Lent 4 • 2 Corinthians 5:16–21 • March 10, 2013
By David R. Maxwell
New Creation, New Identity
In this reading, Paul employs two dominant themes: 1) new creation and 2) reconciliation. Are these the same thing? Or does reconciliation correlate with justification, while new creation correlates with sanctification? Or is there some other distinction being made here? I would suggest that new creation and reconciliation are two ways of saying the same thing. The homiletical suggestions I offer arise from the question of how these two themes go together.
Starting from the end of the passage, we read, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). This is the kind of passage Lutherans are comfortable with. It describes Jesus as a sacrificial victim, fulfilling the sacrifices of the Old Testament, and consequently bestowing righteousness upon us.
But does this mean that salvation is essentially a matter of bookkeeping? Are we saved when God makes a correcting entry in his ledger on account of Christ? This seems to be, at least implicitly, the image that is behind much Lutheran preaching on God’s forgiveness. Perhaps that is because this image does make it clear that salvation is accomplished by Christ, not by us. That point, however, does not exhaust the biblical witness about the forgiveness of sins.
Paul is working with a different set of images to describe Christ’s sacrifice. He starts by saying, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). The Greek is more emphatic than the English translations are: εἴ τις ἐν Χριστῷ, καινὴ κτίσις (“If anyone is in Christ—new creation!”) I take the liberty of adding an exclamation point here because the lack of any connecting words highlights the term new creation, suggesting that this is the key term in the pericope.
What would it mean, then, to understanding reconciliation under the heading of new creation? I would suggest that homiletically, these themes can be combined with the concept of a new identity. Our identities are determined by what God says of us. He created us by speaking, and he recreated by speaking as well. When God reconciles us to himself by forgiving our sins, he is not employing an accounting trick, but he is giving us a new identity. We are a new creation because he says we are.
A new identity brings with it a new way of looking at the world. Paul says, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer” (2 Cor 5:16). “According to the flesh” (κατὰ σάρκα) is best taken adverbially to modify the verb regard. Regarding Christ “according to the flesh” does not mean recognizing his human nature. Rather, it means thinking of him in a worldly way.
One way the sermon might be developed is to unpack our new identity in Christ by showing how it makes a difference in how we view Christ or others. Paul mentions a number of examples of this in the verses preceding our text. He speaks of being of good courage in the face of the burdens of life (2 Cor 5:1–10). He also speaks of the heart being more important than outward appearances (2 Cor 5:12). It would also be appropriate to bring in examples that are specific to the hearers of the sermon.
This text is valuable to Lutheran preachers because it gives us a more expansive understanding of the forgiveness of sins. The more expansive view is later echoed by Luther in the sixth chief part of the Small Catechism: “Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”