The bad News: my “old self” isn’t actually gone; the good news: it isn’t being held against me.
One of the verses that has troubled me for a long time is this one:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17)!”
Although I like the sentiment of this verse – that having a relationship with Christ can be so transforming that we no longer have a desire to do what displeases God – that our old sinful self is truly dead and gone – in reality I continue to struggle to do what is right in God’s eyes. And that troubles me. I identify more with Paul in this respect when he wrote,
“So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death. (Romans 7:21-24)”
In sharp contrast to what he said in 2 Corinthians 5:17, it seems that Paul was saying in Romans 7:21-24 that his sinful self wasn’t gone at all and that his desire to do what God says is right was constantly at war with something inside him that desired to do what is sinful.
Some attempt to reconcile Paul’s statement in Romans 7:21-24 with what he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17 by concluding that what he was describing in Romans 7 was his struggle with sin prior to making a commitment to follow Jesus. But there is no indication in Romans that what Paul was talking about in Romans 7:21-24 was his life before becoming a Christian. In context, it seems to me that he was describing something he was experiencing at the time he was writing to the believers in Rome. If this is so, then Paul was saying that he continued to struggle to do what is right in God’s eyes even after putting his trust in Jesus.
But if Christians today struggle to do the same – if they struggle as well to do what is right in God’s eyes even though they’ve made a commitment to follow Jesus – then how do we make sense of the statement Paul made in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that the old is gone – that it has passed away?
What It Is There For
One help in unlocking the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:17 is noting that Paul began the verse with “therefore” and then asking what it is “there for”. What it seems to indicate is that this verse is tied intrinsically with what precedes it and that the verse can’t be properly understood without taking into consideration what comes before it.
Here’s a bit of what comes before:
“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So, from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ this way, we do so no longer. (2 Corinthians 5:14-16)”
What Paul seemed to be describing in these verses are some things that ought to be different as a result of our relationship with Jesus. One thing that ought to be different is whom or what we are living for. Because Christ died for us, we should no longer be living for ourselves but instead should be living for Him. Another thing that should be different is how we view others as well as ourselves. Paul said, “From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view (vs. 16).”
And so what should be different in how we view others? To answer that we need to take a look at what comes after 2 Corinthians 5:17.
What Follows Is Important
Noting what follows 2 Corinthian 5:17 is just as important as noting what precedes it if we want to fully understand what Paul was trying to tell us in this verse. Here is a bit of what comes after it:
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (vs. 18-21)”
Note that the word “reconciliation” or a form of it is used five times in these verses. I have underlined them. This indicates that the central theme of 2 Corinthians 5:11-21 probably has something to do with reconciliation. In context, the issue seems to be what reconciles us to God and what the effect of that should be.
Paul said that because of Christ’s death, God no longer counts our sins against us (vs. 19). This does not mean that God actually remove our sin nature from us. But by making Him who had no sin become sin for us (vs. 21), God removed the issue of sin so that we are no longer separated from Him because of it.
Paul explained what we should do in response to this. First, we need to “be reconciled to God” (vs. 20). One way we can do this is by coming into His presence with confidence that in spite of our sin God accepts us just as we are – just as if were new creatures where the old is gone. Second, Paul said that we are to be ambassadors who are committed to sharing God’s message of reconciliation with others, perhaps by telling those who are lost or who don’t understand the extent of God’s grace that Jesus did what was required to forgive them for all their sins so they can have a personal relationship with Him.
Based on what becomes before and after 2 Corinthians 5:17, I believe it is describing what ought to be different in how we view those who have made a decision to trust their lives and their salvation to Jesus, including how we view ourselves. Although a person who follows Christ may sin or may continue to have a desire to do so, the fact that they do should not cloud how we view them. Paul was saying that we should see those who follow Christ in the same way that God sees them by not counting their sins against them – by seeing them as new creatures where the old has passed away.
There No Condemnation For Those Who Are in Christ
After describing his personal struggles with sin in Romans 7:21-24, Paul said this:
”Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)”
This is similar to the point I believe Paul was making in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21. Although Paul found himself frequently desiring to do what displeased God, because Jesus died for his sins, he knew that he was no longer under condemnation for them. And because God no longer held his sins against him, he was inclined to offer the same hand of reconciliation to others that God had extended to him by not counting others’ sins against them, just as if their old sinful ways were gone.
That’s my understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:17, at least as I see it today.