Atonement and reconciliation
Biblical revelation and the salvation it presents through the work of the cross of Christ is a tale of two cities:
Athens and Jerusalem, contrasting two different claims to truth – human wisdom or revelation;
the city of man and the city of God described by Augustine, with two different projects and constructions – one for this world and one for eternity;
the city of enmity or of reconciliation with God – indicating man’s situation in a state of opposition to God as opposed to life in harmony with Him.
Peace with God is made a reality through the cross of Christ and reconciliation is the state resulting from the atonement of Christ.
It is sometimes stated that reconciliation between God and man does not require any repairing of broken relationships other than forgiveness on the part of God. Jesus as the spokesperson for humanity made peace on our behalf. We in turn ask for forgiveness to be accepted. When man does this and God grants amnesty because of Christ the result is a rebuilt relationship of love and confidence between man and God.
However, this man-centred view of reconciliation seems the opposite of what the New Testament says.
Three aspects of reconciliation
Reconciliation has three complementary aspects which are present in 2 Corinthians 5.17-21.
- Reconciliation is the goal of the atonement, and comes from God: the ‘new creation’ has appeared in Christ and ‘is from God who reconciles himself to us through Christ’ because ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:18,19). Colossians 1:19-22 presents the same truth with equal clarity and refers to the universal perspectives of reconciliation:
‘God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Christ, and through him to reconcile to himself all things… Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in you minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death.’
There can be little doubt that God is the subject of reconciliation, the actor of it through the atonement. God restores man to His favour because there was hostility and estrangement between Himself and man. If on man’s side there was unholy opposition against God, from God’s side the situation was one of holy alienation from man. So God took steps to abolish the cause of antagonism.
The removal of the reasons
Reconciliation is primarily the removal of the reasons for God’s alienation from His creatures, before it is the removal of our opposition against God. In any normal kind of disagreement it is not the offended party who needs to say sorry; it is the opposite – the offended one must be reconciled to the offender. When Scripture says we were ‘enemies’ for God, it expresses the estrangement from God to which we were subjected as sinners. God reconciles Himself to us through Christ’s atoning work, putting away the enmity, and we receive the reconciliation of which He is the author.
The two-fold barrier between God and man is removed. We can be reconciled to God, because in Christ God is reconciled to us. If in Scripture the accent falls on the sinner being reconciled, then the sinner does not reconcile himself, he is passive in reconciliation and is saved from God’s wrath by Christ: ‘if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life’ (Rom. 5:9-11). Moreover, if man’s reconciliation comes to the fore in Scripture, it is because man’s need of a restored relationship is most apparent. His sin has marred communion between God and man. This is concordant with the gravity of man’s sin and his striking need of salvation. God makes peace ‘through the blood of Christ’ and our reconciliation to God is included in God’s reconciliation to us (Eph. 2:13-18).
Reconciliation in Christ
- Reconciliation is ‘in’ and ‘through’ Christ (2 Cor. 5:18,19,21). The peace afforded is the consequence of the righteousness established in the atonement and accounted to believers by imputation. For this reason, there is a closeness between justification and reconciliation. In Romans 5:9-10 there is a parallel between ‘justified by Christ’s blood’ and ‘reconciled to God through the death of his Son.’ As peace with God, reconciliation is a consequence of justification: ‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God though our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand’ (Rom. 5:1). This is positive objective peace, over against real enmity expressed by sin and rebellion.
The peace treaty between God and man is signed with Jesus’ blood. Justification involves the abrogation of sin, because of the non-imputation of guilt. Reconciliation is renewed harmony with God through Christ who is the reconciler in the work of redemption. Grace and peace with God are both received through faith in Christ.
If God is the author of reconciliation, Christ is the agent acting on God’s behalf to negotiate the peace. God is the ‘God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep’ (Heb. 13:20; see also see Rom. 15:33, 2 Cor. 13:11, Phil. 4:9, 1 Thess. 5:23 and 2 Thess. 3.16). Peace with God is an objective state, and through Christ it has subjective consequences. In the case of two countries that make peace, communication is re-established, commerce resumes, common projects are made and cultural exchanges develop in an atmosphere of growing confidence. So also in the case of the sinner, peace with God is not just a formal cessation of hostile attitudes. It is new life with God in the positive and subjective sense of talking with God, desiring to obey His will, to know more about His ways and works. Inner peace pervades the heart of the reconciled sinner in all his activities, with joy, hope, trust and the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:13).
The cosmic perspectives of reconciliation which branch out to embrace ‘all things’ in their scope, indicate that peace with God puts man in a position to serve the Lord of all His creation as a new covenant creature (see Col. 1:15-22). New perspectives for service open up in God’s reign of peace as the believer ‘continues in faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel’ (v.23).
- Reconciliation has to be received. Sinners must enter into a state of peace with God, not to make it effective, but to benefit from its blessings. The pressing exhortation of the apostle as an ambassador of Christ – ‘We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God’ (2 Cor. 5:20) – is to enter a new relationship of favour with God because of the reconciliation established by the cross. Repentance, new life in Christ, conversion and faith in Him are not reasons why sinners get to be reconciled, they are consequences. Just as justification finds its reflection in faith and is received through faith, so also reconciliation is connected with confidence in Christ as the one in whom the sinner can find peace. The work of Christ applies to sinners as they enter into a new covenantal relationship with God by becoming reconciled themselves. The grace of God who makes peace in Christ finds a home in the hearts of those who receive the gospel through faith and enter God’s family. Reconciliation not only deals with hostility between God and man, it also takes away enmity between people, because the cause of human antagonism has been removed by the cross (Eph. 2:16).
From its centre in God, reconciliation radiates out through Christ to embrace renewed individuals saved by grace, the new community of Christ’s people and cosmic peace in the new creation when ‘God will be all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:26,28).
Paul Wells is dean of the Faculté Jean Calvin in Aix-en-Provence, France (www.fltr.net). This article is adapted from his book ‘Cross Words’.