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The Person and Work of Christ — Part XII: Reconciliation

Article contributed by www.walvoord.com

Few doctrines are more important in a total theology than the doctrine of reconciliation. Though based on comparatively few specific references, reconciliation has been hailed as a doctrine of “vital concern both for doctrinal clarity and pulpit vitality.”1 Vincent Taylor speaks of reconciliation as “the best New Testament word to describe the purpose of the Atonement….”2 Referring to Paul’s discussion in 2 Corinthians 5, Taylor comments: “All through this section one cannot fail to be impressed with the immense importance St. Paul attaches to this message and to his sense of being divinely commissioned to declare it.”3 Leon Morris introduces the subject of reconciliation by quoting T. H. Hughes to the effect that “in the New Testament the basic idea of the atonement is that of reconciliation.”4 The importance attached to the doctrine of reconciliation not only justifies its discussion, but is also the occasion for major differences of opinion as to its meaning. Few doctrines have been more divergently described within orthodoxy than the doctrine of reconciliation, and, as subsequent discussion will show, the difficulty lies in definition. If limited to what the New Testament actually states about reconciliation, the doctrine is a facet but not the whole. If the doctrine is encumbered with other aspects of soteriology which are logically necessary to accomplish reconciliation, it becomes a more general word with a broader definition.

It is the thesis of this presentation that the doctrine of reconciliation is properly the work of God for man in which God undertakes to transform man and make possible and actual his eternal fellowship with a holy God. Two major aspects will be observed. First, provisionally reconciliation was accomplished once and for all by Christ on the cross with the result that the whole world was potentially reconciled to God. Second, reconciliation becomes actual and experiential in the person of believers in Christ who are reconciled to God at the time of their salvation. It may be seen, therefore, that while reconciliation does not embrace all of the work of Christ, it depends upon it. Its prerequisites are the work of God in Christ in providing redemption and propitiation, on the basis of which man is justified, regenerated, and made a new creature in Christ.

Reconciliation in the Old Testament

As most treatises of reconciliation recognize, the Old Testament doctrine of reconciliation adds little to the New Testament. Several words in the Old Testament are commonly translated reconcile such as kaphar (cf. Lev 6:30; 8:15 ; 16:20 ; Ezek 45:15, 17, 20; Dan 9:24). It is a common word used of spreading pitch on the ark (Gen 6:14), but translated, when in the piel, to mean to obtain forgiveness, and hence to reconcile. Mention should also be made of chata translated reconciliation in 2 Chronicles 29:24 and ratsah found in 1 Samuel 29:4, translated reconcile. These two words mean, respectively to bear the blame, in reference to the sin offering, and to make ones self pleasing, to obtain favor. The Old Testament allusions actually add little, either by way of background or definition, to the New Testament doctrine. What is true of the Old Testament carries over into the Septuagint where only rarely the Greek words found in the New Testament for reconciliation are found and such instances as occur are not especially significant as Morris points out.5 In the literature of Judaism, also discussed by Leon Morris, little can be learned except that there was widespread understanding that man could not be reconciled to God unless something was done to appease the wrath of God. Such reconciliation seldom rose above an anthropomorphic concept of two people in disagreement resolving their difficulties. Though, as Morris states: “The best Rabbinic thought had risen to the concept of God Himself bringing about the reconciliation….”6 Taken as a whole, the doctrine of the reconciliation before the New Testament is not specific nor precise in its theology and to some extent confuses rather than clarifies the issues involved.

Survey of New Testament Usage

All the words directly related to the doctrine of reconciliation come from the same root. Probably the most important is καταλλάσσω found twice in active form (2 Cor 5:18, 19) and four times in passive form (Rom 5:10, twice; 1 Cor 7:11; 2 Cor 5:20). It is defined simply as “to reconcile” or in the passive “to become reconciled.”7 It is used ordinarily of the relationship effected by God in which man is reconciled to Himself. In the New Testament an illustration of human reconciliation is afforded in 1 Corinthians 7:11 where an estranged wife is reconciled to her husband. In every reference where God is spoken of as reconciling man, that is, in five out of six instances, man is spoken of as reconciled to God rather than God as being reconciled to man. In keeping with the preliminary definition, usage would indicate the general meaning of reconciliation as bringing about a renewal of fellowship and relationship effected by God in His transformation of man.

The second Greek word is καταλλαγή, a noun form of the preceding word. Its definition is the same as the verb, and in all four instances (Rom 11:15; 2 Cor 5:18, 19; as well as in Romans 5:11 where the Authorized Version translates it atonement) the work of reconciliation is spoken of as originating in God and effective toward man.

