11 August 2006

End of a long series

by Phil Johnson

ith this post, I'm bringing to a close the long series on 2 Corinthians 5:21 that we began in May. Here's a complete list of all the previous posts in the series:

appreciated John Piper's recent remarks about 2 Corinthians 5:21:

"I spent days on that verse, reading articles that are tearing it to shreds—and abandoning what 1500 years have said it meant—in order to warrant putting our God-wrought obedience where Christ's righteousness belongs."
John Piper

I've read some of those same articles, too, and I share Dr. Piper's dismay about the drift that's so popular these days.

But rather than dissecting all the ways this text has been nuanced, especially by people who claim it has nothing to do with Christ's atonement or the actual content of the gospel message anyway, I am trying (throughout this series) to give a positive explanation of what I believe the passage clearly teaches (which happens to be what the vast majority of Protestant Bible teachers have always believed).

I will just say that the exegetical gymnastics necessary to impose any other sense on 2 Corinthians 5:21 are really quite remarkable. Most of the ideas that have been set forth in numerous attempts to reconcile this simple verse with the various New Perspectives on Paul are rather far-fetched. They often involve tangled interpretations that are hard to make sense of at all. Surely the meaning of Scripture cannot be that obscure.

We're taking note of three perspectives of Christ presented in 2 Corinthians 5:21. In the previous two post of this series, we considered "Christ as sinless," and "Christ made sin." Now consider—

Christ in Union with Sinners

Notice the last clause of the verse, and especially the last two words: "He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him."

Now, what is this saying? In what sense are we "made the righteousness of God"?

You might be tempted to think this means simply that God makes us righteous. After all, according to Romans 8:29, He did "predestinate [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son." And according to 2 Corinthians 3:18, we are being changed into the image of Christ.

But this verse isn't talking about that at all. Look at the parallelism: God made Christ to be sin; He makes us to be righteousness. Similar expressions, saying similar things.

God made Christ to be sin. How did He do it? By making Him sinful? We already discussed why that cannot be the meaning. God made Christ to be sin by imputing our sin to Him.

Conversely, we are made righteousness. How is that done? By making us righteous? No. By imputing the righteousness of Christ to us.

The context makes this clear. Notice: it's not our own righteousness; it's "the righteousness of God." It's an imputed righteousness. This verse is describing a straightforward exchange: Just as sin was reckoned to the account of Christ, and He was punished for it, so righteousness is reckoned to our account, and we are rewarded for it. We stand before God clothed in a perfect righteousness, so that in the estimation of the heavenly Judge, it is as if we were the embodiment of righteousness itself.

Now, where does this righteousness come from? Is it just an ethereal righteousness floating around in the universe that is imputed to us? No; it is the righteousness of Christ. "That we might be made the righteousness of God in him."

"In Him." In union with Him.

Again, this verse is describing an exchange of our sin for Christ's righteousness. That exchange—a double imputation (our sin reckoned to Christ; His righteousness reckoned to us)—is the starting point and the whole basis of our spiritual union with Christ.

In other words, union with Christ is not an alternative to forensic imputation (as some recently have claimed). It's a corresponding truth. The two ideas are distinguishable but inseparable. They go hand in hand, like faith and repentance, or justification and sanctification. We are "in Christ" in the sense that through imputation, we become participants in His life, death, and resurrection. Union with Christ means much more than that, of course. But the starting point of our union with Christ is no less than that. This is the reason Paul employs the language of imputation so frequently when he deals with the subject of justification.

By the way, Paul speaks of our union with Christ more than once here 2 Corinthians 5. Verse 17 uses the expression "in Christ"—"if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."

The apostle Paul often employs the language of spiritual union with Christ as a kind of shorthand to describe the believer's perfect standing with God. We are seen by God in Christ. "For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3). Christ's righteousness covers us like a garment; His life counts for our life; and the merit of His obedience accrues to us. Imputation is the common thread that ties all those truths together.

To put it in simple terms: just as my sin was imputed to Christ so that He could pay the full price of it for me; in exactly that same way, His perfect life counts as mine by imputation.

No other interpretation does full justice to the text and context of 2 Corinthians 5:21.

That great exchange (my sin for Christ's righteousness) is the very essence of the doctrine of justification. Note: it's more than just the forgiveness of my sins. That would merely leave us with a blank slate. But the positive merit of Christ's righteousness is also credited to our account, so we get full credit for the perfection of His divine righteousness and His holy life.

Active Obedience

That brings us back to an issue we discussed briefly in an earlier post. Here's why it is so important to understand that the life of Christ, and not His death only is an essential part of His atoning work. He lived a full, perfect life of obedience on our behalf, and therefore His perfect righteousness as a man counts for us in the reckoning of God.

Did you ever wonder why, at His baptism, Jesus told John the Baptist it was absolutely necessary that He, the sinless Saviour, receive a symbol of repentance? Matthew 3:13-15: "Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness."

