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The Person and Work of Christ — Part XIII: Reconciliation

Article contributed by www.walvoord.com

Most of the difficulties in definition and exposition of the doctrine of reconciliation resolve when the Biblical passages pertinent to this truth are studied. Likewise, the debated point of the extent of reconciliation yields to patient exegesis.

Important Passages on Reconciliation

2 Corinthians 5:17-21. This central passage dealing with reconciliation introduces the concept that the believer reconciled to God is a new creation. The key phrase is found in verse 17 , “If any man is in Christ.” The new creation is in contrast to the former position in Adam, in which man was doomed to die and under hopeless condemnation (Rom 5:11-21). “The old things” are therefore said to be “passed away” in the sense that the believer in Christ has an entirely new position. He belongs to the new creation instead of the old, the Second Adam instead of the First Adam.

This total change is indicated by the word reconciliation in that God has reconciled the believer “to himself through Christ.” As Morris states: “First of all let us notice that the process the apostle has in mind is one which is wrought by God. ‘All things,’ he tells us, ‘are of God, who reconciled us’; ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself,’ ‘him…he made to be sin on our behalf.’ Though it is true that there is an aspect in which men may be exhorted to be reconciled to God, yet there is no question that Paul is thinking of something God has done for men, and not of some merely human activity.”1 God is the subject, man is the object, Christ is the means.

Because man is given the new standing of being reconciled to God, he also has “the ministry of reconciliation,” as defined in verse 19 , “to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses.” Here is the grand reason for man being reconciled to God, namely, that he is in Christ and in this position God has reconciled man unto himself. By the act of imputation He does not impute their sins to them, but instead imputed sin to Christ.

Of interest is the fact that “the world” (Gr. kosmos) is used, meaning something more than believers only. It is rather that Christ in His death made a forensic provision for the entire world and has provided reconciliation for all, not just the elect. It is this important point that makes emphatic the ministry of reconciliation as defined in the latter part of verses 19 and 20 : “…Having committed unto us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God.” God, having a provision in the death of Christ for all sinners, now can present a “whosoever” gospel. The appeal is that God has already provided reconciliation for all, but it is effective only when received by the personal faith of the individual. The contrast is between provision and application. The provision is for all, the application is to those who believe. Those who are already reconciled to God are the ambassadors through whom the message is delivered to those who have not yet availed themselves of the mercy of God.

The recipient of the message of reconciliation must receive the reconciliation. As Taylor expresses it: “This passage is also of importance because it is complementary to the truth that it is God, and God alone, who can reconcile men to Himself. As we have already seen, although the verb, ‘to be reconciled,’ is passive, it denotes an active process of co-operation on man’s part. Man cannot accomplish his reconciliation with God, but he can refuse it….”2

Commentators have noted that up to verse 20 there is no direct connection of the doctrine of reconciliation with the death of Christ. Verse 21 , however, makes plain that the act of reconciliation did not arise in a divine fiat, but in the work of Christ upon the cross. Here it is stated: “Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” It was the act of Christ in becoming sin by the imputation of the sins of the whole world to Him (cf. 1 John 2:2) that made possible reconciliation of a sinner to God.

Morris brings this out: “For although in these verses the apostle does not specifically mention the death of the Lord, there is not the slightest doubt that he has it in mind. For it is only through this death that man’s trespasses are put away on Paul’s view, and thus the cross is vividly present to his mind in verses 19 and 21 .”3 Forsyth concurs with this interpretation: “The New Testament at least cannot sever Atonement from Reconciliation. The greatest passage which says that God was in Christ reconciling says in the same breath that it was by Christ being made sin for us. The reconciliation is attached to Christ’s death, and to that as an expiation.”4

The relationship of redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation, therefore, becomes clear. Christ by His death redeemed or paid the price for sin. This payment constituted a propitiation or satisfaction of God’s righteousness. This freed the love of God to act in grace toward the sinner in reconciling the sinner to Himself on the basis that Christ has died in his place. The believer who comes into the position of being in Christ through faith and through the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13) thus is reconciled to God because God sees him in Christ. The whole act of reconciliation, therefore, is an act of God, a free gift to man, provided for all men, effective to those who believe. Those once estranged in Adam are now reconciled in Christ.

