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A Response to N.T. Wright’s “On Becoming the Righteousness of God”

April 25, 2007

(Taken, in part, from “Is the Doctrine of Imputed Righteousness Biblical? A Response to N.T. Wright”)

2 Corinthians 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

How do we rightly explain the believers being called the “righteousness of God in him” (1 Cor. 5:21) without holding the doctrine of imputation? N. T. Wright puts much effort into explaining how this is so. For Wright, if we explain this passage as describing imputation, then we are loosing sight of the larger context of the passage, which is the New Covenant and Paul’s apostleship.
From 2:14 on, Paul has been addressing the question of his own apostleship, and in chap. 3 in particular he has done so in relation to the new covenant which God has established in Christ and by the Spirit… The discussion of Paul’s covenantal ministry then continues into chap. 5. It should be clear from the therefore” in v. 11 that 1-10 contribute, as far as Paul is concerned, to the thrust of what follows: since all will appear before the judgment seat of Christ, with the prospect, for those who are in Christ’s, of receiving the “further clothing” of the glorious resurrection body, the apostle is spurred on to the work of “persuading human beings.” So then, for Wright, the larger context of 2 Corinthians 2-5 is Paul’s apostleship and the new covenant through Christ and his Spirit, which Wright sees as building and finally climaxing at 5:21:

“Here, then, is the focal point to which the long argument has been building up. Paul, having himself been reconciled to God by the death of Christ, has now been entrusted by God with the task of ministering to others which he has himself received, in other words reconciliation.”

The reconciliation, in Paul’s part, allows Paul to act on God’s behalf as an apostle, “an ambassador” (vs. 20), reaching out to his readers with the ministry of the new covenant. Therefore, Wright concludes that,

The righteousness of God in this verse is not a human status in virtue of which the one has “become righteous” before God, as in Lutheran soteriology. It is the covenant faithfulness of the one true God, now active through the paradoxical ministry of Paul, reaching out with the offer of reconciliation to all who hear his bold preaching. The humility of Christ, in becoming sin on our behalf, is, therefore, not “to explain how it is that people can in fact thus be reconciled,” but the way in which now Paul can take part in his apostolic vocation.

The Righteousness of the Believer – The Appointment of the Father, the Obedience of the Son, and the Faith of the Believer
In response to this argument by Wright, I want to show that the righteousness of the believer is the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer through the threefold action of the Father, the Son, and the believer. Paul does not isolate either one of the three as the only grounds for the righteousness of the believer, but emphasizes three separate individuals, three separate actions, and the result is specified in three different ways, namely: became righteous, made righteous, and reckoned righteous.
The action we observed in Romans 3:21-22, Romans 10:3-4, and Philippians 3:9 was faith, which resulted in the gift of the righteousness of God. However, faith in 2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 5:19, and Romans 4:3 is not the primary action in all three, only in Romans 4:3, in which faith is the action of the believer, while the action in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is being done primarily by the Father, and the action in Romans 5:19 by the Son. The action of the Father is the appointment of the Son to his mediatory work. The action of the Son is the obedience to the will of the Father in his mediatory work. Therefore, the righteousness of the believer is accomplished through three separate grounds: appointment, obedience, and faith. We shall look at the work of each of the Father, the Son, and the believer separately in order to show precisely how the work of imputed righteousness is accomplished in the believer.
The Work of the Father
The Father’s work in justifying the believer involves two particular acts: First, his work of sending his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world as his agent of redemption. Secondly, his work of applying the punishment of sin to His Son in place of us. When these two acts are distinguished and understood, 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made him who knew no sin to be sin” is recognized as the two-fold work of the Father in sending his Son and making him our Mediator for the sake of our righteousness.
First, the act of the Father sending the Son, employing him in the work of justification, is confirmed throughout Scripture. In the Gospel of John the mention of this act of sending Jesus into the world appears more than twenty times. John 3:16, 17, God sent his Son not for the sake of judging the world, but to save it. In John 10:35, the Father “sanctified and sent into the world” his Son. The witness of the trustworthiness of the acts of Christ is found in the testimony of “the Father who sent [him] in John 5:37.” Paul describes the Father’s work in filling up where the law was lacking in “sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” in Romans 8:3.
Second, Isaiah 53 looks forward to the time when the Father will make Christ the one who will be “smitten of God, and afflicted” (v. 4) for our sake, and “cause the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (v. 6), and “to crush him, putting him to grief” (v. 10). This was the will of the Father for Christ, to make oblation for the sin of his people as a mediator by applying to him our punishment of sin, which we deserved.
Both the work of sending and applying the punishment of sin to Christ is climaxed in 2 Corinthians 5:21 where the Father is the one who makes Christ to be sin on our behalf, “so that we might become the righteousness of God.”

