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.