Ethics and New Creation

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NRSV)

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (HarperOne, 1996), page 20:

The apocalyptic scope of 2 Corinthians 5 was obscured by older translations that rendered the crucial phrase in verse 17 as “he is a new creation” (RSV) or — worse yet — “he is a new creature” (KJV). Such translations seriously distort Paul’s meaning by making it appear that he is describing only the personal transformation of the individual through conversion experience. The sentence in Greek, however, lacks both subject and verb; a very literal translation might treat the words “new creation” as an exclamatory interjection: “If anyone is in Christ — new creation!”

The NRSV has rectified matters by rendering the passage, “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation.” Paul is not merely talking about an individual’s subjective experience of renewal through conversion; rather, for Paul, “creation” refers to the whole create order (Rom. 8:18–25). He is proclaiming the apocalyptic message that through the cross God has nullified the kosmos of sin and death and brought a new kosmos into being. That is why Paul can describe himself and his readers as those “on whom the ends of the ages has met” (1 Cor. 10:11). The old age is passing away (cf. 1 Cor. 7:31b), the new age has appeared in Christ, and the church stands at the juncture between them.

Letting Go of Self-Righteousness

Paul in Galatians 6:12–15:

12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. 14 But far be it from me to boast nexcept in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

Thomas Schreiner comments on 6:15 in his Galatians commentary [(Zondervan, 2010), pages 379–380; my emphasis]:

Since the world has been crucified to Paul (and by extension to all Christians), whether one is circumcised or not is utterly irrelevant. What is remarkable is that circumcision is assigned to the old world order, to the old creation rather than the new creation. The law is part of the old age, while the cross inaugurates the new age.

The centrality of the new creation functions as an envelope with the introduction to the letter, where the death of Christ delivers from the present evil age (1:4). The new creation has dawned, in other words, through the cross of Christ.

We see the same dynamic in 2 Cor 5:14-21. There Paul also features the new creation, and again it is tied inextricably to the cross of Christ. The new creation has been inaugurated in Christ and will be consummated at the eschaton, when the groaning that characterizes the old creation will pass away (Rom 8:18-22).

Remarkably, in the midst of a great conflict over circumcision, Paul does not elevate uncircumcision either. Those who find significance in uncircumcision belong to the old world order as well. There is no particular virtue in uncircumcision, which explains why Paul was willing to circumcise Timothy (Acts 16:3). If circumcision is practiced for cultural reasons and not to achieve salvation, observing it is up to one’s individual conscience.

Verse 15 parallels both 5:6 and 1 Cor 7:19. The faith that expresses itself in love (5:6) is now a reality because the new creation has dawned. The ability to keep God’s commands is a reality in the new creation (1 Cor 7:19). Eschatology, then, plays a vital role in Galatians, for the Judaizers were attached to the old age and failed to see that the new has come. Their error, however, was not merely eschatological; there were anthropological corollaries and causes, for those who are attached to the old age cling to it because they desire to establish their own righteousness instead of receiving the righteousness from God (cf. Rom 10:3).

This is one way that eschatology reframes the personal struggle with self-righteousess and legalism (but without in any way diminishing the priority of personal obedience).

If you find it difficult to release your grip on your own self-righteous before God, you’re not alone, it is a problem we all face as sinners. The solution is found in turning away from the old age and living in light of the new age that began in the death and resurrection of the Savior. The eschatology of the New Testament, here in Galatians, will serve us well in our struggle to release our grip on self-righteousness.

The Gospel and Eschatology

Too often we don’t equate the gospel and justification with the theme of eschatology. These themes can get separated in our minds, and each individual doctrine suffers for the disconnect, and our souls suffer from malnourishment. The fact is that these themes are inseparable—the death and resurrection of Christ mark the inbreaking of the eschatological age and the inauguration of the new creation.

Yesterday I read what may be the best summary of these interwoven themes in the back of Thomas Schreiner’s new commentary on Galatians (Zondervan, 2010), pages 394–395.

Notice how he draws the themes together:

Justification is an eschatological verdict that has been declared in advance of the last day. This is not to say that the verdict announced now only refers to a future reality. Believers are already justified, and yet at the same time they await the final declaration on the day of judgment when the verdict that God has already announced becomes public (5:5).

In the same way, the cross of Jesus Christ has launched believers into the age to come, even though they live in the present evil age (1:4). In other words, the new exodus promised in the OT has become a reality through Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord (Isa 40:3­–11; 42:16; 43:2, 5–7, 16–19; 48:20-21; 49:8–11; 51:10–11).

The resurrection in Jewish thought also signals the end of the old evil age and the coming of the new age of peace and plenty (cf. Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:1–14; Dan 12:2–3).

The resurrection is not a prominent theme in Galatians, and yet it appears in the first verse of the letter (1:1), signifying that the age to come has invaded the present age. The old evil cosmos has lost its hold over believers through the cross of Jesus Christ (6:14). Therefore, believers now belong to the new creation (6:15). The new creation has not been consummated (Isa 65:17; 66:22), but it has been inaugurated through the work of Jesus Christ. The gift of the Holy Spirit represents the arrival of the new creation (Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 11:18–19; 36:26–27; Joel 2:28). The Spirit is a gift of the last days, and his presence and indwelling among the Galatians shows that the final days have begun.

