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Reconciliation

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Date August 6, 2019

The New Testament never speaks of God being reconciled to man but always of man being reconciled to God. The supreme example of this is Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:18 ff., ‘All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed to us the word of reconciliation.’ These words remind us that the initiative in reconciliation was taken by God, not by man, and that the divine love is the cause, not the consequence, of the process of atonement. But do they also teach that all the hostility is on man’s side and that there is no estrangement and no wrath on God’s side? This is the prevailing interpretation. ‘The change which brings about the reconciliation between God and men is regarded as taking place in them rather than in him,’ wrote Alfred Plummer (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 1915, p. 181). ‘God is the Reconciler,’ declares Professor James Stewart, ‘God, in his changeless and unwearying love, has taken the initiative, has broken into the atmosphere of man’s hostility, and has thrown away every estranging barrier that guilt and hopelessness and dull resentment can erect’ (A Man in Christ, 1964, p. 210). J. B. Lightfoot wrote in similar vein, ‘It is the mind of man, not the mind of God, which must undergo a change, that a re-union may be effected (St. Paul‘s Epistle to the Colossians, 1886, p. 159). The logical conclusion of this view is such a theory of the atonement as is advocated by Professor Barclay: ‘He died to show men what God is always like, not that he should threaten us into a prudential response, but that at the sight of him we should be moved and compelled to love him as he first loved us. Jesus came not to persuade God to forgive us, but to tell us that God in his love has forgiven us and that all we can do is in wondering gratitude to accept the forgiveness of sins, which it cost the cross to make known to us’ (The Plain Man Looks at the Apostles’ Creed, 1967, p. 332).

I

But if the function of the cross is only prophetic — if it simply makes known to us the love of God — it is strange that in none of the recorded sayings of Jesus does he declare that the purpose of his death was to reveal the love of the heavenly Father. Indeed, the death of Christ cannot in and of itself be a demonstration of love. It may bear the quite different message that no gracious providence presides over human history. Or it may be no more than an indication of Jesus’ being stricken and forsaken by God; or of his inability to control circumstances; or of his miscalculating the power and the malice of his enemies. Or it may be the last, futile, self-pitying gesture of pathetic frustration and impotence. It becomes a demonstration of love only if it was necessary for the purposes of love. This point is well illustrated by James Denney: ‘If I were sitting on the end of the pier on a summer day enjoying the sunshine and the air, and someone came along and jumped into the water and got drowned to prove his love for me, I should find it quite unintelligible. I might be much in need of love, but an act in no rational relation to any of my necessities could not prove it. But if I had fallen over the pier and were drowning, and someone sprang into the water, and at the cost of making my peril, or what but for him would be my fate, his own, saved me from death, then I should say, “Greater love hath no man than this.” I should say it intelligibly, because there would be an intelligible relation between the sacrifice which love made and the necessity from which it redeemed’ (The Death of Christ, 1956, p. 103). Only against a background of real and imminent peril — of condemnation, wrath and perdition — can the cross of Christ be understood as a demonstration of love. Furthermore, according to the New Testament the primary effect of the death of Christ is God-ward, not man-ward. It is a sacrifice in which he offers himself without spot to God (Heb 9:14). It is an act of obedience (Phil. 2:8) in response to which God highly exalts him. It is an act of propitiation which becomes the basis of an intercession directed toward God (1 John 2:1, 2). Sacrifice, obedience, propitiation — these, not demonstration, are primary; and they insist that no amount of emphasis on the prophetic aspect of Calvary should cause us to forget that it is first and foremost the act of a great High Priest acting for men before God.

