17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. [2 Corinthians 5:17-21]
The last verse in this passage, 2 Corinthians 5:21, was flashed across the Jumbotron at a Chris Tomlin concert I attended in Fairfax, VA a few weeks ago, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since. It’s not an unfamiliar verse. I’ve seen it many times before. But this time I’ve really struck by the awesome implications of becoming the righteousness of God.
This verse is normally interpreted as a perfect expression of the mathematical formula of salvation. On the two sides of the equation are righteous Jesus and sinful humanity. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, the sin is transferred from the human side to the Jesus side while the righteousness is transferred from the Jesus side to the human side. This is what is commonly described as the doctrine of imputed righteousness. To such a view, “becoming righteous” does not refer to a change in human behavior but a change in God’s verdict about our eternal destination since Jesus’ righteousness “covers up” our sin.
Reading the context of the passage, I can understand how such a view came into being. Paul says in verse 19, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” Applying a kind of mathematical literalism to this verse, I could say “God reconciling the world to Himself in Christ” = “not counting people’s sins against them.” It’s clear that there is a relationship between reconciliation (a word which is repeated 4 times in this passage) and God’s righteousness. But I’m not sure that having our sins wiped out is the full extent of what being reconciled to God means. Reconciliation is more than mathematical and righteousness is more than a verdict.
Here’s what I mean. As long as we feel the burden of justifying our sins, we are stuck in a paradigm that sabotages our ability to enter into communion with God or other people. This paradigm could be called self-justification. Anytime we make a mistake that another person calls out, we argue with that person. Additionally, we keep track of other peoples’ mistakes so that we can use them as “mistake capital” in our future arguments with them. This results in a social space full of irreconcilable wounds and baggage. We continue to have relationships, but we are not in communion. And our relationships are about as reliable as a land full of volcanoes waiting to spew lava.
The prerequisite of any form of reconciliation is having the safe space to be truthful about our mistakes. God not counting our sins is not the full extent of our reconciliation with Him; it is the prerequisite of reconciliation, which describes the vulnerability and intimacy we are able to experience in a community of people who forgive each other. An example of reconciliation can be found in the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which granted ex-apartheid officials amnesty in exchange for telling the complete truth about the crimes they committed. The healing of South African society was seen as more important than making sure that every crime got paid for in perfect retributive mathematical equivalence. It was more important for the victims to hear their suffering publicly validated by officials who had never before admitted making any mistakes than for these officials to be punished for their crimes. Without this process, the transition from apartheid to democracy might have required a lot more blood to be shed.
When we are in Christ, we possess the same freedom to be truthful about our mistakes that the former apartheid officials had before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (or perhaps the freedom that they would have had if they were in Christ — many of them lied apparently). This is what makes us a “new creation.” Having this freedom inspires us to be “ambassadors of Christ” who carry a “message of reconciliation.” God’s righteousness is not merely equivalent to the zero-sum mathematical cancellation of Jesus’ crucifixion and our sin. Rather, Jesus’ payment for our sin removes the obstacle to our participation in God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself, which is His righteousness. We become the righteousness of God in Christ by joining God’s reconciled community. God’s righteousness is not just a verdict that superimposes itself on top of us like a mask so that God sees a bunch of Jesus faces walking around at the resurrection (like the Guy Fawkes masks that are in the streets at Occupy protests). God’s righteousness completely interpenetrates and invades our being like the bread and juice that we consume every week when we both eat and become the body of Christ.
When we are reconciled to one another in Christ’s body, we become part of the beautiful, enormous work of art that displays God’s righteousness to the world. Unfortunately, many Christians today make the painting ugly by refusing to be part of God’s reconciliation. We cannot become the righteousness of God in Christ as long as we think that “righteousness” consists in believing the right things about God. It does matter what we believe, but not because God is making the ultimate decision about us based upon our pristine theological propositions. It matters because believing the wrong things about God and insisting upon our correctness too stringently makes us incapable of reconciliation. So let’s do better than mathematics and verdicts. Let’s become the righteousness of God by letting Him reconcile us with Himself and especially other Christians with whom we disagree because we haven’t done the first if we are unwilling to do the latter.