Receiving Christ’s Righteousness: 2 Corinthians 5:21

receiving Christ's righteousness (2)

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b) 2 Cor 5:21: The Lord has transformed his people into new creations because, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their sins” (2 Cor 5:19).[1]

Consequently, this verse serves as both the climax and the theological foundation for this section of the letter.[2]

It explains why God no longer counts the guilt of those in Christ against us.[3]

Paul wrote, “The one who did not know sin on behalf of us sin he made, that we should become the righteousness of God in him.”

Scholars consider this sentence one of the most significant in all of Paul’s letters.[4]

However, they disagree whether the verse derives from a previously-existing confessional creed,[5] or whether it represents the apostle’s adaptation of tradition.[6]

That the verse nearly forms a chiasm suggests the latter. Elsewhere Paul modified a hymn or poem by adding interpretative comments or corrections to break the symmetry (Cf. Rom 3:24–26; Phil 2:6–11; Col 1:15–20).[7]



In these few words, Paul articulated the power of the gospel:[8]

The one who did not know sin                     (a)

on behalf of us                                                         (b)

sin                                                                                       (c)

he (God) made                                                                    (d)

that we                                                                          (a’)

should become                                                                    (d’)

the righteousness of God                                          (c’)

in him                                                                             (b’)[9]



In “the one who did not know,” “to know” (ginōskō) adheres to the Old Testament (OT) sense of “one who had acquaintance with something” (Lev 4:22–23; Lev 5:3–5; Rom 7:7; Rev 2:24).[10]

Therefore, this verse attests to Christ’s sinless life (Heb 4:15; 1 John 3:4–5).[11]

Amazingly, cosmic reconciliation resulted from the death of this one who knew no sin, for he was made sin by God (John 1:29; Rev 5).[12]

The OT sacrificial system as a means of atonement prefigured Jesus’s death (Lev 4:13–14, 19–21; Lev 5:5–7, 10).[13]

However, within the OT, Isa 53:4–12 best describes the redemption of corrupt people by the charging of transgressions to a blameless substitute.[14]

By his death, God made Christ a sin offering for us (Mark 10:45; 1 Cor 11:23–26; Eph 1:7; Col 1:19–20).[15]



Consider this analogy. When an enormous boulder falls upon the soft sands of the sea bed, the resounding thud reverberates in all directions, making ripples in the sand.

When Jesus rose from the dead, that momentous event affected everything in the cosmos.

Both the past and the future, including the era in which we live, have been forever changed (John 8:56–58).[16]



As a result of Jesus’s sacrifice for those of us who place our faith in him, we became “the righteousness of God in him” (Heb 7:26–27; 1 Pet 2:21–25).[17]

The apostle announced the reality of this exchange without detailing how it happened.[18] Since Christ became a curse for us, we receive his virtue (Gal 3:13–14).[19]

Just as Adam’s disobedience was imputed to us so that God deemed us sinners (Gen 3:17–19), so has Christ’s obedience resulted in us being considered righteous.

While all people since Adam have sinned in their own right, Paul likely referred to the Jewish concept of corporate solidarity, in which the acts of our representative head count as ours (Lev 4:3; Rom 5:12–21; Gal 3:27–29).[20]

Therefore, when the Father sees us in Christ, he views us with Jesus’s perfection (Col 2:13–14).[21]

As a result, he shall declare us righteous at the final judgment (John 5:24; 1 John 4:15–19; Heb 10:11–22).

The reality of living in Christ yields a firm conviction that God shall confirm our acceptance when we stand before him as our judge (Phil 3:17–21; 2 Tim 1:8–14).[22]

To become a new creation in Christ requires being declared legally righteous in God’s sight and beginning to live in keeping with the Lord’s standards (2 Cor 5:17).[23]



First Corinthians 1:30 closely parallels 2 Cor 5:21.[24]

In that verse Paul emphatically proclaims God’s grace: “By his doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.”

Since our standing with God derives solely “from him,” we can boast only in the Lord (1 Cor 1:31).

We possess righteousness, holiness, and redemption exclusively through our union with Jesus.

Therefore, we stand legally acquitted, set apart for God’s service, and redeemed from slavery to sin (Rom 6:5–7, 15–23).[25]

Consequently, our obedience to God flows from the positional righteousness we enjoy as people of faith (Ps 32:1–2; Hab 2:4).

