Cosmic, Corporate, and Individual Reconciliation through Union with Christ (Part 3)

In Christ we are “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) but interestingly we also progressively become new creations (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:16; Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24)[1] and ultimately this new creation does not happen until the parousia (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49). The work that God does in individuals does not merely concern their standing before Him but has also to do with who the person is here and now. God’s reconciling and re-creation work starts here in this life; it is not just eschatological but has an ethical impact on our present mode of existence. After Paul’s conversion his outlook was changed, he saw Christ and others differently (2 Cor. 5:16-17).[2] When by the Holy Spirit our view of Christ changes, our view of others and even all things changes. The regenerating work generates new ways of viewing things. We view things differently and we live differently (2 Cor. 5:14-15). In fact, Paul indicates that Christ died for the purpose of bringing an end to man’s self-centered existence.[3]

If what I have laid out as some of the precedences for union with Christ is correct than it seems to me that union with Christ is not merely an issue of personal salvation and of having our sin atoned for—though thank God it is that!—but it is also the restoration of all things, the forever Kingdom promised to David coming to fruition. It means our significance is not found in ourselves in our fallen state but in Christ who has made (and is making!) us new creations. This actually fits the context of the passage. Paul here is not just concerned with atonement—us being “in” the Lamb of God, though that is obviously part of what takes place.[4] Jesus as the “lamb without blemish,” as He that knew no sin, became sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).[5] This happens, it says explicitly “in Him,” but that is not all that happens, the whole world will be put back together.

Through Adam there is a curse on creation, through Christ there is new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). The old way of death and disobedience is gone and behold the new has been inaugurated. What the prophets spoke of (Acts 3:2-21)[6] is coming to fruition and we even now have the firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:20, 23).[7] Creation groans, but we now, as new creations in Christ, cry out to God as Abba Father (Rom. 8:15). We have been given new hearts, hearts of flesh (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26). We have the law written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10). God put His Spirit in us and dwells among us (Ezek. 36:27-28) and now we can come not merely into a temple but the temple through our union with Christ. Christ made a way for us through His flesh (Heb. 10:20).[8] We are new, and being made new. And this all happens not by our own merit and striving but by union with Christ. In fact, we ourselves are temples of the living God Paul tells us in his earlier epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:19).

There is also a sense in which the didactic teaching about Christ, his work, and our union with Him, enforce a very practical orthopraxy. Union with Christ and reconciliation through Christ is thus not merely abstract and theological but personally pedagogical, it shapes us. As new creations that are given new hearts, hearts that beat with love for Christ and to do the work that He has given us to do, we are radically changed (2 Cor. 5:14-15). There is an internal work that has gone on that shows itself in external and empirical ways. As we are in Christ and Christ takes up residence in our hearts (cf. Col. 3:16) we put off our old self and put on the new (cf. Eph. 4:17ff; Col. 3:1ff). We are no longer darkened in our understanding and blinded by the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4), we no longer see the gospel as foolishness but as glorious and we implore people to be reconciled to God.

We see that reconciliation is not just merely individual but also corporate through various things in the text. First, the text says “reconciled us to Himself” (καταλλάξαντος ἡμᾶς ἑαυτῷ) (2 Cor. 5:18). Second, though more complex, we also see the text says, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (v. 19). “World” (κόσμος) is used in different ways in the Corinthian correspondence. It is typically used to refer to the inhabitants of the earth[9] but at times it also refers to the world (i.e. the universe).[10] I believe by “world” in 2 Cor. 5:19, Paul means “inhabitants of the world,” but I believe that the re-creation of the physical world is also implied.

It is important to understand the corporate nature of reconciliation because we in the West tend to be very individualistic. However, it is not just Jesus and I. It is Jesus and a host of people from every tribe, language, and nation. Salvation is not just about you or me being reconciled to God personally, it is about “the world” being reconciled to God.

So, reconciliation through union with Christ is not merely individual, although individuals are clearly implied. Reconciliation is corporate; us to God and man to man, slave, free, Jew, Greek, barbarian, Scythian (Col. 3:11).[11] We, through Christ, are reconciled to God and reconciled to others. I think our more immediate concern should be reconciliation with God; nevertheless, through union with Christ, we are also reconciled with each other. We see this in our passage but it is more explicit elsewhere (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13-14; Gal. 3:26-28; Eph. 2:11ff; Philemon).

So, we have seen that Christ’s new creation work is not just individual but it is not just corporate either. Christ makes individual sinners who were once various things, immoral, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, and thieves (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-10)—new creations. [12] Christ’s work is personal and pervasive; it affects humanity and individual humans, soon even this groaning world will be redeemed.

Christ’s work and reign are cosmic![13] “Paul sees Christ’s redemptive activity as affecting not just the reconciliation of humanity with God but also, through that reconciliation, the consummation of the entire created order.”[14] Our being “in Him” is more than an issue of personal identity, being “in Him” is everything! It is a cosmic reality. Of course, there are huge personal and pastoral ramifications that come from the doctrine of union with Christ but its reach is further than personal issues. Union with Christ cannot only relieve humanities’ groanings but will relieve creation’s groanings as well.

Also important for our purposes is understanding what is meant by new creation. New creation (καινὴ κτίσις) is a significant term and concept. Some have thought that the term merely refers to individuals but it seems to me that it has to be related to the renewal of the earth as well. For Paul, a-once-zealous-Pharisee who believes Jesus was the long-awaited Christ, how could he not connect the Christ with new creation?![15] Also, when Paul says, “the old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17) it suggests much more than just individual transformation.[16]

Around the same time of writing 2 Corinthians, Paul says in Romans that creation groans for redemption. The redemption of humanity (the vice-regents[17]) in Christ implies and leads to the renewal of creation.[18] Thus, I believe Paul had more than just individuals in mind when he said “new creation,” he had the whole creation in mind as well, they are closely connected (Adam brought curse on all humanity and the whole planet and Jesus brings blessings). I believe various edenic passages influenced Paul’s theology here.[19]

Next, we will see how God chooses us, jars of clay (2 Cor. 4:7), to take part in His amazing and unexpected work of reconciliation.


