2 Corinthians 5:14-21


If ever a text was permeated with the universal, vicarious atonement of Christ, it is this text. Verse 14 tells us that Christ died in the place of all. That is repeated in verse 15. Verse 16 describes the results of this universal atonement. Verse 17 uses the word "anyone." Anyone can become a new creature because of what Christ did for all. Verse 18 says: "God did all of this." This means that He has saved all already. Verse 19 is the main doctrinal proof passage on the vicarious atonement. Verse 20 tells us that we are God's ambassadors. We can preach the Gospel to any and all, for Christ died in stead of all. And verse 21, one of Scripture's more amazing passages, tells us that Christ and we have exchanged sin and righteousness. (Be careful with the Lenski Commentary here; he denies universal reconciliation, in keeping with his exegesis of Romans 5:12-21.)

The preposition "huper" in Greek occurs six times in this text. Once in verse 14, twice in verse 15, twice in verse 20, and once in verse 21. In all cases it means "in stead of." Four times it denotes the vicarious atonement of Christ for us and twice it denotes that we are ambassadors in the stead of Christ.

2 Cor 5:14 For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.

Verse 14 explains what precedes.

"Christ's love" is Christ's love to us, not ours to Him, which causes this.

"We are convinced," this likely took place at the time of Paul's conversion.

"Therefore" could be translated "that means that" or "which means that." In Christ all died. Romans 5 tells us that in Adam all men died. What's the difference? In Adam all men became sinful mortals. In Christ all men were redeemed. He died the death we should have died. I need not die (temporal death has become a blessing for me) because Christ already died, died in my stead.

Tasker: He died the death they should have died; the penalty of their sins was borne by Him.
Lenski: The Calvinistic efforts to limit this word to 'all the elect' constitute one of the saddest chapters in exegesis. . . . In what sense did they all die? The answer lies in "huper, " in Christ's substitution. It is indicated in Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45; he gave His life as a ransom in the stead of many. . . The death of Christ changed the relation of all to God.
Lenski has this verse correct. He can't be faulted here.

2 Cor 5:15 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.

"And" here means "furthermore" or "secondly." Verse 14 gives us the first reason why He died for all. Verse 15 gives us the second reason. In verse 14 we had a logical conclusion. The death of Christ is the death of all. But in verse 15 we have the purpose. The universal atonement, and that alone brings about the conversion of the individual.

"Those who live" denotes those who have become spiritually alive.

Here Paul talks about the entire life of the Christian as in Galatians 2:20. In the unconverted state they lived to themselves. Not so thereafter.

Christ died and rose for only one purpose: in their stead. Again we have the universal atonement. "To the One Who died and rose in their stead." It reminds us of Romans 4:25.

TEV, JB, AAT and NASB all translate this verse correctly.

Tasker: The second conviction about the death of Christ to which Paul had been led by his conversion, was that for all who accept it in faith as an atonement made for them it puts an end to the unregenerate life.

2 Cor 5:16 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.

Both verses 16 and 17 begin with the Greek word "therefore." But there is a difference. Verse 16 finds its reason in verse 15, but verse 17 is a logical conclusion in itself.. Verse 16 is so only because of the universal atonement and the resultant conversion and new life of the individual.

"We" likely refers to Paul and his pastoral associates.

"From a worldly point of view" is "in a fleshly way." The unconverted have a very different view of mankind and of Christ than do the converted.

For the first sentence we suggest: "We think of no one the way the unconverted thinks of him." For the second: "Although we once regarded Christ as do the unconverted, however now we no longer regard Him thus."

Since conversion Paul regards all people as precious people for whom Christ died. Since conversion Paul regards Christ as Son of God and Savior of all. Christ is no longer a stumbling block to him.

Tasker: Paul admits that in his pre-conversion days he had judged Jesus by external considerations in the light of the prejudices of his upbringing and had concluded that it was impossible that one born in such obscurity, living in such restricted circumstance and dying such a humiliating death, could be the Christ that the Jews were expecting.
Lenski: Once he knew Christ with a carnal mind in a carnal way. He was offended in Christ, considered him opposed to Jewish interests, saw him only with fleshly eyes. He looked at other men in the same blind, fleshly way.
Hughes: The Pharisees had no real knowledge of Him, precisely because they judged Him after the flesh (John 8:14ff). The same had been true of Paul, the proudest and most prejudiced of them all.

2 Cor 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Christianity, because of the vicarious, universal atonement is available to all. Therefore Paul can say "anyone."

