Once upon a time, a husband and wife decided to solve their marriage problems by writing out a list of rules each would keep as a way of improving their relationship.
It didn’t work.
Although they kept the rules, the relationship got worse. As it turns out, the couple’s relationship had shifted, not toward each other, but toward their list of rules.
The same type of thing can happen in religious life. We can use a system of interpretation to sort the Bible into a list of do’s, don’t’s, and don’t cares, and in the end, wind up reconciling ourselves and others, not to God, but to “the system” we have created. It’s an easy thing to do — easy because it’s human nature for alienated people to prefer rule keeping over genuine reconciliation.
Make no mistake, rule-keeping has its rightful place, but rule keeping is not the basis of a right relationship. Rule keeping in the absence of right relationships is ultimately unsatisfying. That’s because right deeds are spiritually empty unless they begin with and flow from right relationships. It’s a concept apparent throughout biblical thought. In Exodus we read, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” [that is the relational righteousness God had established with Israel]. “You shall have no other gods before Me [that’s the beginning of all the right deeds that should flow from the relationship God had established].” “The heavens declare God’s righteousness,” not because they display moral righteousness, but because the stars and constellations are always in right relationship with each other.
The idea that “right deeds flow from right relationships” places two different kinds of righteousness side by side: One is right deeds, which is just another way of referring to moral righteousness. The other is right relationships, which is just another way of referring to relational righteousness.
A good question is which type of righteousness comes by faith — relational righteousness or moral righteousness? The answer of course is “relational righteousness.” We believe or disbelieve friends and strangers not out of moral obligation, but because we either have or don’t have good relationships with them. Unwillingness to believe a friend most prominently signals a breakdown in relationship, not necessarily a moral failure. Willingness to believe a new acquaintance, in contrast, is the beginning of a new relationship. Thus it should be easy to see why, when Abraham believed God’s promises, God counted Abraham’s belief as relational righteousness.
Historically though, a different view of “righteousness by faith” is prominent within Christian thought. The word “imputation” has come to embody that viewpoint. Normally the word “imputation” simply means “to count” or “to credit;” but in Christian theology, it usually conveys the idea of a courtroom setting in which God as Judge imputes the sin of a believer to Christ while imputing the righteousness of Christ to the believer. The idea is that when a person believes in Christ, God renders a legal verdict that effects the double imputation of sin and righteousness between Christ and the believer. Since the resultant righteousness of the believer is Christ’s rather than the believer’s, the believer’s righteousness is usually qualified as “alien” to indicate the righteousness being claimed belongs to another.
The “imputation” understanding of “righteousness by faith” has lots of problems: Proof texts for “imputation,” seem compelling to many, not because NT texts actually reflect that idea, but because the theology of imputation has been so habitually read into those texts. Truth is “imputation” is latter-day, Reformation-era idea that makes affected texts unnecessarily complex when simpler readings are easier and more plausible. Moreover, the legal verdict of double imputation is not consistent with any courtroom experience anywhere in history. Although imputation theology generally casts works-righteousness in the worst possible light, ironically it also makes works-righteousness the ultimate concern in salvation history. Jesus overcomes death, not by faith, but by His works-righteousness. Likewise, believers are ultimately saved, not by faith, but rather by the works-righteousness of Jesus.
Truth is God cannot “justify the ungodly” without becoming ungodly Himself unless justification entails relational righteousness rather than works-righteousness (i.e., moral righteousness). Needless to say, God is not ungodly, so His justification does entail a relational (versus moral) righteousness in His giving of promises, that when believed, put the ungodly in a relationally right posture with respect to Him.
Simply stated, justification is the fact of being in right relationship. Jesus stood in right relationship (was justified) by His faith in the Father. As a reward for His faithfulness, the Father bestowed on Jesus a name above every name in that the Father considers faith in Jesus the same as faith in the Father. Believers therefore can now stand in right relationship with (be justified before) the Father through their faith in Jesus.
Moral righteousness, in contrast, is a matter of sanctification (holiness), not justification. One necessarily comes before the other. Sanctification flows from justification — which is just another way of saying, “right deeds flow from right relationships.”
Justification comes in two-parts in keeping with the “already but not yet” dualities of God’s inbreaking kingdom.
Initial justification is sealed by the Spirit on the basis of faith. Final justification is sealed by the witness (works) of a holy life. The latter justification vindicates the first. The Apostle Paul is well known for his emphasis on initial justification. James is well known for emphasis on final justification.
“I am the righteousness of God. 2 Cor 5:21 is often cited as a proof text for imputation as it arose from the Reformation, but the passage is frequently not even correctly quoted. The passage actually says …
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Background for correctly interpreting 5:21 is that the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians changes significantly between 1st Corinthians and 2nd Corinthians. In 1st Corinthians, the relationship is still good, but in 2nd Corinthians, the Corinthians are on the verge of rejecting Paul and his ministry altogether.
Thus Paul’s implicit argument is . . .
- His ministry is the embodiment of God’s righteousness (His covenantal faithfulness)
- The Corinthians are alienated from Paul and thus alienated from God
- So Paul urges them to be reconciled to God (as embodied toward them in his ministry)
The larger point is that v21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him,” is not a proof text for the medieval doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.
The righteousness in view is God’s faithfulness to His covenant as embodied in Paul‘s ministry
V21 applies to Christians today only in reference to those who have an evangelistic ministry like that of Paul’s; i.e., a ministry dedicated to reconciling people to God.
The “righteousness of God” in the Old Testament (which would have been Paul’s usage) is manifested in the salvation of His people. To paraphrase 5:21, Paul is saying, “The Father sacrificed His Son on the cross so that Paul and his team might bring salvation to the Corinthians via their incorporation in Christ through faith.”
The imagery in 5:21 is incorporation (i.e., “in Him”), not the Reformation imagery of a courtroom and a legal verdict— something totally incompatible with the idea of reconciliation— no one goes to court to be reconciled!
Throughout 2 Corinthians, except for one or two instances, Paul consistently uses “we” in reference to him and his team over against “you,” the Corinthians. One exception is 2 Cor 3:18, but there Paul says “we all” to signal the greater scope of “we.” The other exception is 6:14 -7:1. Other than those two places, Paul always uses “we” versus “you” to distinguish him and his team from the Corinthians.
In 2 Cor 5:20-6:1, note how 5:21 is bracketed by vv 5:20 and 6:1 where Paul’s use of “we” in contrast to “you” is especially apparent.
20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
1 AND working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain
Bottom line — 2 Cor 5:21 is no proof text for imputation.