Everything changed with the release of the iPhone. This wasn’t just an improved phone, but something entirely new. It was outfitted with a camera. You could send and receive email, surf the web, check the weather, pay bills and play music. It became a tool for video conferencing, watching movies, reading books and participating in social media.
For whatever it is you can image, “there is an app for that.”
In 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Paul teaches us that a Christian is not merely an improved creation. He is a new creation.
For some of us, the newness is obvious. Our lives have experienced a dramatic outward change. We have been set free from debilitating addictions. Some have had their marriages restored that at one time were on the brink of collapse. Others have had suicidal thoughts supernaturally replaced with transcendent peace. Volatile tempers have been mellowed into greater gentleness and kindness.
But for others of us, quite honestly, we don’t feel very new. We don’t even feel very improved. We still struggle and fail with the same issues we’ve always had.
I may even obsess over the struggles and imperfections, allowing faults and flaws to define who I am—my identity. Somehow, I think that if I could not only be new, but actually improved, then I could know that I am really forgiven and accepted. Not because of receiving grace, but because of my personal improvement.
What if I were no longer defined by my imperfections, faults, flaws and sins, or by my successes, but rather, defined by the perfect righteousness of Jesus? What if an obsession with my failure or the need to improve and succeed could be replaced with an obsession with the love of God for me in Jesus? What if in the gospel I can really see myself am better than merely improved?
Here is a profound and powerful theological principle. It is confidence in my newness that empowers my improvement. It is not my improvement that makes me new.
I cannot overstate how crucial this is to get straight, and keep straight. Newness precedes improvement. Always.
This is what we learn in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh [Gk, sarks = physical body or sinful nature; HERE: “outward appearances”]. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer [not just a man, but God in the flesh]. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come [present, not just future]. 18 All this is from God [gift/grace], who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them [but against himself via the cross], and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation [i.e., the gospel]. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
I AM NO LONGER DEFINED BY MY DISEASE
Have you noticed how we tend to talk about ourselves in terms of identity. I am a diabetic. I am autistic. I am a divorcee. I am an alcoholic. If I lose a game, “I am a loser.” If I fail a test, “I am a failure!”
Now, I may have diabetes. I may have high blood pressure. I may have depression, OCD, social anxiety or bipolar disorder. I may lose the game or fail to close the deal, but in the gospel, I am not defined by these things. They are not who I am.
The same thing is true spiritually.
I still have a sin nature that wars against the Holy Spirit within me, and when I cave to that nature, I sin. But “in Christ” I am no longer defined by my sin. I am not defined by the disease.
This was the perspective of Paul in Romans 7:17-23
17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
Paul is not making an excuse for his sin. He simply is dealing with his identity. He is not defined by his sin, but by God’s grace in Jesus.
The point he is making is that I now know why I lie, steal, and murder in my heart, worry, blame-shift, gossip, say yes out of fear of fear of what people will think of or say about me.
In 2 Corinthians 5:16, Paul says that we “no longer regarded according to the flesh” or “from a worldly point of view.” This means, we must see beyond the evil actions, motives and desires of the sinful flesh to the saving blood of Jesus that has made us new creatures. Because Jesus, the sinless one, was counted as sin and condemned in our place, we are “reconciled to God” as forgiven sons and daughters.
Pastor and biblical counselor Paul Little says, “Through Christ we are not only forgiven our individual acts of sin, but we receive a new nature. The gospel solution is radical, not merely one of outward reform, but inward [transformation]…” (Know What You Believe, 108)
This means that my core identity is not that I’m primarily a sinner. No. Through the declaration of God’s’ justifying grace through the cross, I am definitively a saint, albeit a saint who sins.
I love Matthew West’s song, Hello, My Name Is.
Hello, my name is regret.
I’m pretty sure we have met.
Every single day of your life
I’m the whisper inside
That won’t let you forget.
Hello, my name is defeat.
I know you recognize me.
Just when you think you can win
I’ll drag you right back down again
‘Til you’ve lost all belief.
Oh, these are the voices. Oh, these are the lies
And I have believed them for the very last time.
Hello, my name is child of the one true King
I’ve been saved, I’ve been changed, I have been set free
“Amazing Grace” is the song I sing.
Hello, my name is child of the one true King.
No. I am no longer defined by my disease. I am a child of the one true King.
WHO I AM “IN CHRIST” IS WHO I AM
Imagine someone attends one college but transfers to a different school. If I once was a Gator, I’m not a Bulldog.
Again, in 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul states, “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.” This is a definitive identity. New. Not better, but new. Not a second chance, but totally and irreversibly reconciled to God.
The apostle Paul says as much in Colossians 1:13-14, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
In the gospel, our identity is transferred from sinner to saint, from condemned to forgiven.