II

The prevalent modern interpretation proceeds on the assumption that the hostility and resentment which man feels toward God is a major category of New Testament thought and is indeed the primary element in the misery of the human condition. In actual fact this idea is singularly unconspicuous in the New Testament. This does not mean that it is entirely absent. It occurs, for example, in Colossians 1:21, ‘And you that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled.’ In this passage enemy clearly has the active sense of man’s hostility to God. But it certainly is not the case (as Lightfoot alleged) that this is the uniform usage of the New Testament. For example, in Romans 11:28 Paul writes, ‘As concerning the Gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.’ The idea prominent here is the opposite of that emphasized in the Colossians passage. It refers not to man’s attitude to God but to God’s attitude to men. For the sake of their fathers, God loves Israel. But in view of their rejection of the Gospel he is at enmity with them, with the effect that they are objects of his severity (Rom 11:22). Here is one point at which God’s active enmity towards men appears. It becomes especially prominent, however, in what is certainly a major New Testament concept — the wrath of God. Paul grounds the whole need for the Gospel not in man’s hostility to God but in God’s wrath towards man. This wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom 1:18). So far as the Gentiles are concerned it has already expressed itself in giving them over to a reprobate mind (Rom 1:28]. So far as the Jews were concerned it meant that after their hardness and their impenitent hearts they treasured up to themselves wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds and inflict tribulation and anguish upon every man that doeth evil (Rom 2:5 ff.). This is a far more important category of New Testament thought than the idea of man’s hostility to God, and its bearing upon the doctrine of reconciliation is unmistakable. Either God remains angry with us even after the reconciliation or the anger is taken away in and by the process of reconciliation itself. If this latter is true then surely the atonement changes not merely man’s attitude to God but also God’s attitude to man?

According to C. H. Dodd, however, the wrath of God ‘is not a certain feeling or attitude of God towards us, but some process or effect in the realm of objective facts’ (The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, Fontana, p. 49). It is an impersonal thing, an event or process in the normal sequence of cause and effect. Sin is the cause, disaster the effect. But this idea immediately prompts the question, What has happened to this wrath? Is it the case that despite reconciliation this wrath is still a factor in the human predicament? Is ‘the increasing hour of sin’ still ‘working out its hideous law of cause and effect?’ (The Meaning of Paul for Today, Fontana, p. 68). Indeed, the net effect of such a conception of God’s wrath is that it makes any real atonement impossible. We may entertain some hope of God’s being reconciled to us and of his wrath being propitiated. But from this law of cause and effect, ‘neither personal, rational nor moral,’ ensuring an inevitable connection between sin and disaster, there can be no deliverance. God, however, cannot be dis­sociated in this way from the realm of events and process. ‘Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?’ (Amos 3:6). The sequence of cause and effect stands under his preservation and government as a personal, rational and moral God, who works all things according to the counsel of his own will (Eph. 1:11]. Dodd’s idea that ‘The wrath of God,’ as seen in actual operation, consists in leaving sinful human nature to ‘stew in its own juice’, is thoroughly deistic. Furthermore, the New Testament speaks of the wrath of God in a way that cannot be harmonised with the view that it is merely an impersonal, irrational and amoral law of cause and effect. In Romans 1:28 it is God who is spoken of as having, in accordance with his wrath, given the Gentiles over to a reprobate mind. Similarly, the wrath which places the Jews in jeopardy of tribulation and anguish is not a blind, impersonal thing, but the conscious and intelligent action of One who will render to every man according to his deeds, because with him there is no respect of persons (Rom. 2:5-11). And the godly fear to which believers are exhorted by the writer to the Hebrews rests upon the fact that ‘our God’ (not only the God of the Old Testament or the gods of pagan misunderstanding) ‘is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29).

