Wright’s Explanation of 2 Corinthians 5:21

Derek Ouellette —  April 21, 2010

I purchased a copy of What Saint Paul Really Said? so that N.T. Wright could autograph it since it was the first book on Paul by him I read.

If memory serves it was Edith Humphrey who brought up and challenged Wright’s interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21.

For N.T. Wright, if you are discussing Justification using the law-court metaphor (which has been the case since Calvin or before) it makes no sense at all to say that God’s righteousness is “imputed” on the believer. God as judge simply judges justly thus making him a “righteous Judge”. But when putting the subject of the believers Justification aside and asking the question on its own – giving full weight to the Old Testament use of “righteousness” – N.T. Wright believes that the phrase, “Gods Righteousness” is actually short hand for “the covenant faithfulness of God”. In both cases God’s righteousness is his own, it is not something he gives to anyone else.

If his interpretation is correct then what about 2 Corinthians 5:21 in which the text explicitly reads that “we have become the righteousness of God”?

N.T. Wright believes (as he says very clearly in both What Saint Paul Really Said? and in Justification) that this passage is so contextualized that we must read it as Paul talking about his own Apostolic Ministry and not about believers everywhere being imputed God’s righteousness.

Keep in mind that God’s righteousness is a reference to his faithfulness to his covenant, a faithfulness which came to fruition in the “faithful obedience of Jesus Christ on the cross” (Galatians 2:16, Philippians 2:5-11). So if the message of the Gospel – the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-5) is the message of God’s covenant faithfulness then, says Wright, when Paul and the Apostles preached that message they actually embodied that message. In that sense they literally became “the righteousness of God”. This, says Wright, is the whole context of 5:11-20 and even going back to chapter 3 and 4.

But I was not satisfied with this interpretation because it seemed to limit the scope of the biblical text. I tried to dance – ever so delicately – the line between the “old” view and the “new” (i.e. Wright’s) view believing that this passage does teach that believers “take on” God’s righteousness as it were, but through the Union With Christ (“In Him” it says) rather than “imputation”. In short, I leaned toward Edith’s understanding of this passage.

In Wright’s response to Edith Humphrey my anxieties were relieved. Wright, in explaining this text at the conference, seemed to go further with it then I think he does in his books. Keeping all of his premises in tact he expanded his interpretation of this passage to include all believers and their mission.

The righteousness of God does in fact refer to God’s faithfulness to his covenant expressed fully in the life, death and resurrection of Christ (i.e. the Gospel). Furthermore, Paul in 2 Corinthians is talking – in context – specifically about his own ministry and that of the other Apostles. But – and this I think is the touch Wright adds which he does not make clear in his previous writings – we believers have a job to do in proclaiming the Kingdom Message of the Gospel to the world and when we do that then we too become, i.e. embody, the Righteousness of God.

And that is how N.T. Wright interprets 2 Corinthians 5:21, it is an interpretation I can live with though I myself need to tease it out a bit more.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • BrianMUK

    Wrights interprtation helps in many ways. The reformed reading focuses on my personal slavation. I’m saved by double imputation. Wrights view helps us to see that we become the righteousness of God not for ourselves but for others and the whole of creation. This is very liberating. Psalm 40 v10 gives a very good definition of god’s righteousness. It is faithfulness, salvation, lovingkindness and truth. The reformed view has righteousness as an abstraction that is imputed to me. Wrights view is that gods righteousness is concrete goodness that is given to others.