ἡ γὰρ ἀγάπη τοῦ Χριστοῦ συνέχει ἡμᾶς, κρίναντας τοῦτο, ὅτι εἷς ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀπέθανεν, ἄρα οἱ πάντες ἀπέθανον· καὶ ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀπέθανεν, ἵνα οἱ ζῶντες μηκέτι ἑαυτοῖς ζῶσιν ἀλλὰ τῷ ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν ἀποθανόντι καὶ ἐγερθέντι.
Ὥστε ἡμεῖς ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν οὐδένα οἴδαμεν κατὰ σάρκα· εἰ καὶ ἐγνώκαμεν κατὰ σάρκα Χριστόν, ἀλλὰ νῦν οὐκέτι γινώσκομεν. ὥστε εἴ τισ ἐν Χριστῷ, καινὴ κτίσις· τὰ ἀρχαῖα παρῆλθεν, ἰδοὺ γέγονεν καινά τὰ δὲ πάντα ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ καταλλάξαντος ἡμᾶς ἑαυτῷ διὰ Χριστοῦ καὶ δόντος ἡμῖν τὴν διακονίαν τῆς καταλλαγῆς, ὡς ὅτι θεὸς ἦν ἐν Χριστῷ κόσμον καταλλάσσων ἑαυτῷ, μὴ λογιζόμενοσ αὐτοῖς τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν καὶ θέμενος ἐν ἡμῖν τὸν λόγον τῆς καταλλαγῆς. ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ οὖν πρεσβεύομεν ὡς τοῦ θεοῦ παρακαλοῦντος δι’ ἡμῶν· δεόμεθα ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ, καταλλάγητε τῷ θεῷ. τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁμαρτίαν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ.
This is the original Greek of Paul’s Second (technically fourth) Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 5, verses 14 through 21. I wanted to go through this passage because I’ve been thinking about atonement and forgiveness lately.
(Aside: Those of you in the know will notice that Paul is using Koine Greek, not Attic Greek. If you want to know the easiest sign, here’s a hint: consider how καταλλάσσων would differ in Attic.)
First, let us take a completely literal translation of this passage. Please, bear with me; this will not sound the least like good English, but I will go through it and make it readable in just a moment. Brackets mark added words and notes, and italics mark emphasis. Note that in words with variable meaning, I allow for all possible meanings at this stage; interpretation comes after gaining a conceptual awareness of the text.
For the love of Christ holds together us, [us] having judged/distinguished [once on a particular occasion] this [thing], that one died [once on a particular occasion] over all, then all died [once on a particular occasion]; and [he] died [once on a particular occasion] over all, in order that the living no longer for themselves live but for the [one] over them having died [once on a particular occasion] and having been raised [on a particular occasion].
Therefore we know from the [time] now no one according to flesh; and if we have known [with result in the present] according to flesh Christ, but now we know [him according to flesh] no longer. Therefore if anyone [is] in Christ, [he is] a new creation; the old [things] passed away [once on a particular occasion], behold! they have become [with result in the present] new [things]; and the [things] all out of God, the [God] having reconciled [once on a particular occasion] us to himself through Christ and having given [once on a particular occasion] to us the ministry/deaconry of reconciliation, that God was [over a period of time] in Christ reconciling [at the time of the main verb, i.e., over a period of time] cosmos/world/creation to himself, not reckoning/calculating to them the missteps/transgressions of them and having placed [once on a particular occasion] in us the word of reconciliation. Over Christ therefore we take precedence/are ambassadors, as God calling for aid/summoning [friends]/invoking [gods] through us; we ask [from you] over Christ, be reconciled [once on a particular occasion] to God. The [one] not having known [once on a particular occasion] sin over us [he] made sin, in order that we may know justice/righteousness of God in him.
Now, that probably looks ridiculous. But I asked you to bear with me, and you have; let’s clean this up a little bit, interpret a few definitions, and clarify a few things.
For the love of Christ holds us together, having judged aright this thing, that one man died on behalf of all, so then all died; and He died on behalf of all, in order that the living no longer live for themselves, but for the one who died and who was raised on their behalf.