The new creation is surely just as great a miracle as is creation, Gen 1. Only God can bring this about because of Christ's vicarious work.

Hughes: The expression 'in Christ' sums up as briefly and is profoundly as possible the inexhaustible significance of man' redemption.
Kretzmann: Conversion is a new creation, a regeneration; in conversion heart and mind are changed completely; converted people are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, Ephesians 2:10 . . . The old carnal-mindedness of the old Adam has passed away, even though it is still necessary to remove him by daily contrition and repentance.
Bengel: On this subject see Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10.
Now the second part of the verse.

The unconverted state is compared with that of the converted state. There is a sense of exultation. Something like "Just think of it!"

The old things of sin, death, and the devil have passed away. New things of righteousness, life, Christ, heaven are now ours. Why? Because of the universal, vicarious atonement.

Hughes: The exclamation 'behold' sounds an unmistakable note of spontaneous jubilation . . . 'Behold, I make all things new!' Revelation 21:4f.
The Book of Concord (Tappert 526.26) says: The be born anew, to receive inwardly a new heart, mind, and spirit, is solely the work of the Holy Spirit. Luke 24:45; Acts 16:14; Philippians 2:13; Acts 5:31; 2 Tim. 2:25; Philippians 1:29; Eph 2:8; John 6:29; Ps. 51:12; Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; James 1:17; John 6:44; Matthew 11:27; 1 Corinthians 12:3; John 15:5; 2 Corinthians 3:5; 1 Corinthians 4:7.

2 Cor 5:18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:

AAT beautifully renders the opening words: "But God has done it all." And Kretzmann explains that this includes redemption, conversion and giving us the ministry of reconciliation, the Gospel whereby man is converted.

Not just "all things" but "all the things" mentioned in this context. The agent is God -- "The all things are brought about by God.

Look at Romans 5:10 and on the whole concept of reconciliation see Romans 3:25 and 1 John 2:2 and 4:10. God assuaged His own wrath over sin by sending His own Son to redeem all men.

Who are "us" in this verse? It covers anyone who reads it.

God took the initiative. He reconciled, befriended, us to Himself. How? Through Christ. This is the vicarious atonement.

Just as important as redemption is the gift of the Word which alone can convert and bring man to a realization of the universal atonement.

Who is meant by the second "us?" The Apostles? Yes. To all Christians. Yes.

The service of reconciliation offers us reconciliation. "The ministry of reconciliation." It is synonymous with "the Word of Reconciliation" in the next verse.

Tasker: This has been effected wholly by God, just as the original creation was entirely His handiwork.
Hughes: God is not only the Initiator but also the Finisher of our faith, Hebrews 12:2. . . Reconciliation proceeds from God and returns to God.

That is a lovely thought. God reconciled Himself to His enemies through Christ. The ministry of reconciliation reconciles the enemies to God through Christ.

Rienecker: Reconciliation indicates that Christ's death removed God's enmity against man.

2 Cor 5:19 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.

"That" or "to wit that"  or "that is" or"namely." Verse 19 is an expansion and explanation of verse 18. NKJV: "God was in Christ reconciling" etc. RSV: "In Christ God was reconciling." According to the former "reconciling" is attendant circumstance. According to the latter "reconciling" is periphrastic. We prefer the version of the NKJV. So did Luther in the German.

The Book of Concord (Tappert 575.36): The Scriptures do the same things when they reproduce and explain the statement 'the Word became flesh' with such equivalent phrases as 'The Word dwelt in us' or 'In Christ the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily,' or 'God was with him' or 'God was in Christ,' and similar expressions. Thus the Scriptures explain that the divine essence has not been transformed into the human nature but that both untransformed natures are personally united.
"World" means "all people" as it does in John 3:16. John Calvin denied that because he said that "world" means "all the elect in all the nations." Lenski denies it because he says that "reconciling" and "not counting against" are "iteratively durative." What that means is that there is reconciliation only when people are converted. He says: "It is not God who is changed, but God who changed men." There is no reconciliation until a change takes place in men. Later he says: "We fail to find the idea that Paul here says that when Christ died, when in and by his death God reconciled the world objectively, he then and there (or at Christ's resurrection" forgave all sins to the whole world." That is not what Lenski is after. He plainly denied the objective and universal justification and reconciliation of all men to God.

"Not counting against," think of John 1:29. Christ took the sins of the world away. Think back at what was said in verses 14 and 15. Lenski agrees that there the universal atonement is found, but not in verses 19 and 20. He is inconsistent with himself.

