11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. 12 We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. 13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. 16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone 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; 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. 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. 1 Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2 ESV).
2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2
This is a famous passage, beloved by many Christians—and for good reason! Verse 17 beautifully describes the new creation, and verse 21 is perhaps the clearest description of the substitutionary atonement in the Bible.
But the message of the overall paragraph is not as well understood. Therefore, I want to briefly study the whole paragraph, describe its overall message, and apply it to ourselves.
1. The emphasis of the two main sections (11-17 and 5:18-6:2)
Notice in verses 11-12 that the emphasis is in verse 12, specifically in 12c. (The arc is at the bottom of this post.) Verse 11 supports verse 12. Here is what these verses are saying (bold font shows the logical emphasis): “You know we are genuine; therefore, we are giving you a reason to boast about us, so that you can reject hypocrites.”
Then, in verses 13-17, there is a Bilateral construction, where 14-15 are supporting both verse 13 and verse 16. Here is what these verses are saying: “Christ’s love controls us; therefore, we passionately live for God and others, and we view people through a spiritual lens.”
Then verses 18-19 is the Manner of the Action described in verses 13-17. The Action can be summarized by saying that “the transformation of believers in the new creation is both the work of God through Christ and the message the apostles preached.” And this transformation has its source and its continued effectiveness in God - that’s what verses 18-19 are saying.
Then, in 5:20-6:2, you have an Inference - an application from verses 13-19. Here is what these verses are saying: “Because viewing God and others differently and being a new creation in Christ comes from God through Christ’s reconciliation [verses 13-19], we beg you to be reconciled to God, not to receive his grace in vain in this day of salvation.” So the main emphasis of this section is that the Corinthians be reconciled to God and not to receive God’s grace in vain. Because God has given the ministry of reconciliation to Paul, he begs the Corinthians to be reconciled to God.
The main point of 5:20-6:2, then, is Paul’s plea that they be reconciled to God, not receiving his grace in vain.
2. The emphasis of the passage as a whole
So how do 5:11-12 and 5:13-6:2 relate to each other? How can we relate Paul’s goal of giving the church a reason to boast about them and accept them (5:11-12) to his exhortation for the church to be reconciled to God, not to receive God’s grace in vain?
Well, what does it mean for the Corinthians to be “reconciled to God,” and to “receive his grace in vain”? Those are important questions to answer, since the section containing those words has the logical emphasis within 5:13-6:2.
It seems like these two things are identical. Notice how Paul “implores” them in 20c, and “appeals to” them in 1b. These verbs have very similar meanings. This seems similar to me to the parallelism of Hebrew poetry! It is likely, then, that to receive the grace of God profitably is the same thing as to be reconciled to God.
Then, do 20d and 1b have to do with accepting Paul and boasting about him? Yes, I believe they do. Paul is saying to them, "You need to accept my apostolic ministry, through which you received God’s grace originally. If you reject me and my ministry, you will have received God’s grace in vain.” This would be very bold, but it fits with the context of the book so far. Also, in 5:17ff, Paul has spoken of his ministry of reconciliation, given to him by God, containing the message of what God has done, thus tying his ministry inseparably with his message. Therefore, if the Corinthians reject him, they are rejecting his gospel.
Notice how I summarized the largest arc in my Main Point Summary, connecting the two halves of the passage with the phrase, “in other words.” Boasting about Paul and his gospel is the equivalent of receiving God’s gracious gift of reconciliation through Christ.
So what does this mean for us? We don’t know Paul personally! Nevertheless, I see at least two applications for us today:
1. We must humbly receive all Scripture as God’s authoritative revelation.
We imitate the Corinthians’ rejection of Paul when we cast doubt on any teaching of Scripture. After all, the Bible is the foundation of the church (“the foundation of the apostles and prophets” in Eph 2:20). The Bible is God’s authoritative self-revelation, entirely perfect and wonderful (Deut 4:8; Ps 12:6). If there is any verse of Scripture we don’t like, we are rejecting the grace of God. If there is any verse of Scripture we refuse to obey, we are rejecting the grace of God.
2. We must test all teachers and teaching based on their faithfulness to Scripture and not their outward attractiveness.
Some people “boast about outward appearance” (12c), instead of “what is in the heart” (12d). Some teachers out there sound really good, and they have huge churches and massive platforms on the internet - but that doesn’t mean what they say is biblical!
So we must not “regard [anyone] according to the flesh” (16b). We must not be superficial but judge all things by God’s book. We must look at teaching and teachers with spiritual eyes, judging spiritual reality, not mere outward appearances.