(2Co 5:17 NET) 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come!
For many, this is considered the central text on theosis. It’s subtle but important. And so we need to start with some Greek.
“New” is kainos, the same word for “new” as is found in —
(Rev 21:1 ESV) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
(Rev 21:2 ESV) 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
(Rev 21:5 ESV) And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
“New creation” means a creation that’s been renewed or restored, the same idea we find regarding the New Heaven and New Earth in the Rev. The Eschaton — the end of all things — has already happened in each individual Christian from the moment of his or her baptism. God does a miracle in us comparable to the miracle of the Creation itself! It’s not just washing away sins — although it is that! — it is also remaking us so that we are suited for what is to come.
And “passed away” in 2 Cor 5:17 is the same Greek word used in Rev 21:1.
And, of course, “creation” in 2 Cor 5:17 is clearly intended to evoke the creation of the heavens and earth.
In short, 2 Cor 5:17 is plainly talking about the Second Coming, except it’s not. It’s talking about our justification/salvation/baptism. It’s speaking plainly in terms of our entering into the Kingdom, not the Kingdom yet to come.
Paul is deliberately using eschatological (end times) language to refer to what happens at our conversion. In some sense, the future reality that comes with the return of Jesus is brought forward to right now!
We encountered this same thought in 1 Cor 15 dealing with the resurrection of Jesus (already) and the general resurrection of Christians (not yet), except now Paul is saying the “already” part applies to Christians generally.
Is this merely a figure of speech? A fancy way of saying we’re going to be resurrected when Jesus returns? It seems unlikely. Paul says, “[L]ook, what is new has come!” That doesn’t sound much like metaphor. Something has already happened.
So perhaps a little context —
(2Co 5:14-15 ESV) 14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
Sounds just like Gal 2:20, doesn’t it? The new thing is that we “live” and do so “for him [who] for their sake died and was raised.” This speaks to having a new purpose: to live for Jesus. How is that a “new creation”?
A little more context:
(2Co 5:21 ESV) 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
This is a famously difficult verse. (I’ve just got find an excuse to work through 2 Cor soon.) The first clause speaks of Jesus becoming “sin” despite having never sinned. Surely, the thought is that he bore our iniquities on the cross per Isa 53:6. But how do “we” — presumably all Christians — become the “righteousness of God”?
The traditional interpretation is that Christians have God’s righteousness imputed to us as something of a legal fiction. But this reading sits uncomfortably, in part because it’s generally the obedience of Jesus that is taught as being imputed, not the righteousness of God. How could this text mean the imputation of God’s obedience? Second, because “righteousness” as applied to God usually speaks of God’s covenant faithfulness, his chesed.
Hence, I agree with Wright when he argues,
The climax comes in 5:21: ‘God made the Messiah to be sin for us, though he knew no sin, so that in him we might become, might embody, God’s righteousness, God’s covenant faithfulness’ (hina hemeis genometha dikaiosune theou en auto). This phrase has routinely been understood in terms of the righteous status which the covenant god reckons or ‘imputes’ to believers, but this interpretation then regularly leaves the verse dangling off the edge of the argument. Every other time Paul uses the phrase dikaiosune theou [righteousness of God] he refers, not to the status which believers have from this god (ek theou, as in Philippians 3:9), but to God’s own righteousness, God’s faithfulness to the covenant, the faithfulness through which the new creation is brought to birth.
Since Paul’s whole argument from 3:1 to 6:13 is about the way in which his apostolic ministry embodies that covenant faithfulness, and implements that new creation, this reading stitches the verse far more tightly and satisfactorily into the rest of the passage than the usual alternatives. Furthermore—and this is the point of going into this detail here—it also indicates, by the very shape of Paul’s statement, that this is once again a way of talking about the experience of ‘resurrection’ in the present, within Paul’s experience of apostolic work, covenant work. The Messiah died, and we live; the Messiah died, and reconciliation happens; the Messiah died, and we embody and implement the covenant faithfulness of the covenant God. These are all ways of exploring the meaning of verse 15b: the Messiah died and rose again for us.
N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 305–306.
So we read —
(2Co 5:21 ESV) 21 For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin [in accordance with Isa 53:6], so that in [Jesus] we might become the [covenant faithfulness] of God.
Suddenly, we see the Abrahamic covenant writ large as part of our salvation. God is faithful to that covenant by inviting the Gentiles (“many nations”) into that covenant and by crediting faith as righteousness. The presence of the Gentile Corinthian converts in God’s church proves beyond doubt that God keeps his covenant promises. And the biblical story is about God, not us. So this makes all kinds of good sense.
And one more bit of context —
(2Co 3:12-18 ESV) Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13 not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. … 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
When the Mosaic covenant was established, Moses entered God’s glory on Mt. Sinai, saw God face to face, and as a result, his face shone so brightly that the Israelites begged him to veil his face to avoid hurting their eyes (Exo 34:29-35). But Paul argues that was also because the glory was going to fade, whereas for Christians, the glory we receive increases.
Hence, the Spirit provides Christians with an increasing measure of glory as we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” That is, we become more and more like Jesus and so more and more glorious.
“Glory” doesn’t just mean bright and shiny. Rather, “glory” in the OT refers to the immediate presence of God — the Shekinah that surrounds God’s throne and evidences his intense, special presence.
Hence, the Spirit transforms us so that we become more and more like Jesus, that is, in the image of God — as we were meant to be when God created the heavens and the earth. And as we become more like Jesus, it’s as though we draw closer to God’s presence. We more and more show his glory, and we are in turn drawn more closely into his glorious presence.
Tying these pieces together, we are a “new creation” because —
* We are God’s covenant faithfulness — proof that God keeps his promises — even his promises to resurrect us in the last day.
* This leads to our living for Christ, not ourselves, because of his sacrifice for us.
* Ultimately, this is about God’s work within us through his Spirit to transform us back into the image of God, the image of his Son. We become more and more like Jesus and so more and more like God. This is, of course, theosis. And as we grow more like God and Jesus, God’s presence shines more brightly through us. We are new creations.
When we are first converted, God begins a process of unifying us with him and Jesus through the Spirit. As we grow closer to God and Jesus, we necessarily grow closer to each other.
And as this happens, the future reality of how things will be when Jesus returns is drawn forward in time to the present. Already God has come to earth, already the mourners have been comforted, already the church surrounds the throne of God and sings his praises as one. Unity is already present, even if we deny it and resist it. Our place is simply to see that God has united and is uniting us, and acknowledge it and live within it by inhabiting the crucifixion by being crucified, self-emptied people.