Following Up the Future of Justification

2 Corinthians 5:21

My questions lie with some of our exegesis in determining just how God reconciles us through Christ. 2 Cor 5.21 is not loaded with legal language stressing the objective work of Christ, but is highly ontological stressing the subjective work of Christ, first upon himself as one who was made sin, and second upon us as new creatures. An imputation framework seems very foreign to the text, though it may be present in other texts. I find it odd that in all the responses to my point on the blog, only one person was willing to acknowledge the significance of verbal difference. Most sought to harmonize Paul’s word choice. This is, perhaps, due to a theological motivation to retain a double imputation reading.

As I see it, there are three main issues that need to be better addressed when interpreting this text:

  1. What are we to make of the verbal difference between Christ being “made” sin and our “becoming” the righteousness of God? If Paul had a double imputation framework in mind, it seems that he would have made this crystal clear by using the same two verbs to connote the same legal action—imputation of sin to Christ and imputation of God’s righteousness to us—but he did not.
  2. What is the function of iva (so that) connecting the two propositions? Most double-imputationists assume that it introduces a result clause; however, it is also possible that it is functioning to introduce a purpose clause. He who knew no sin became sin with the purpose of our becoming the righteousness of God. This is different from reading it as Jesus was imputed sin so that we could be imputed righteousness. The idea of a great exchange seems foreign. Rather, what Paul seems to emphasize is that Jesus was made sin for the purpose of making us actual, righteous people perhaps, as Scott Hafemann has put it, “to make us new covenant keepers of the law, enabled by the Spirit.”
  3. What does the “righteousness of God” mean? This is, of course, what has been hotly debated. Piper makes some keen observations about Wright’s conception of the righteousness of God (keeps covenant promises, judges impartially, deals with sin, advocates for the helpless). Piper points out that Wright’s definition is restricted to action, what God does as righteousness. Instead, he avers that we should be first concerned with what righteousness is, not what it does. In classical Piperian form, he doxologically points us to the fact that God is righteous because he is committed to his own glory. However, this division between what righteousness is and what it does is, perhaps, too Greek in interpretation. After all, isn’t God’s commitment to his own glory foundationally a promise that he keeps? Righteousness is the action of God’s covenant commitment to his own glory among Father, Son and Spirit.

The Gospel and Justification

I am not a staunch advocate or opponent of the NPP, rather, I am simply trying to raise exegetical points that I rarely see addressed. Part of my concern, moreover, is that too many folks demonize views that do not agree with the Lutheran interpretation of justification/2 Cor 5.21, announcing that variant interpretations are an abandonment of the gospel. Many Reformed folks continually say that Justification is the gospel, and that to reconsider the Lutheran interpretation is to lose the gospel. I disagree. Justification is and always will be by faith alone, in Christ alone, through grace alone, regardless of whether this text is interpreted as double imputation or new covenant promise keeping.

However, if the gospel is multifaceted, then justification is not the gospel alone. Perspectivalism is a helpful corrective here: Justification (normative), Adoption (existential) and kingdom/new creation (situational). Though each metaphor is not part of the gospel, to reduce the gospel to justification alone is to overstate the biblical-theological case. On this, Keller agrees:

We need all three perspectives, though each perspective is not simply a ‘part’ of the gospel. For example, the ‘kingdom’ perspective contains the other two. If God is king, then salvation must be by grace, for if we are saved by works, something else will be our Lord an Savior. Or if we have a new identity in Christ by sheer grace, then we must not look down at anyone else, and self-justification is the basis of racism and injustice. If you go deep enough into any one perspective you will find the other two.

The multifaceted wonder and truth the Gospel of Christ should be held up for the light of the glory of god in Christ to shine through, refracting his multidimensional glory for us to see and savor–the gospel of adoption, the gospel of new creation, the gospel of justification.


3 comments so far

  1. Justin Taylor on


    Respectfully, I think elements of this post are multiplying both confusion and caricature. For example, you are mixing the ideas of addition vs subtraction. You cannot refute the notion that “to reconsider the Lutheran interpretation is to lose the gospel” by responding that “if the gospel is multifaceted, then justification is not the gospel alone.” That’s a non-sequitor. The gospel may be more than imputed righteousness without being less.


  2. […] as in the Future of Justification post, I have chosen to start a new blog, beginning with this New Perspective on Paul post, to further theological discussions and retain the original focus of Creation […]

  3. jdodson on

    I’m not sure that I agree, though I could have written hurriedly composed email much more clearly. If someone were to take a different perspective on justification that is still Christ-centered, without compromising adoption and new creation, then they have not necessarily forsaken the gospel. Moreover, if these three expressions of the gospel are interrelated, then it is not a non-sequitor.

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