The Ministry of Reconcilication (1)
Dr. SINCLAIR FERGUSON: "THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION."
by Dr Sinclair Ferguson
Our subject is reconciliation, its meaning, message and ministry. How important in a conference like this to concentrate of the Lord Jesus and his ministry. It is possible to go to the gospels and to preach systematically but to major on the characters you identify with and so fail to preach on Christ. Reconciliation with God is one of the most central motives for preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified. It is all-embracive. In atonement imagery is the language of the law court, temple, slave market, military conflict and the notion of a personal relationship with Christ. Reconciliation embraces the fruition of all those things. The broken relation with God through Satan and sin is restored through the person and work of Christ. Reconciliation is important because it provides for us a splendid way of preaching the gospel at the beginning of the 21st century. The language of the ideologies of our times has been that of alienation, whether Marxist or psychiatric or in interpersonal relationships with the prevalence of marital breakdown. There is a consciousness of a variety of alienations and non-Christian counseling has no answer. The New Testament stress is not on felt needs, but there is a need; and the result of the reconciling achievement of Christ is that thanksgiving overflows to God.
This reconciliation is a grand theme for us to contemplate and a great way to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just preaching the gospel as Paul does the apostle does not see propitiation and redemption as ‘theories’ of the atonement, or ‘metaphors’ of the atonement. Yet they are in a sense metaphors but this is their reality. As the apostle expounds the cross then this message of Jesus Christ is the gospel. Why is Paul prompted to be so passionate about the preaching of reconciliation? Because, he says, that the one who died died for all.
1. Reconciliation – its Provision by God.
i] ‘Reconciliation’ is a word for the death of Christ only used by Paul.
The apostle uses a variety of forms of one root word to describe it – ‘alasso’ is that Greek word. In the gospel an exchange has taken place. The word is used in banking; we talk of ‘the exchange rate.’ It is used of reversing a situation. A couple can be ‘reconciled’ after alienation. The fragmented situation is exchanged for love. This lies at the heart of what the gospel is and how it works. This is part of the wonder of the Christian faith. In its essence it is so simple. A child can grasp it very early on in his life – "I give my sin to Jesus and he gives his righteousness to me.’ But we can hardly understand the motivation of it. This meaning of reconciliation as an exchange.
ii] The need for reconciliation.
Paul is beseeching his readers to be reconciled to God. He once lived unto himself, and according to the flesh. He had lived under the bondage of the old age. Elsewhere he explains why we need this reconciliation. In Ephesians 4:18 he speaks of men and women being darkened in their understanding etc. They have given themselves over to sensuality. To the Colossians (chapter 1) he says, "you were alienated from God and enemies in your minds." In Romans 5:10 he talks of the privileges of receiving the reconciliation. Did Paul have a guilt complex before coming to Christ? No. You do not sense the judgment of God when you walk according to the flesh. That ungodly mind set God broke through. All those aspirations and achievements of Saul of Tarsus were nothing! Then he was brought to faith in Jesus Christ. As a man he had made a wretched exchange – the glory of God for the dust of the earth. Think of Paul’s language: he does not say that we have all sinned and fallen short of the law of God but of the glory of Christ, for which we were created. Paul has such a sense of how far we have fallen. We are now God’s enemies! At the end of the day the human problem is God. God is God, and he is Judge, and no matter how far man seeks to repress and obliterate that, the natural man cannot. A Russian poet (who thought all the West was Christian) asked Kingsley Amis at some ceremony was it true that he was an atheist? "Yes, but it is more than that . . . I hate him." So reported Martin Amis his son, speaking at his father’s funeral – to much merriment from the congregation.
iii] The Author of Reconciliation.
We will not have a sense of grace in our evangelism without a concept of reconciliation. The apostle does not consider man as its author but God, one who reconciles because of his love. He reconciled and he was not counting to men their sins, he is making Christ sin for us, and he is proclaiming the reconciliation to the world. God the Father is its author, and why is that important? It is obvious to you, but why is it important? It kills the idea that a dying Son persuades a reluctant Father to be reconciled to sinners. The Father did not have a slightly different agenda to the Son. We need to understand with the apostle Paul that reconciliation is the expression of the passion in God’s heart that sinners might be saved. In our preaching we are not reflecting the heart of the Father if we are failing to offer Christ to sinners as fully and freely as we should. How few of us are experientially equipped as we should be in holding deep fellowship with God. Is the only grace there is to be found in the Lord Jesus Christ alone? No it is in the bosom of the Father.
iv] The Mediator of Reconciliation.
