Second Corinthians 5:14–For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15–And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. 16–From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. 17–Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. 18–All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19–that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20–So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 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. 6:1– Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2–For he says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (RSV)
This passage provides a series of theological affirmations and its purpose is to give insight and bring change in the way the Corinthians evaluate and deal with others, Paul in particular. In this passage, Paul is trying to bring about a long-sought-after reconciliation between himself and his cantankerous converts. Their relationship has been strained to the breaking point, and Paul wants to heal the wound.
The passage shows how a pastor must go about the practical work of healing fractured relationships. Not with “you ought,” but with “you are.” Not with a list of what we are to do but with a delineation of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus as the basis for how we ought to view and treat each other.
Christ’s death for all
In the interests of his reconciling purpose, Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:14, declares that the center of and power behind his ministry is Christ’s love for the world located in the Cross. It is a love that “constrains” him (KJV). By using the word synecho (literally “to hold or press together”), Paul means that Christ’s love controls the course he follows. It inspires, impels, and compels him to take only those actions befitting the love of Christ. This is the motive force that “urges us on” (NRSV). The love of Christ puts us on track.
If love is the motive force of our lives, what is the content of this love? Paul’s answer is found in the Christian conviction “One has died for all.” The connection between the love of God and the Cross of Christ is ever so strongly emphasized by Paul. The Cross is the proof of God’s love (Rom. 5:5–8; 8:31–39; Gal. 2:20). That “One has died for all” is the heart of Christian faith.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4, Paul appeals to the earliest Christian confession we possess. It was a confession passed on to him, which he, in turn, passed on to his hearers. It contained matters of “first importance” (v. 3). The confession begins, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” The “our” of this confession becomes the “all” of 2 Corinthians 5:14. It would not accord with “He died for all” (v. 14) to say that He died for some, for the elect (thought of as a limited number), or for believers alone. Christ’s death is universal in its range and significance. It is “in behalf of” (hyper) the entire human race. That Paul is stressing the universal is evidenced by the fact that, whereas the confession of the early Christians says “Christ died for our sins,” in 2 Corinthians 5:14 Paul replaces “Christ” with “One.” His purpose in this can only be to make it possible to switch from “for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3; Gal. 1:4) (or “for us,” 3:13, or “for me,” 2:20) of the early Christian confession to “for all.” “One for all” is a perfect fit and contrast. The accent of the statement is meant to be upon “all.” Consequently, we must affirm that Christ died for all without exception; therefore, in accord with verse 14, all without exception have died in His representative death. If this be true, the warfare between Paul and the Corinthians and between ourselves and others is, in principle, over and should therefore be ended in experience as well. If every person is the object of Christ’s self-giving love and shares in His death, it is clear that we all are united to each other in a new kind of community. Thus, if not another word had been written after “Christ died for all,” or if our passage had been mutilated or broken off at this point, the rock-bottom solution to divisive and injurious relationships would have been reached. Everything else in the passage expands or implies the basic truth that “Christ died for all.”
New life and the new creation
While making an affirmation that, because of its importance, could stand alone, 2 Corinthians 5:14 finds its chief function in the flow of thought by providing the foundation for what Paul, the theologian of the Cross and Resurrection, says in verse 15. Verse 15 is the destination to which verse 14 is traveling. The practical significance of verse 14 in relation to verse 15 is to announce that Christ’s death for all had as its purpose that those who live as a result of it live no longer for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and rose again. If verse 14 involves the principle of “One for all,” verse 15 stresses “all for One.” Thus, those who have received life as a result of Christ’s death are to conduct that life, not in their own self-interest, as they did before being personally joined to Christ, but in the same way that Christ conducted His. They are to live with Christ’s interests in mind. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” is the idea (Phil. 2:5, KJV). Christ as the Man who gives Himself for others is to be the object of our affection, the goal of our living, and the inspiration and standard of our service.
The thought of new life from the crucified, risen Christ continues in 2 Corinthians 5:17. When Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ,” the reference must be to a personal connection with Christ and not to something that is merely legally true. An examination of all the data on the use of “in Christ” in Paul’s writings reveals that “in Christ” is not a forensic but a relational reality. It refers to the most intimate bond possible between the risen Christ and the believer. Because the believer is united with the living Lord through the indwelling of His Spirit, he or she is incorporated, on the one hand, into the death and resurrection of Christ, which inaugurate the new creation, and on the other, into the body of Christ, the church, which draws its life from Christ’s death and resurrection. As a result, the believer is the recipient of all the blessings of salvation that flow from Christ and exist in the fellowship of believers. In the “in Christ” experience, the One who has represented us on the cross is the One who now floods our personal and communal lives with His presence, the efficacy of His saving deeds, and the powers of the age to come.