The Lord grants us the presence of the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to live new lives characterized by holiness (1 Cor 2:12–16; Gal 5:16–26).[26]

In fact, to claim that God declares us righteous without living accordingly denotes the fraudulence of our professions of faith (Rom 8:1–14).[27]



Over time, a genuine continuity develops between God’s righteousness and ours.[28]

We are found in Christ, not having a righteousness of our own but that which comes from God on the basis of faith (Rom 4:22–25; Phil 3:9).[29]

The empowering of the Holy Spirit enables us to live as “a new creation” in accordance with the age to come, yet in this present age.[30]

Now able to face God’s glory without perishing, the Lord transforms us into the image of Jesus (2 Cor 3:7–18).[31]

No longer can we partner with lawlessness. Being righteous requires living righteously (2 Cor 6:14–7:1).[32]

In 2 Cor 8:9, Paul demonstrated this integration of being and doing while appealing to the generosity of the Corinthians. He accomplished this with another statement of Jesus’s sacrifice in order to spur them to action on behalf of others.[33]

Not only does Christ deliver us from sin, he incorporates us into a new world-wide covenant community (Eph 1:18–23; Eph 3:8–11).[34]

By stating, “As the father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21), Jesus commissioned us to demonstrate who he is to the world: God’s righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and redemption.[35]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read 2 Cor 5:21. How could Christ be made sin for us? What are the results of that? How does this truth affect our understanding of Noah’s righteousness and blamelessness (Gen 6:8–9)?




Go to Violence Filled the Earth (Gen 6:11–12)

[Related posts include New Creatures in Christ (2 Cor 5:17); A Return to the Ground (Gen 3:19); Noah Found Favor (Gen 6:8); Righteous and Blameless (Gen 6:9–10); Blood Given for You (Matt 26:26‒28); Effects of the Fall Reversed (Rom 5:12–21 and Rom 16:1–12); Confession and Belief (Rom 10:8–10); Future Vindication (Rom 10:11–12); Salvation for All Who Call (Rom 10:13); Clothed with Christ (Gal 3:26–27); Redemption through Christ’s Blood (Eph 1:7–8); Minds on Earthly Things (Phil 3:17–19); Citizens of Heaven (Phil 3:20); Glorified Bodies (Phil 3:21); and Our Certificate of Debt (Col 2:13–14)]

[Click here to go to Chapter 6: The Promise of a Covenant (Genesis 6:9–22)]


[1]Fesko, “N. T. Wright on Imputation,” 10.

[2]Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 312.

[3]Martin, 2 Corinthians, 2nd Ed., 142.

[4]Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 312.

[5]Martin, 2 Corinthians, 138–9.

[6]Barnett, 2 Corinthians, 312.

[7]Martin, 2 Corinthians, 138.

[8]Barnett, 2 Corinthians, 312.

[9]Martin, 2 Corinthians, 138.

[10]Rudolf Bultmann, “γινωσκω” (ginōskō), TDNT 1:689–719, 698–9, 703.

[11]Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 313–4.

[12]Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 304.

[13]Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, 248.

[14]Fesko, “N. T. Wright on Imputation,” 12.

[15]Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, 248.

[16]Edward T. Oakes S.J., “The Apologetics of Beauty,” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts (ed. Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 220.

[17]Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 314.

[18]Martin, 2 Corinthians, 144–5.

[19]Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, 251.

[20]Douglas Moo J., The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 327–8.

[21]Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, 248.

[22]Martin, 2 Corinthians, 141.

[23]Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, 251.

[24]Martin, 2 Corinthians, 140.

[25]Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 108–9.

[26]Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 194.

[27]Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 209.

[28]Thomas J. Stegman, S. J., “Paul’s Use of Dikaio-Terminology: Moving Beyond N.T. Wright’s Forensic Interpretation,” TS 72, no. 3 (1 September 2011): 496–524, 503,

[29]Don Garlington, “Imputation or Union with Christ? A Response to John Piper,” Reformation and Revival Journal 12, no. 4 (1 December 2003): 45–113, 78,

[30]Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 52.

[31]Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, 250.

[32]Morna D. Hooker, “On Becoming the Righteousness of God: Another Look at 2 Cor 5:21,” NovT 50, no. 4 (1 December 2008): 358–85, 373,

[33]Hooker, “On Becoming the Righteousness of God: Another Look at 2 Cor 5:21,” 374,

[34]Richard B. Hays, “Justification,” ABD 3:1129–33, 1132.

[35]Hooker,“On Becoming the Righteousness of God: Another Look at 2 Cor 5:21,”  375,