The Work of the Son
The work of the Son in justifying the believer is found (1) in his act as the Father’s agent of redemption and (2) in his voluntary willingness and obedience. These acts are summed up in Romans 5:19 where Paul states that “by the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Clearly, this passage points out the peculiar work of Christ in obedience, resulting in the justification of many.
First, Scripture recognizes the volition of Christ in his work of redemption. Revelation 1:5 speaks of Christ as One “who loves us and cleansed us from our sin by his blood.” In Ephesians 5:25, 26 Christ “loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her.” In John 17:19, for our sake Christ sanctified himself in order that we might also be sanctified with him. In Galatians 2:20 his work is practically described as a gift when “who loved [us], and gave himself for [us].”
Second, the emphasis of my argument is the voluntary willingness and obedience of the Son to which John Owen writes, “without which it (the sacrifice of Christ) would have not been any value (for if the will of Christ has not been in it, it could have never have purged our sin).” His willingness was foretold in Isaiah 53:7: “He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb being led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so he did not open his mouth.” The commandment from the Father to lay down his life is perceived as also within the authority of the Son himself in John 10:17, 18, “I lay down my life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.”
The culmination of these two acts is in Romans 5:19 where “through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” The righteousness of the many depends on the obedience of the Son to the will of the Father who sent him.

The Faith of the Believer
The faith of the believer is significantly different than the work of the Father and Son in justification. The primary difference is that the faith of the believer is not a work at all. Throughout Scripture, works and faith are contrasted. “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight… But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (Rom. 3:20-21). “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith” (Rom. 3:27-28). “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith’” (Gal. 3:11). “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works” (Eph. 2:8-9). Therefore, Romans 4:3 reveals plainly that through our faith we are reckoned as righteous. This is a justifying righteousness, “as a favor (Rom. 4:4) through belief “in him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5).

Scripture is not revealing three separate ways in which the believer may be found righteous, but rather is revealing three components that are included in the justification of the believer. The results of all three are the same. The “righteousness of God” and “righteousness” are synonymous. Clearly, our righteousness is an extrinsic gift (as we have seen in the previous section) based on the work of the Father sending his Son, and the obedience of the Son in mediating for the sins of believers, and received by faith.
Wright’s assumption that our reckoned righteousness is not an imputed righteousness, but an ambassadorship for God, I believe, clearly misguided. The declaration of our righteousness by the Father and our faith in Christ are both based on the “obedience of the One” (Rom. 5:19), namely Christ. Paul explains further in Romans 5:10, “For while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” The life and death of Christ is the basis of our faith and the basis of our righteousness. For if we are to be called the “righteousness of God”, it is by no other person than the sent Son of God, Christ Jesus.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Randall Rains permalink
    August 29, 2012 6:36 pm

    You do not actually respond here. You do not explain why Paul would feel compelled to make a statement concerning imputed righteousness in this context. How does it fit with the flow from Chapter 2-5 as Wright asserts? In my opinion, if you want to respond you must address his arguments point by point
    .

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