jn14:9). [It is worth thinking through the implications of this in terms of future divine-human relationships].
Personal righteousness through the aeons
In terms of eternity, the problem will be resolved by the aforementioned glorified body replacing that which had been the source of our problem with sin. That was Paul’s “body of this death” – the consequence of the Fall. In the meantime, as Jesus told His disciples, “You are clean through the word I have spoken to you” (Jn15:3). Communing with Christ, encountering Him in sacrament (Jn6:56) and paying heed to His teaching is what fits the believer for a relationship with God even whilst in mortal flesh – with the prospect of almost unspeakable glories to follow, once Christian salvation has achieved its apotheosis – not the repose of the soul in heaven but the redemption of the body (Rom8:23; Rev3:21 & 19:7).
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Related posts: Sovereign grace theology & my 95 theses