by Herman Ridderbos
GOD’S RECONCILING ACTIVITY
Along with the concept of justification, the new relationship to God accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection is expressed in another way. The concept of reconciliation also plays an important part in Paul’s epistles. It appears in more than one place as the parallel and equivalent of justification. So, for example, in Romans 5:9, 10, where “justified by his [Christ’s] blood” is paralleled by “reconciled by his death,” just as in 2 Corinthians 3:9 and 5:18 the “ministration of righteousness” and the “ministration of reconciliation” are alternately spoken of. Likewise in 2 Corinthians 5:18ff. it is said in so many words that God’s reconciling act with respect to the world consists in his “not imputing unto them their trespasses.” Other pronouncements confirm this equation.1
There is no warrant for wishing to subordinate one of these two concepts to the other. One could perhaps say that reconciliation as peace with God is the consequence of justification (Rom. 5:1). But then one is speaking of the condition of reconciliation, which is the result of the reconciling activity of God. Conversely, one can just as well speak of righteousness as the new reconciled relationship with God that has been effected by the justifying act of God. Better than making excessively sharp delimitations is the insight that we are dealing here with two concepts from different spheres of thought and life. Whereas “to justify” is a religious-forensic concept that is highly typical of the basic eschatological structure of Paul’s preaching, “reconciliation” (in the sense of katallage) has a more general, less qualified meaning in theological parlance. It originates from the social-societal sphere (cf. 1 Cor. 7: 11), and speaks in general of the restoration of the right relationship between two parties. In the pronouncements of Paul it is often placed over against “enmity,” “alienation” (Rom. 5:10; Eph. 2: 14ff.; Col. 1:22), just as in a positive sense it has the meaning of “peace” (cf. Rom. 5:1, 10; Eph. 2:l5ff.; Col. 1:2011.).
When we look more closely at these pronouncements relating to reconciliation, it can be ascertained that this reconciliation is qualified above all by the fact that God is its Author and Initiator. This is put very emphatically in the great “reconciliation pericope’’ of 2 Corinthians 5: 18-21: “And all this is from God, who through Christ has reconciled us to himself and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is,2 that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” Conversely, mention is made of the church’s being reconciled (Rom. 5:10), and believers are admonished by the word of reconciliation to let themselves be reconciled to God; reconciliation can therefore stand over against “rejection” (by God) (Rom. 11:15), and to the apostles has been entrusted the ministry (dispensation, distribution) of reconciliation (diakonia tes katallages). The pronouncements in Colossians and Ephesians say essentially the same thing.3 There Christ appears as the Reconciler, who reconciles Jews and gentiles, indeed through whom God reconciles “all things” to himself (Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20, 22). In all this, entirely in harmony with the great fundamental motif of Paul’s preaching, reconciliation is the work of redemption going out from God in Christ to the world,4 for the removal of “enmity,” for the restoration of “peace.”
In the second place, for insight into the Pauline idea of reconciliation it is again of paramount importance to take full account of the eschatological character of Paul’s preaching. As restoration of the right relationship between God and the world reconciliation of course also has reference to the disposition of man. Yet neither the point of departure nor the real thrust of the Pauline pronouncements on reconciliation is situated here. With reconciliation, being reconciled, peace, it is primarily a matter of removing that which stands in the way of the right relationship between God and (in the most comprehensive sense of the word) the world; in other words, of the eschatological restoration of all things. This is clearly evident from the context of the reconciliation pronouncements in 2 Corinthians 5. Reconciliation constitutes the foundation of the new creation, of the fact that the old has passed away, that the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17, 18), of the “now” of the day of salvation and of the acceptable time (2 Cor. 6:2). This objective eschatological character of reconciliation may be still more sharply distinguished in the pronouncement of Colossians 1:20, where it is said that God through Christ reconciles all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross. In connection with “all things,” as appears from the context, one is to think of all that is in heaven and on earth, in particular of the power that the spirit world has obtained over the world of men fallen away from God and the bad relationship into which the world has thereby come to stand over against God. When it is said here that God through Christ has again reconciled “all things” to himself, what is meant is not the restoration of the right disposition5 (e.g., among the apostate spirits), but rather of the divine government over all, through the fact, among other things, that the authority of the powers that have set themselves against God has been taken away and through Christ they have been subjected to God. With reconciliation it is a question here, therefore, of the eschatological pacification, which is also expressed by the words that follow in Colossians 1:20, that God has thus made peace through the blood of Christ’s cross. To be sure, some6 have held the view that this “objective” conception of “reconcile” must be frustrated precisely by this element of peace making. But the idea of peace, which for Paul repeatedly denotes the result of reconciliation, is not in conflict with such a conception of reconciliation, but rather forms its confirmation. For in Paul (as in the whole of the Scripture) “peace” refers not only or in the first place to disposition, but is the denotation of the all-embracing gift of salvation, the condition of shalom, which God will again bring to unrestricted dominion. It is the peace that is to reign when “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under the feet” of his people (Rom. 16:20). It consists therefore as much in the pacification of the powers hostile to God as in the restoration of peace between Jews and Gentiles, the peace of the Messianic kingdom, which is represented by Christ (“He is our peace”) because he has reconciled the enmity between the two through his cross (Eph. 2:14ff.), and which stands in contrast to the wrath, indignation, tribulation, and anguish of the eschatological divine judgment (Rom. 2:9, 10).
