Who Is Reconciled?

Dr. Norman Metzler

Emeritus Professor of Theology, Concordia University, Portland, Ore.

Scripture uses various images to portray salvation. Lutherans have tended to emphasize the legal image of “justification” that was frequently used by St. Paul. There is also the economic image of “redemption,” or “ransom,” and the military picture of Christ as the victor over the forces of evil. An image used by St. Paul several times in his letters is the relational concept of “reconciliation.” Since Christians understand the almighty God of the universe to be a personal God who actually took on human form in Jesus of Nazareth, it is important that we develop a clear and accurate understanding of salvation as reconciliation.

According to the Genesis creation accounts, humans were created in God’s image, and therefore uniquely capable of being in a relationship with God and being accountable to God for their actions. In the Fall, the first humans acted contrary to God’s will and in so doing broke their initially positive relationship with God. They immediately knew they had violated God’s will, and so became alienated from God. The consequence of their transgression was that they had to leave the Garden of Eden with its tree of life, and their lives on earth henceforth would be difficult and painful because of sin and evil, as exemplified by pain in childbirth and struggles in growing food.

In human relationships, an offense of one party by another may result in both parties being alienated from each other. Both are hurt, angry, and distanced from each other. Both parties need to be reconciled to each other for the breach in the relationship to be healed. However, it is also possible that one party offends another and is alienated from the offended party, but the offended person may choose not to respond with anger and vindictiveness, but rather to forgive the offender and seek reconciliation. Such a scenario is exemplified in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son.

The LCMS-sponsored Concordia Self-Study Bible includes several comments on the concept of reconciliation between God and humanity as reflected in St. Paul’s letters. The LCMS interpretation is that, with the Fall into sin, the break in the relationship between God and humans resulted in the first scenario noted above, with both parties alienated and distanced from each other. In this case, however, God is perfectly justified in his wrath toward humans because of their Fall into sin. According to the LCMS perspective, the effect of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross was to reconcile both parties to each other. Only with Jesus’ sacrificial death was God’s wrath toward sinful humanity placated and God reconciled to humanity. Christ’s death also reconciled all humanity and invites us personally to be reconciled to God. This interpretation implies that God had a change of heart toward humanity when Jesus died on the cross. It took Christ’s sacrificial death to satisfy God’s justice and allow those with faith in Christ to inherit eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom.

The problem with this LCMS interpretation is that St. Paul, in his treatment of reconciliation, does not say that God needed to be reconciled to humanity, but that it was humans who needed to be reconciled to God. [2 Cor. 5:18-21] Even though we may recognize that we are enemies of God and would deserve God’s wrath because of our sin, God’s message to us through Christ is that he does not hold our sins against us. In fact, “While we were still sinners Christ died for us.” [Rom. 5:8] As St. Paul expresses it, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” [2 Cor. 5:19] The LCMS interpretation gives the impression that Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross overcame God’s enmity toward sinful humanity and reconciled God to us sinful humans, and therefore God invites us sinners to be reconciled to himself.

Now it is true that if God had not done what he in fact did in Christ, he would not be the kind of God we know God to be. But because of what God revealed in the Incarnation we know that God was always our gracious and saving God. The cross was not God somehow placating himself, pitting the Son against the Father, but rather the Father revealing through the sacrificial death of the Son that his forgiving love meets any requirements of justice that he had revealed through conscience and especially in the Mosaic Covenant, and therefore that his grace overrides his wrath or hatred of sin and all evil.

The doctrine of the Trinity plainly teaches that God was always the reconciling Son as well as the creating/sustaining Father and the life-giving Spirit; the Triune God never stopped loving his people despite their sinful disobedience. While Scripture certainly expresses God’s perfect hatred of sin and evil, there are intimations of God’s gracious heart throughout the history of the people of Israel. In the Incarnation, however, God definitively revealed his ultimate plan and destiny for all people. What God showed us through his Son is that his gracious, sacrificial love covers the sins of all sinners, freeing us for eternal life with him as a gift.

The larger context of the problematic LCMS view of reconciliation is that much of mainstream Christian theology considers it necessary to “balance” the gracious love of God revealed in the Gospel with the holiness and justice of God embodied in the Law. The concern is that too great an emphasis on the Gospel may underemphasize the Law of God and God’s perfect hatred of sin that justifies his condemnation of all unbelievers. In such view it is therefore very important to maintain the position that God’s perfect wrath toward humanity remained in effect until his wrath was placated and his justice satisfied through the death of Christ on the cross. (See, for example, Lutheran theologian Daniel Gard, Show Them No Mercy [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003], 55-56.)

This understanding of reconciliation fails to take into account Jesus’ own explanation of the relationship between Law and Gospel. His parable of the Prodigal Son most clearly exemplifies how the gracious love of the father totally overrides the condemnation of the Law that the son expected and thought he deserved, and welcomes his son home free and clear. The “Law” or “wrath” of God in the parable is reflected in the father allowing the son to pursue his rebellious and destructive course without intervening and accomplishing a “rescue,” allowing him to experience the tragic consequences of his hurtful actions. Through the sacrifice of Jesus, the Son on the cross, God the Father expresses his perfect hatred of all sin and evil, satisfies his own justice, and fulfils his own Law so that there is no longer any condemnation of us sinners. The real “balance” in God’s plan is that the saving work of Christ extends as far as the condemning work of Adam. Just as all people are condemned because of Adam’s Fall into sin, so all people are reconciled to God through the saving work of Christ. [Rom. 5:15-18] The mission of Christ’s followers is to share with all people his invitation to be reconciled to the God who has already redeemed them and has a place also for them in his heavenly kingdom.

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4 thoughts on “Who Is Reconciled?