A third Greek word is ἀποκαταλλάσσω, and is found three times in the New Testament (Eph 2:16; Col 1:20, 21). This word does not occur in any previous Greek literature, and some feel Paul coined it to express the completeness of reconciliation. It means to reconcile completely.8

Two other words commonly cited, namely διαλλάσσω (Matt 5:24; cf. LXX, 1 Sam 29:4; 1 Esdras 4:31) and ἱλάσκομαι, translated merciful in Luke 18:13 and incorrectly translated reconciliation in Hebrews 2:17, are not properly related to the doctrine of reconciliation, as most evangelical scholars agree. Of the first three words which form the basis of New Testament study, eleven are specifically descriptive of the relation of God to man and in every instance man is said to be reconciled to God, and God is referred to as the One who effects the reconciliation.

From a preliminary survey of the New Testament usage, there is no reason for rejecting a simple definition of reconciliation to the effect that it is the work of God through the death of Christ by which sinful man is brought to spiritual fellowship and moral harmony with God. In this definition, reconciliation is viewed as dealing with man’s position with enmity in his sinful state and the resultant work wipes out that enmity and transforms man into a new creature, making possible his eternal fellowship with God.

Who Is Reconciled?

Four divergent interpretations of reconciliation appear in answer to the question “Who is reconciled?” William G. T. Shedd is an advocate of the view that reconciliation has God as its object. Shedd holds it is accurate to say that God is reconciled to man.9

A second view is offered by Charles Hodge which has attracted many contemporary adherents including Leon Miller. Hodge states in effect that reconciliation affects both parties in that peace is restored between them. In his understanding, God and man are both reconciled.10

A third point of view is represented by that of A. H. Strong who holds that the object of reconciliation is man rather than God in that man is changed, not God.11 Strong views reconciliation as including election, calling, union with Christ, regeneration, conversion, justification, sanctification, and perserverance. A fourth modern view, typical of neo-orthodoxy and Barthian theology, is that reconciliation was accomplished by the incarnation of Christ rather than by the death of Christ, and though not within the ordinary limits of orthodoxy, must be taken into consideration in any modern treatment of the doctrine.

The view of Shedd is set forth in some clarity in his discussion as follows: “The objective nature of atonement appears, again, in the New Testament term καταλλαγή and the verb καταλλάσσειν. These two words occur nine times in the New Testament, with reference to Christ’s atoning work. Rom 5:10, 11, 15; 2 Cor 5:18-20. In the authorized version καταλλαγή is translated ‘atonement’ in Rom 5:11; but in the other instances, ‘reconciliation’ and ‘reconcile’ are the terms employed. The verb καταλλάσσειν primarily signifies, ‘to pay the exchange, or difference,’ and secondly ‘to conciliate, or appease.’ The following from Athenaus (X. 33) brings to view both meanings of the word. ‘Why do we say that a tetradrachma καταλλεται, when we never speak of its getting into a passion?’ A coin is ‘exchanged,’ in the primary signification; and a man is ‘reconciled,’ in the secondary. Two parties in a bargain settle their difference, or are ‘reconciled,’ by one paying the exchange or balance to the other. In like manner two parties at enmity settle their difference, or are ‘reconciled,’ by one making a satisfaction to the other. In each instance the transaction is called in Greek καταλλαγή. The same usage is found in the Anglo-Saxon language. The Saxon bot, from which comes the modern boot, denotes, first, a compensation paid to the offended party by the offender; then, secondly, the reconciling effect produced by such compensation; and, lastly, it signifies the state of mind which prompted the boot or compensation, namely repentance itself. Bosworth: AngloSaxon Dictionary, sub voce.

“The term ‘reconciliation’ is objective in its siglaification. Reconciliation terminates upon the object, not upon the subject. The offender reconciles not himself but the person whom he has offended, by undergoing some loss and thereby making amends. This is clearly taught in Matt 5:24. ‘First, be reconciled to thy brother’ (διαλλαγηθι τῳ ἀδελφῳ). Here, the brother who has done the injury is the one who is to make up the difference. He is to propitiate or reconcile his brother to himself, by a compensation of some kind. Reconciliation, here, does not denote a process in the mind of the offender, but of the offended. The meaning is not: ‘First conciliate thine own displeasure towards thy brother,’ but, ‘First conciliate thy brother’s displeasure toward thee.’ In the Episcopalian Order for the Holy Communion, it is said: ‘If ye shall perceive your offences to be such as are not only against God, but also against your neighbors; then ye shall reconcile yourselves unto them; being ready to make restitution and satisfaction, according to the uttermost of your powers, for all injuries and wrongs done by you to any other.’ The Biblical phraseology, ‘Be reconciled to thy brother,’ agrees with that of common life, in describing reconciliation from the side of the offending party, rather than of the offended. We say of the settlement of a rebellion, that ‘the subjects are reconciled to their sovereign,’ rather than that ‘the sovereign is reconciled to the subjects’; though the latter is the more strictly accurate, because it is the sovereign who is reconciled by a satisfaction made to him by the subjects who have rebelled. In Rom 5:10, believers are said to be ‘reconciled to God by the death of his Son.’ Here the reconciliation is described from the side of the offending party; man is said to be reconciled. Yet this does not mean the subjective reconciliation of God towards the sinner. For the preceding verse speaks of God as a being from whose ‘wrath’ the believer is saved by the death of Christ. This shows that the reconciliation effected by Christ’s atoning death is that of the divine anger against sin.”12