It is clear in addition, however, that the reconciling activity of God does not merely have reference to human disposition, but embraces much more.9 Man in his sin is an “enemy of God” not only in the active but also in the passive sense of the word. The apostle speaks very clearly to that effect, for example, in Romans 11:28, where the Jews are successively called “enemies [of God] for your sake” and “beloved [of God] for the fathers’ sake.” From the parallel it follows that “enemies of God” must here have a passive meaning. And the same thing undoubtedly applies to the “reconciliation” pronouncement in Romans 5:10: “for if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God Even if one chooses to assume that “enemies” here describes a reciprocal relationship,10 the context clearly indicates that the abrogation of this enmity through reconciliation is the same as being delivered from God’s wrath, being acquitted of sin and guilt, and thus describes not only the relation in which man stands toward God,11 but also that in which God stands toward man.12
What Paul means by reconciliation, when he speaks of the restoration of the relationship between God and (the world of) men, can best be understood by starting from justification, of which, as we have seen, it appears as the parallel. In this reconciliation it is a matter first of all of the abrogation of man’s relationship of guilt before God, of his sin not being imputed to him (2 Cor. 5:19). In that sense reconciliation is above all a gift that man “receives” by grace (Rom. 5:11), the ground for which, in the same manner as that of his justification, is in Christ — in his death (Rom. 5:10), in his cross (Eph. 2:16), in the body of his flesh through death (Cob. 1:22). So far is Paul from any such suggestion as that reconciliation consists only in the removal of man’s enmity toward God. Precisely as an act of God in Christ’s death it is antecedent to all human Umstiminung, it took place without us and for us “when we were yet enemies” (Rom. 5:10), it consists above all in the effecting of peace as the fruit of justification (Rom. 5:1), and thus prepares the way to receiving a share in the new creation, the new things, peace as the all-embracing condition of salvation.
All the rest results from this. The reconciliation of which Paul speaks also consists, just as justification and in a still more explicit sense, in what is realized in the life of men from this restoration of fellowship. The “word of reconciliation” goes out to them that they should “let” themselves be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20), that is, that from their side, too, they should enter into that reconciled relationship; and thus instead of living as unreconciled and enemies under the wrath of God, should accept the peace and love of God as a gift and power, and be encompassed, governed, and led by them. Here again it is “peace” that fills up and explains the Pauline concept of reconciliation. For this peace is not only a denotation of the new relationship in which those who are justified and reconciled may stand toward God (Rom. 5:1), but also of the inner peace of the heart that pervades the whole man in all his doings (Rom. 15:13), and, surpassing all understanding, keeps and restrains the hearts and minds of believers (Phil. 4:7), and as arbiter gives judgment in their hearts when they find themselves in uncertainty or inner discord (Col. 3:15; cf. 2 Thess. 3:16).
Thus reconciliation empties itself into the whole of the Christian life, is its foundation and summation, just as the “ministration of reconciliation” coincides on the one hand with the “ministration of righteousness,” and on the other with the “ministration of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 5:18; 3:8, 9).
CHRIST’S DEATH AS ATONEMENT.
As justification by faith is grounded in the death of Christ, so too in the pronouncements on reconciliation the death of Christ is brought up again and again as the foundation on which or the way in which this reconciliation takes place. Thus it is said in Romans 5:10 that when we were (yet) enemies, we were reconciled through the death of God’s Son. And in Ephesians and Colossians we meet with a whole series of expressions that establish the connection between Christ’s death and the peace and reconciliation wrought by him: “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13); “for he is our peace, . . . having abolished in [or through] his flesh the enmity” (v. 14), “. . . that he might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereon [therein].” And in Colossians 1:20 it is said that God through Christ has reconciled all things, “making peace through the blood of his cross.”.. . “And you . . . he has now reconciled in the body of his flesh through death” (v. 22). All this places before us the question as to what significance must be ascribed to the suffering and death of Christ in the whole of the reconciling activity of God.
