To hear some people talk you would think that the Bible was basically a book about reconciliation. They will say that Christ’s atonement was essentially a work of reconciliation. Or they will say that the task of the Church in the world is first and foremost a task of reconciliation, of reducing tensions so that men learn to live at peace with one another. In view of the frequent use of the term these days, a little work on the concordance comes as quite a shock. The reconciliation words are used comparately little in the New Testament. Reconciliation is not so central to the New Testament understanding of atonement as is, for example, justification. And it is not so central to Christian duty as is love.
This does not mean that reconciliation is not important. Though the passages in which it is mentioned are few, they are highly significant. We should not overestimate them, but neither should we minimize them. They certainly repay close study.
The basic idea in reconciliation is that of making up after a quarrel. If people get on well at a first meeting, we do not say they have been reconciled. It is when they have been at enmity and have come to be of one mind again that we speak of reconciliation. The word means a process of making peace between those who have been in a state of strife.
Man The Enemy Of God
In the biblical view there is a fundamental hostility between God and sinful man. This is the great problem to be faced by all religions: How can a good God be at peace with sinful man?
The Bible does not pull its punches when it speaks of the hostility between unregenerate men and God. “Do you not know,” asks James, “that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (Jas. 4:4). Paul speaks of unregenerate men as “estranged and hostile in mind” (Col. 1:21), and simply as “enemies” (Rom. 5:10). But we scarcely need to quote specific texts. The whole thrust of the Bible is toward the fact that sin creates a barrier between man and God. It also creates barriers between man and man, but in the Bible the primary thing is the enmity it arouses between God and his creatures.
Sometimes today this is taken to mean that man, because he is a sinner, has taken up a stance in opposition to God. He is hostile to God. God, on the other hand, is seen looking on man with unwavering love. The state of enmity is thus considered to be on one side only. This makes reconciliation simple. It requires only that man realize how far he has strayed from the right path, and return. Peace will follow immediately.
There is some truth in this, of course. It is true that man is far from God. It is true that if he realizes this and repents, reconciliation will take place. But it is not true that this is the whole story. It leaves out the Cross.
The Place Of The Cross
And the Cross is central. We cannot understand the New Testament unless we see the centrality of the cross. For it was through the Cross that God worked out man’s salvation. Specifically, it was through the Cross that man’s reconciliation was effected. Christ died that he might “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end” (Eph. 2:16).
The point we must grasp if we are to understand the biblical teaching is that it is God’s attitude to the sin of man, not man’s, that is decisive. Man is usually not particularly worried by the fact that he has done wrong. If it can be brought to his attention that he is a sinner, he is usually content to let bygones be bygones, and he cannot see why God should not do the same.
But the Bible makes it clear that God will not do the same. The reason for the enmity between God and man is not that sinful man is actively and consciously hostile to God. He is not. It is rather that a holy God will not tolerate sin in those he loves. God’s demand on man and man’s failure to meet it constitute the problem. If God regarded sin as of no account, there would be no enmity and no problem. But God never condones evil. He never countenances wrong.
The Method Of Reconciliation
Now we are quite familiar with the process of reconciliation in human affairs. We know that when two people are at loggerheads, the way to bring about reconciliation is to take the cause of the quarrel out of the way. If harsh words have been spoken, they are withdrawn with an apology. If money has not been paid, it is paid. If a letter has not been written, it is written. Whatever is the root cause of the trouble must be identified and dealt with. If this is not done we will have at best an uneasy truce; we will not have a genuine reconciliation.
So also in relations between God and man. Sin is the cause of the trouble, and if there is to be reconciliation, the sin must be dealt with and taken out of the way. It is important to be clear on this, for man cannot remove his sin. He was able to erect a barrier that separated him from God, but he was not able to pull it down. When he repents and turns over a new leaf, that is fine for the future. But what of the past? “God seeks what has been driven away,” or as the King James Version puts it, “God requireth that which is past” (Eccles. 3:15).
In our own affairs we never doubt that the past is important. When a student fails his exams, he cannot laugh it off and proceed to the next unit of his course as though nothing had happened. When the businessman finds his debts pressing, he cannot write them off and start afresh as though nothing had happened. In every area of life we recognize that our actions have consequences and that we are responsible. We cannot cut ourselves adrift from the past.
C. S. Lewis has some wise words here:
We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin. I have heard others, and I have heard myself, recounting cruelties and falsehoods committed in boyhood as if they were no concern of the present speaker’s, and even with laughter. But mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Christ [The Problem of Pain, London, 1943, p. 49].
It is the place of “the blood of Christ” that is critically important. We may or may not be able to say how this puts away sin. The important thing is that it does. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation” (Rom. 5:10, 11). Notice that Paul speaks of the reconciliation as something that can be “received”; i.e., it in some sense exists before we receive it. In other words, reconciliation is not something in which we have the decisive part. It is worked out by Christ, and we enter into it by our repentance and our faith. But it is his work first and foremost. This is the main thrust of New Testament teaching on reconciliation.
But the Bible does have something to say as well about the reconciliation of man with his neighbor. The most important passage is the one in Ephesians that deals with the bitterest enmity in the ancient world, that between Jew and Gentile. There we read that Christ “is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14). Reconciliation is effected not by man’s effort but by Christ’s. He is our peace.
Nor should we think that this is a vague general result of his setting us a good example so that we try to live in peace with others. If we are his, we do so try. But the effective making of peace is due not to these efforts of ours, but to the work of God in Christ. Paul goes on to explain that the breaking down of the wall of hostility was done “by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end” (Eph. 2:15, 16).
Part Of Man’S Salvation
This is not a more or less accidental by-product of man’s salvation. It is an integral part of it. If we are truly reconciled with God, we will certainly seek to be at peace with our fellows. It is part of the living out of the implications of our reconciliation. But we should be sure that we get our priorities right. In the New Testament it is our relation to God that is of primary importance. Once that is put right, our relation to man must follow. Without a right relation to God it is difficult to see how there can be a right relation to man.
All this means that for the biblically instructed Christian there will always be an emphasis on reconciliation with God. He will not sit loose to the obligation of doing all he can to reconcile men with men. But he will see this as effectively done only when they are first reconciled to God. In short, he will see his task as essentially one of persuading men to be reconciled to God. As Paul put it (2 Cor. 5:20, 21): “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech 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.”
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