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The Poetry of Reconciliation

By Jonathan Mitchican

When it comes to interpreting Scripture, N.T. Wright famously said, “We must stop giving nineteenth-century answers to sixteenth-century questions and try to give twenty-first-century answers to first-century questions.” This is also a good prescription for breaking the deadlock that often arises in debates over apologetics between Catholics and Protestants. We need to stop fighting the last war. Instead, we need to discover again together the richness of the text of Scripture and the power with which it continues to speak to the Church today.

One of the beautiful things about the Bible is the way in which it works in multiple genres, affecting people on different levels. By nature, I am the sort of person who responds more deeply to poetry than prose. This leads me to revisit often the biblical authors who most appeal to a poetic sensibility, especially John and Paul. As we enter Holy Week, one of Paul’s most powerful and poetic rhetorical flourishes has been on my mind: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). It is the kind of text that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

There is a long history of apologists using this verse as a cudgel in debates over justification. Many Protestant apologists have argued that this verse is a slam-dunk explication of imputed righteousness. A great exchange takes place on the cross in which the righteousness that belongs to Christ is accounted to us while the sin that belongs to us is accounted to Christ. Salvation is a free gift that we play no part in conjuring for ourselves.

Catholic apologists respond by arguing that this verse is not about the cross but about the Incarnation, as many of the early Church Fathers attest. Some also argue that the Greek word hamartia means sin but that it can also refer to a sin offering. Jesus does not therefore literally take our sin onto himself, since such a thing would negate his holiness. Rather, he freely offers himself on our behalf, not just through the cross but through the whole arc of his life, death, and resurrection. That offering opens us by faith to receive the righteousness of Christ in a way that transforms us from the inside out. We are not merely accounted righteous before God, but we actually become righteous.

Taken in a certain light, these positions are irreconcilable. From the Catholic perspective, the Protestant position makes salvation into a kind of sleight of hand. The Catholic apologist Trent Horn calls it “a theological Freaky Friday.” We get the benefit of Christ’s goodness without actually having to be good, while he receives the punishment for our evil even though he is not evil. By contrast, Protestants see the Catholic position as bordering on Pelagianism because it suggests that Jesus is merely giving us a helping hand toward a salvation that we then have to strive to achieve. These caricatures have brought about centuries of division and mistrust.

It is only possible to see the text properly when we break out of this apologetics model. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church found that much of our divide on this subject has been caused by misunderstanding. Lutherans do not intend to deny the real transformation in holiness that takes place in the believer, nor do Catholics intend to suggest that our justification before God relies in any way on our efforts. The statement concludes that “the Lutheran and the Catholic explications of justification are in their difference open to one another and do not destroy the consensus regarding the basic truths.”

Outside of theologians and apologists, this is a debate that often fails to resonate with the lived experience of Christians today. By mapping onto Paul’s writing the schema of Reformation-era debates, we lose the flavor of what Paul is actually trying to communicate. It is like reading a poem as if it were a set of instructions on how to build a piece of furniture.

Paul had written to the Corinthian Church at least twice and possibly three times prior to writing 2 Corinthians. Many in Corinth had misunderstood Paul’s preaching about the freedom of the gospel to mean Christians have an open-ended license to illicit behavior, which led to Paul’s first letter as a corrective. The subsequent rejection of that letter and of Paul’s authority by the community resulted in “a painful visit” by Paul (2:1), followed by another letter, now lost to history, in which Paul expressed his sorrow at their stubbornness. Since then, a rapprochement of sorts had slowly begun to form between Paul and the Corinthians, but it was still fragile. What Paul set out to accomplish in 2 Corinthians was very delicate. He needed to find a way to heal divisions while also encouraging the Corinthian church to grow in understanding both of faith and morals.

Paul accomplishes this careful pastoral work by focusing a large portion of his letter on the topic of reconciliation. He wants the Corinthians to see that the reconciliation they need to find with each other and with Paul is a reflection of the reconciliation that Jesus has brought about between God and sinful humanity.

Paul uses a series of contrasting images to illustrate this. Death is at work in us because of sin, but so is life because of Christ (4:8-12). We struggle with the temporary afflictions of living in this world so that we can receive the eternal reward of the life to come (4:17-18). Our bodies are burdened by decay and death, but God hears our groaning and prepares for us a heavenly dwelling (5:1-5). All of this recognizes that life is not how we wish it would be, but that our longing for something greater is a sign of something more that is being fulfilled in Christ. This world is marked by sin, division, and death. We spend every day in it, and its trials are ever present. Yet what Jesus did through his cross and resurrection is already at work in us, inaugurating the new era to come. “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation,” says Paul, “the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (5:17).

Jesus is reconciling within us what seems on the surface to be irreconcilable. Our lives of death and despair are being united with the divine life of heaven and God’s eternal glory. He is making the impossible possible. He is giving meaning to our suffering, making even our worst moments fruitful. And because of that, we who receive that reconciliation from him are called to be agents of reconciliation with each other. “He became sin who knew no sin,” by living in our midst, taking on our burdens, drawing what has been dead inside us into new life through our participation in him. So we who are his body, the Church, are called to do the same in the world, to carry the reconciliation he has given us everywhere, to make the impossible possible through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It is ironic that this verse in which Paul so eloquently promotes reconciliation has been a source of division through the years. While many divisions among Christians have a long history, the divisions that most seem to cause friction between Christians now, particularly within our respective churches and denominations, bleeds over from what is happening in the world around us. The modern world functions more than ever on radical personal autonomy and antipathy. The burdens of death and disillusionment weigh heavy on us now, just as they did in the first century. Whether in the form of poisonous politics, never-ending culture wars, or cynical social-media algorithms, division seems to have an unbreakable hold on us. The evangelism the world needs right now is in the form of reconciliation. We need to know that the work of being reconciled to God and to each other is not impossible. Jesus has already accomplished it in his own body. It is not a matter of competing theories of salvation. We start to become the righteousness of Christ when we offer ourselves for the sake of reconciling those around us.

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