The Mediator is Christ – all of reconciliation comes to us through him. God was not counting men’s sins (v.19) against them, but against Christ his Son (v.21). That is the most basic thing in the Bible. His righteousness ours, and our sin his. That is the background of all the OT; the scapegoat expressing to us the alienable mystery of the double experience of Jesus Christ, on earth and before God. R.A.Finlayson draws out from the passion narrative the cup that Jesus gives to his disciples and the other cup which he takes from the Father’s hand. He is charged with our crimes of which he was innocent. Why was he dying? It was in my place condemned he stood. God tells it to us in such simplicity.
v] The Perfection of this Reconciliation.
It is a finished and completed work. God has reconciled sinners to himself in Christ. God has before him that finished work. "Receive the reconciliation of God," is the appeal. It is not a potential reconciliation which is mine if I will only add to what Jesus has done. The reconciliation is not accomplished when I actually receive it. No. It is already accomplished and I do not participate in it at all, or add to it at all. I am active in the process only as I stretch out empty hands of faith to receive an accomplished reconciliation. I do the believing (which anyway is God’s gift) in the grasping of that gift. Reformed people, for all their theology, still want to contribute to their salvation. "It is finished", is the theme of reconciliation – "so now receive it!"
Reconciliation is a complete gift. It is entirely outside of yourself, and it is simply to be received. It is a glorious exchange. Our three and four year olds can understand it can’t they? The blessing of the older and the younger sons was reversed in Genesis 50. That is what God has done. "You Lydia, are standing before God with a sinful heart, but to his well-beloved Son he gave your sin and to you he gave your righteousness." Augustine said, "I see the depth. I cannot reach the bottom," said Augustine.
What is the application of the finished work of Christ to our own lives and work, and indeed to the universe? The work of atonement was perfect, not a potential work which we do or which is manifested in our response. The work is accomplished in Christ and complete in him. This is the heart of the gospel in which we glory. He finished the work and sat down at the right hand of the throne on high.
But there is a dimension of the work of Christ which is unfinished. In his ascension there is a work which he continues to do which one day he will bring to completion. God in his grace has caught us up in his love and kingdom purposes so that we might serve in Christ in his completed work. The message of reconciliation has been entrusted to Paul and ourselves so that through us the work of reconciliation is continued. The ‘super apostles’ were degrading Paul’s personality and labours. "If we are ecstatic .. . . out of our minds . . ." (as his enemies were saying), then "all he has was his experience on the Damascus Road. All he has is this private conversion experience." And Paul is replying to that, saying that it is not the Damascus Road that is essential to his work but the gospel he preaches of the person and work of Christ.
How did the apostle Paul view the effect of the finished work of Christ?
i] On a Personal Level the Application of Reconciliation is Profoundly Radical.
The exchange has been made by God, sin removed and righteousness imputed. Accomplished on the cross, this reconciliation is preached to us in the gospel so that men are pleaded with to receive it. The idea of the exchange in Jesus Christ gathers together a series of mini-exchanges – the status of sinner is exchanged for the holy righteousness of God imputed to him and imparted in sanctification. The believer then can stand before the judgment seat of Christ as confident as Jesus himself can stand there because it is in the righteousness of Christ he stands. We will not wince when we stand before God because of that righteousness. In the reconciliation of the gospel as expounded in chapter 5 of Romans Paul moves from rejoicing in the hope of glory to rejoicing in God himself. So the old status has been exchanged for the new.
The old view of the things of Christ has been replaced. In 2 Cors. 5:16 Paul says he once regarded Christ from a human point of view. Then this marvelous exchange of sin and righteousness takes place and everything is different. If you have come to repentance and faith in Christ you see all things according to the Spirit. The exercises of godliness become a delight. The old views of Christ are exchanged for the new. We used to view others from an earthly point of view, but not any longer. When a youngster is converted in a non-church-going family then he begins to love them for Jesus’ sake. I have seen a wife converted, and then the father and then the three children: the whole family has been transformed in a six month period so that they love one another and the things of God. It doesn’t get much better than that for the watching preacher.
Then there is a new view of living, no longer for self but for God. To die to self and to live to him (v.15). These are all combined in the words "new creation". Here Paul begins to explore, in the way he does, ‘the powers of the world to come’ rolling into our lives. A new day has dawned. We can never see this world in the same way again. ‘What is the difference,’ we are asked in the USA, ‘from life in our country to life in your country?" The only sensible response is that everything is a little different.
ii] At a Cosmic level reconciliation involves a transformation that is universal.