In our discussion of the significance of Christ’s death as the ground for justification13 we confined ourselves to pointing out the general forensic meaning of Christ’s death: in Christ God shows his vindicatory righteousness in the present time and thus justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:25, 26). The apostle also says in that context, however, that “God made him openly to be a means of propitiation in his blood” (Rom. 3:25), just as in Romans 5:9, as a parallel of “reconciled by his death” cited above, there is mention of being “justified by his blood.” It is clear that this terminology, however closely connected it is with the forensic doctrine of justification, does not simply flow out of it, and, as appears from the foregoing, is likewise bound up with the concept of reconciliation. Thus, in discussing the doctrine of reconciliation, that is, of the restoration taken in a wider sense of the broken relationship between God and the world, there is reason to go further into the complex of pronouncements that make this restoration rest on the passion and death of Christ. Moreover, at the same time the question can be discussed — a question that has frequently been raised in the history of Pauline studies14 — as to what connection is made in his proclamation between the reconciliation that goes forth from God to the world and the necessity of the death of Christ.
What is meant in Romans 5:9, 10 by “justified by his blood” and “reconciled by the death of his Son” can best be elucidated by the pronouncement in Romans 3:25, with which these expressions are linked, that God “made [Christ] openly to be a means of propitiation in his blood.” For here the significance of the words “in” or “by” his blood is explained by the combination with the idea hilasterion, means of propitiation.15 The idea employed here (“to propitiate” — and the group of words16 to which it belongs), in contrast to the concept katallage17 that has been dealt with so far, occurs only once in Paul and has its background in a complex of ideas wholly its own. While the concept katallage (reconciliation) originates in the social-societal sphere, hilasterion (means of propitiation) is derived from the cultus, particularly from the propitiatory sacrifice that took place there. Thus, Christ’s death is qualified by the designation “means of propitiation” as a propitiatory sacrifice, and the accompanying phrase “[consisting] in his blood” has materially the meaning of “propitiatory blood.” The related expressions in Romans 5:9 are to be understood in the same sense and say that justification has been accomplished by his propitiatory blood and reconciliation by his propitiatory death.
That the concept “to propitiate,” in the form of “means of propitiation,” occurs only once in Paul does not mean that the thought it expresses is absent elsewhere in his epistles. Apart from what has already been said with respect to Romans 5:9 and 10, a few other pronouncements are to be pointed out here as well, which, although in another context than the present one, speak of Christ’s death as a sacrificial death. Thus in 1 Corinthians 5:7, where in reference to Old Testament passages it is said: “for our paschal lamb has also been slaughtered (etythe), even Christ.” The same holds for the words of the Lord’s Supper quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:25: “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood.” Finally, in Ephesians 5:2 where, likewise referring to traditional expressions, it is said that “Christ gave himself up for us as an offering and a sacrifice (prosphoran kai thysian) for a fragrant odor to God.” In all these places not only is sacrificial terminology employed, but materially there is mention of Christ’s death as a propitiatory death. This after all was the significance both of the Passover sacrifice and of the covenant sacrifice, which is spoken of in 1 Corinthians 11:25 (cf. Exod. 12:7, 13; 24:6-8). The words of Ephesians 5:2, as appears from the “for us,” also point to the element of atonement.18 To these then are still to be added those passages in which there is mention of Christ’s blood in the sense of propitiatory blood. Besides those places (Rom. 3:25; 5:9) already discussed, 1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:25ff. are to be mentioned as such (in direct connection with the words of the Lord’s Supper19). But the pronouncements on reconciliation in Ephesians 2 and Colossians 1 are also to be cited to this end, at least so far as mention is there made of peace, and reconciliation “through the blood of Christ” and “through the blood of his cross” (Eph. 2:13; Col. 1:20). Finally, the idea of the propitiatory sacrifice underlies those pronouncements in which Jesus is denoted as the one who died “for us” or “for our sins” (cf. Rom. 5:6, 8; 14:15; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:14; 1 Thess. 5:10, et al.).20
Now, it has often been supposed that in Paul’s doctrine of justification and reconciliation the idea of Christ’s death as a propitiatory sacrifice is not in the literal sense under discussion. The literal sense consists surely in the fact that the propitiatory sacrifice enters in substitutionally between the holy God and sinful man, because the life given up in the sacrifice through the attendant shedding of blood covers sin before the face of God and in this way atones.21 A “metaphorical garment” has been spoken of here, with which no cultic ideas are said to have been connected,22 and it has been posited that Paul spoke only in a figurative, metaphorical sense of Christ’s death as sacrifice — among other things, because he makes equally straightforward and “free” use of the sacrificial figures when he speaks of his own death.23 Similarly, it has frequently been contended that in Paul the substitutionary character of Christ’s death stands entirely in the background24 or is even entirely missing.25 In the same line is the assertion of others that the reconciling passion and death of Christ are proclaimed only as divine activity, not as an “accomplishment of Christ” over against God, and that the necessity or possibility of this activity is not reflected on.26
But with impartial exegesis there can be no doubt that in the most literal sense of the word Paul speaks of Christ’s death as a propitiatory death. What is decisive here, to be sure, is not that he uses the word “sacrifice,” which in itself admits of all sorts of meanings, but the sense he attaches to it. And as to that there remains no uncertainty whatever, particularly in the light of Romans 3:25, 26. Christ is the means of propitiation appointed by God to the manifestation of his deferred righteousness. In Christ’s death the righteousness of God thus reveals itself in the demanding and vindicatory sense of the word. His blood as atoning blood covers the sin which God until now had passed over, when as yet he kept back the judgment. All that men wish to detract from the real character of Christ’s propitiatory death signifies a devaluation of the language of Romans 3:25 and 26, which is unmistakable in its clarity.