Therefore from now on we know no one according to the flesh; and though we have known Christ according to the flesh, we know Him this way no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things passed away, and behold! they have become new. And these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ, reconciling creation to Himself, not counting their transgressions against them, and He placed in us the word of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors on Christ’s behalf, and God summons allies through us; we ask of you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. God made Him who did not know sin to be sin on our behalf, in order that we may know the righteousness of God in Him.
There. That’s better. A little clearer, certainly.
But what can we learn from this passage? What does this reading make exceedingly clear?
Well, first of all, it reminds us that Christ’s sacrifice was a one-time event. Every time I noted “once on a particular occasion” in the literal translation, that sense was present in the verb tense itself. That means that everything with that notation occurred only once, not repeatedly, but just once. He died once, so we died once; he was raised once; the old passed away once; God reconciled once; He gave once; He placed once; and Christ never once knew sin. This is a clear reminder that Christ died once for all, and we cannot crucify Him again on our own behalf (Hebrews 6:1-8).
(Aside: Some people claim that the Eucharistic branches of Christianity, that is, those claiming to have the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, are attempting this recrucifixion of Christ. Most notably, the Catholic and Orthodox churches are accused of this. To clarify their position as I may: they do not claim to make the sacrifice anew, but to participate in the singular, once-for-all, transcendent sacrifice at Golgotha. It’s not about making a new sacrifice to get rid of new sins, but about two goals: (1) reminding the people of Christ’s sacrifice nearly 2000 years ago; and (2) granting grace through the real presence of God. But I digress.)
What else do we learn? We learn that our price for sin has been paid. You may recall that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), but here Paul tells us that we have already died – with Christ, when He died for us all. So our wages have been paid already, and we are made new. The old passes away, and becomes new. Our death has died, our savior has risen again, and we are free from the chains of sin (Romans 6).
Another thing we learn from this passage is that we are ambassadors of Christ. We bring the message of this reconciliation to others, just as Paul here brings it to the Corinthians. We ask others on Christ’s behalf, we beg them, we plead with them, to be reconciled to God. We are like Jonah to the Ninevites, Jacob to the Egyptians, Moses to the Israelites, Elijah and Elisha to the kings of Israel, Daniel to the Babylonians, and all the prophets. We bring this good news: Christ has died for all, that all might live for Him, made new by His sacrifice and reconciled to God. Paul imagines us as agents of God, ambassadors to foreign lands; we are diplomatic, amiable, and humble. The time will come when we will be warriors for God, but for now, do not try to conquer those who oppose Him, but offer them these truths. Be ambassadors, and ask from others on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God!
If you will notice, I have indicated that Paul’s command (“be reconciled to God!”) is in the aorist tense, that is, it has this “once on a particular occasion” sense to it. Be wary of using this passage to support a theology of “once saved, always saved.” I am not debating whether or not that particular theology is accurate, but I want to point out that this passage does not necessarily support it. First of all, remember to whom Paul is writing – he said it in chapter 1, verse 1: “To the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia.” Why would Paul tell the church at Corinth to be reconciled to God if they can only do this once?
Notice also that the aorist tense (“once on a particular occasion”) has a very peculiar meaning in commands like this one. It does not mean that what is being commanded can only happen once, nor that it can never happen again. What it literally means is that what is being commanded happens at once, in a singular event, not over a period of time or through repetition. Compare this to its past sense: Such-and-such a thing happened once, not over a period, and not multiple times. There is nothing inherent in the text that indicates that none of these things can happen again – only that, when they took place, they were singular events at particular times. For example, using this tense, I could very easily say, “I stood up, sat down, and stood up again,” all in the aorist tense. The actions are repeated, but they take place at singular moments in time, not over a period, and not as a habit.
So there is nothing about the verb itself which suggests that the Corinthians should reconcile themselves to God once and be done with it. If you believe that once a person is saved, they are always saved, that’s your prerogative, and I’m not telling you that you’re wrong. I only seek to provide clear information on this passage.
If you see anything here that I haven’t discussed, feel free to comment or send me an email. I hope you enjoyed this language lesson on 2 Corinthians 5:14-21!