Eschatological contrasts dominate Galatians, so that we have a contrast between the old age of the flesh and the new age of the Spirit. The flesh in Paul represents the old age and who human beings are in Adam, whereas the Spirit signifies the inbreaking of the age to come.

We see the same eschatological contrast between the law and the gospel. The Mosaic law belongs to the former era and believers are no longer under the law (see esp. 3:15–4:7). To be under the law is to be enslaved to the power of sin (3:10, 22, 23, 25; 4:3, 21–31; 5:18). Such slavery belongs to the former age. Now that the gospel of Christ (a fulfillment of the promise of the new exodus! Isa 40:9; 52:7) is proclaimed, the age of the law is obsolete. Believers live in the era of the cross, the resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit.

Second Corinthians 5:17 rightly summarizes Galatians: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come!”

A summary quote like this one that weaves together so many key themes in Galatians and throughout the Old and New Testaments is worth printing out and studying carefully and meditating over devotionally.

(And his commentary is  certainly worth the coin, in case you’re wondering.)

Where The New Creation Has Come To Light

From Herman Ridderbos’s classic book Paul: An Outline of His Theology, page 57:

Paul’s kerygma [message] of the great time of salvation that has dawned in Christ is above all determined by Christ’s death and resurrection. It is in them that the present aeon has lost its power and hold on the children of Adam and that the new things have come. For this reason, too, the entire unfolding of the salvation that has dawned with Christ again and again harks back to his death and resurrection, because all the facets in which this salvation appears and all the names by which it is described are ultimately nothing other than the unfolding of what this all-important breakthrough of life in death, of the kingdom of God in this present world, contains within itself. Here all lines come together, and from hence the whole Pauline proclamation of redemption can be described in its unity and coherence. Paul’s preaching, so we have seen, is “eschatology,” because it is preaching the fulfilling redemptive work of God in Christ. We might be able to delimit this further, to a certain extent schematically, by speaking of Paul’s “resurrection-eschatology.” For it is in Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection that the mystery of the redemptive plan of God has manifested itself in its true character and that the new creation has come to light.

Justification, The Future Become Present

George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1993), pages 483–484:

Justification, which primarily means acquittal at the final judgment, has already taken place in the present. The eschatological judgment is no longer alone future; it has become a verdict in history. Justification, which belongs to the Age to Come and issues in the future salvation, has become a present reality inasmuch as the Age to Come has reached back into the present evil age to bring its soteric blessings to human beings. An essential element in the salvation of the future age is the divine acquittal and the pronouncement of righteousness; this acquittal, justification, which consists of the divine absolution of sin, has already been effected by the death of Christ and may be received by faith here and now. The future judgment has thus become essentially a present experience. God in Christ has acquitted the believer; therefore he or she is certain of deliverance from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9) and no longer stands under condemnation (Rom. 8:1). …

Justification is one of the blessings of the inbreaking of the new age into the old. In Christ the future has become present; the eschatological judgment has in effect already taken place in history. As the eschatological Kingdom of God is present in history in the Synoptics, as the eschatological eternal life is present in Christ in John, as the eschatological resurrection has already begun in Jesus’ resurrection, as the eschatological Spirit is given to the church in Acts (and in Paul), so the eschatological judgment has already occurred in principle in Christ, and God has acquitted his people.

Resurrection and Eschatology

Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence (Hendrickson, 1994), pages 803 and 805:

Probably the one feature that distances the New Testament church the most from its contemporary counterpart is its thoroughly eschatological perspective of all of life. In contrast to most of us, eschatology—a unique understanding of the time of the End—conditioned the early believers’ existence in every way.

The first clue to this outlook came from Jesus’ own proclamation of the kingdom—as a present reality in his ministry, although still a future event. But it was the resurrection of Christ and the gift of the promised (eschatological) Spirit that completely altered the primitive church’s perspective, both about Jesus and about themselves. In place of the totally future eschatology of their Jewish roots, with its hope of a coming Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, the early church recognized that the future had already been set in motion.

The resurrection of Christ marked the beginning of the End, the turning of the ages. However, the End had only begun; they still awaited the final event, the (now second) coming of their Messiah Jesus, at which time they too would experience the resurrection/transformation of the body. They lived “between the times”; already the future had begun, not yet had it been consummated. From the New Testament perspective the whole Christian existence—and theology—has this eschatological “tension” as its basic framework.

A little later Fee focuses his attention on the eschatological significance of the resurrection.

The resurrection of the dead is for Paul the final event on God’s eschatological calendar, the unmistakable evidence that the End has fully arrived. For Paul the resurrection has already taken place when Christ was raised from the dead, this setting in motion the final doom of death and thereby guaranteeing our resurrection. Christ’s resurrection makes ours both inevitable and necessary—inevitable, because his is the first fruits which sets the whole process in motion; necessary, because death is God’s enemy as well as ours, and our resurrection spells the end to the final enemy of the living God who gives life to all who live (1 Cor 15:20–28). Believers therefore live “between the times” with regard to the two resurrections. We have already been “raised with Christ,” which guarantees our future bodily resurrection (Rom 6:4–5; 8:10–11).