Thinking with Scripture about the Cross: Reconciliation

Posted by: Chance Faulkner

We continue in this post to think through the Bible’s rich, multifaceted, and glorious description and interpretation of Christ’s cross. Scripture is clear: the central meaning of Christ’s cross, indeed the rationale for why our Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate, died for us was “for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). On this point, the entire church agrees. But beyond this basic affirmation, sadly, people have not always agreed on how best to understand the all-important phrase, “for our sins,” hence different theologies of atonement.

Our contention is that if we investigate all the ways that Scripture describes the cross and we do so by placing its description in the Bible’s framework, storyline, and covenantal unfolding, then the best understanding of the meaning and achievement of the cross is the theological view of penal substitution.

Why Penal Substitution?

Why penal substitution? At least two reasons can be given.

First, theologically, penal substitution best accounts for why the divine Son had to die and why he alone can save. In fact, it best captures the serious and horrendous nature of the human problem, namely our sin before God, and why our only hope is in God’s sovereign grace to save. Penal substitution, unlike other interpretations of the cross, takes sin and God seriously and places God at the center of all things, including our salvation. It underscores the fact that our triune God planned our redemption from eternity and achieved it on the stage of human history. It reminds us that for image-bearers who have sinned against the eternal, self-sufficient, holy, and righteous God of the universe to be justified, we need a divine Redeemer to stand in our place and to satisfy his own righteous demand against us. Apart from the enfleshment of God’s eternal Son and his dying on a cross for our salvation, there is no other way to stand justified before God. Indeed, penal substitution reminds us that from beginning to end, God alone must not only act to redeem us, but thankfully, he has acted in power and grace to provide, achieve, and accomplish our salvation by the Father’s initiative, in and through the Son, and by the Spirit.

Second, biblically, penal substitution best accounts for all of the biblical data regarding the cross. As we think of the eight ways that Scripture interprets and explains the meaning and significance of Christ’s death for us (e.g., obedience, sacrifice, propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, justice/justification, victory, and moral example), we discover that these eight ways do not diverge but instead converge, and converge around the view of penal substitution.

So far, we have seen this by looking at the first four words and concepts. To speak of Christ’s death as an act of “obedience” is to present him as the Last Adam, our new covenant head, who by his active and passive obedience secures our justification (Rom. 5:12–21). Yet, his act of obedience is as our great High Priest who offers himself as a “propitiatory sacrifice” for our sins (Heb. 2:5–18; 5:1–10; cf. Rom. 3:21–16). And as our covenant head and representative, by his atoning sacrifice, Christ has not only satisfied God’s wrath and judgment against us, he has also bought us back from the bondage to sin as our great Redeemer by the cost of his own life by his shed blood on the cross (Rom. 3:24–25; Gal. 3:13; 4:4–5; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:13–14; 1 Pet. 1:18–19). One cannot make sense of how the Bible interprets the cross on its own terms, without saying that the central reason why the divine Son died for us is best explained by penal substitution.

In this post, we now turn to the fifth way that Christ’s cross is interpreted in Scripture, namely, as an act of “reconciliation.” And what we will see again is that like the previous biblical words and concepts that Scripture uses to interpret Christ’s cross, “reconciliation” cannot be made sense of apart from penal substitution. Let us now turn to the word, concept, and theme of “reconciliation” as another way Scripture interprets Christ’s death for us.

Christ’s Cross and Our Reconciliation

Our Lord’s death on the cross is described and interpreted as the place where “reconciliation” is achieved and by which a variety of crucial relationships are restored.

To God

First, by his cross, Christ reconciles us vertically to God by bearing our sin (Rom. 5:1–2; Eph. 2:17–18; 3:12; Heb. 10:19–22). This is the primary relationship that is restored by Christ’s work because first and foremost we were created to know, love, and obey our triune Creator and Lord. Thus, in our sin, God’s wrath and judgment are against us, and thus we are alienated from God (John 3:36; Rom. 3:23; 6:23; Eph. 2:1–3). But Christ’s cross now reconciles us to God.

With one another

Second, Christ reconciles us horizontally with one another, as the demands of the old covenant are met, a new covenant is inaugurated, and a new humanity is created (Eph. 2:11–22). After Adam’s fall in Genesis 3, and especially in the Abrahamic covenant, God intentionally separated Jew and Gentile for the purpose of bringing forth Christ Jesus to bring blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:1–3). Although, under the old covenant some Gentiles were brought into Israel and under the covenants of promise (e.g., Rahab, Ruth), most were not (Eph. 2:11–12). But now in Christ and his cross, a new covenant has been established which includes within it God’s elect from every tribe, nation, people, and tongue (Eph. 2:13–22; Rev. 5:9–10).