Romans 5:6-11. Considered by some to be just as important as the passage in 2 Corinthians, the presentation of the doctrine of reconciliation in Romans 5 is remarkable in many respects. It expounds, first of all, the fourfold need of man for reconciliation, presenting this in climactic order: (1) man’s inability, or lack of strength, i.e., “While we were yet weak” (v. 6 ); (2) man’s lack of merit: “ungodly” (v. 6 ); (3) man’s lack of righteousness, or his guilt before God: “sinners” (v. 8 ); (4) man’s lack of peace with God, being at enmity with God: “enemies” (v. 10 ). From this fourfold indictment, it is clear that man is without strength to accomplish his own reconciliation. He is without merit or a righteousness. He has in fact sinned against God and stands condemned for his disobedience. Finally, his moral depravity has placed an insurmountable wall between him and God, leaving him completely estranged from God’s love and mercy.

Certain theological conclusions also are presented forcibly in this passage. First, it may be observed that the death of Christ is mentioned in some way in each verse of the passage from verse 6 to verse 10 , in contrast to 2 Corinthians 5, where the death of Christ is only mentioned in the last verse . Here the emphasis is clearly on the means of reconciliation. Second, reconciliation is presented as something that man desperately needs which he has no right to expect, but apart from which he is utterly estranged from God.

Third, reconciliation is shown to be a work of God rather than a work of man for God, as also in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21. It is a work which is objectively toward man, in contrast to propitiation which is objectively toward God. This is stated in verse 10 : “For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” The verb forms are passive, indicating that God is the actor and man is the recipient. This conclusion is emphasized in verse 11 , where it is added, “And not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.”

Fourth, reconciliation is presented in this passage as a ground for assurance. The logic is unanswerable. If Christ died for sinners who at that time were estranged from God, unable to reconcile themselves, and without any merit, if God by His mercy has reconciled sinners to Himself, how much more will He be merciful to those who are reconciled? In other words, if God can save a sinner, then the one who is already reconciled by the death of Christ shall certainly escape the wrath of God. The child of God is saved “in [or, by] His life.” The life of Christ mentioned here is the life which was given on Calvary which in resurrection continued to provide the basis for the believer’s intercession and advocacy.

Some confusion has arisen because in verse 9 mention is made of the wrath of God and of justification by the blood of Christ resulting in salvation from divine judgment. Some, therefore, have attempted to include this in the work of reconciliation. Morris, for instance, writes: “There is an objective aspect to reconciliation, and this may well be held to imply that there is a sense in which God can be said to be reconciled to man.”5 Morris ignores, however, that the Bible carefully avoids ever saying this. It is more accurate to express it as God being propitiated, and man being reconciled. All agree that there is a Godward aspect of the atonement; the question is whether the word reconciliation is properly used of this concept.

Reconciliation necessarily depends upon other aspects of the work of God in salvation, namely, the redemption provided in respect to sin and the propitiation provided in respect to the righteous demands of God toward the sinner. These having been accomplished, however, God is now free to reconcile a sinner to Himself by declaring him to be in Christ and justified by faith. Technically, we are not saved because God has been propitiated, which is true of all men, nor because mankind as a whole has been provisionally reconciled. The act of salvation is a personal one by which the individual on the basis of all these works of God is placed in Christ, declared righteous, and therefore reconciled to a holy God. Taken as a whole, the Romans passage brings out in bold relief how tremendous is the scope of divine reconciliation, and how intrinsic is the work of Christ on our behalf as providing a basis by which reconciliation can be effected.

Ephesians 2:16. According to this passage, it was God’s purpose to reconcile Jew and Gentile in the present age and form from them “one new man” (Eph 2:15), “so making peace.” As Taylor expresses it: “…St. Paul is not thinking only of the reconciliation of individuals to God, but also of the creation of a new divine community, the Church of God, in which His work of conciliation in Christ is to find its perfect embodiment.”6 The reconciliation which is afforded the believer in Christ not only reconciled Jew and Gentile in the body of Christ, but reconciled both unto God in the one body referring to the church as a living organism. Reconciliation, therefore, is effective between men as well as between man and God. Hence it may be regarded as horizontal as well as perpendicular.

