Back in March 2008, I wrote a series of three posts here on how Paul employs Scripture in Romans 3. One of the key bits under focus was the phrase “the righteousness of God,” since Rom 3 is essentially the New Testament epicenter for the term.
In those posts (read them for more detail), I showed that throughout the chapter, Paul is alluding to and citing Old Testament passages where God’s righteousness is mentioned. And the meaning of “Your righteousness” or equivalent could be described as God’s faithfulness to His commitments, His verity (truthfulness), commitment to the salvation of His people. (Thus the general reading of “covenant faithfulness” is a pretty good way to sum up.)
The question arises, though: what about 2 Corinthians 5.21? “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” This verse has long been employed as proof of “the great exchange” – Christ takes our sin, and gives us His righteousness.
Now, those familiar with my writings will know that I have absolutely no problem with the first part of that equation – certainly Christ bears our sin on the cross. And there is also a sense in which Christ’s righteousness becomes ours, but the shape of that is a bit different from what is usually meant by “the great exchange” reading. (I.e. it’s usually taken to mean that Christ’s active obedience is imputed to us.)
But 2 Corinthians 5.21 is not a general statement about the “how” of salvation.This is demonstrated by the immediately preceding and succeeding context. Paul is speaking of his role as an ambassador of Christ (2 Cor 5.20). It is through these ambassadors that God makes His appeal; and it is in this role as a minister of reconciliation that Paul is speaking to the Corinthians, which is why in the verses that immediately follow he goes to such lengths to vindicate his ministry (6.1-13).
Second Corinthians 5.21 follows a pattern seen on more than one occasion in the Old Testament. God selects a servant who will act on His behalf, but it turns out the servant is unclean. So He cleanses him, and then commissions him. Probably the most familiar example is Isaiah 6: Isaiah confesses that he is a man of unclean lips, and dwells among a people of unclean lips. Whereupon God cleanses him by touching his lips with a coal from the altar, after which He sends – “apostleizes” (an apostle is one sent on behalf of another) Isaiah to speak for Him.
A quite similar passage is Zechariah 3, where Joshua the high priest is standing before the Angel of the LORD, and Satan is accusing him – probably because he is clothed in filthy garments (iniquity). The angel has the filthy garments removed from Joshua, and has him clothed with pure vestments so that he is qualified to serve as a righteous priest.
Paul has already said something of that kind in 2 Corinthians 5, just a few verses earlier: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (5.18). The apostles and other emissaries have been cleansed for the purpose of being God’s agents to bring His reconciling message to the world.
In this context, in 6.2, Paul quotes from Isaiah 49.8, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you” (ESV).
Along with the Psalms, Isaiah is the Old Testament center of the righteousness of God theme. Shortly after the verse cited, YHWH speaks,
My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and My arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for Me, and for My arm they wait… My salvation will be forever, and My righteousness will never be dismayed.
Here again is the familiar usage of divine righteousness. What is in view is not lawkeeping, but God’s commitment to the salvation of His people.
In Isaiah 49, the chapter Paul quotes, the servant is appointed “to bring Jacob back” to YHWH (49.5). But YHWH says even that is “too light a thing;” the servant will also be made “a light for the nations, that My salvation (synonymous with My righteousness, remember) may reach to the end of the earth” (Is 49.6). Isaiah 49.8, the first half of which Paul quotes in 2 Cor 6.2 runs this way in full:
Thus says YHWH, In a time of favour I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages.
Of course, it is Christ Himself who is ultimately the “covenant to the people” – He is the new covenant. Yet because an apostle is an agent on behalf of another, Paul is rightly taking key aspects of this role (in terms of proclamation) as applying to himself. He is the one “saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear'” (Isaiah 48.9), which is why he has spoken a couple chapters earlier of “our gospel” which is veiled to those who are perishing, because “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4.4). Even more clearly, he adds,
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
In other words, the apostles do not speak for themselves, but speak representatively, as servants, for the Servant, and they have become agents of the light of the gospel.
What, then, is the point of 2 Corinthians 5.21? Paul is saying that just as Isaiah and Joshua the high priest were cleansed for the purpose of their commissions, Christ – who knew no sin – has become a sin offering for the ambassadors, so that they in turn may fulfill His role (in its function of proclamation) as the embodied righteousness of God. When the gospel is preached, God’s commitment to salvation comes to fruition, and the world is reconciled.
“That we might become the righteousness of God,” then, is not a circumlocution for “that we might receive the active obedience of Christ imputed to us.” It is an affirmation of the apostolic role (and analogically, all those who proclaim the gospel) as the means by which God faithfully brings His salvation to the world. Those who proclaim the gospel are the embodied righteousness of God.