The Gospel of Reconciliation

Over the course of the last year or so I have been heavily consumed with Paul’s words in Colossians 1:19-20,

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things…by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” 

Colossians 1:19-20

He continues in 1:21-22,

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight…”

Colossians 1:21-22

These truly are some magnificent words that deserve a massive amount of attention.

Not only is Paul suggesting that the fullness of all who God is, including his character and presence, is found in the peace-making death of Jesus on the cross, but it is this activity where God also chooses to make himself most known and available to his followers.

This process of accessibility to God, through Christ, he calls “reconciliation.”

Frankly, I don’t believe that this is some small detail. As I have read and studied this passage in conjunction with a few other similar passages over the last few years I have begun to determine that the gospel of reconciliation has important implications on how we address complex issues surrounding the atonement and various benefits for the follower of Jesus therein. Ultimately, I have come to the conclusion that reconciliation has a much more important role within Paul’s understanding of salvation than is generally suggested.

Of course I am not the only one to notice this. Almost half of a century ago, New Testament scholar C. K. Barrett rightly affirmed,

“It is closely related to justification, and thus leads directly to the mention of God’s righteousness.”[1]

This is an important distinction as we interpret the meaning of Christ’s atonement as it has been handed down since the dawn of the Reformation. Protestant Christianity has unapologetically viewed the atonement through the lens of what is typically referred to as “penal substitutionary atonement.” The prominent reformer John Calvin was among the chief architects of penal substitution, concluding that Jesus’ death was one bearing the wrath of God on the sinner’s behalf. Since mankind is born in depravity of wickedness and sin and can do nothing of his own will to ensure his salvation, it is imperative that we see the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death as fully satisfying the wrath of God.

Much more could be said about the place penal substitutionary atonement (and other atonement theories) has in the conversation concerning Jesus’ death and its benefits. But as Barrett’s quote above suggests, “reconciliation” needs to have a much more prominent role within the conversation.

The Greek words often used to translate the word reconciliation are compound forms that stem from the verb allassō (“to alter, change”) and its cognate noun allos (“other”).[2] The basic thrust between these two specific words connotes an exchange in the relationship between God and man, thus extending the act of reconciliation between two human beings as well. The term is most present within the letters of Paul, who appears to keep the theme of reconciliation at the center of his soteriology. In addition to Colossians 1:19-23, two other passages elucidate reconciliation as fundamental to Paul’s understanding of what Jesus accomplished on the cross: Romans 5:10-11 and 2 Corinthians 5:18-21. 

In Romans 5:10, Paul states,

“For if, while we were God’s enemies, were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

Romans 5:10

In this text, Paul begins from the negative reality that we once “were God’s enemies,” explicitly framing the fact that “the sinner stands vis-à-vis God in a stance of enmity, hostility, and alienation.”[3] Yet Paul’s point is not to remind the church in Rome about their prior enmity with God, but to remind them of the fact that they “were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.” Therefore, Jesus’ death on the cross became the agency of God’s reconciliation – unity with God apart from a prior alienation – which became the means of our salvation. The natural conclusion for Paul is to rejoice, or “boast” in the reality of the exchange from hostility to reconciliation with God on the cross (Rom. 5:11). Thus, reconciliation is not merely soteriological in nature, but also largely ethical as well, since it demonstrates the extent God has gone in allowing his people to participate in his reconciliatory activities. Since it is God through Christ who is always the reconciler and “human beings are the object (or among the objects) of his reconciling act.”[4]   

The dual nature of reconciliation between God and other humans is most explicit in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21. In this text, Longenecker suggests that Paul’s understanding of reconciliation as a theological construct was probably formed from confessional material within the early church, thus supporting the notion that reconciliation “was most expressive of what he had personally experienced in his relationship with God through the work of Christ and the ministry of God’s Spirit.”[5] This helps explain why twice (v. 18, 19) Paul describes reconciliation as a “ministry” (Gk: diakonia) and a “message” (Gk: logos) entrusted to the church. The church’s mission in the act of reconciliation is the direct response to God’s own reconciliatory act through the cross. Paul frames this argument in a similar fashion in Colossians 1:21-23 where he makes the case that while we were alienated because of our sinful behaviors, we have now been reconciled “by Christ’s physical body through death” (v. 22). It is this activity of reconciliation on the cross that Paul defines as the gospel itself, which he states they “heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (v. 23).

It is my conviction, therefore, in light of Paul’s defense, that the church is expected to embody reconciliation as a defining mark of its lifestyle and mission. But lets probe this out a little further.

What does it actually look like when the church, and its members actively participate in the “ministry” and “proclamation” of the gospel of reconciliation?

A place to begin is with what Michael Gorman calls “cruciform love,” meaning, “reconciliation not only means repentance; it also means forgiveness.”[6] Repentance and forgiveness are two sides of the same virtuous coin; features of those who have been redeemed by the cross of Christ, accomplished by God for mankind, but is simultaneously the two features which redeemed humans are to extend to others in word and deed. In other words, reconciliation is not simply something one should decide to participate in after one is committed to the gospel; rather the gospel of reconciliation is a key transformative attribute of all who call upon the name of Jesus as Lord.

This has some wide reaching implications that I would love to tease out over the next few posts. If reconciliation plays a central role in our soteriology, what does that mean for our ethics and worldview? How should we reorient our lives in such a way that reconciliation permeates throughout the church and affecting culture as well?  

Recommended Reading

An excellent resource which considers the value of reconciliation in life of the missional church.

[1] C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, BNTC (London: Continuum, 1973), 175.

[2] Richard N. Longenecker, “Reconciliation,” in Dictionary of scripture and ethics, ed. Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 658.

[3] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Romans, AYB vol. 33 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 401.

[4] F. F. Bruce, Romans: An introduction and commentary, TNTC vol. 6 (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1985), 128.

[5] Longenecker, “Reconciliation,” 659. This is due in large part to the fact that the only reference to “reconciliation” throughout the New Testament occurs only in a few of Paul’s letters and with very little use in the early church fathers. 

[6] Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s narrative spirituality of the cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 241.

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