The antecedent of "all men" is "world," meaning all men. Here in verse 19 the second participle explains the first. And the third participle explains how this salvation is brought to us. On the "Word of reconciliation" see Acts 13:26; 1 Corinthians 1:18; Philippians 2:16. This Word of reconciliation is the Gospel, the Power of God unto salvation.

With reference to Romans 5:10 in his Roemerbrief Stoeckhardt brings in 2 Corinthians 5:19 as a parallel passage. Because of the world "not imputing their trespasses unto them" he draws the following conclusion from Romans 5:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:19: "Thus with most of the ancient and modern expositors, we understand that which Paul says here concerning the reconciliation of the enemy as a restoration into a relationship to God wherein we no longer have Him against us, and not a restoration into a condition, where we are no longer against Him."

2 Cor 5:20 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.

"Therefore" means "in view of all that's been said." "Christ's behalf" means more than "representing." It means "instead of." The ambassador of Christ speaks in the stead of Christ. The Word is as valid and as powerful as if Christ were saying it. And He saying it, is through the mouth of the ambassador.

"Be reconciled" denotes God's appeal, God's entreaty. Why does he do so? He has already reconciled Himself to all. This is a direct quote from God. God is saying: "We beg you in the stead of Christ, be reconciled to God." God, through the ambassadors, is begging people in the stead of Christ! What could be stronger?

The reconciliation of man to God is a passive thing. Birth is a passive thing. Resurrection is a passive thing. Conversion is a passive thing. But when Christ, through the Gospel, says to the spiritually dead man: "Rise," the dead man hears and rises. The appeal from God in this verse is not an appeal for man to do something first. All has been done. He says: "Come for all things are now ready." These are the words of the ambassador, of God's dignitary, who says only what God wants him to say.

2 Cor 5:21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Hughes: There is no sentence more profound in the whole of Scripture.
Lenski: Here is one of the most tremendous statements written by Paul's pen.

Read also Is. 53:6 and Galatians 3:13. In his 1535 commentary on Galatians Luther writes with reference to Galatians 3:13:

Thus he calls Him 'sin' in 2 Corinthians 5:21 when he says: 'For our sake God made Him to be sin who knew no sin.' Although these statements could be correctly expounded by saying that Christ became a 'curse,' that is, a sacrifice for the curse, or 'sin,' that is, a sacrifice for sin; nevertheless, it is more pleasing if the precise meaning of the terms is preserved for the sake of greater emphasis.

Modern exegetes agree with Luther that the text is saying that God made Jesus sin, not an offering for sin.

TEV tries to make the text clearer with: "God made him share our sin," but that in no way improves the text which is incomprehensible to us.

"Knew" expresses knowledge gained by experience. Exactly. That being so, it means "the One Who had no experience with sin." This might be a litotes. If so, it means "the One Who was totally foreign to experience with sin." The text is not merely saying that Christ was no sinful. That is true, of course. Compare John 8:46; Hebrews 4:15; 7:26. Christ was sinless and what He said in John 8:46 proves that He was conscious of that fact. But 2 Corinthians 5:21 is saying more than that. Jesus was utterly foreign to experience with sin.

An example in English: "They made him king." That can be resolved into: "He is king." Likewise here "God made Him sin" amounts finally to "He is sin." When Christ hung on the cross God saw only ONE sinner, Christ. Of course, it was by imputation. The Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse in our stead. As in Galatians 3:13 here we also have a "in our place." Why did God do this? The purpose clause informs us. "For us" denotes anyone who reads it in the Word.

Luther understood "righteousness of God" as "the righteousness which avails before God," the imputed righteousness of God. "In Him" points to Christ. Because of Christ I've become righteous. We have all learned what Luther taught us: "A Christian is simultaneously saint and sinner." I am saint by imputation and sinner by nature. Christ is saint by nature and sinner by imputation.

Lenski: Justification has never been put into stronger or more intense terms . . . Christ is all SIN for our sakes and in our stead; all of us God's RIGHTEOUSNESS in connection with Christ.
Hughes: God the Father made His innocent incarnate Son the object of His wrath.
Bengel: Who would dare to speak thus, if Paul had not led the way?

To say that God made His Son sin is very bold, but true.

The Book of Concord (Tappert 154.306.307): Because the righteousness of Christ is given to us through faith, therefore faith is righteousness in us by imputation.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes Epistle Texts, Series B, Sundays after Pentecost,
by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1987, pp. 21-25

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