But the passages where in so many words Jesus is called the sacrificial lamb and his blood the blood of the covenant also contradict the assertion that sacrifice is here spoken of only in a figurative sense. “Our passover [lamb] has been sacrificed, even Christ” (1 Cor. 5:7) does not have in view only the voluntariness of Christ’s death. Rather, the objective and passive stand in the foreground here. Christ’s death is the necessary condition for the life of his own. In that sense he is also “our” paschal lamb. Similarly, his blood is the condition of the New Covenant (1 Cor. 11:25). The whole description of the cup in the Lord’s Supper as “the New Covenant in my blood” is robbed of its deepest meaning when the idea of sacrifice is not taken here in its proper sense, that is, when the blood is not understood as the means by which the reconciliation between God and his people is accomplished and which is necessary for the forgiveness of sins and the new fellowship (Jer. 31:31ff.).27
Entirely in harmony with this is the idea of the substitutionary character of Christ’s death on the cross, as that recurs time and again in Paul’s epistles, when it is said that Christ “died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:14); or “died for us” and “gave himself up for our sins” (Rom. 5:6, 8; 14:15; 1 Thess. 5:10; Rom. 4:25; 8:32; Gal. 1:4; 2:20). To be sure, the expression “for us” in itself does not yet signify “in our place”; it indicates that the death of Christ has taken place “in our favor.” Nevertheless, the substitutionary significance of these expressions cannot be doubted. And it is corroborated by such expressions as that in 2 Corinthians 5:21: God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us; cf. Romans 8:3 and Galatians 3:13, where it is said that Christ has become a curse for us. In these passages the thought of the substitutionary (atoning) sacrifice is unmistakable, a thought that is enunciated in almost so many words when the phrase “One died for all” is explained by the words, “so then all have died” (2 Cor. 5:14). Even if one could give certain passages taken by themselves another sense, the whole complex of the pronouncements mentioned above can allow no doubt to remain as to the “atoning,” substitutionary character of Jesus’ death,28 and every effort to detract from it readily does wrong to the most fundamental segments of Paul’s gospel. Likewise the fact that reconciliation as the restoration of the broken relationship between God and the world has been brought about by God and that he therefore is the Author and Initiator of reconciliation is in no respect whatever in conflict with the idea of the propitiatory sacrifice that must cover and atone for sin before God. Not only does God turn in Christ to the world in order to effect reconciliation (katallage), but Christ also stands in the place of men to offer himself up to God, to expiate (hilasmos) the sin of his people. In his death Christ represents God with men, but in it he also represents men with God (1 Tim. 2:5). God demonstrates his love toward us in the death of Christ (Rom. 5:8); he has delivered him up for us all (Rom. 8:32). But at the same time Christ’s obedience is unto death on the cross (Phil. 2:8), the act of the one man, through whom the many are justified (Rom. 5:18, 19). The line not only runs from above downward, but in Christ it turns back to God. Here there is indeed a double movement to be spoken of in the reconciling work of Christ, in which is implicit the mystery of reconciliation.