  1. It’s an ongoing discussion. Is the LCMS in the mix? One wonders. I recently read Hans Urs von Balthasar (a Swiss RC Theologian, if you’re wondering). His work is Dare We Hope…with the subtitle, “That All Men Be Saved.” The first half is a review of the classic arguments with special emphasis on what the church fathers said/thought. The bounce-back to HUVB from the RC hierarchy was basically, No, this can’t be! HRVB wrote a rebuttal, “A Short Discourse on Hell” in which he answers the critics and leans heavily on the classic texts of the Old and New Testaments, with the final quotation from St John, “We may have confidence for the day of judgment” 1 Jn 4:17. The contemporary work by Richard Rohr, OFM, (an American in Albuquerque) pushes to rethink the dualism inherent in sin/death, hell/heaven, etc. to allow for a broader inclusion under the rubric of the work of the Christ. The suggestive thought is that If we “dare to hope,” we dare not ignore the work of Jesus the Christ.

  2. I appreciate many of the points you make in the essay, but does your argument imply universalism, that all are (or will be) saved? The emphasis on Christ as reconciler may lead us to overlook Christ as judge, so vividly portrayed in Matthew 25. I recall the ELIM paper denying the authority/relevance of Matthew 25 in an article basically denying the Athanasian Creed in favor of the “Gospel reductionism” purported by many of the Neo-Orthodox on the Seminex faculty of the time. (If I have misunderstood or misrepresented something in this, please let me know).

  3. I’ve got the Lutheran Study Bible out. I notice you never cite the notes you disparage because you know you’d be caught in spreading falsehood.
    For example, let’s look at one note on 2 Corinthians 5:18 …”so that when Paul pleads for them to believe in Jesus, it is God’s appeal. As recipients of that grace, God has also called all those who believe to be witnesses of God’s gracious restoration to those who do not yet know Him.”
    Sounds like God is in charge.
    Take a look at the notes for John 3:16!
    At the LCMS church I attend we give out the Lutheran Study Bible to help young confirmands defend the Christian faith against deceivers.
    I encourage all ELCA type people to get the Lutheran Study Bible so you can learn the truth and walk away from ELCA.

  4. REPLY TO TOM: Yes, I am familiar with RC theologian Von Balthazar, as well as Protestant Karl Barth, well-known and broadly influential theologians who appear to acknowledge the universal inclusiveness of Christ’s reconciling work. I”m not familiar with Rohr’s views on the subject. My earlier article on Objective/Subjective Justification likewise addresses the subject.
    REPLY TO RICHARD: I do take into account the Final Judgment as an actual reality in our transition from this life to the next, and that our life review in the Judgment may well include a recognition of our good deeds (perhaps seen as “rewards”) as well as the necessary purgation or cleansing of all sin and evil (as suggested in 1 Cor 3:10-15). But if Christ the Savior of all is the Judge, then (contra Daniel Gard as representative of the traditional view of a two-faced judge) I believe that he will finally judge all with the grace reflected in the Prodigal Son parable, where the condemnation of our sin is ultimately overridden by the father’s forgiving love. I don’t recall the ELIM paper on Mt. 25, but I hold that Jesus’ frequent use of dramatic apocalyptic imagery against his enemies was ultimately intended to call them to repentance and faith, rather than literally to condemn them to eternal torment in hell. I think the charge of “Gospel reductionism” is based on the presumed need to “balance” the image of God as gracious in Christ with the image of God as the sovereign, just Lord. The proper “balance” is to be found in Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross balancing out in the Judgment all the sins of all humanity. All religions, and indeed our world, teach the Law; the stock-in-trade of Christianity, our unique offer is only, and can only be, the Gospel. To the Athanasian Creed, I would say that calls to faith and requirements of faith presume a context where faith is possible because the gospel is proclaimed…which excludes most of humanity. And as for those actually hearing and rejecting the Gospel, I would refer to Romans 9-11, where Paul asserts that even those presently rejecting the Gospel are part of God’s greater plan and will ultimately be saved.
    REPLY TO GENE: Your are correct that in my article I failed to cite directly the specific LCMS text notes in the Concordia Self-Study Bible to which I am responding, but obviously I am referring to the very section from which you quote, Cor. 5:11-21, the most extensive reflections by St. Paul on “reconciliation.” The commentary to which I am responding is the specific comment on 2 Cor. 5:19, where the LCMS notes states: “When the Savior died, God’s justice was satisfied. His anger was appeased. God was reconciled to the whole world.” God’s sacrificial death in Christ did indeed reveal in time his saving grace that pays the price of all sin for all time; it satisfies divine justice and God’s perfect wrath toward sin. But what is revealed through Christ is nothing less than the gracious heart of God that has existed from all eternity in the God we have come to know in time (the economic Trinity) as the infinitely triune God (the immanent Trinity). Therefore, it is simply not the case, according to basic Christian christological and trinitarian theology, that “God was reconciled to the whole world.” It was rather, as St. Paul states so plainly, that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.” It is simply wrong to try to account for God’s perfect hatred or wrath toward sin and supposedly defend God’s sovereign justice by diminishing the extent of Christ’s saving work. Numerous biblical passages affirm explicitly that Christ died to forgive the sins of “the whole world.” (2 Cor. 5:19; Jn. 3:16). Paul could not state the extent of Christ’s saving work more definitively than when he declares, “Just as the result of one man’s trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.” (Rom 5:18) There is no avoiding the universal implications of passages such as this — unless one feels bound to minimize such assertions in order to defend God’s justice by requiring God to condemn the vast majority of humanity to endless torment in hell. The Gospel itself simply does not lead us there — again, reference the parable of the Prodigal Son.

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