Above all, Dodd’s interpretation of the wrath of God contradicts the revelation of the divine character given to us in Jesus Christ. Our Lord himself declared, ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father’ (John 14:9), and nothing is more common among opponents of the traditional doctrine of the atonement than the plea that we must take our conception of deity from Jesus Christ. ‘In Jesus’ attitude to sin and the sinner we see the attitude of God to the sin and the sinner,’ writes Professor Barclay; and ‘because Jesus showed us God as he is, the fear has turned to trust, the distance has turned to intimacy, the estrangement has turned to love’ (The Plain Man Looks at the ApostlesCreed, pp. 326, 114). But what idea of God do we derive from Jesus Christ? He is full of grace and truth (John 1:14). He loves the world (John 3:16). He seeks and saves what is lost (Luke 19:10). He heals the sick (Matt. 11:5). He beholds the city and weeps over it (Luke 19:4). Who would wish for one moment to deny these or, to limit or qualify their force? But they do not constitute the total picture which emerges from God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. He takes a scourge and purges the Temple (John 2:15). He denounces the Pharisees in terms of the utmost severity (Matt. 23:13 ff.). He curses the unfruitful fig-tree, figure of the apostate nation (Matt. 21:19). He enunciates with a fullness and vividness not surpassed or even equalled anywhere else in Scripture the doctrine of everlasting punishment. He reveals that there is a place of outer darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth; and that there are accursed people whose destiny is the everlasting fire where the devil and his angels suffer an endless punishment (Matt. 25:30, 41, 46). These emphases are not distinctive of the New Testament or of the Christian revelation. They were clearly revealed in the Old Testament and are authenticated in every un­sophisticated human conscience. But neither Christ nor the New Testament repudiates them as concepts inapplicable to God properly understood. Instead, our Lord reiterates them, both in word and deed, with new emphasis and clarity, and the whole of the New Testament accepts them as the sombre background to the accomplishment and the proclamation of redemption. The God whom we see in Jesus Christ is not One who looks benignly and detachedly upon inhumanity, vice and ungodliness. Nor would we wish him to be. There could be no greater darkness than the conclusion that to Almighty God sin and righteousness, Belsen and Calvary, are the same.

The estrangement between God and men consists, then, not only, nor even primarily, of man’s hostility to God, but also, and emphatically, of the wrath of God against the unrighteousness of man. If the process of reconciliation does not deal with this aspect of the problem it is worthless. No matter how eloquently the Cross may seem to declare, ‘God loves you like that,’ it does not reconcile unless it removes the wrath.

III

Another point which merits careful consideration is the New Testament usage of the word reconcile. It is too often assumed that the only fact of importance is that God is always the One who reconciles, never the One who is reconciled. This, it is alleged, proves that all the estrangement was on man’s side. The briefest glance at New Testament usage will show that this is a gross over-simplification. In Matthew 5:24, for example, the command, ‘First be reconciled to thy brother,’ is precisely similar in form to Paul’s entreaty in 2 Corinthians 5:20, ‘Be ye reconciled to God.’ According to the idea of reconciliation favoured by Lightfoot, Barclay and many modern scholars the meaning of this latter passage is, ‘Lay down your resentment against God.’ Yet the parallel in Matthew 5:24 clearly does not mean, ‘Lay down the resentment you feel against your brother.’ The context makes it plain that the resentment is in the heart of the brother — ‘If thou bring thy gift to the altar and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee . . .’ Hence the injunction, ‘Be reconciled to thy brother,’ means, ‘Deal with the resentment your brother feels against you.’ The Pauline passage would mean, by analogy, ‘Deal with the anger which is God’s attitude towards sinners.’ In the Matthew passage reconciliation is effected when the brother ceases to have anything against us. In the Corinthian passage it is effected when the wrath of God is averted.

Another passage where the word reconciliation occurs is Romans 5:10 ff. – ‘For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the reconciliation.’ Here again the context makes it plain that reconciliation refers not to a change in our attitude towards God but to a change in his attitude towards us. The statement ‘we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son’ is parallel to the phrase, ‘being justified by his blood.’ This latter clearly indicates not a change in our attitude to God, but in our standing before him. It means that we have passed from condemnation. The import of recon­ciliation must be the same. God used to condemn us. But he does so no longer. His attitude has changed. ‘O Lord, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou com­fortedst me’ (Isa. 12:1). This is confirmed by the Apostle’s description of the means of reconciliation: ‘We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.’ What has restored the broken relationship between God and man is not a change of attitude on our part, but the historic, once-for-all death of Jesus Christ. Our part in the process is simply that, ‘we have received the reconciliation.’ Far from the sinner’s response constituting the reconciliation, what he responds to — what he receives is a recon­ciliation already completed and perfected.

