Rejoicing in Reconciliation: Reflections on the Atonement
I recently listened to a lecture by a pastor who was determined to undermine the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. As part of his defense, he argued that it is unbiblical to speak of God being reconciled to us. It is we alone, he insisted, who are reconciled to God. In other words, he believes that there is nothing in God that needs to occur for us to be reconciled to him. His wrath does not need to be propitiated. His justice does not need to be satisfied. The only need is subjective, in us. We need to change our attitude and beliefs about God and repent and believe the gospel. What are we to make of this? Continue reading . . .
I recently listened to a lecture by a pastor who was determined to undermine the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. As part of his defense, he argued that it is unbiblical to speak of God being reconciled to us. It is we alone, he insisted, who are reconciled to God. In other words, he believes that there is nothing in God that needs to occur for us to be reconciled to him. His wrath does not need to be propitiated. His justice does not need to be satisfied. The only need is subjective, in us. We need to change our attitude and beliefs about God and repent and believe the gospel. What are we to make of this?
Reconciliation is explicitly mentioned in several NT texts, such as Rom. 5:10-11; 11:15; 2 Cor. 5:18,19,20; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20,22. Our primary focus will be on 2 Corinthians 5:18-21.
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 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. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:18-21).
But first a few observations are in order.
Consider the variety of ways in which reconciliation can take place.
• John persuades Frank and Tom to give up their anger against one another. John, being a third party, reconciles the two men to each other.
• Tom persuades Frank to give up his anger against Tom.
• Frank gives up his own anger against Tom.
But we need yet another category to describe what God has done for us.
At his own gracious initiative, God removes that which is the cause of his anger against us, namely, our sin. He removes the cause of spiritual alienation by transferring his wrath against us to a proper substitute.
Thus the objective element in reconciliation refers to the activity of God whereby his enmity or wrath against sinners is consumed by another, namely, our substitute the Lord Jesus Christ. Reconciliation, therefore, is the restoration of harmony by the removal of whatever was the cause of alienation (i.e., our sin). We see in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 that this reconciling work (a) is wholly of God - v. 18a; (b) is a finished work - v. 18b; (c) entails the non-imputation of sin - v. 19a; and (d) constitutes the message of the gospel - vv. 18c,19b.
There is also a subjective dimension to reconciliation. The subjective element in reconciliation refers to the fact that the activity in Christ whereby God disposed of his enmity against us must be received by faith. That is to say, we in turn, by his grace, must dispose of our enmity against him.
Perhaps the best summary of this truth is provided by James Denney. He writes:
"What is it that makes a Gospel necessary? What is it that the wisdom and love of God undertake to deal with, and do deal with, in that marvelous way which constitutes the Gospel? Is it man's distrust of God? Is it man's dislike, fear, antipathy, spiritual alienation? Not if we accept the Apostle's teaching. The serious thing which makes the Gospel necessary, and the putting away of which constitutes the Gospel, is God's condemnation of the world and its sin; it is God's wrath, 'revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men' (Rom. 1:16-18). The putting away of this is 'reconciliation'; the preaching of this reconciliation is the preaching of the Gospel.
When St. Paul says that God has given him the ministry of reconciliation, he means that he is a preacher of this peace. He ministers reconciliation to the world. . . . It is not the main part of his vocation to tell men to make their peace with God, but to tell them that God has made peace with the world. At bottom, the Gospel is not good advice, but good news. All the good advice it gives is summed up in this – Receive the good news. But if the good news be taken away; if we cannot say, God has made peace, God has dealt seriously with His condemnation of sin, so that it no longer stands in the way of your return to Him; if we cannot say, Here is the reconciliation, receive it, -- then for man's actual state we have no Gospel at all.
When Christ's work was done, the reconciliation of the world was accomplished. When men were called to receive it, they were called to a relation to God, not in which they would no more be against Him – though that is included – but in which they would no more have Him against them. There would be no condemnation thenceforth to those who were in Christ Jesus" (James Denney).
There are several things for us to note in Paul’s portrayal of reconciliation.
First is the role of God the Father in the death of God the Son (Ps. 22:1,15; Isa. 53:4,6,10). The ultimate cause of the death of the Son was the Father. But we must also remember that the Son was not an unwilling victim (see John 10:17ff.; Heb. 10:7ff.). He freely and willingly offered up himself to suffer the wrath of his Father on our behalf.
Second, we note the sinlessness of God the Son (John 8:29,46; 9:16; Heb. 7:26; 1 Pt. 1:18-19; 2:22; 3:18; 1 John 3:5; Acts 3:14; 4:27-30). That as God he is without sin goes without saying, "but what is of vital importance for us and our reconciliation is that as Man, that is, in His incarnate state, Christ knew no sin, for only on that ground was He qualified to effect an atonement as Man for man" (P. E. Hughes, 212).
Third, we must ask: How was Jesus "made to be sin" for us? To answer that we must recognize the three senses in which the word “sin” may be used.
(1) Sin may be considered in its formal nature as transgression of the law of God (1 John 3:4); i.e., sin as an act. In this respect we are sinners. (2) Sin may be considered as a moral quality inherent in the person who sins; i.e., the sin principle (Rom. 7:14-25). In this respect we are sinful. In neither of these senses can it be said that Jesus was "made sin" for us, for he neither committed sin (and thus was not a sinner) nor possessed a nature infected by it (and thus was not sinful).
(3) Sin may also be considered in its legal aspect, principally as guilt; i.e., the liability to suffer the penal consequences of the law. It was in this sense, then, that Jesus was "made to be sin on our behalf." In other words, there are three instances of “imputation” in the Bible. The first is Adam’s sin imputed to us (the doctrine of original sin). The second is our sin imputed to Christ (the doctrine of atonement). The third is Christ’s righteousness imputed to us (the doctrine of justification).
This, then, is the basis for our affirmation of the doctrine of reconciliation. Thomas Hooker sums up well:
"Such we are in the sight of God the Father, as is the very Son of God himself. Let it be counted folly or frenzy or fury or whatever. It is our wisdom and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this: that man hath sinned and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God" (Thomas Hooker).