Colossians 1:20-22. This passage confirms and expands the universal extent of reconciliation, declaring that reconciliation extends to all things, but especially toward sinful man: “And through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things upon the earth, or things in the heavens. And you, being in time past alienated and enemies in your mind in your evil works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and without blemish and unreprovable, before him.”

The truth, as it is unfolded in this important passage, treats both the provision and application of reconciliation. All things are provisionally reconciled to God; this new relationship of peace has been made possible through the blood of the cross; it extends to all things, both in heaven and in earth provisionally; its application is specifically to sinners saved by grace who once were alienated and enemies through evil works, but now reconciled and presented holy, without blemish, and unreprovable before God. It should be clear from this passage, as well as from the others, that the act of reconciliation in the death of Christ does not in itself affect reconciliation for the individual, but rather that it is provisional and makes possible the reconciliation of the individual. The natural state of the unsaved continues unchanged even after the death of Christ until such time that the reconciling work is made effective in him when he believes. Having believed, however, and coming into a new relationship in Christ, he is considered by God as holy and without blemish and unreprovable, even though his actual state may be far from perfection. This passage again clearly indicates that it is the position of believer before God rather than his spiritual state which is in view. Even now the believer in this act of divine reckoning can be presented before a holy God.

The Extent of Reconciliation

Reconciliation provided for all. Reconciliation in its provision is intended for all men, and theologians who differ on this subject usually do so by definition of terms. As Shedd writes in connection with his discussion of the vicarious atonement of Christ: “In answering the question as to the ‘extent’ of Christ’s atonement, it must first be settled whether ‘extent’ means its intended application, or its intrinsic value; whether the active or the passive signification of the word is in the mind of the inquirer. If the word means value, then the atonement is unlimited; if it means extending, that is, applying, then the atonement is limited.”7 Properly understood then, the question of the extent of the atonement does not give basis for the universalist who would teach that all men are saved, for the Bible truly contradicts his concept. And, on the other hand, it does not support the adherent of limited atonement who would try to make the provision of reconciliation limited to the elect. A proper orthodox point of view is that reconciliation is provided for all, but applied only to the elect.

The main issue in the question of the extent of reconciliation is that of the design of the atonement. If the strict Calvinist is correct, God’s essential purpose was to save the elect, and necessarily the death of Christ was directed primarily to this end. A more tenable position, however, is reflected in moderate Calvinistic, Lutheran, and Arminian theologians. They, in some cases, retained the essential features of Calvinism but held that God’s purpose in the death of Christ, while including the salvation of the elect, was a broader purpose to render the whole world savable or reconciled in the provisional sense.

The concept of reconciling the whole world has been given the term unlimited atonement, whereas the more strict Calvinistic, position is that of limited atonement. Many moderate Calvinists, while going along with the main tenets of Calvinism, nevertheless hold to unlimited atonement. The question is somewhat theoretical, as most theologians, even the strict Calvinists, agree that the death of Christ forensically was sufficient for all. The question is a technical one of God’s purpose in the death of Christ. The best solution, however, is to be found in what Christ actually did. Here the broad statement of 2 Corinthians 5, where God is said to reconcile the “world,” should be determinative. Just as redemption and propitiation were for all men (1 John 2:2), but are applicable only to those who believe, so also is the work of reconciliation.

This concept of the universality of the provision of reconciliation is borne out in the context in which reconciliation is discussed. In 2 Corinthians 5:14, emphasis is given to the fact that all were dead spiritually. The three instances of “all” in 2 Corinthians 2:14-15 seem to be universal. This is followed by the limited application indicated in the phrase “they which live.” Hence, the passage reads: “For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that one died for all [universal], therefore all [universal] died; and he died for all [universal], that they that live [restricted to elect] shall no longer live unto themselves, but unto him who for their sakes died and rose again” (2 Cor 5:14-15). The word “all” is used, then, in a universal sense in this passage, followed by the restricted application indicated in the phrase, “they which live.” This is reinforced by the use of the word “world,” referring to all men, in verse 19 .

