One of several images of salvation used in Scripture is that of reconciliation.
In this image, we leave the temple precincts, slave-markets and lawcourts, and come home to our family and friends.
Reconciliation is the answer to alienation, and to all who feel alienated reconciliation sounds like the good news that it is.
Reconciliation begins with a restored relationship with God, Rom 5:9-11 (note the parallel in this passage between reconciliation and justification). The idea is closely linked with those of ‘adoption’ (Jn 1:12f; 1 Jn 3:1-10) and ‘access’ (Rom 5:1f; Eph 2:17f; 1 Pet 3:18; Heb 10:19-22).
But reconciliation also has a horizontal dimension. God has reconciled us to one another in his new community, Eph 2:11-22. Col 1:15-20 goes even further, teaching that God in Christ has reconciled ‘all things’ (even the cosmic powers) to himself.
2 Cor 5:18-21 teaches that
1. God himself is the author of reconciliation. The initiative was not ours: we do not reconcile ourselves to the Father, he reconciles us to himself. It was not even Christ’s: his initiative was in submission to the initiative of the Father, Heb 10:7.
2. Christ is the agent of reconciliation. And his reconciling work is complete, with the effect that God does not reckon our sins against us, but has reckoned them to Christ instead, and with the effect that we might stand before God with the righteousness of Christ reckoned to us.
3. We are the ambassadors of reconciliation. ‘It is not enough to expound a thoroughly orthodox doctrine of reconciliation if we never beg people to come to Christ. Nor is it right for a sermon to consist of an interminable appeal, which has not been preceded by an exposition of the gospel The rule should be “no appeal without a proclamation, and no proclamation without an appeal.”…It is a remarkable truth that the same God who worked “through Christ” to achieve the reconciliation now works “through us” to announce it.’
Based on Stott, The Cross of Christ, 192-202
Reconciliation is God’s answer to our alienation. According to 2 Cor 5:14 – 6:2, God is the author, Christ is the agent, and we are the ambassadors of reconciliation.
Consider some of the miserable consequences of sin: guilt, estrangement, wrath, suffering and death. The only and complete rescue is by God, through Christ: redemption frees us from the bondage of our sin, expiation covers the guilt of our sin, propitiation turns away the wrath of our sin. But what about alienation? One of the most painful consequences of sin is that it separates us from God. Adam and Eve experienced this in the Garden of Eden. Humankind has experienced it ever since. ‘It explains why we feel so lonely in the universe. It explains why or quest to find the meaning of life never ends. If we were living in fellowship with God, we would know that that the meaning of life is to enjoy him for ever. But we are so far from God that we cannot find our way back on our own.
Why are we alienated from God? Because of our transgression. The real issue is not whether we accept God, but whether he accepts us. Our problem is not that we have something against God but that he has something against us.
Reconciliation presupposed a double alienation: we are hostile to God, and he hostile to us.
Two tests of alienation: first, am I living for myself, or for God, 2 Cor 5:15? ‘If we spend most of our time complaining about our circumstances, if our chief ambition is financial gain, if we get impatient with the little inconveniences of life, or if we do not have time for the poor and needy, then we are living for ourselves.’ Second, what do I think about Jesus, 2 Cor 5:16? What is my opinion of him? Do I regard him as the Son of God and the Saviour of the world? Do I worship him as Saviour and Lord? Or is my estimate of him something less – a common criminal, a venerable sage or a subversive politician?
The answer to alienation is reconciliation. To reconcile is to make peace between personal enemies. It implies that once there was friendship, but this has been broken and now needs to be restored.
God is the author of reconciliation, 2 Cor 5:18,19. We do not reconcile ourselves to God: it is God who does the reconciling. And this, even so it was we who caused the alienation in the first place. Ordinarly, we would expect the offender to seek reconciliation, to make amends, and so paganism teaches. But the religion of grace teaches us that God has reconciled us to himself. And this, while we were yet enemies, Rom 5:10a. ‘All this is from God’, 2 Cor 5:18. ‘It is true in deliverance: God rescused us when we could not rescue ourselves. It is true in redemption: God paid the ransom we could never purchase. It is true in expiation: God has covered the sins we cannot put away. It is true in propitiation: God has turned aside the wrath we cannot endure. And it is also true in reconciliation: God restores the friendship we cannot repair.’ This explains the passive voice of the verb (‘be reconciled’) in 2 Cor 5:20. The only way to be reconciled to God is by God.
Reconciled through Christ
2 Cor 5:18,19. Reconciliation is generally referred to in the past tense (see also Col 1:21f), indicating that it has been accomplished by means of a specific, historical event. According to 2 Cor 5:14 this event was the substitutionary death of Christ, and according to v21 this substitutionary death was also a sin-bearing sacrifice. Our sin was imputed to the spotless Son of God, and he endured the penalty for that sin. As a result, we have a new relationship with God. Not only does God not count our sins against us, he actually counts us as righteous: Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us.
‘O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!’ (The Epistle to Diognetus).
The message of reconciliation
The message of reconciliation means that we can count on being God’s friends for ever. It means that we are at peace with God. It means that we can draw near to God in a relationship of loving trust. We have a new purpose – to live for Christ, 2 Cor 5:15. We have a new perspective – we look at everything (especially at Christ) the way God does, 5:16a. We are new people – part of a new creation, 5:17.
God has made us messengers of reconciliation, v18. It was the apostles who were the first and primary ambassadors, but in a secondary sense it includes all Christian ministers; indeed, all Christians. An ambassador is an official representative from a far country. A good ambassador embodies the values of his country, and demonstrates the character of their king, speaks on behalf of his country, (5:20). For Paul, the love of Christ, 5:14, constrained him to do all this.
In the process of reconciling people to himself, God reconciles them to one another. Even the barriers between Jew and Gentile have been broken down, Eph 2:13, 15f. Then again, there is a cosmic dimension, for ‘all things’ are included in this work of reconciliation, Rom 8:18-21.
Of course, we disturb the intimacy of our renewed friendship with God as often as we sin. Ongoing confession and renewal is required.
The most urgent need is for those who have not yet come to Christ. Paul refers in 2 Cor 6:1f to those who only seem to be Christians. Although these people go to church and hear the gospel, they refuse to give up their sins, and thus remain alienated from God. Now is a day of opportunity; but it will not last for ever.
Based on Ryken, The Message of Salvation, (IVP) 118-129.