The terms of 2 Corinthians 5.18-21 demand that the idea of recon­ciliation shall receive the same interpretation here as in Matthew 5.24 and Romans 5.10-11. It refers not to a situation where we entertain feelings of resentment against God but to a situation where His anger is revealed against us because of our sin. Its nature is clearly defined in verse 19, ‘not imputing their trespasses unto them.’ The result of the death of Christ is not that we lay aside our enmity against God, but that He ceases to impute sin to us. It has the effect that God no longer holds us guilty. He remits the wages of our sin. This reconciliation was completed independently of man’s action. In Christ – in His historical life and work – God was reconciling the world to Himself. What now comes to us is not the command to desist from our enmity and thus become reconciled to God but the declaration that God has effected reconciliation once and for all. The integrity of the Gospel is bound up in the fact that the word of reconciliation is not a word of command but a word of announcement. It docs not say, ‘Make peace,’ but ‘God has made peace.’

Nor should we overlook the emphasis, especially in verse 21, upon the cost of the transaction. It is very well to write, as Donald Baillie does, ‘It is God’s very nature to love and to forgive’ (God Was In Christ, Faber, p. 174). But this love did not proceed directly to forgiveness but to imputation. Our trespasses are not imputed to us. Why? Because Christ was made sin. It was imputed to him. Was this cost — the accursedness of Christ — incurred merely to impress men? Then it was a conspicuous extravagance. Why then was it incurred? That we might be made the righteousness of God (verse 21). The change effected is altogether an objective one. It is not that we come to look upon God with different eyes, but that before him we come to be in an entirely different state. In the first instance this is not the state of reconciliation, but the state of righteousness. We are the righteousness of God, in Christ. This righteousness is the ground of reconciliation. God is reconciled to the righteous. He does not condemn them, nor is he angry with them, because he must not: they are righteous with the righteousness of God.

The great truth emphasised in this passage is the divine initiative in reconciliation. All things are of God. God was reconciling the world unto himself. God was not imputing trespasses unto them. God made Christ sin. God committed to the Apostles the word of reconciliation. All these statements emphasise the priority of the divine love. Antecedently to the process of reconciliation God loves with a love un-caused, un­merited, un-purchased, absolutely sovereign, optional and gratuitous. This love was not secured by the atonement. Rather was it expressed by the atonement, as a process in which God himself and from his own side meets the full cost of man’s redemption. This is the invariable New Testament emphasis, expressed in such a passage as John 3:16, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have everlasting life.’

But this precious truth is too often distorted, as though the primacy of God’s love rendered unnecessary an act of reconciliation which came from man’s side and was directly related to the problem of the divine wrath. Anger and malice are not synonyms. Eternal love means that the redeemed were never objects of divine hatred, but it does not mean that they were never objects of his anger. They are by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3) and continue such until they receive the reconciliation. Furthermore, to love is not the same as to justify. God’s love is eternal. Justification most emphatically is not. It takes place only when, through faith, we come to be in Christ. God’s love is un-procured and un-caused. Justification is not. We are justified ‘by the death of his Son,’ and ‘through his blood.’ The love is pure mercy. The verdict of ‘No con­demnation!’ rests firmly on ‘the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone’ (Shorter Catechism, Answer 33). This is the context of reconciliation. The process of reconciliation proceeds from love; but to love is not synonymous with being reconciled. Reconciliation does not remove malice or create love — that is the precious lesson of the divine initiative. But it does and must deal with the very real and objective problems of the wrath and the condemnation.

Finally, the fact that ‘all things are of God’ should not obscure the truth that the reconciliation comes also from the side of man. This is implied in the incarnation. Jesus is not only ‘God with us,’ but equally ‘the man for us’; and it is as true, perfect and representative man that he offers the sacrifice and renders the obedience which, as our righteous­ness, secure our reconciliation. ‘Being found in fashion as a man he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross’ (Phil. 2:8).


This article was originally published in the July-August 1973 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

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