June 1 – A Change of Nature

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

2 Corinthians 5:17

When you receive Jesus Christ, are born again, and enter into God’s kingdom, you become a totally different individual. The change that occurs when you’re saved is more dramatic than the change that will occur when you die because then you already have a new nature and are a citizen of God’s kingdom. Death simply ushers you into God’s presence.

In his epistles, the apostle Paul says that when God transformed us, He gave us a new will, mind, heart, power, knowledge, wisdom, life, inheritance, relationship, righteousness, love, desire, and citizenship. He called it “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Some teach that when a person becomes a Christian, God gives him something new in addition to his old sin nature. But according to the Word of God, we don’t receive something new—we ourselves become new![1]

5:17 If anyone is in Christ, that is, saved, he is a new creation. Before conversion, one might have judged others according to human standards. But now all that is changed. Old methods of judging have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

This verse is a favorite with those who have recently been born again, and is often quoted in personal testimonies. Sometimes in being thus quoted, it gives quite a false impression. Listeners are apt to think that when a man is saved, old habits, evil thoughts, and lustful looks are forever done away, and everything becomes literally new in a person’s life. We know that this is not true. The verse does not describe a believer’s practice but rather his position. Notice it says that if anyone is in Christ. The words in Christ are the key to the passage. In Christ, old things have passed away and all things have become new. Unfortunately, “in me” not all this is true as yet! But as I progress in the Christian life, I desire that my practice may increasingly correspond to my position. One day, when the Lord Jesus returns, the two will be in perfect agreement.[2]

  1. So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. The old things passed away, and look—the new things have come.

Verses 16 and 17 are the logical conclusion of the preceding passage (vv. 14–15), are analogous, and show both a negative and a positive contrast (vv. 16 and 17 respectively). Because these two verses convey a parallel message, the last one depends on and is influenced by the first. The Greek clauses are short and in translation have to be augmented with the verb to be in the first sentence.

Let us look first at the word so, which introduces a summary of what Paul has been saying earlier about the unity believers have with Christ. He died for them and was raised, and they in turn live for him (v. 15). When Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ,” he expresses the fact that numerous people in Corinth and elsewhere are true believers.

Next, the phrase in Christ occurs some twenty-five times in Paul’s epistles and signifies the intimate fellowship believers enjoy with their Lord and Savior. To be in Christ connotes being part of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:27), and Christ brings about a radical transformation in the believer’s life. Instead of serving the ego, the Christian follows Christ and responds to the law of love for God and the neighbor.

Some translators want to see balance in this sentence and thus link the word anyone in the first clause with the pronoun he (“he is a new creation”) in the second. But most expositors, rightly so, see the new creation not as being limited to a person but as extending to the total environment of this individual (compare Gal. 6:15; Rev. 21:5). That is, when people become part of the body of Christ at conversion, their lives take a complete reversal. They now abhor the world of sin and former friends are hostile to them. Their preconversion lifestyle is history, and “the old things have passed away” (see the parallel in Isa. 43:18–19). For converts, the life in Christ is a constant source of daily joys and blessings; the body of believers provides them with ready support and help; and self-assurance and trust certify the genuineness of their composure.

Scholars debate whether Paul borrowed the phrase a new creation from the rabbis of his day. Even if he did, these Jewish teachers never associated this phrase with moral renewal and regeneration. According to them, renewal occurred with respect to remission of sins, but not in the sense of the transformation that Jesus Christ brings about in the life of believers. For converts to the Christian faith, the old things no longer attract, for new things have taken their place through Christ. Although temptations always surround them, believers pray the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13), and they know that God supplies strength to resist evil.[3]

Burden for the Lost

Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. (5:16–17)

The overarching reason Paul defended his integrity, the one that incorporated all the rest, was so that he could continue to reach the lost. He passionately longed to see people come to saving faith in Christ. In the pagan cultural center of Athens, for example, Paul found that “his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). To the Romans he wrote, “I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles” (Rom. 1:13). In his first inspired letter to them, Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that his mission was “to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17); in fact, as he wrote later in that epistle, “I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).

But perhaps the most poignant glimpse of Paul’s burden for the lost comes in a shocking statement in his letter to the Romans:

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Rom. 9:1–3)

So intense was the apostle’s desire to see his lost fellow Israelites saved that he was willing to forfeit, were that possible, his own salvation to bring that about. Not surprisingly, his constant “desire and … prayer to God for them [was] for their salvation” (Rom. 10:1). Paul’s burden for the lost moved him to defend his integrity, lest he lose his credibility and with it his ability to effectively preach the gospel.