How to translate 2 Corinthians 5:17 has been debated. The problem is that after “If anyone be in Christ,” no subject or verb follows, only the words “new creation.” Some translate, “If anyone be in Christ, he is a new creation,” others, “There is a new creation.” I do not believe these translations are adequate. The new creation is not merely an individual experience but an eschatological reality belonging to the age to come. Therefore, in my judgment, the best translation is, “If anyone is in Christ, he/she is a part of (a participant in) God’s new creation.” In other words, the new creation, which traditionally has been looked forward to in the future, already exists in reality, created by God alone through Christ’s death and resurrection. Personal access to the new creation comes only by union with the risen Christ. When entry to the new creation takes place, “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (NRSV). This is another way of saying that, in view of Christ’s death for all, which is the death of all (v. 14), and the resultant new life lived for Christ alone (v. 15), we are no longer to judge anyone from a worldly point of view (v. 16). It is to the significance of verse 16 that we now turn.
Seeing through the lenses of the new creation
What Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:14, 15, and 17 is relevant to the situation in Corinth and for all relationships in all time. Paul’s correspondence reveals that the Corinthians were very self-centered, arrogant, and critical of others, especially him. Paul tells them, in effect, that if they take their cues from (1) the death of Christ for them, which was meant to lead them to life lived for Him, and (2) their present sharing in the new creation, then their relations to him and others will be radically altered. This can be seen in verse 16, which best expresses Paul’s practical intention in 5:14–6:2. In this verse, with its “formerly/from now on” perspective, Paul asserts that we no longer regard anyone, even Christ, from a this-world point of view (Greek: “according to the flesh”). The old mores, standards, presuppositions, understandings, and evaluations are gone as a result of the risen life of the crucified Christ flowing through us. Transformed relationships, rather than worldly perception, are to reign (cf. Rom. 12:2). Paul is exhorting the Corinthians to see him, his work, and the whole human realm through the lenses of the already present new creation in Christ rather than with the old lenses of the world. As in Galatians 6:14, 15, the world is crucified to us and we to the world so that the only thing that really counts from now on is the new creation with its radically new perspective and power.
Those who belong to Christ, and hence to the new creation, are a totally changed people. They look at others, no matter who they are or what they have done, the way Christ did—He gave Himself for them—because they have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16; Phil. 2:5). As participants in the new creation, pastors are to view their parishioners and parishioners their pastors and other church members with the mind of the self-giving, reconciling Christ. Academics are to see nonacademics and vice versa with the mind of Christ.Administrators should evaluate workers and workers, administrators through the filter of Christ’s mind. Husbands are to love their wives and wives their husbands the way Christ loves them. And so on.
As Galatians 6:1, 2 enjoins, we should minister to anyone, no matter who they are, who is guilty of any trespass, no matter what it is, with the healing, restoring compassion of Christ. We should bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted in the spirit of Christ. We should treat the poor, defeated, homeless, mentally deficient, and ill with His mind; the disabled, divorced, and, yes, homosexuals with His mind; and different genders, races, nationalities, minorities, and religious groups with His mind. Indeed, we are to love our enemies with the redemptive love of Christ, just as He reconciled us to Himself when we were enemies toward Him (Rom. 5:10). To be in Him and to have received the newness of life He brings is to be and act like Him.
Reconciliation accomplished and received
Second Corinthians 5:18 makes it clear that the reconciliation of humanity to God has already been accomplished through Jesus Christ and that the ministry of this accomplished reconciliation has been entrusted to God’s messengers. Since Paul is God’s special agent of reconciliation for the Corinthians (vv. 18– 20), the implication is that they should heed God’s message of reconciliation and God’s appeal through His ambassador. They, and we, are to allow ourselves to be drawn into the reality of reconciliation (the significance of the passive voice of “reconciled” in v. 20) that God, in Christ, achieved by reconciling the entire world to Himself at the Cross. The call to let oneself be reconciled can be made only because the realm of reconciliation already exists.
