By Dick Lentz
(All verses cited come from the NIV2011 translation of the Bible)
A verse in the Bible that has troubled me for a long time is this one:
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here (2 Corinthians 5:17)!
Although I like the sentiment of this verse and how it’s often understood – that having a personal relationship with Jesus can be so life-changing that those in Christ no longer have a desire to do what displeases God – that their old sinful self is truly dead and gone – 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 the following:
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death (Romans 7:21-24)?
This certainly doesn’t sound like Paul when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that the old is gone. It seems to me that Paul was saying in the passage above that his old sinful self wasn’t gone 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 the passage in Romans was his struggle with sin prior to making a commitment to trust in Jesus for his salvation. But there is no indication in the text that what Paul was writing about in these verses was his life before becoming a follower of Jesus. In context, it seems to me that he was describing something he was experiencing at the time he was writing to the church 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. And 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?
What comes before
One help in unlocking the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:17 is by noting that Paul began the verse with “therefore” and then asking what it is there for. What I believe this indicates is that this verse is explicitly linked to what comes before it and can’t be accurately understood without taking into consideration what precedes it. Here’s a bit of what that is:
14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 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.
16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer (2 Corinthians 5:14-16).
What Paul seems 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. Instead, we should be living for Him.
Another thing that should be different is how we view others as well as ourselves. When Paul said, “From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (vs. 16), I believe he meant that we shouldn’t look at those who have made a commitment to follow Jesus the same way as we may have looked at them prior to their decision to trust their lives and their salvation to Him. We should look at them instead with more enlightened eyes.
What should those enlightened eyes see in those who are followers of Christ? What should be different in how we view those who have put their trust in Jesus? To answer that, it’s important to note what comes after 2 Corinthians 5:17.
What comes after
What follows 2 Corinthian 5:17 is just as important as what precedes it if we want to understand correctly what Paul was trying to tell us in this verse. Here is a bit of what comes after:
18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 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. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
Note that a the word reconciled or a form of it is used five times in this passage. Based on this, it’s my contention that the central theme of 2 Corinthians 5:11-21 has something to do with reconciliation and that what Paul was addressing was what reconciles us to God as well as what the effect of that should be.
Paul said that because Christ died for us that that God no longer counts our sins against us (vs. 19). That doesn’t mean that God removes our sin nature from us once we’ve made a commitment to follow Jesus. By making Him who had no sin be sin for us (vs. 21), I believe that God removed the issue of sin so that we are no longer separated from Him because of it. Our relationship with Him, once broken because of our sin, has been restored because of what Jesus accomplished by dying for our sins.
Paul explained what the effect of this is and how we should respond. First, we are now reconciled to God (vs. 20). Since God no longer holds our sins against us, we can come into His presence with confidence that He accepts us just as we are, just as if we were new creations where the old is gone and the new is here.
Second, because we are reconciled to God, we should be ambassadors of reconciliation, something accomplished perhaps by telling those who are lost or who don’t understand the extent of God’s grace what Jesus did so they could be forgiven for their sins and have personal and unencumbered relationship with Him.
Third and perhaps more important, what Christ did for us should change how we view those who are followers of Him. When Paul said, “we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (vs. 16), it seems to me that he was emphasizing the importance of viewing believers the same way God views them: as those whose sins are forgiven, and as those whose sins He no longer takes account of.
Although those who follow Christ may continue to struggle with sin, the fact that they do should not cloud how we view them. We should see them as well as ourselves as new creations where the old is gone and the new is here.
There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ
This understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:17 is consistent with what Paul noted in the verse below, one that comes shortly after his description in Romans 7:21-24 of his personal struggle to do what is right in God’s eyes:
8 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
Paul recognized that though he frequently struggled to do what is right in God eyes, because Jesus died for his sins, God no longer condemned him for his inability to do so. Because of this, he was inclined to view other believers the same way, just as if they are new creations where the old has passed away and all things have become new. I believe he is urging us in 2 Corinthians 5:17 to do the same. He is also encouraging us to be ambassadors of reconciliation, perhaps by showing others through ours words, actions, and attitudes what it means to live with the knowledge that we are no longer under condemnation for our sins, communicating as we do to those who are lost how they too can be reconciled to God.
That’s my understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:17, as I see it today.