Friday, May 31, 2019

2 Corinthians 5:17-21: A Mini-Primer on Reconciliation and the Gospel

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:17-21, ESV)

You know, if you look closely at these verses, the word "reconcile" (in some form) appears five times. If we were in a Bible Study 101 class it would be fairly easy to conclude what this passage is all about. It is in large part about reconciliation.

The theme of reconciliation is treated in a number of ways by the Bible. The most famous biblical reconciliation scenes occur in two family reunions that light up the book of Genesis. The first is the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33, who were reunited after twenty years of separation. In that story Jacob is the guilt-haunted supplicant, humorously overprepared for the meeting, while Esau is generous and impulsive in his forgiveness. 

In the second great reconciliation story you might remember Joseph in Egypt, disclosing his identity to his brothers and forgiving them after their terrible treacherous selling of Joseph into slavery (Genesis. 46:1–47:12).

The theme of reconciliation underlies the book of Hosea, where the prophet obeys God’s command to be reunited with his faithless wife, Gomer. In the Song of Songs, moments of separation between the two lovers in that story are resolved in scenes of splendid reunion. A similar motif underlies the New Testament, for example, in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, and it becomes the dominant thread in the story of Jesus’ restoration of Peter (John 21:15–19).

Of course, I am not being exhaustive, but what I am suggesting is that the motif of reconciliation and restoration receives a distinct and emphatic treatment in the Bible—meaning of course that this is something to really pay attention to as students of God’s word. And what we find, particularly as we read scripture as Christians, is that this reconciliation is built on the foundation of God’s unbelievably gracious forgiveness of sinners because of the great work of Jesus Christ. It’s quite lavish, God’s grace, in the work of reconciliation—and if anyone is prodigal—a word which simply means “wasteful”—if anyone is prodigal in the Bible—it’s not the son from the famous parable—the truly prodigal one is God, who lavishly “wastes” His grace upon a sinful world. 

How should we understand this reconciliation? Union with Christ is perhaps the best summary of our experience of redemption. Believers are elected (Eph. 1:4, 11), justified (Rom. 8:1), sanctified (1 Cor. 1:2), and glorified (3:18) “in Christ.” This is the momentous significance of the believer’s union with the Savior. Because Christ is the “last Adam,” the one in whom humanity is re-created (1 Cor. 15:45; Eph. 2:10) and who inaugurates the new age of messianic blessing (Gal. 1:4; cf. Matt. 11:2–6), the believer’s spiritual union with Christ is nothing less than participation in the “new creation” (Gal. 6:15).

And from where does this reconciliation originate? Verse 18 tells us that all this is from God. The whole plan of salvation and history of redemption culminating in an end-time new creation has its origin in and is centered upon God. Paul realizes that it is from Him, through Him, and for His glory (Rom. 11:36).

Why do we lost sinners need reconciliation? Verse 19 tells us that sin and human guilt in our violation of God’s commands has caused the alienation between sinners and their Creator. We are estranged from God because we are law-breakers. We have sinned and deserved death. And reconciliation can occur only through the forgiveness of these trespasses, in which they are no longer imputed (or attributed) against the guilty (Rom. 4:6–8). Yet divine justice demands that sin be punished, and is satisfied by the imputation (or attribution) of our sin to Christ, the sinless one who bore the punishment that His people deserve on the cross.

In verse 20, Paul appeals directly to the Corinthians to “be reconciled to God.” He later summons each member of the congregation to “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (13:5). But he is also summing up the appeal he gives to all the world. Reconciliation is the establishment or restoration of loving fellowship after estrangement. For Christians, reconciliation to God is in one sense renewed each day through repentance and faith (Matt. 6:12; 1 John 1:9). All who have rested in Christ alone for salvation enjoy a reconciliation with the Lord that cannot be lost. We cannot lose the grace of reconciliation or our peace with God if we have been justified, for if we have been justified, we will certainly be glorified (Rom. 8:28–30). Nevertheless, by our sin, we grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30), and our fellowship with the Creator suffers. By our repentance, our experience of fellowship with God that is granted in our reconciliation is fully restored (1 John 1:8, 9).

In verse 21, we see an important summary of the gospel message. The verse explains how God imputed our sin to Christ. God as the judge assigned the responsibility of our sin to Christ, making it possible for Him to justly receive the punishment that we deserve for that sin (Is. 53:6; 1 Pet. 2:24). The verse shows that Christ was our substitute, accepting the penalty of sin in our place.

Chapter 5 closes with one of the most succinctly stated summaries of the gospel. God made Christ to be sin for His people. Sinners receive the righteousness of Christ by faith. Do you understand what your reconciliation cost? It cost nothing less than the death of Christ. How can you live in light of this reconciliation today? Have you rested in the gospel? Do you know experientially what it is to be counted as righteous in God’s eyes? If so, celebrate the reconciliation that is found in Christ. If you have received that reconciliation, like Paul, how can you help others to be reconciled to Him?