So respected a New Testament Scholar as Douglas Moo writes that:-
‘Reconciliation can hardly be given a central place in Paul’s theology. The language is too infrequent and the concepts too undeveloped for such a judgment. It is better to view reconciliation as one image, among many others, that is used to capture something of the meaning of God’s act in Christ for us.’ (The Letter to the Romans, 2nd ed.)
I.H. Marshall, however, contends that the concept of reconciliation may be regarded as central to a biblical understanding of atonement:-
‘The mending of relationships both with God and with our fellow human beings is a central theme in the New Testament and especially in the writings of Paul. Romans is concerned to bring together Jewish and Gentile believers in praise of God; 1 Corinthians deals with a church that is split into groups over personalities and spiritual gifts; 2 Corinthians deals with a rift in the church between some of its members and Paul, and between two rival Christian missions; Galatians has the problem of fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians as its underlying concern; Ephesians makes the unity of the church thematic; Philippians is written to encourage the members of the church to be united in their concern for one another, and in standing up to external pressures; 1 Thessalonians commends the readers for their mutual love; Philemon deals with the relationship between a master and a slave. The frequency and centrality of the issue is obvious.’
R.P Martin agrees, citing Peter Stuhlmacher:-
‘The formation of the New Testament tradition [will have] the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Messianic Reconciler [as] its genuinely theological and critical center.’ (Reconciliation: a Study of Paul’s Theology)
Martin himself recalls the conviction of his old teacher T.W. Manson:-
‘Reconciliation is…the keyword of Paul’s Gospel so far as its working out in Christ is concerned. The driving-force behind the Gospel is the love of God. The modus operandi is reconciliation.’
Martin himself writes:-
‘If we are pressed to suggest a simple term that summarizes [Paul’s] message, the word reconciliation will be the ‘chief theme’ or ‘centre’ of his missionary and pastoral thought and practice.’
Herman Ridderbos similarly highlighted the importance of reconciliation in Paul: an Outline of his Theology and other works.
Marshall is careful to point out that we are talking about a concept, and not simply a word. The word itself (katallassō or apokatallassō in Greek) may occur with relative infrequency, but the concept is much more pervasive.
Key passages using this terminology, says Marshall, are:-
2 Corinthians 5:17-21, in which the ‘problem’ is presented in terms of sin, rather than enmity, thus forging a link with the concept of justification. Paul urges that the message and the ministry of reconciliation go hand in hand.
Romans 5:11f, where Paul teaches that, despite a mutual enmity between God and people, he has provided a means whereby the latter can be treated as his friends rather than as his enemies. This teaching on reconciliation may be regarded as not only the conclusion, but even the climax, of Paul’s longer section on justification.
Colossians 1:19-23 stresses the cosmic scale of God’s reconciling work in Christ. This paves the way for the worldwide proclamation of the gospel.
Ephesians 2 teaches that in being reconciled to God, Gentiles are reconciled with Jewish believers, and thereby constitute with them the household of faith.
Putting these together, we find, in the words of Marshall:-
- ‘They picture human beings as enemies of God through their sins.
- God acts in Christ to reconcile them to himself through his death.
- What God has done is then proclaimed in the world, and reconciliation is made between God and those who accept the message in faith.
- Those who are reconciled now enjoy peace with God and are included in his holy people.
- In Ephesians and Colossians, the reconciliation specifically includes the ending of the enmity between Jews and Gentiles in the new people of God.
- There is an obligation laid upon the reconciled people to proclaim God’s action in the world.’
Beyond these explicit references to ‘reconciliation’, we find the concept enshrined in two further words:-
The vocabulary of ‘peace’ is founds over 100 times in the NT, and in practically every book. Not all of these, by any means, refer to reconciliation between enemies. Nevertheless, it is quite often used as a virtual synonym for ‘salvation’. This no doubt reflects the meaning and importance of the OT concept of ‘shalom’, and also stands against the then-current propaganda of ‘Pax Romana’.
Of the Gospels, ‘peace’ occurs with particular frequency in Luke (14 times). Note especially Lk 2:14, where the angels pronounce ‘peace on earth’ at the birth of Jesus. See also Acts 10:36, where Peter can characterise the gospel as ‘the good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all).’ Those who have been healed may ‘go in peace’, Lk 7:50; 8:48, and the risen Lord Jesus greets his people with ‘peace’ (Lk 24:36) and will leave his ‘peace’ after his departure (Jn 14:27).