Now think about that. John's Baptism signified repentance (Acts 19:4). John the Baptist understood the situation. Jesus was sinless. John was not. If one of them should have been baptizing the other, it would appear that Jesus should have been baptizing John.

But Jesus expressly said He was doing it "to fulfil all righteousness." For whose sake? For His own? Certainly not. He had no need of repentance or baptism. But He did it for our sake, to fulfill the righteousness that would be ours by imputation. It was a complete and perfect righteousness, encompassing even the symbol of our repentance.

To sum up:

That is the simple meaning of this text. I can't say it any more clearly than John MacArthur often states it: "God treated Christ as if He had committed all the sins of all the people who would ever believe, so that He could treat them as if they lived Christ's perfect righteousness."

Therefore, Paul says, "We pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God."

How can you do that? Forsake your love of sin, embrace Christ by faith, and receive the water of life He promises to those who are spiritually parched.

By the way, this great exchange of our sin for Christ's righteousness was a common theme in Paul's writings. He spoke of it in Romans 3. After spending two and a half chapters showing that everyone, Jews, pagans, and religious Gentiles are hopeless sinners, unable to save themselves, he says in verses 21-22, "But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe."

In other words, we lay hold of Christ's righteousness by faith. A few verses later, he says in Romans 4:5, "To him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness." And verse 6: "God imputes righteousness apart from works."

Paul said that his own singular hope for salvation lay not in himself, but (Philippians 3:9), "[To] be found in [Christ], not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith."

That's the message Christ's true ambassadors are called to proclaim to the world. We need to make it clear, and we need to preach with force and biblical conviction.

History reveals that when Christians have backed away from this doctrine, the church has gone into decline and worldliness. But when preachers have featured this truth—as the Reformers did, and as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards did in the First Great Awakening, as the Welsh preachers did just before the outbreak of revival in Wales—this truth has awakened the church and enlivened the people of God.

Phil's signature


Keith said...

So where is the revival? I feature the doctrine. So do you and Piper, MacArthur et al. What will it take to bring this home to the Church? Is there some critical mass we need, a consensus, what?

Enjoyed the series, can you turn it into a tract for distribution to misguided or confused pastors?

What will it take, or Why does revival tarry? [2. to delay a departure or arrival, especially in an idle way]

FX Turk said...


Piper's sermon was like cold water on a hot day after working in the yard for a couple of hours. And he gave it as if it was the the last thing he'd ever say -- with gusto, and with real fear and sorrow over those who deny imputation

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. Great stuff.


Without letting this come across as sarcasm, the answer is "because the church is sick". We are far more worried about making sure the Bible doesn't offend anybody and suits us than we are to make sure we are being conformed to it.

Jonathan Moorhead said...

End of a long series = publication?

Taliesin said...


Great post. I've downloaded Piper's sermon and will listen to it today.

I passed a church sign while travelling for work this week that said, "If you live right, you will not get left." Like Frank says, the church at large does not hold to these truths. Much preaching today is mere moralism.

Brad Williams said...

I taught this very thing last night in a men's Bible study from Romans 3:19-26. I taught it to new believers, and we even learned what propitiation means. I don't know how you make sense of 2 Corinthians 5:21 or Romans 3:19-26 without imputation.

DJP said...

Very helpful and clarifying series, Phil. Thanks.

donsands said...

I have truly enjoyed this teaching series. I have been enriched, and my soul very much refreshed through your fine words on this most precious truth.
Thank you.

FX Turk said...

BTW, the truly brilliant insight in the Piper audio is in the first half of the sermon -- the introduction, in fact -- where he makes it clear that Jesus' commands are for the believer, the born-again regenerate man.

Can't wait to read that book.

Caleb Kolstad said...

Duh! :)

philness said...

Outstanding Phil! Thank you so much for your time and efforts with this series. Oh, how I wish the world could understand these truths. I am not ashamed, I will tell them.

Frank Martens said...

Turk said... "Can't wait to read that book."

I can't wait to read that one and MacArthur's Truth one.

Steve said...

It's tremendously fulfilling to read such a clear explanation of a clear teaching in Scripture.

Thanks, Phil, for the labor you put into articulating all these points about 2 Corinthians 5:21 so concisely. I've already shared this series with others who have benefited from it--including believers who have been concerned about EMC and NPP views on the atonement.

Sharad Yadav said...

Your explanation of "in Him" doesn't do justice to the grammar - this prepositional phrase is an adjunct- it further qualifies the predicate "become" (or "made"). It's either a) locative - which means that this doesn't describe a transfer of Christ's righteousness to us, it describes where our righteous status (the complement to the predicate in this verse) is conferred, i.e. where we "become the righteousness of God".

or b) instrumental - we are made righteous BY our union with Christ.

What doesn't seem to be an option, exegetically, is the word "through" (i.e. we became the righteousness of God "through Christ"). One might be able to pull that out of some other verse, but not this one. The only way you can say "We are "in Christ" in the sense that through imputation, we become participants in His life, death, and resurrection" is by presupposing imputation before you come to this verse. That's not what Paul says here - he says that we are participants in His life, death and resurrection through this spiritual union, with all the resulting benefits.