This is not to be taken, however, in such a way that we have to do here with an unsolvable dialectic. For there is a clear connection between the reconciliation going forth from God and Christ’s giving up of himself as a means of propitiation in order to cover the sin of the people before God. But the latter is subordinate to the former, and not the reverse. For the same God with whom the restoration of the broken fellowship originates and who has summoned men to be reconciled to him (katallage; 2 Cor. 5:18ff.) is also the one who has instituted the order of “propitiation” (hilasmos) by the death of Christ. By sending his own Son — and that for the sake of sin (namely, in order to cause it to be atoned for) — he condemned sin in the (that is, in Christ’s) flesh (Rom. 8:3). And it is he himself who on the cross, before the eyes of all,29 has made and designated Christ to be a means of propitiation (Rom. 3:25). Therefore every representation as though an Umstimrnung were brought about in God by the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ and as though his wrath were only to be “appeased” in the sacrifice of Christ, is completely contrary to the Pauline gospel. It is divine love that evidences itself in the death of Christ and which to that end did not spare his own Son (Rom. 5:8; 8:32), but delivered him up for us all. But the depth of this love only becomes manifest in all its grandeur when, in the holy order of the justice appointed by God, Christ is made to be sin and delivers himself up as the atoning sacrifice to cover the sin of the world before the face of God.30
Finally, one can still ask the question as to the manner in which the idea of the substitutionary, atoning character of Christ’s death is integrated into the whole of Paul’s eschatological preaching. Is there an intrinsic connection between this idea of reconciliation and the basic structures of Paul’s preaching, as these have been pointed out in the foregoing? Some are of the opinion that the idea of Christ’s death as propitiatory death does not represent the characteristic feature of Paul’s view, and that in the formulations in question: died for our sins, etc., he follows the tradition (probably originating with the primitive church and in any case propagated in Hellenistic Christianity).31
In this conception there is certainly this truth, that, as we have seen, the idea “to propitiate” occurs only once in Paul, and that when he speaks elsewhere in an explicit sense of the sacrifice of Christ (1 Cor. 5:7; 11:25; Eph. 5:2) he apparently employs traditional formulations and expressions. Nor is one able to say that the doctrine of reconciliation in the sense of the propitiatory sacrifice is deliberately or expressly unfolded in his epistles, as is the case, for example, with the theme of justification and in part with that of reconciliation (in the sense of katallage). This is not to say that for Paul the idea of propitiation does not occupy an important place. Materially it is found so frequently that one must consider it as pertaining to the central content of the Pauline kerygma.32 But its significance is more often presupposed than expressly brought up for discussion. And in the few times the sacrifice of Christ is spoken of in so many words, the thought of propitiation still occurs indirectly, that is, in another context of thought (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7; 11:25; Eph. 5:2). It is in this circumstance, indeed, that one will have to look for the reason that certain theological currents, averse to this idea of reconciliation, have repeatedly supposed that it is to be met with in Paul merely in a figurative, symbolical sense. How much this last signifies a failure to appreciate the fundamental importance of reconciliation in Paul we have attempted to show above. But this does not alter the fact that it is more characteristic of the foundation than of the distinctive construction of Paul’s gospel.
For insight into the relationship intended here the most important and conspicuous pronouncement is undoubtedly Romans 3:25. Here the idea of the propitiatory sacrifice is very directly linked with the doctrine of justification so characteristic of Paul’s preaching. Here the absolutely unique eschatological significance of Christ’s death as atoning death clearly emerges. At the great turning point of the times God grants righteousness to everyone who believes, by grace, as a free gift. But the revelation of this righteousness given by God also bears the hallmark of an eschatological judicial verdict, in that it is attended by a manifestation of God’s vindicatory and demanding righteousness in the atoning death of Christ. That is also the significance of “to set forth publicly as a means of propitiation.” It is this decisive, central act of propitiation, executed before the eyes of heaven and earth, in which God himself, passing over all the sacrifices that had formerly been offered, provides the means of propitiation and places it in the midst of all. This is also the meaning of the “once” of the death of Christ, of which Romans 6:10 speaks; “once” is intended to say “once and for all,” so as to distinguish it from all preceding sacrifices.33 It is “the testimony in its own time” (1 Tim. 2:6), that is to say, the testimony that in the decisive moment goes forth from Christ’s self-surrender to the world and mankind. In this sense, therefore, the idea of Christ’s death as atoning death comprises one of the most essential definitions of God’s work of redemption in the fullness of the time.
Herman Ridderbos taught New Testament for many years at the Theological School of the Reforrmed churches of the Netherlands in Kampen. An editor of and weekly contributor to Gereformeerd Weekblad, he is the author of numerous books, including several commentaries in Dutch and English, and a comprehensive study of eschatology entitled The Coming of the Kingdom.
This article is taken from his work, Paul: An outline of His Theology, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 1975)
Discuss this article and other topics in our Discussion Board