Though the presentation of Shedd may seem to be a reasonable understanding of the doctrine, a close study will reveal a number of fallacies. (1) Shedd has ignored the specific language of the New Testament which always speaks of God as reconciling man to Himself. Grammatically, God is the subject and man is the object. Never does the Bible say that God is reconciled. It is significant that Shedd avoids comment on 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 which is a major passage on reconciliation and in which the world is declared to be reconciled to God. (2) Shedd confuses reconciliation with propitiation. It may be conceded that propitiation is an essential prerequisite to reconciliation in that God’s righteousness must be satisfied before any mercy can be shown to man. The New Testament, however, does not use reconciliation in the sense of propitiation, and the two words must not be exchanged. (3) Shedd presents reconciliation as a change of attitude on the part of God toward man. This is accomplished, however, not by reconciliation, but by propitiation and the fault lies with what man is rather than what God is. (4) It is significant that Shedd appeals to Matthew 5:24, a word never used for reconciliation between God and man. The command “First, be reconciled to thy brother” does not reveal how the reconciliation is to be accomplished. On a human plane often apology and restitution will affect a reconciliation, but in the relationship between man and God this is an impossibility for man. His illustration of rebelling subjects effecting reconciliation toward their sovereign ruler is a human illustration of human relationships quite different from the relationship of man to God. Though Shedd can say that it is “more strictly accurate” to say that the sovereign is reconciled to his subjects, he would not say that the Bible is not accurate in its terminology. Basically Shedd’s problem is that he is reading into the doctrine of reconciliation a meaning which is not given to it in the New Testament and is ignoring what the Bible actually says on the subject. While evangelical scholarship is in agreement that propitiation is essential to reconciliation, it does not follow that propitiation is included in the New Testament concept of reconciliation.

Charles Hodge represents a mediate position which has attracted many scholars. His point of view is represented in the following quotation: “Still another form in which the doctrine of expiation is taught is found in those passages which refer our reconciliation to God to the death of Christ. The Greek word used to express this idea in Romans v.10 ; 2 Corinthians v. 18, 19, 20 is καταλλάσειν, to exchange, or to change the relation of one person to another, from enmity to friendship. In Ephesians ii.16 ; Colossians i.20, 21 , the word used is ἀποκατταλάττειν, only an intensive form, to reconcile fully. When two parties are at enmity a reconciliation may be effected by a change in either or in both. When, therefore, it is said that we are reconciled to God, it only means that peace is restored between Him and us. Whether this is effected by our enmity towards Him being removed, or by his justice in regard to us being satisfied, or whether both ideas are in any case included, depends on the context where the word occurs, and on the analogy of Scripture. In the chief passage, Romans v.10 , the obvious meaning is that the reconciliation is effected by God’s justice being satisfied, so that He can be favourable to us in consistency with his own nature.

* * *

The reconciliation of God with man is effected by the cross or death of Christ, which, removing the necessity for the punishment of sinners, renders it possible for God to manifest towards them his love. The change is not in man, but, humanly speaking, in God; a change from the purpose to punish to a purpose to pardon and save. There is, so to speak, a reconciliation of God’s justice and of his love effected by Christ’s bearing the penalty in our stead.”13

From these quotations, it is evident that Hodge views reconciliation as a renewal of peace between God and man resulting from God’s justice being satisfied. His extended discussion is based upon two main arguments: (1) that reconciliation by the death of Christ constitutes an expiation to God which has to, do with the enmity of God toward man rather than man’s enmity toward God; (2) that justification is accomplished by the death of Christ, but not sanctification as it does not result in the immediate subjective change of the sinner. He therefore concludes that reconciliation cannot be said to be the change of the sinner himself and deals primarily with God rather than man.

A number of objections, however, can be cited in opposition to Hodges’s conclusions. It may be agreed (1) that Christ’s death constituted an expiation for sin represented in the non-sweet-savor offerings of the Old Testament. But this was not all that was accomplished by Christ as there was also the sweet-savor aspect in which His righteous obedience was accepted in lieu of our obedience and Satan’s power over the sinner was broken. All agree that the death of Christ does not in itself effect a subjective change in the sinner, but the provisional reconciliation effected by Christ is made actual at the time the individual believes, and the change at that time is not a change in God but a change in man.