None of that necessarily refutes your theological position, but it does highlight that you may have tried to draw too much from this one text. This text simply says that we aquire a righteous status only found in Christ (not a status found in us through Christ, but a status found in Christ, to whom we are united). If you want to demonstrate a closely corresponding connection between this and imputation in Paul's thought you'd have to find a text in which both elelments are clearly present - as I said (and i thought you did too in your comments, earlier), this isn't one of them.

Carrie said...

Thanks Phil for this series.

I have been debating on my blog with some people in the RCC and now realize how crucial this doctrine is. What I find interesting (and sad) is how RCs just cannot grasp this concept. It seems so obvious to me.

I would love to study justification more, does anyone have any books they would recommend? Sola Scriptura is also on my list if anyone has any recommendations there. Thanks!

donsands said...


How is Christ made sin? Isn't this imputation?

Charles e. Whisnant said...

Phil and the others who have commented on this great subject of Justification. This has been a great joy to read and the Lord bringing the understanding to my mind and spirit.

Matt Waymeyer said...


I may be wrong, but it seems to me that Phil made it pretty clear that (a) he interprets the Greek preposition en in a locative sense and sees it as a way to express the believer’s union with Christ, and (b) he sees the imputation of Christ’s righteousness not in Paul’s use of the preposition per se, but rather in the parallel that Paul establishes in the verse as a whole. In other words, the context establishes imputation, and the preposition tells us that imputation takes place in union with Christ. At the same time, I must confess that I am only now tuning in to this series and have not had the opportunity to read the earlier posts, so I may not be in the best position to comment.

As a side question, when you refer to the possibility of the preposition en being used in an instrumental sense, you wrote that this would render the meaning “we are made righteous BY our union with Christ.” Seems to me that if the preposition is taken as an instrumental, the concept of the believer’s union would be absent altogether and that the resultant meaning would simply be: “we are made righteous by Christ.”


Phil Johnson said...

Matt: "I must confess that I am only now tuning in to this series and have not had the opportunity to read the earlier posts, so I may not be in the best position to comment."

No, your summary was spot on. Donsands said it in different words, but he got it right, too.

Sorry things are too busy today for me to elaborate myself. If time permits, I'll follow up on this later.

Sharad Yadav said...

Hey Matt,

I'm saying that Phil can get a but not b from this verse, and the parallel doesn't establish imputation as much as substitution. There was some discussion about it in the meta of an earlier post (I linked it in my previous comment) if you're interested.

Good point about the instrumental use of en.

Sharad Yadav said...


This verse doesn't say how Christ was made sin - it just says that he was. It doesn't say how we were made righteous - it just says that it takes place "in Christ". For our sins to fall upon Christ doesn't necessitate Christ's righteousness passing to us - in fact the direction of the "righteousness flow" in this passage is the OTHER way - we're passed into Jesus, His righteousness isn't passed to us. I don't see the force of the "parallelism" argument.

donsands said...


What do you mean: "For our sins to fall upon Christ"?

Taliesin said...


If you listen as well as read, I would recommend this series from Boice on Scripture. I would recommend this series from Dr. S. Lewis Johnson on justification.

Others here are far better read than I, so hopefully you'll get responses from Phil, Frank, Dan or others. RC Sproul (www.ligonier.org) does have books on Faith Alone and Scripture Alone (those are the titles). I have read other books by Dr. Sproul that are excellent, but these are on the "to be read" not "have been read" list.

reglerjoe said...

Good series on an important topic.

Hick working email said...

Great reminders Phil.
Thomas Watson said in "A Divine Cordial", chapter 7 "Effectual Calling",

Question: But how shall I know I am effectually called?

Answer: He who is savingly called is called out of himself, not only out of sinful self, but out of righteous self; he denies his duties and his moral endowments.
He whose heart God has touched by his Spiritlays down the idol of self-righteousness at Christ's feet, for Him to tread upon.

Bhedr said...


Is Baptism a fulfillment of the Mosaic law or a picture of the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord?

What of the Holy Spirit's descent upon Christ? Does this further fulfill the promise to Abraham or the Law given to Moses?

Is Baptism in the Law?

I believe Christ fulfilled the will of the Father and that the law reflected only partially the will of the Father. Verdict could only be settled by the Father not the son. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit had to fulfill all righteousness or was not the Holy Spirit not there when John Baptised Jesus?

Just questions...I believe in imputated righteousness.

I also believe in the peace and rest that comes from Justification that the Apostle Paul.

I think man faired better spliting the Atom bomb than to try to figure out the Passive/Active obediance of Christ.

I claim the blood of Christ in the single sacrifice mentioned in Heberews. Claim the blood....the life is in the blood.

C. T. Lillies said...

Is it the end of a long series or the end of a long blog?

Fourteen days without a pyro post make one, two week.