Cosmic Reconciliation

Third, Christ’s death has brought about cosmic reconciliation by the inauguration of the new creation, which results in the defeating of sin, death, and Satan, and the ushering in of a new heavens and new earth (Col. 1:15–20; 2:15; see Rom. 8:18–27; Eph. 1:10, 22). In the framework of the OT, this assumes that in Adam, sin has entered the world and as a result, the entire creation has come under God’s curse (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12–21). Yet, now in Christ Jesus, sin has been paid for, death has been destroyed, and a new creation has been inaugurated.

To bring together

While the concept and theme of reconciliation between God and humanity is repeatedly found throughout the OT and NT, the words for “reconciliation” (Gk. katallassō, katallagē, apokatallassō) are used alone by Paul and specifically found in four key texts: Romans 5:10–11; 2 Corinthians 5:18–21; Ephesians 2:11–22; and Colossians 1:19–20. Yet, even in Paul, the concept/theme of “reconciliation” is found more often than the word. For example, in the language of “peace,” “brought near,” and “access,” the concept of alienation from God and now reconciliation by Christ’s cross is evident, even though the word “reconciliation” is not used.

At its heart, “reconciliation” means “to restore to friendship.” It is a family or personal relationship image, in contrast to the imagery of the law court (justice, justification), temple (sacrifice), or market place (redemption). “To reconcile” means to bring together, or make peace between two estranged or hostile parties, and it assumes that an old relationship has been broken, and now, as a result of some action, two parties who were once opposed to each other are now restored to each other. Of course, this understanding is precisely what Scripture teaches when placed in the Bible’s overall covenantal storyline.

Scripture begins with the triune God creating humans for covenant relationship with himself and in relationship to others (Gen. 1–2). But now, due to Adam’s sin, we are in a state of hostility to God (Gen. 3). Yet, by God’s gracious initiative, God has initiated to save a people for himself as revealed through the biblical covenants. And ultimately, as God’s promise-plan unfolds over time, we discover that God the Father has sent his Son to reconcile us to himself, to remove the enmity which has separated us, and to satisfy his own demand against us. By our Lord’s obedient life and death, our state of enmity has been removed. As a result, we have been restored and reconciled to a state of renewed covenant fellowship with our Creator-Redeemer God, which has now brought us peace with and access to God, and all the benefits of the glorious new creation. All of this understanding requires penal substitution to make sense of it.

Our estrangement from God

However, in current discussion, some have argued that “reconciliation” does not convey the idea that God is estranged from us, and as such, the word/concept does not teach what penal substitution affirms, namely, that God is the primary object of the cross.[1] But this is incorrect.

No doubt, on the one hand, reconciliation speaks of our estrangement from God. By nature we are “haters of God” (Rom. 1:30), “hostile to God” (Rom. 8:7), “estranged and hostile in mind” (Col. 1:21). As such we suppress the truth of God (Rom. 1:18–23; 2:1–5) and stand opposed to our Creator and Lord. And it is this alienation that results in all other alienations (Rom. 3:10–18; Eph. 4:17–19). In fact, Scripture even presents “reconciliation” in universal categories, thus picking up the promise from Genesis 3:15 that God will achieve by the blood of the cross, a restoration of his fallen creation by abolishing the enmity that sin introduced into human existence, between God and humanity, in human relationships, and in regard to cosmic realities (Col. 1:15–20). Thus, solely due to Christ’s cross, God has brought us out of a state of enmity to a state of renewed fellowship with him. In Christ alone we now have “peace” and “access” to the Father by the Son and Spirit. Because Christ Jesus stood in our place, obeying the Father and bearing our sin, he has now turned back God’s wrath that stood against us and thus has removed all the barriers to a restored friendship with him (see Eph. 2:1–18).

God is estranged from us

However, on the other hand, reconciliation understood also entails that God is estranged from us. For as many have demonstrated, reconciliation’s primary focus is Godward so that in every NT text dealing with reconciliation, the primary reference is to the removal of enmity on God’s part.[2] In fact, our change of attitude is the consequence of a reconciliation that God himself has achieved in Christ’s work. Our holy and righteous God is at enmity with us, and that is why his wrath is against us. Thus, what is needed is for God’s hostility to be removed, which is what has occurred in Christ’s cross as Jesus has died our death by bearing our sin (Rom. 5:8, 10; 2 Cor. 5:16–21). Scripture is clear: reconciliation did not simply occur because we have changed our attitude towards God. Reconciliation is accomplished on our behalf by God’s initiative to reconcile us to him by Christ’s cross.

Concluding Reflection

As with the other ways Scripture describes the cross, “reconciliation,” although a “family image,” does not stand against penal substitution. In fact, it can only be accounted for in light of it. It stands in organic relationship to the other images of obedience, sacrifice, propitiation, and redemption. Reconciliation offers a different aspect of the cross, but it is complementary with the other words and concepts.

And it also reminds us, as with the other words, that our greatest need as sinful creatures has been met for us in Christ Jesus alone, who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20). “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15).

[1] For example, see James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, eds., The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 43, 168; Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 84–85, 133–134.

[2] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 214–250.

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