In what areas? Let me suggest:
It is effected in the salvation in all of the elect through the proclamation of the gospel. Sinclair was once sitting in a Baptist church at a Christmas service hearing an Arminian preacher and he was reading the Scriptures, but the way he read "He will save his people from their sins." resulted in all the issues I had been grappling with for months over limited atonement fell into place. This passage in 2 Corinthians 5 is replete with universals – ‘all,’ and ‘the world’. Why should one hang on to limited atonement in the light of these universal terms? Because of Paul’s understanding of the nature of the atonement. It is effected by the substitution of Jesus Christ in our place. He has affected the atonement. So payment God cannot twice demand . . . The very nature of the atonement implies and demands that this atonement is effectual. Either the atonement would be incomplete, or God would be unjust.
Again the effectiveness of the atonement is implied by the intention and design it has. In Colossians 1 Paul speaks of presenting us without sin to God. But those who are reconciled he goes on to describe as continuing and living a new life. The inner logic of the atonement compels it to be so. One died for all and therefore all died, Paul tells the Corinthians here. The inner logic is that he died for all so that those who live are the ones who have died. He died therefore . . . what? That all do not need to die? No that is not what Paul says. He says, therefore all died. That is the inevitable implication. He says the same things in such passages as Romans 6. The ‘all’ for whom Christ died are those who in Christ died with Christ. I can understand why some preachers want to say to a whole congregation, "Christ died for you all," but none of them want to say, "You all died in Christ." So Paul is not talking of none without exception but Jew, Gentile, the world, without distinction.
How do we preach the gospel? One of the biggest obstacles is how we Calvinists preach the gospel in the light of our views of the limited purpose of the atonement? I cannot say "Christ died for you." Show me a single place in the apostolic testimony where there is this phrase "Christ died for you." Rather he has died and risen so that we can say that Christ is able to save those who come to God by him. The gospel is not, "Did you believe Jesus was doing this for you?" Rather, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and the only way you can benefit from it is to call on him for his grace.
So the apostle says "We preach Christ crucified": never are the fruits of his work separated from the offer of the gospel. The warrant of our offer of salvation in Christ is the command of God to everyone to believe. The reprobate has the same warrant to believe as the elect. All for whom Christ died will be saved. The universalist believes that Jesus died for multitudes who will never be saved, so how can he know that Jesus died for him? What comfort is such a doctrine of the cross to him?
iii] There is another universal dimension too.
The cross reconciles so that at the end it makes a cosmic impact on the entire universe. In Colossians 1:15-20 Paul develops it in this way: Christ is the head of the body, the church, and all things in earth and heaven will be reconciled. What is the meaning of this? In the last analysis it is the outworking of Paul’s Adamic Christology. Adam named the creatures as God’s vicegerent; heaven’s rule and earth’s joy comes together. God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven. The community of God in heaven among the elect angels and the things on earth are now alienated. Then the last Adam comes to the earth, is in a wilderness where wild and untamable beasts surround him. He comes, lives, dies, reconciles and is exalted so that every tongue glories in him. In that sense Christ reconciles everything to himself. He raises the dead, and transforms the new heavens and earth, saying, "Here I am Father, and the children you have given to me." In our humanity, as our mediator, he bows his head before a Father of infinite majesty. He give back to the Father all that the Father has given to him. Then in that glorious reconciliation God will be all in all. So the reconciliation has that universal dimension which will be seen only in the new heavens and earth.
iv] At a ministerial level the reconciliation is deeply effective.
The minister has a sense of dignity. We are ambassadors for Christ. We are even prepared to be fools for Christ. In "Living Fields: Killing Fields" we meet a polio man who is a prisoner and has to turn excrement into fertilizer. He was a deeply intelligent man, with a Bible hidden in his mattress. There in that place, doing that, he has to be an ambassador for God. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive the things done in his body, good or bad. The judgment throne will be the place where the rewards of grace flow to his faithful people. "I will put you in charge of 5 or 10 cities. You will govern them – all those cities – London, Edinburgh, Inverness, Aberystwyth, Glasgow. Five cities." "If I had known you were this gracious I would have served you with much more effort," you will reply, and God will say, "No more of that here, Come, well done, good and perfect servant."
[In an introduction Sinclair Ferguson said that the three theologians who had influenced him the most are these three Johns – Calvin, Owen and Murray.]
2 Corinthians 5 describes the greatness of redemption. The ministry of reconciliation is the theme of this final message. In 6:11 Paul is opening wide his heart to the Corinthians because their arteries are closing to him. The pattern made plain in the Saviour, and then the apostles, is to be followed by all his servants. The apostle is taking us as it were into the factory or engine room in which true gospel ministry is carved out, as the principles of Christ’s ministry are inscribed in the depths of our hearts. The Spirit rewrites it in our hearts. Precisely the same principles will produce the same fruit.