In his letters, Paul greets his readers with a wish for ‘grace and peace’, and he refers several time to ‘the God of peace’ (Rom. 15:33; 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:11; Phil. 4:9; 2 Thess. 3:16). The gospel brings peace, Eph 6:15. By contrast, the previous situation is characterised by ‘enmity’ (Rom. 5:10; 8:7; 11:28; Eph. 2:14, 16; Phil. 3:18; Col. 1:21; Jas. 4:4). Peace is made through the cross, Col. 1:20; Eph. 2:16, and is the fruit of justification, Rom 5:1.
‘Peace’ is something we both experience from God, and share with others. See Rom. 8:6; 14:17, 19; Gal. 5:22; Phil. 4:7; Rom. 15:13; Eph. 4:3; Col. 3:15; Jas. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:11; Col 1:20; Mt 5:9; Eph. 2:14, 15, 17. A peaceable attitude is stressed in Heb. 12:14; Jas. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:11; 2 Pet. 3:14.
The concept of peace, then, ties in closely with that of reconciliation.
Marshall summarises the teaching of the New Testament about forgiveness, and shows how this links closely to the concept of reconciliation:-
‘In the Gospels the blessing bestowed by John the Baptist is characterized as forgiveness of sins, with John acting as God’s agent in bestowing it. Jesus, likewise, forgives sins in his role as Son of Man (Mark 2:1–10). A sinful woman is told that her sins are forgiven, and Jesus comments that a person who is forgiven will love the person who has done the forgiving (Luke 7:36–50). Disciples are told to pray daily for forgiveness, and they are commanded to forgive other people, otherwise God will not forgive them (Matt. 6:12, 14–15; 18:21–35). In Matthew 26:28, the phrase is associated with the shedding of the blood of Jesus….
‘Forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit constitute salvation in the early church (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38 and 26:18). In line with this, John, in his Gospel, tells how the disciples are to forgive sins on behalf of God after Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:23). So it is not surprising that forgiveness figures prominently in 1 John 1:9; 2:12. James associates forgiveness with prayer for healing of the sick (Jas. 5:15).
Forgiveness is an integral part of redemption in Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14, and is the result of sacrifice in Hebrews 9:22; 10:18. Forgiveness by God accompanies his raising of sinners who were dead in trespasses (Col. 2:13; the phrase is not found in the parallel in Eph 2:6). In both Ephesians and Colossians, the readers are commanded to forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven them (Eph. 4:32 par. Col. 3:13).’
Marshall explains the lack of emphasis on forgiveness in many of Paul’s letters by his corresponding strong emphasis on justification – a closely allied term. The expression ‘not crediting sins’ (see, Rom 4:7, for example) has the same force as forgiveness, and is explicitly linked to reconciliation in 2 Cor 5:19.
Even where the specific vocabulary of forgiveness is absent, the concept can be very much present, as in the story of the wayward son in Lk 15:11-32 and that of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Lk 18:10-14.
The biblical concepts of peace and forgiveness added to the language of reconciliation, amount to a considerable body of material on the nature and importance of the latter.
‘The fundamental problem caused by sin is that it separates people from God and renders them liable to an attitude variously described as wrath, anger or judgment. Through the death of Jesus, God no longer reckons their sins against them; in a vivid phrase, he “slays” the enmity (Eph. 2:16), and thereby establishes the possibility of reconciliation, entailing the forgiveness of sins and establishment of peace.’
The biblical account of salvation, then, may fairly be represented in terms of reconciliation:-
- It is implicit that there was an original situation of harmony between God and the people whom he had created.
- This harmony has been disrupted, and the people display enmity (expressed in disobedience and distrust) both to God and to one another.
- God treats people as his enemies, partly now and partly in a future judgment.
- At the same time, God acts to bring about reconciliation in the coming and death of Jesus.
- God sends his messengers to announce that forgiveness and reconciliation are offered to all who will accept his offer and return to him.
- People either respond with faith and are reconciled or they reject the message and remain as enemies of God.
- God’s purpose for his people begins to be fulfilled in the establishment of his peaceable community (the kingdom or church) where people love and serve God and one another.
- God will finally reject those who refuse to be reconciled, and his purpose for his reconciled people will be fully realized.
I. Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity, (Colorado Springs, CO; Milton Keynes, MK; Secunderabad, AP: Paternoster, 2008).