(2) There is confusion of that which is positional, true of all Christians, and that which is subjective or conditional. Reconciliation basically does not have to do with man’s feelings toward God, but of his position before God. The unsaved are at enmity toward God not because they feel at enmity, but because they are in Adam who sinned. The child of God who is saved in Christ is reconciled, not because he feels differently, but because he is now in Christ.

(3) Hodge’s distinguishing between justification and sanctification is another failure to differentiate that which is positional and that which is experiential. Neither justification nor sanctification are accomplished for the believer until the moment of saving faith, and both are perfect as far as the believer’s position is concerned. The progressing sanctifying experiences of the Christian’s life do not improve his reconciliation to God, but are an expression of it just as much as reconciliation.

(4) His argument based on the word “enemies” in Romans 5:10 does not sustain his point. The reason they are the objects of God’s wrath is because they are in Adam. Even the death of Christ does not change their ultimate judgment as long as they remain in Adam. It is when one believes in Christ that one becomes actually reconciled to God. Both propitiation and reconciliation are in some sense inoperative until accepted by faith.

Augustus H. Strong in his discussion of reconciliation does not consider in a formal way the arguments for the objective nature of reconciliation. He rather presents an exposition of his own point of view that the work of God in reconciliation includes His total work for man. Reconciliation therefore is viewed as the application of the work of Christ to man. The exegesis of important Scripture passages will bear out Strong’s point of view. The supporting arguments therefore for Strong’s thesis will be considered in the exposition of major passages in the New Testament on reconciliation to follow in a later discussion.

Before turning, however, to this material, note should be taken of the modern interpretation characteristic of neo-orthodoxy that it is the incarnation of Christ rather than the work of Christ on the cross which constitutes the basic work of reconciliation. Karl Barth, for instance, resists the old orthodox concept of the hypostatic union of God and man in Christ and prefers to regard God’s deity as including His humanity. Barth writes: “In Jesus Christ there is no isolation of man from God or of God from man. Rather, in Him we encounter the history, the dialogue, in which God and man meet together and are together, the reality of the covenant mutually contracted, preserved, and fulfilled by them. Jesus Christ in His one Person, as true God, mans loyal partner, and as true man, Gods. He is the Lord humbled for communion with man and likewise the Servant exalted to communion with God. He is the Word spoken from the loftiest, most luminous transcendence and likewise the Word heard in the deepest, darkest immanence. He is both, without their being confused but also without their being divided; He is wholly the one and wholly the other. Thus in this oneness Jesus Christ is the Mediator, the Reconciler, between God and man. Thus He comes forward to man on behalf of God calling for and awakening faith, love, and hope, and to God on behalf of man, representing man, making satisfaction and interceding. Thus He attests and guarantees to man God’s free grace and at the same time attests and guarantees to God man’s free gratitude. Thus he establishes in His Person the justice of God vis-a-vis man and also the justice of man before God. Thus He is in His Person the covenant in its fullness, the kingdom of heaven which is at hand, in which God speaks and man hears, God gives and man receives, God commands and man obeys, God’s glory shines in the heights and thence into the depths, and peace on earth comes to pass among men in whom He is well pleased. Moreover, exactly in this way Jesus Christ, as this Mediator and Reconciler between God and man, is also the Revealer of them both.”14

It is probably fair to Barth to indicate that he does not by this statement push aside the work of Christ on the cross. It is rather a matter of emphasis. The infinite God has bridged the gap to finite man by including man in His deity. It is this act which is the basic reconciliation rather than any subsequent action of the Redeemer. As in the doctrine of revelation in neo-orthodoxy, the emphasis is transferred from the work to the Person.

From the standpoint of traditional orthodoxy, it may be agreed that the act of incarnation was an essential prerequisite to the act of reconciliation. The idea, however, that the incarnation in itself effected the reconciliation must be resisted. Conceivably Christ could have become incarnate without having reconciled the world to Himself if He had failed to become the sacrifice for sin which was basically required and if no human beings actually ever entered into the reconciliation thus provided. The confusion of ideas and interpretations relative to the doctrine of reconciliation can be resolved only by strict adherence to Scriptural usage and terminology and this will form the substance of our subsequent discussion.


This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.


1 S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., “From Enmity to Amity,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 474:139, April, 1962.

2 Vincent Taylor, The Atonement in New Testament Teaching, p. 191.

3 Vincent Taylor, Forgiveness and Reconciliation, p. 73.

4 Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, citing T. H. Hughes, The Atonement, p. 312.

5 Ibid., p. 188.

6 Ibid., p. 192.

7 Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 415.

8 Cf. Arndt and Gingrich, ibid., p. 92.

9 W. G. T. Shedd., Dogmatic Theology, II, 395-97.

10 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, II, 514.

11 A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 886.

12 Shedd, ibid., II, 395-96.

13 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, II, 514-15.

14 Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, pp. 46-47.