For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-20)
The other day I posted on Paul’s idea of the “new creation” in Galatians 6. Here in 2 Cor. 5 Paul explicitly links the passing away of the old creation and the arrival of the new to the death and resurrection of Christ. The phrase καινη κτισις, here translated by the NASB as “new creature,” is rendered as “new creation” in Galatians 6. There is no indefinite article in Greek, and there’s no verb in the phrase, so a more literal translation might be: “if anyone is in Christ, new creation.” I like the alternative reading presented in a footnote to the NASB: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” One might say that each new creature in Christ participates in the more comprehensive new creation. Paul is saying that Christ’s death and resurrection didn’t just affect Christ Himself: these events changed the world. Therefore, those who are in Christ participate in this radically transformed world, which is the “new creation.” The death and resurrection of Christ don’t just transform individuals into new creatures; it’s an all-inclusive event.
When Paul associates the old creation with the flesh, he’s referring not to the sinful passions but rather to the materialistic worldview. Formerly he and his readers knew Christ “according to the flesh” — surely he doesn’t mean that they lusted after Jesus. Rather, they knew Christ as a flesh-and-blood human being who lived and died; now, though, they know him as a resurrected human, the firstborn of the new creation. Paul says that the reason they now know Him this way is that when Jesus died, somehow all died with him and are now resurrected in him. Jesus’s death brought to an end the old creation and ushered in the new creation for all. Just as he and his readers no longer know Christ according to the flesh as a merely mortal human, so they no longer know anyone according to the flesh. This is the case, says Paul, because in Christ God reconciled the whole world to himself.
Through Christ’s death and resurrection the old creation died and the new creation is born, a transformation that affects the whole world: what does Paul mean here? Is he saying that the whole world, all of humanity, died in Christ and is now resurrected in Christ? That the whole world is now reconciled to God? That what remains is for us to recognize the reality of this transformation, no longer seeing things according to the fleshly old-creational perspective of a material world that’s been rejected by God? That all of us participate in the resurrection life of the new creation whether we realize it or not? That now, having been accepted by God, we in turn ought to accept God?
Or is Paul saying that the new creation affects only those who through faith accept Christ’s resurrection as ushering in a new creation, who accept Christ’s work of reconciliation and reciprocate by reconciling themselves to God? Is he saying that as long as someone continues to see Christ, himself, and the world “according to the flesh,” that person remains bound to the old creation, doomed to mortality, or perhaps to eternal torment? This is the usual interpretation of the passage. I think the text is ambiguous and could be read either way. Did Christ really die for everyone and through resurrection reconcile everyone to God — which is what Paul explicitly asserts here? Or did Christ die for and reconcile only those who can see things from this perspective? In other words, is each of us living in the AD era participating in the new creation whether we realize it or not, or do we have to perceive the new creation subjectively in order for it to apply to us personally?
Either way, Paul’s emphasis is clear in 1 Cor. 5: the old creation died with Christ; the new creation began with Christ’s resurrection. The new creation is meant to embrace the whole world, reconciling everyone to God through Christ.
At the end of the passage Paul exhorts his readers to serve as Christ’s ambassadors. It’s a call for a reciprocal response to God’s proactive move. This is similar to Paul’s call for reciprocity in response to the “new creation” in Galatians 6, where he says that through the cross “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). God has already reconciled the world to Himself through Christ (2 Cor. 5:19) — whether or not this is achieved through substitutionary atonement isn’t really the focus of this particular passage. “Reconcile to Himself” means in effect that God is willing to let bygones be bygones, to disregard whatever it is that people have done against Him. What might it mean for someone to “be reconciled to God”? I think it means reconciling God to myself. In what ways do I feel that God has harmed me, opposed me, offended me? Can I let those go; in effect, can I forgive God? That seems to be what Paul’s ministry of reconciliation is here: God forgives you; it’s time for you to forgive God. I understand that it’s not polite conversation to complain about God publicly, but I think a lot of people (me included) resent the hand that’s been dealt them as well as the new cards they draw. (Of course I’m veering away from the “new creation” topic here, but that’s the case with any passage: it’s hard to stick with one theme when so many others intertwined with it call for attention.
In 2 Cor. 5 Paul places the emphasis on the objective work of Christ: He died for all, therefore all died. It’s not just that I am crucified to the world through Christ; everybody is. The reader doesn’t have to look for a universal salvation theme in this passage; it’s there in the words of the text: Christ died for all, through Christ God reconciled the world to Himself. Reading this passage in 2 Cor. 5 it’s conceivable that the subjective response of the individual to the cross doesn’t activate salvation for that individual, but that instead it’s a matter of the individual subjectively recognizing what already happened objectively to everyone. In other words, maybe everyone already came through the cross during the historical event of the crucifixion. Paul sounds a similar note in Romans 5:
For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (Rom. 5:10)
Three times in a row Paul in 2 Cor. 5:14-15 says “all”: “…one died for all, therefore all died, and He died for all…” It seems he’s emphasizing inclusiveness here. One would be hesitant to say that what Paul really meant was “all except” or “only those who.” He also says that through Christ God reconciled the world — cosmos in Greek — to Himself. Again, Paul seems to broaden the scope as far as possible. One could argue that participation in this universal new creation is conditional: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:18). However, it’s not necessary to interpret the “if” here as distinguishing between those who are “in Christ” and those who are not. I think, given the context, the “if” is a link in a chain of logical argument that Paul has been outlining: if A, then B. For example, earlier in 2 Corinthians we read:
For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory. (2 Cor. 3:11)
Paul has just gotten done arguing that the “if” clause is true — in this case he’s referring to the temporary glory of God that shone on Moses’ face when he came down from Sinai with the Law. In 2 Cor. 5 Paul has just gotten finished saying that all died in Christ, in order that those who live might live for Christ. Therefore, following the logic, if anyone lives in Christ (which Paul asserts is true), then he/there is a new creation. I’m not prepared based on this one passage to argue that, for Paul, all who die in Christ also live in Christ. Still, it’s clear that in this passage emphasizes the all-inclusiveness of the new creation.