[1] Ridderbos, Paul, 301.

[2] “In [Paul’s] pre-conversion days he judged Christ using human criteria and came to the wrong conclusion, but after God had been pleased to reveal his Son to him, he had to say we regard him thus longer, i.e. no longer from a mistaken point of view” (Colin G. Kruse, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Wm. Bible Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987], 125). “Paul is talking about understanding people on the basis of their external characteristics or natural attributes, whilst if it is to be related to the verbs, it is a matter of evaluating others by means of purely human criteria, worldly standards, and the like” (Thrall, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 412).

[3] Thrall, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 411. “In Christ’s death the old form of human life was brought to an end, in order that a new kind of human existence might become possible” (Ibid., 424).

[4] So, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. says, “Paul does not view the justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification of the believer as a separate, distinct acts but as different facets or aspects of the one act of incorporation with the resurrected Christ” (Resurrection And Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology [Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1987], 130-31).

[5] See also Lev. 4; 16:5-10, 20-22; Is. 53 (esp. 5-6, 10); Mk. 10:45; Jn. 1:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18.

[6] Is. 2:2; 9:6-7; 25:8-9; 32:16-18; 42:9-10; 43:19; 48:6, 35; 51:3; 61:1-4; 62:2-5, 12; 65:17-19, 24-25; 66:22; Ezek. 28:24; 47:1-12 cf. Rev. 21:1-5.

[7] “The new creation begins in the midst of the old: when God raised Jesus from the dead, he was the first man in the new creation. And anyone who is joined to Jesus Christ by faith is new creation” (Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 202).

[8] In the OT it was “in” the temple that people were with God and could experience His shekinah glory and in the NT we are said to be temples of the living God (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14-18).

[9] See 1 Cor. 1:12, 27; 4:9; 5:10, 19; 6:2; 2 Cor. 5:19; 7:10.

[10] See 1 Cor. 3:22; 8:4 cf. Rom. 1:20; 4:13; Eph. 1:4.

[11] “It is important to note that Paul does not visualize a company of people, who have each individually been identified with Christ’s death, discovering that that provided a common basis for the formation of a community. His concept is that the community is itself identified with Christ in his death in a corporate sense, and that each individual believer becomes identified with that community. They are baptized into one body (1 Cor. 12:13; cf. also Gal. 3:27)” (Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), 645).

[12] It is important to understand who it is that Paul is writing to here. He is writing to the Corinthian church who were spiritually very immature. They formed partisan groups (1 Cor. 1:11), were unsatisfied with Paul’s leadership (4:3, 15; 9:1-2), abused the Lord’s Table (11:17-34), had at least one case of notorious immorality (5:1-5 cf. 6:12-20), had public litigation among members (6:1-8), were confused about the place of marriage (ch. 7) and the propriety of eating food that had been offered to idols (ch. 8), were infatuated with the more spectacular charismatic gifts without any profound commitment to love (ch. 12-14), and they had an aberrant view of the resurrection (see D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005], 421). And yet Paul calls them new creations. If ever it would seem dangerous to emphasis people’s new identity in Christ by calling them a new creation it would seem like it would be here with the Corinthians. However, in Christ they are saints and called to be saints (1 Cor. 1:2) and they are reconciled new creations. This has important implications for practical Christian living and pastoral counseling. For instance, is it permissible to call someone a “new creation” even if they are struggling with sin?

[13] Paul sees the “final act of redemption not as a rescue from creation but as the renewal of creation” (N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 224).

[14] Osborn, “Creation,” 435.

[15] “As a man-in-Christ he [Paul] is in fact a new creation—a reborn microcosm belonging to the eschatological macrocosm of the new heavens and the new earth-for whom the old order of things has given place to a transcendental experience in which everything is new… Redemption in Christ is nothing less than the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose in creation, so radical in its effects that it is justly called a new creation” (Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 201-202).

[16] J.R. Lewis, “Creation and New Creation” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 189. “The convert, as part of a community of faith, enters the cosmic drama of recreation that God inaugurated at the resurrection of Jesus Christ and will bring to completion at the Parousia” (Ibid.,190).

[17] Humanities disobedience prevents the natural order that God designed for a certain telos from accomplishing its goal. Creation is unable to fulfill its end so long as man, the chief act in the drama of God’s praise, fails to play his part (L. H. Osborn, “Creation” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000], 434). In Christ, the creation is made right because humanity is made right. The Fall rattled the whole natural order but through Christ’s redemption, it will be restored.

[18] “Paul sees Christ’s redemptive activity as effecting not just the reconciliation of humanity with God but also, through that reconciliation, the consummation of the entire created order. The non-human part of creation is not merely a backdrop to the human drama of salvation history but is itself able to share in the ‘glorious liberty’ which Paul envisages for the covenant community” (“Creation” in NDBT, 435).

[19] Is. 2:2; 9:6-7; 25:8-9; 32:16-18; 48:35; 51:3; 62:2-5, 12; 65:17-19, 24-25; 66:22 see also Jub. 4:26; 1 Enoch 45:4-5; 51:4-5; 2 Apoc. Bar. 51:1-16; 73-74. Thrall says, “The general idea of ‘new creation’ must have come to Paul from the OT and contemporary Judaism, most probably in the form of the hope for cosmic renewal at the end of present world history” (Thrall, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 428).

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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