1. THE CONTEXT OF THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION
This is dealt within the opening verses of the fourth chapter – ‘we do not lost heart.’ Paul appears to have come very close to this. He is preaching to his own soul in these words. Luther said, "If I were to write about the burdens of the preacher . . . I would scare everybody off". There is something quite scary about the great apostle’s danger of himself losing heart. In Corinth he was in danger of losing heart. God had once said to him before Corinth, "Do not be afraid," because Paul was terrified and in danger of being wearily caving in. Paul knew he had to labour like a woman weary after hours of labour pains to effect new life in people: "I travail again in birth."
Paul was concerned about the spiritual condition of those to whom he preached. The gospel was veiled to those who are perishing. That veiledness of the gospel cannot be attributed to any lack of perspicuity in the message. The reason for the veil is the spiritual darkness of the human condition. There is a realistic discouragement of the preacher of the gospel. You preach as clearly as you can but your unregenerate hearers cannot see it. There is behind that blindness an additional blinding by the god of this age preventing men perceiving the glory and greatness of the Lord. Satan has blinded the best of believers. So Paul saw that and was in danger of losing heart.
You can pass through a great city ghetto and wonder how those thousands are going to hear the gospel and receive deliverance, and you can get discouraged. But that is exaggerated in Paul’s case by the additional personal humiliations of those who were preachers. He says that the treasure of the gospel is placed in jars of clay – the cheap vessels. We are garbage cans. We are set at the end of the procession. This is how it is, and this is how we are viewed. The Christian ministry has been guarded by the Constantinian settlement for centuries – the ministry was one of the professions that had some respect. Not any longer. But that should not discourage us because that is simply a NT situation with NT resources adequate for it. Preachers can imagine how great it would be to be able to refer to oneself as a Christian dentist or Christian educationalist, but a Christian minister has no standing.
How is it that Paul doesn’t lose heart? Paul tells us first to deal with it the context of our ministry of reconciliation. We do not lose integrity in the ministry – that is the main response. We have renounced certain things – the cryptic things of shame, that have made us cave in. They need to be renounced. Cunning and deception is also to be renounced. Pragmatism is also to be renounced. There are practices that do not fit the gospel. The distortion of the message is to be rejected – we do not tamper with the message of the gospel. There are a number of ways to tone it down. There is much imbalance in understanding the gospel in the professing church, and most of us in our ministries are under pressure to tone down our message with its emphasis on judgment, and on the cross, or the costliness of discipleship.
So the apostle unveils Christ as Lord and unlocks the truth of Scripture, and lives a credible godly life in his ministry. There is a match in the preaching between judgment, discipleship and the sheer grace of God in the gospel
2. THE ENCOURAGEMENTS IN THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION.
He does not lose heart because of an absence of pressure. The gospel does not deny our proneness to fail Christ, but Paul first speaks of the privilege of Christian service. All of the charisma of the Christian church is an expression of the mercy of God. We as preachers have such blessings in our lives, reading, attending conferences, talking with brethren in the ministry – extraordinary pleasures. "O God you made me a minister!" There are great privileges and much encouragement not to lose heart.
Then there is the power of the gospel which we share with all believers (v.6). Paul revels in the language he uses: we have been given the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the FACE of Jesus Christ! We are not to make our experience the basis of our salvation. Past experiences have their place in our lives – the piece ground where Whitefield was converted he went back to from time to time and kissed the spot.
The providential workings of God encourages me (v.7). This is not accidental. It is the pattern God himself has designed for us. Paul has settled absolutely his priority. It is the glory of God whose end he serves. At his conversion he saw the glory of God in Jesus Christ. In his evangelism the eternal glory was the end. You minister to the glory of God. Zeal for the glory of God is your chief motive to enter this ministry you acknowledged when you entered the ministry.
Paul saw the transience of the visible and the glories of what was invisible. God enables us to fix our eyes on what is not seen. The connection between suffering and glory in the gospel is a causal connection. The sufferings are the materials out of which God crafts the glory. In the present world he is preparing and shaping us. Our sufferings polish our graces and make them shine. The ungodly can only look back at the past, but the Christian looks ahead.
Finally, with our hearts and mind submitted to the fundamental pattern of gospel working we carry in our bodies the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be known in us. The seed needed to fall into the ground to bear fruit. The resurrection glory was Christ’s only because he went through humiliating death. At the end of this letter Paul urges them to examine themselves.
Maybe Stephen and Saul had belonged to the same synagogue in Jerusalem and at the end, as Saul looked at Stephen his face was like that of an angel. Saul had to begin to wrestle with this question of how he could possibly see such power in that weakness, and such glory in that shame, and such divinity in evident mortality. "Death works in us, that life may work in you." he says.