Many of you have asked about a phrase in the new song Gone, by Elevation worship.
The phrase in question is one we repeat several times, “I am the righteousness of God.” Which seems an odd to say, and rightfully so. After all God is the righteous one - as proven by His covenant faithfulness in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. So why is this OK to be singing, “I am the righteousness of God”?
One reason is that the exact phrase comes from a passage in 2 Corinthians 5:21 which reads:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
First, I’ll go out on a limb to say what I think the lyricists are getting at. In keeping with the message of our sins being gone, I believe their instinct is to make this a statement about our virtue or a status that makes us righteous before God. This is a hot topic in theological circles and there are different camps for interpreting this statement.
One camp believes it means an actual state of moral rightness before God. That God by grace empowers us to be fully and actually obedient to him (imparted righteousness). Another camp believes it means a state of moral rightness which is only our reality because God by grace calls us righteous and treats us as though we are (imputed righteousness).
If I understand the theological leanings of Elevation worship, I believe they understand this phrase to mean that God has imputed His righteousness to us.
If a discussion about imputed and imparted righteousness isn’t complex enough, I’ll throw a different brand of wrench in the works. Both of these meanings are an odd fit when you look at the whole of Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians. It would be like talking with a friend for the purpose of healing some misunderstandings in your relationship and then at a key moment saying, “I like eggs.”
That kind of odd. Allow me to “splain.”
When reading the whole letter of 2 Corinthians you realize Paul is trying to smooth out what’s turned into a rough relationship with the people of the church. This letter follows a “sorrowful visit”(2:1) and an earlier “painful letter” (2:4) possibly rebuking the church members for the way they treated him during the sorrowful visit and urging them toward reconciliation. He longs to go back to them once again to make things right, but for now he can’t, and so this letter will have to do.
He knows the people of the church at Corinth are so steamed at him they aren’t even sure they want him to visit again. If he does, his personal authority is so eroded in their eyes that they want him to bring new “letters of recommendation” (3:1) from other reputable apostles. 1 Corinthians tells us they’ve decided his personal presence and speaking style were now out of line with what they wanted in a leader in an up-market city like Corinth. And most painful of all, they are questioning whether he really is an apostle, someone truly sent by God. If Paul is an apostle, he certainly doesn’t fit the mold of one with the kind of blessed life the people of Corinth would expect.
If Paul is ever to see them again, he has to defend himself. He is not playing at being an apostle – he is an apostle. A suffering apostle. In fact, the only letters of recommendation he needs are the very people of Corinth themselves (3:2-3) and the scars of suffering for the gospel he bears on his body (4:7-12). Suffering is what happens when a person is sent to preach a gospel of reconciliation to an unreconciled and hostile world (4:7-12), but those scars, much like the scars of Jesus, have resulted in a most amazing kind of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is already taking place in Corinth because there, as in many places, Jews and Gentiles are becoming one new humanity by worshipping Jesus together as the family of God (4:14-15). This remarkable ethnic reconciliation is proof of Jesus’ resurrection and the power of the gospel. It is why Paul tries to persuade people to follow Jesus (5:11). It is also why Paul needs to come to them so he can be reconciled to them.
So, Paul will come to them, and he will come, not to judge people from a worldly point of view but from the view of Christ’s love and new creation (5:16). It is Jesus who wants reconciliation for the whole world, and He is the one who also wants reconciliation between the people of Corinth and Paul. So, Paul prays they will be open to full reconciliation through Christ. This is why he is coming, no, it is why he’s being sent, he’s an ambassador of reconciliation.
And like any good ambassador who comes as a proxy of the dignitary who sent them he will come representing Jesus in such a full and thorough way that his very presence will be the living embodiment of God’s covenant mission, for which he uses a shorthand phrase to describe, and that phrase is, “the righteousness of God.”
So, when Paul says, “we are the righteousness of God.” He is saying, I come to you on behalf of the sinless Christ as his ambassador and when God sends people like me to be with you it is as though Jesus himself is with you, as though Jesus himself is making the appeal of reconciliation to you.
In conclusion, I’ll have to say, it is a fun song, and I get what these gifted servants of God are trying to do. They’re trying to say in Christ my sins have been washed away (and they are) and that we are now righteous before God whether by impartation or imputation (and we are).
I also think what the passage in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is actually saying is immensely more powerful but in a different way. When God uses us to share the gospel which has the power to make all things new, Jesus himself is present making that appeal through you. In fact, he took on all our sin so that in that moment you could stand as God’s ambassador, his representative. Your presence in the life of another becomes the way Jesus himself is present to that person. In that moment you are the righteousness of God.