Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Does 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 Refer to Sacramental Reconciliation or the Gospel?

Someone on the CHNI board asked:
How can a Catholic effectively explain the sacrament of confession/ministry of reconciliation to a Protestant using this text: 2 Cor. 5:17-21?

This has been the response to my use of it in conjunction with John 20:21-23:
I think you are misinterpreting 2 Corinthians 5. Let's look at the context of the passage, "2 Corinthians 5:17-21, "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."

Note the general terms used...anyone as well as the 1st person plural. Everyone who has been reconciled to God is a minister of reconciliation and not just a few select people. We are all ambassadors of Christ. The difference is that there were some among the Corinthian church and the world at large (note the prior antecedent) who needed to be reconciled to God (because they were not believers). This does not in any way imply penance. I'm sorry but that seems to be a very big stretch of a passage that seems to generally apply to all Christians (otherwise why use the 1st person plural?).
Another Catholic argued that Paul was particularly referring to his ministry, by consulting context (especially 5:12-14; 6:1:3-13). I expanded upon this counter-explanation.

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For the usual biblical reasoning suggesting the validity of confession, see my paper:

Biblical Evidence for Formal Forgiveness of Sins and Absolution (Confession)

I agree that Paul is probably referring to his ministry. This is reinforced not only by context but also possibly by cross-referencing. The same Greek word (or cognate: it is Strong's word #5087) used for "committed" or "entrusted" in 2 Cor 5:19 is used by St. Paul, specifically referring to his own calling as a preacher and apostle in 1 Timothy 2:7:

For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (RSV)

and 2 Tim 1:11:

For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,

And 1 Tim 1:12:

I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service,

Cf. 2 Cor 5:19:

that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

But let us assume for the sake of argument that he is referring to Christians generally here (perhaps in some places he is). I'm also not at all sure that "reconciliation" here is referring to what Catholics regard as the sacrament of reconciliation.

This is apparent, I think, by examining the passage more carefully, along with its context. Paul is likely referring to regeneration and/or justification, or the gospel itself, rather than sacramental confession. We see this in the following couplet:

2 Corinthians 5:17-18 Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. [18] All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;

Also, 2 Corinthians 5:19:

that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

The "message of reconciliation" is the gospel, proclaiming what Christ did for us. The "world" is referred to (a generality of believers saved in Christ) not an individual sacramental action. The language of "God making his appeal through us" in 5:20 also is consistent with such an interpretation. It's meant, so it seems, in the sense of being regenerated or initially justified, not in terms of sacramental confession and absolution. "Message" (cf. 1 Cor 2:4; 2 Tim 4:15,17) appears to convey that, whereas absolution is not technically a message but rather, a declaration of a completed transaction, so to speak.

Paul seems to be speaking generally here: almost to later Bible readers, not, I submit, necessarily directly to the Corinthians. He is talking about his ministry of spreading the gospel and teaching it.

Other uses of "reconciliation" in Paul are instructive as related to the gospel, not sacramental confession and absolution:

Romans 5:10-11 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation.

Ephesians 2:13,16 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. . . . and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.

Colossians 1:20,22 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. . . . he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him,

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