Union with Christ: Imputation: Calvin & Wright

According to N. T. Wright, it is now generally agreed that an overall theme in II Corinthians is “Paul’s defense, not of his apostolic ministry in itself, but of the particular style or character of that ministry.”[1]  For Wright, these arguments concerning the nature of Paul’s ministry form the basic structure of the passage and larger text as a whole.  Again for Wright,

Paul’s defense of his style of ministry includes as one important feature the demonstration that the human weaknesses and frailties which characterize it do not undermine its credibility but, on the contrary, reveal precisely its Christlike character (4:7-12, 16-18, 6:3-10).  This theme is strengthened further by Paul’s emphasis that he is not sufficient of himself to be a minister of Christ, and that his ‘sufficiency’ is from God (2:16, 3:5-6).[2]

The implication of understanding Paul to be defending his “style or character” of ministry rather than the apostolic nature of it opens the door for Wright to claim that Paul, in II Corinthians 5:18-21, is speaking of his own style of ministry as an incarnation of God’s covenant faithfulness. 

In other words, far from being a text teaching the imputation of righteousness to the believer; II Corinthians 5:18-21 simply teaches that in and through his human frailties God has made Paul the embodiment of His own covenant faithfulness.  Paul is God’s object lesson in order to encourage other believers.  Thus, according to Wright,

This in turn should play back into our understanding of chap. 3: the paradoxical boldness which Paul displays in addressing the Corinthians is organically related to his self-understanding as the “minister of the new covenant,” the one who has “become the righteousness of God.”  Indeed, we can now suggest that those two phrases are mutually interpretive ways of saying substantially the same thing.[3]

Wright argues that such a notion should not be a surprise especially since God is making his appeal through the Apostle as an ambassador, in which the sovereign speaks through the agent.[4]  

With this point Calvin agrees.  Paul is an ambassador and has said so repeatedly.  And, “When, therefore, a duly ordained minister proclaims in the gospel, that God has been made propitious to us, he is to be listened to just as an ambassador of God.”[5]  But what is it that God has committed to his ambassadors?  According to Calvin, the answer is the gospel.  But what is the Gospel? 

According to Calvin, Paul says it well in 5:19.  The Gospel is God reconciling himself to the world in Christ.  Thus, for Calvin, this opening statement simply expresses the fact that though God has “withdrawn to a distance from us, he has drawn near to us in Christ, and thus Christ has become to us the true Emanuel, and his coming is God’s drawing near to men.”[6]  However, the second part of the verse explains more about Christ, namely, the office of Christ.[7]  Christ is the divine reconciler.  He is the only mediator between God and man.

Moreover, in this same verse Paul explains the way in which men are reconciled to God in Christ, namely, by not counting their trespasses against them.  Here the Apostle turns once again to the task committed to him as ambassador, this is the substance of his message and as an ambassador God is making his appeal through him.  Therefore, Paul pleads that all might be reconciled to God.

In 5:21 Paul returns to the thought he developed in 5:19, that is, “he now teaches us more clearly what we adverted to above – that God is propitious to us, when he acknowledges us as righteous.”[8]  But how can God not regard us as sinners?  More, how can a righteous God not count our transgressions against us?  That is the question Paul answers in 5:21.  God made Christ who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf.  Calvin says, “[sin] here denotes an expiatory sacrifice for sin,” however, the thrust of the statement is better seen in comparing both parts of the antithesis.[9]  Thus, says Calvin, “Sin is here contrasted with righteousness, when Paul teaches us, that we were made the righteousness of God, on the ground of Christ’s having been made sin.”[10]

But what does Paul mean that we were made the righteousness of God?  According to Calvin, “Righteousness, here, is not taken to denote a quality of habit, but by way of imputation, on the ground of Christ’s righteousness being reckoned to have been received by us.”  Commenting on Paul’s use of the righteousness of God in the book of Romans Calvin writes, “Notice further, how extraordinary and valuable a treasure does God bestow on us through the gospel, even the communication of His own righteousness.”[11]

Thus, when Calvin speaks of God’s righteousness reckoned to us he is speaking of the forensic act of justification.  Thus, the righteousness of God, that is, Christ’s is reckoned or imputed to us by God’s sovereign judicial declaration by virtue of our being in union with Christ.  Thus, Calvin would argue that our union with Christ is the ground of our being reckoned righteous.

However, with this Wright would strongly differ.  According to him, union with Christ makes imputation redundant.[12]  However, Calvin’s exegesis raises a serious question for Wright, namely, the way in which Wright deals with v. 21.  Wright’s argument has been that “it is misleading (for commentators) to treat 5:19 as though it were the conclusion of the long preceding argument and 5:20 as though it were the start of the new one.”[13]

Clearly, this is not the way in which Calvin treats this passage.  In fact, Calvin argues for an interpretation that sees 5:18-21 as a unit that complements the proceeding section.  However, this is not necessarily the case for Wright who suggests that 5:21 may be nothing more than a pithy phrase to draw together a complex line of thought.  Thus, it seems that Calvin argues for more.  Rather than a pithy phrase, Calvin is providing us with the ground for Paul’s ambassadorial office.

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.

[1]Wright, Climax of the Covenants, 176.  I find it interesting that Wright only mentions two recent commentaries.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wright, “On Becoming the Righteousness of God” in Pauline Theology, vol. 2, ed. D. M. Hay (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1993) 203-204.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Calvin, II Corinthians, 237.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 241.  Strikingly, Wright argues in, Becoming the Righteousness of God, that vv.18-19 are the
“focal point to which the long argument has been building up” but then he says little or nothing about them.  Perhaps he is so focuses on Paul being the incarnation of God’s covenant faithfulness that he cannot see the text before him.

[9] Ibid.  

[10] Calvin, II Corinthians, 241-242.

[11] Calvin, Romans, 64.

[12] The obvious reason for this assertion is that he has redefined the doctrine of justification.  In other words, Wright has made justification pertain more to ecclesiology than to soteriology.

[13] Wright, On Becoming the Righteousness of God.

This article is part of a larger one comparing Calvin and Wright the entirety of which can be found here on page 38.

Jeffrey Stivason