These two verses define when Paul’s burden for the lost began. The conjunction hōste (therefore) points back to verses 14 and 15, which describe salvation. After his conversion, the way Paul viewed people changed radically. From then on, he did not recognize (oida; lit. “know,” or “perceive”) anyone according to the flesh; he no longer evaluated people based on external, worldly standards, as the false teachers did (cf. 2 Cor. 5:12; Gal. 6:12). The proud Pharisee, who once scorned Gentiles, and even those Jews outside of his group (cf. John 7:49), now looked beyond mere outward appearances. His prejudice and hatred gave way to a love for all, including “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman” (Col. 3:11).

Not only did Paul’s view of people change but also his view of Christ. He had once known Him according to the flesh; he had made a human assessment of Him, concluding that He was merely a man. Worse, he had decided Jesus was a false messiah; a heretic and a rebel against Judaism; one worthy of death. As a result, Paul dedicated his life to persecuting His followers. As he later confessed,

So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26:9–11)

Yet after his conversion Paul knew Him in this way no longer. The assessment of Paul the apostle was radically different than that of Saul the Pharisee. No longer did he view Jesus as an itinerant Galilean rabbi and self-appointed messianic impostor who was the enemy of Judaism. Instead, he saw Him for who He really is, God incarnate, the Savior, the Lord of heaven, the true Messiah who alone fulfills all Old Testament promises and provides forgiveness for sin. The transformation in Paul’s view took place in one blinding moment when he met the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. And when his assessment of Jesus changed, so did his assessment of everyone else. He knew that the same profound change that took place in his life would take place in the lives of all those who put their faith in Christ.

Therefore, in a conclusion also deriving from verse 15, Paul wrote, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature. God’s grace and mercy are wide enough to encompass anyone, even the most vile, wicked sinner—even the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15–16). But God is only “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26; cf. Gal. 3:26). His substitutionary death becomes their death, and His resurrection life their life.

The familiar Pauline expression in Christ succinctly and profoundly summarizes all the rich blessings of salvation (cf. Rom. 8:1; 16:3, 7; 1 Cor. 1:30; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; 4:21; Col. 1:2, 28; Philem. 23). Everyone who is in Christ becomes a new creature (cf. Gal. 6:15). Kainos (new) means new in quality, not just in sequence; believers’ “old self was crucified with Him” (Rom. 6:6); they have therefore laid “aside the old self … and put on the new self” (Eph. 4:22, 24; Col. 3:9–10).

The transformation wrought by the new birth is not only an instantaneous miracle but also a lifelong process of sanctification. For those so transformed, everything changes; the old things have passed away. Old values, ideas, plans, loves, desires, and beliefs vanish, replaced by the new things that accompany salvation. The perfect tense of the verb ginomai (have come) indicates a past act with continuing results in the present. God plants new desires, loves, inclinations, and truths in the redeemed, so that they live in the midst of the old creation with a new creation perspective (cf. Gal. 6:14). That perspective, as it is nourished and developed, helps believers gain victory in the battle against sin and conforms them to the image of Jesus Christ.

So Paul defended his integrity in order to preach with boldness, knowing that he was trusted. In addition, his reverence and gratitude to the Savior who had done so much for him, his deep concern for the church, passionate devotion to the truth, desire for righteousness, and longing to see the lost come to the Savior compelled him to maintain his integrity. Because he did so, he could confidently challenge the Corinthians, “Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God” (1 Cor. 4:5).[4]

17 Paul next states the second outcome of the death and resurrection of Christ. Whenever a person comes to be part of the body of Christ by faith, there is a new act of creation on God’s part. One set of conditions or relationships has passed out of existence (parēlthen, aorist); another set has come to stay (gegonen, perfect). And v. 16 indicates that the principal area of change is that of attitude toward Christ and other people. Knowledge “from a worldly point of view” has given place to knowledge in the light of the cross (cf. Gal 6:15). When a person becomes a Christian, he or she experiences a total restructuring of life that alters its whole fabric—thinking, feeling, willing, and acting. Anyone who is “in Christ” is “Under New Management” and has “Altered Priorities Ahead,” to use wording sometimes found in shop windows or (in England) on road signs.[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 170). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1841). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 19, pp. 192–194). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2003). 2 Corinthians (pp. 194–196). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[5] Harris, M. J. (2008). 2 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 481). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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