“Be reconciled to the God who has already reconciled you” is the paradoxical message of 2 Corinthians 5:18–20. Reconciliation is at one and the same time a gift and a summons, an indicative, which states what is, and an imperative, which declares what should be. In the Corinthians’ alienation from Paul, the agent of God’s reconciling appeal, this truth was being lost sight of. To end suspicion and hostility and be on right terms with Paul, it was necessary for the Corinthians to more fully enter the domain of God’s reconciliation. They needed to realize the full potential of the Cross. Paul calls them and us to this. Ephesians 2:11–18 is instructive in this regard. Here the alienated Gentiles have been brought near to the people of God by the blood of Christ. He embodies in Himself the peace that can exist between Jews and Gentiles. As their peace, He has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between them so that He might create (notice the word) in Himself one new humanity in place of two and reconcile both groups to God through the Cross. In consequence of this, He has proclaimed peace both to those far off and those near. The text is clear. Peace is already objectively present, so now it is to be experientially realized. The reality of peace and the invitation to receive it go hand in hand. “Become what you are; realize in your lives what you already have in Christ”—this is the message. The gospel calls us, not to a salvation that might be, but to one that already is, and that, therefore, impinges upon our daily lives and relationships with everyone—the “all” of whom the formula “Christ died for all” speaks. When 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that God made the sinless Christ to be sin for us, he resurrects the thought of verse 14 about Christ’s death for all in a new and more striking form. Since the two statements are both talking about Christ’s death for us, it is most likely that in saying “being made sin for us” Paul is talking about Christ as a sin offering; that is to say, One who bears our sins—indeed the sins of the entire world (v. 14). As verse 15 describes the intended result of verse 14, so the second half of verse 21 gives the intended result of the first half of verse 21. Christ identified with us in our sins and bore them “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (NKJV). To be the righteousness of God, in the context of verses 18–20, whose main emphasis is the reconciliation that God effected and to which He summons us, is tantamount to saying, “so that we might be reconciled to God in Him.”
If we connect the statement of verse 21, that through Christ’s offering we become the righteousness of God, to verse 15, which declares that the purpose of Christ’s death is that we should live for Him, then becomingthe righteousness of God means that in being reconciled to God we begin to live for Christ in that His love for us constrains or propels us to give ourselves for others, to seek reconciliation with them, and to serve them in love. This is just what the new creation, as a reality in the here and now, means. It is not merely a private experience but a social experience in which our stance toward everyone contains the same self-giving, reconciling love we find in the Christ who died for all.
With these considerations on reconciliation we come upon the answer to a question arising from verse 17, which trumpets that the new creation is already here and the new has replaced the old. This is an incredibly energizing but rather surprising, even shocking, idea. There is much evidence to suggest that it is preposterous. We must ask what is new about this morally anarchic, disease-ridden, tyranny-driven, poverty-stricken, suffering world in which catastrophe follows catastrophe and death reigns as a king. What’s new here?
Where is the new creation in this world? Is it only a dream, an ideal constructed by the mind, a Freudian projection by those filled with fear? If we have been following the course of Paul’s argument, we must say me genoito, God forbid, absolutely not! Wherever the powers of reconciliation are at work, there the new creation is present. The only form the new creation has in this world of tragedy and death is that of the love of Christ that is shared in the attitudes and actions of those who embody and promote reconciliation, the peacemakers who Jesus pronounces blessed (Matt. 5:9).
Salvation and decision now
Paul, who said that God entrusted him with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18b, 19b) and through him appeals for people to be reconciled (v. 20), now in 6:1 claims that in doing these things he works together with God. If this is so, everyone should take him with utter seriousness. In his capacity as a co-worker with God, Paul urges the Corinthians, and implicitly all of us, to not make God’s grace vain. How is it possible to make God’s grace vain or futile? Answer: by not seeking for, and living in, reconciliation with others after having learned the good news that God has reconciled us to Himself through Christ (v. 18) and not counted our trespasses against us (v. 19). If we do not live in forgiveness and reconciliation with others after receiving our reconciliation with God, we shortchange the full meaning of reconciliation and frustrate its purpose to place us in the new creation and change our lives from self-centeredness to other-centeredness, which is what “Christ died for all” implies.
Consequently, Paul says, in accordance with Isaiah 49:8, the acceptable time, the day of salvation, is here. This is a remarkable statement. The reconciliation between God and humanity already effected at the Cross, and which is the foundation for reconciling all human relationships, now becomes the basis for a challenge to decision.
No one can escape this challenge. In essence, Paul says to the Corinthians and to the “all” included in Christ’s redemptive purpose, “Make a decision to let God’s reconciliation determine your relationships and conduct. Do not accept God’s grace for yourself, only to frustrate its full reconciling intention toward others.” Paul’s thought reminds us of the message of Hebrews in which, though God’s rest is already present, the readers are enjoined, “ ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts’ ” (Heb. 4:7, NIV). Since the salvation won yesterday at Christ’s cross is an eschatological, eon-turning act, it makes all time “today” and hence a day of decision.
What the Corinthians and all of us need to understand and accept is the paradox that what by God’s grace alone is already finished is not yet finished until it is finished in our lives and relationships, social vision, and community building. Not legal adjustment but personal and communal transformation is God’s goal. This is the reality we are bidden to be part of in the here and now of the new creation, rather than letting the flame of God’s reconciling, re-creative work be extinguished.