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Today's Study

2 Corinthians 5:17: All the Old Has Gone?

Paul's joyful proclamation in 2 Corinthians 5:17 expresses a conviction that seems all too frequently contradicted by our experience. We affirm that life in Christ produces a new kind of living and are embarrassed to find so little difference between our actual living and the lives of those who make no such claims. We rejoice in the forgiveness of God for our sinfulness and then recognize how our living often fails to convey this reality to others. We worship the Christ who gave his life for others, yet devote so much time and energy to promoting ourselves. We proclaim allegiance to Christ as Lord while living by priorities and values which indicate that there are indeed "many gods and lords" by which we really live.

Like us, the early Christians to whom Paul addressed those words recognized that in many ways the "old" remained with them and the "new" life of faith in Christ needed to be appropriated again and again. These early Christians saw that Rome and its oppressive power continued. Injustice and immorality prevailed in their world. They experienced continuing bondage in their personal lives, bitter strife within communal Christian life, the continuing reality of personal failure, anxiety, frustration and sin. Why the old when the new is come? Why are these things still with us, if it is true that "the old has gone" and "the new has come"?

How are we to understand this tension between Christian affirmation and Christian experience? There have been two main ways by which Christians have sought to deal with this problem. Both ways have arisen out of an understanding of human nature which sees us as consisting of essentially two parts: the physical (flesh) and the spiritual (soul), which are opposed to each other.

One way manifested itself as early as A.D. 50 in the Christian community at Corinth. It was the "spiritualizing" of Christian faith. The argument went something like this: "Since the body, the flesh, the physical aspect is at best weak, at worst corrupt, what we need to do is to concentrate on the spiritual side, on the soul. And since, through Christ, our souls have been redeemed, it really does not matter what we do with our bodies." It does not take much imagination to see where this way of splitting the human personality leads. In Corinth, it led to libertinism, which manifested itself in a complete disregard for the moral-ethical life and a haughty disdain for the brother or sister who had not attained to such a "liberated spirituality."

A second response to such a dualistic view of human nature manifested itself during Paul's missionary activity in Asia Minor. It was the legalizing of the Christian faith. The argument here went as follows: "The flesh really interferes with the attempt of the human spirit to be in perfect communion with God. Therefore, `the flesh,' with all its passions and desires, must be made subservient to the spirit. We must impose--by means of codes of conduct--such close strictures on our lives that the inner purity of the spirit is not somehow defiled by the flesh." The extreme form of this response was a rigorous asceticism and monastic isolation from entanglements with the world.

Much of contemporary Christian thinking continues to be influenced by such dualism. Sometimes it becomes an escape hatch from the demands of Christian discipleship. At other times it forms the basis of a disregard for bodily, concrete things and an elevation of the spiritual or a suppression of the physical with a view to the purification of the soul.

If the above ways of dealing with the basic tension in Christian existence are inadequate, how then are we to understand the presence of that tension, how are we to account for it, and how are we to come to grips with it?

There were Greek thinkers, prior to and contemporary with the birth of Christianity, who saw the human body as the prisonhouse or tomb of the soul. They believed that salvation consisted of the liberation of a person's higher self, the spirit or soul, from its entrapment with the body. This understanding of human nature, which has influenced much Christian thought, must be decidedly rejected as contrary to the biblical point of view. In the witness of the Bible, the total being is the object of God's redemptive purposes. As physical-spiritual beings we are the objects of God's forgiving act in Christ. In our wholeness we stand under the constraining love of Christ by which we become new creations. In our concrete existence we can be transformed into the image of Christ. The human person--in the context of relationship to others--is the locus of God's intervention. To affirm less than that is to limit God!

If a dividing of the human personality into antagonistic physical and spiritual components cannot account for the tension between the "old" and the "new," what can? What, we must ask, is Paul expressing in our text? In what sense are Christians "new creations"?

An instructive perspective comes to light when Paul's word is seen against the backdrop of Israel's prophetic hope. One of the main features of that hope was the belief that the end of time was going to be like the beginning of time. When the prophets spoke about the expectation of God's final coming and reign in human history, they frequently described that time in imagery associated in the Old Testament with paradise and the original creation. A new creation was going to replace the fallen old creation. Isaiah's picture of the return of paradise is a striking example of this prophetic expectation: "The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them" (Is 11:6).

Now, for Paul, the end of time had dawned on a broken world. The end of the ages had broken into the old age (see 1 Cor 10:11). The world was a new world insofar as it had encountered the Creator in the Christ. The person "in Christ" was part of a new humanity, created in Christ Jesus for a new existence. As Adam and Eve, the typical representative human beings, stood before the Creator in radical freedom, so the new person in Christ stands before the Creator in radical freedom. In some sense, the situation before the Fall has been re-created for the Christian. In that sense the Christian is a "new creation." As Adam and Eve were faced with the decision to give allegiance to God the Creator or to create their own gods and give allegiance to them (see Rom 1:20-23), so the new-creation person has been freed from the Fall's bondage for the same decision. As they lived with the possibility of either dependence on the Creator or independence from him, so the new-creation person exists within that possibility. As they could either exist in fellowship with their Maker or hide from God among the trees, so the new-creation person can live in trust before God or make jungles in which to hide from God.

God's redeeming love in Christ has reclaimed us for relationship with our Creator. In this relationship we are free from the bondage to sin which characterized us while alienated from God. But this relationship does not automatically remove us from the influence of sin's reality which surrounds us in all arenas of life.

For Paul, "the old" which has gone is the condition of alienation from God and its bondage to sin. "The new" which has come is our relationship with God in Christ, a relationship which empowers us for a kind of living in which the continuing reality of sin can be overcome again and again. To be a "new creation" is not to be perfect or faultless, or immune from anger and pain, or insulated from the tough experiences of life. Rather, to be a "new creation" is to live life turned toward the God whose grace has reclaimed us in Christ.