There are two theological terms that I want to share with you that will help understand just how new you are “in Christ.”
The first term is conversion. Just break it apart and you will find a familiar word: version. There has been an extreme, complete makeover. In the Father’s eyes, you are a new version of yourself. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us so assertively, because of the great exchange of the cross, Jesus takes your sin and give you his righteousness. You are the righteousness of God! This is your new version.
The second term is regeneration. Again, break it apart and you will find the word generate, which means to create. The prefix “re” indicates that God has re-created something. You have not been merely remodeled. In Christ, your sin has been nailed to the cross and you bear it no more. You are new.
We could add other words to the list.
For example, to be justified is to receive a new status.
To be adopted in Christ is to receive a new family.
But to be regenerated is to receive, not only new life, but new eyes. We see everything differently—from God’s perspective (not a worldly one). We receive new ears so that we can hear God speak through the Word by his Spirit. We receive a new heart that pulses with new desires. We also receive a new internal power source to carry out those new desires, the Holy Spirit, who transforms us internally like a new computer processor.
The practical reality of the gospel’s impact is that who I am “in Christ” is who I am.
THE BASIS FOR THE NEW IDENTITY
This new identity is not dependent upon what I have done or have not done, but is based completely upon what Jesus has done for me.
In verse 18, Paul is quick to emphasize that “this is all from God.”
Several years ago, a friend asked if there were any household projects that needed to get done around my house. Hesitantly, I shared with him that the deck needed re-staining. A few days later a guy shows up and does all the work. I didn’t lift a finger.
That is the gospel. Jesus does all the work to secure our new identity. We don’t earn it; we receive it. We don’t lift a finger.
There are four theological words that help us understand the “all from God-ness” of the gospel.
The doctrine of substitution emphasizes that Jesus took our place. (he takes our place)
The doctrine of propitiation teaches that the cross of Jesus satisfied the demands of justice.
The doctrine of imputation tells us that God credits (like a deposit) the perfect record of Jesus—his righteousness—into our moral accounts.
The doctrine of adoption highlights God’s choosing love, as we know adopted children to do ultimately choose their adoptive parents. The parents choose the child.
Colossians 1:21-22 parallels what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5.
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.
God has done it all. This is grace—the gift of God in Jesus.
This entire system of grace defies what many of us have thought of as religion.
There is a story about C.S. Lewis, a Professor at Oxford University, walking into a heated discussion on world religions and what makes Christianity unique, if anything. His reply was shockingly simple, “That’s easy. Grace.”
Religion is about what we must do for God in order to be accepted. Christianity is about what God has done for us to make us acceptable.
AMBASSADORS OF THE GREAT EXCHANGE
We know what an ambassador does. He or she represents one nation to another. If you are a sales rep for a manufacturing company, you are a sales ambassador, representing your company to clients.
This is now who we are for Jesus. We represent him and his gospel to the world.
In verse 20 Paul said, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors.”
We are not agents of condemnation to the world, but agents of reconciliation.
As ambassadors, we understand the purpose of the law is not to show people how to earn salvation, but to show them how they can’t earn it and need the mercy of God.
As ambassadors, we recognize the power of grace. After all, we were those in need of the same mercy we offer to others in the name of Jesus.
As ambassadors, we learn to speak the truth in love, but first, we speak the truth about ourselves. We share not first about their need, but about our need. As Charles Spurgeon used to say, “We are beggars showing other beggars where we found bread.”
The famous St. Patrick Cathedral in New York City recently underwent a massive restoration project. The original construction lasted twenty years, beginning in 1858. The recent restoration took 9 years and cost—and this is not a type-o— $177 million!
An article in New York Magazine says, “More than 150 workers, directed by the architecture firm Murphy Burnham & Buttrick, made 30,000 separate interventions, planned and tracked with advanced software but executed by hand. Workers filled the interior with a city of scaffolding. Specialists climbed it to heal cracks in stained glass, fix shattered bits of tracery with invisible puzzle pieces of steel, scour soot off blackened marble, rebuild eroded filigree, replace crumbling stones, re-plaster ribbed vaults, and revivify wooden screens. The result is so conspicuously glorious that it makes Rockefeller Center look suddenly shabby by comparison.”
Through the restoration project of the gospel, this is how the Father sees “the true you.” If the old you is defined by the shabbiness of sin, the new you “in Christ” is conspicuously glorious, adorned in the perfect righteousness of Jesus.
Discussion Guide – Chapter 3
- What is the difference between improved and new?
- Why is it so difficult to believe that we are “new creatures?”
- What does the gospel say to relieve our concerns about ongoing failures and sin?
- How does the enemy try to deceive and derail us?
- Explain these words and consider a practical application for each.