Reconciliation applied to the elect when they believe. The reconciling work of Christ for all men does not become effective even for the elect until that moment of faith in Christ in which they pass from death unto life. Ephesians 2:1, referring to the Ephesian Christians, plainly indicates that even though they were elect prior to their salvation, they were “dead through…trespasses and sins.” Because of this, they lived according to the pattern of the world and “were by nature children of wrath even as the rest” (Eph 2:1-3). What is true of the Ephesian Christians is true today. Though the death of Christ occurred centuries ago, even the elect are not saved in any sense until reconciliation is applied. It is for this reason that the responsibility of carrying the message of reconciliation is pressed upon those who have already believed, and they are exhorted to carry the message to others.

Reconciliation in relation to the nonelect. The question may fairly be asked what benefit is the death of Christ to those who have not received Him as Savior. An unbeliever goes on to his eternal doom in much the same manner as if Christ had not died. If God has provisionally reconciled the whole world to Himself, how does this affect the unsaved, if at all?

The answer seems to be that the basis for his condemnation and judgment has been essentially changed. Apart from the death of Christ, a sinner would have been committed to his eternal punishment regardless of what he had done. Even if he had placed faith in God, he would still be in Adam, and there would be no provision of reconciliation or salvation for him. The provision having been made, however, the whole world is placed in an entirely different light. A person now proceeds to eternal punishment not because God has failed to provide, or because the love of God has been ineffective, but rather because he has rejected that which God has provided. This is set forth plainly in John 3:18: “He that believeth on him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.” The condemnation of the sinner now is not simply because he is a sinner, but because he has rejected God’s provision to care for his sin. Though he is still judged according to his works, his eternal punishment has a new character of being that which he chose in rejecting the love and grace of God in Christ.

Reconciliation in relation to the universe. One of the reasons why the death of Christ needed to extend to the entire world, not just to the elect, is the fact that the curse of sin inflicted on the universe by Adam had an effect far beyond the bounds of the human race. According to Romans 8:22, “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” The whole universe is laboring under the curse of God, which is manifested in many ways in nature as well as in man. It is for this reason that Colossians 1:20 speaks of reconciling “all things unto himself,” and specifically extends this reference to “things upon the earth, or things in the heavens.” The question may be raised, however, as to what extent reconciliation actually extends to the earth. Grace, seemingly, is unknown to the angels, except as they observe it in the relationship of God to man. The fallen angels have no offer of salvation and, having once sinned, are doomed. The physical universe, however, having been cursed by the sin of Adam is destined to have this curse relieved in the future millennial reign of Christ, when the desert will once again blossom as a rose, and satanic power will be inactive. Ultimately, God will destroy the present physical universe and replace it with a holy universe which stems from the reconciling work of Christ.

The results of reconciliation. In its broadest sense, the work of reconciliation extends to the total work of God on the behalf of the believer, while redemption is active toward the payment of the price for sin, and propitiation is directed to satisfaction of the righteousness of God. Reconciliation, then, deals with man’s total need and total restoration. Certain aspects, however, can be mentioned specifically. (1) The baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:13) is the work of God by which the believer is united to the body of Christ and comes into his new position “in Christ.” This, of course, is the key to the whole reconciling work of God. (2) In regeneration, the believer becomes a new creation, having received the very eternal life of God. Just as Adam became a natural man by having breathed into his body the breath of life, so the unregenerated man at the moment of salvation in Christ has breathed into his spiritually dead body the eternal life of God. As such, he is a new creature with a new nature and a new destiny. (3) By justification, the believer is declared righteous before God, because he is now in Christ. In this position there is imputed to him the righteousness of Christ and he is accepted as perfect in the presence of God. (4) The new position in Christ and His justification assures the believer’s positional sanctification in which he is set apart as holy to God. (5) In his new position, as reconciled to God, the believer has the possibility of intimate fellowship assisted by the indwelling presence of the Triune God and the transformation of his character through the new birth. Reconciliation, while essentially positional, has an experiential aspect as the believer walks in fellowship with God. (6) Ultimate sanctification is also assured the one who is thus reconciled to God, in which the believer’s spiritual state is elevated to his high position. (7) The final state of reconciliation is that of glorification in the presence of God in which the last evidences of sin are destroyed and the believer stands perfect and complete, sharing the very glory of Christ in heaven.


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


1 Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p. 202.

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

3 Morris, op. cit., p. 203.

4 Peter Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 138.

5 Morris, op. cit., p. 198.

6 Taylor, op. cit., p. 78.

7 W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, II, 466.