Atonement & Reconciliation
There is a wealth of food for the soul in the Scriptures about the rich blessings secured by Christ for the believer: food to build us up in our most holy faith, food rich in divine proteins and vitamins, food that will ensure our spiritual health. How God must feel it then when believers turn to the husks of this world after He has spread such a feast and at such a cost! Today many believers go in for what may be termed spiritual ‘convenience foods’ that have no lasting benefit and lead ultimately to spiritual starvation. That is what I call ‘crisps and cola’ Christianity. They do not want the “pure mental milk of the word” (1 Pet. 2: 2) let alone the “solid food” that “belongs to full–grown men” (Heb. 5: 14). Nutritionists say that a healthy body requires a balanced diet and it is no different in spiritual things. Without doubt God has provided a rich variety of spiritual foods for the believer to enjoy––from redemption through to reconciliation––but what do you and I know of them? As my title indicates, reconciliation is the spiritual food that I wish to set before you––initially by contrasting it with atonement.
Now the first thing about reconciliation is that it is entirely absent from the OT. True, the word itself occurs in most English translations but with the exceptions of 1 Sam. 29: 4 and 2 Chron. 29: 24, the Hebrew word is kaphar and should be translated atonement. The only occasion where the correct translation is reconciliation is in 1 Sam. 29: 4 where it has no spiritual significance. Thus the simple conclusion is that reconciliation is a truth that belongs to the NT. By contrast the word atonement (in Hebrew kaphar) is entirely absent from the pages of the NT. The word atonement does occur in some English translations (such as in the AV of Rom. 5: 11 where the word is really reconciliation), but it is not found in the Greek. Thus the simple, but important, conclusion drawn is that while reconciliation is a NT doctrine, atonement is an OT doctrine.
Now many are confused as to the difference between atonement and reconciliation. Some say that the word atonement comes from the old English and means at–one–ment. They naturally then draw the conclusion that atonement is no different from reconciliation. Others use dictionaries to get their meanings. However, if you use a dictionary to find the meanings of the words atonement and reconciliation, you will not get the Scriptural meaning for either! The meaning of a word in the Bible is determined not by dictionaries, hymns and theologians but how the Holy Spirit has been pleased to use the word in Scripture.
Theologically, not Scripturally, the word atonement is used in a general sense to embrace the whole of the work of the Lord Jesus. Most Christians also use it in that way, along with the majority of hymn writers, yet the Holy Spirit never does! Now as any Hebrew scholar will confirm, the primary meaning of the Hebrew word for atonement, kaphar, is cover. Hence it is used in Gen. 6: 14 where Noah was told to pitch (or cover) the ark with pitch. Sacrificially the word is used with reference to covering (or hiding) sins with the blood of a sacrifice. Yet the root meaning is always cover. The OT sacrifices covered or hid sins from the eye of God but they never took a single one away. That awaited the work of the Lord Jesus (1 John 3: 5). Atonement was the work of the OT sacrifices; removal of sins the work of the Lord Jesus.
Let us look a little closer at atonement and see how very careful the Holy Spirit is in regard to this matter. Now it is generally acknowledged that the Lord Jesus often quoted, not from the Hebrew version of the OT, but from the Greek version known as the Septuagint. This was the work of 70 Jewish scholars at Alexandria in which they translated the Hebrew OT into Greek. Now when these translators came to the Hebrew word kaphar (atone, or cover), they needed a Greek word. The word that they chose was exilaskomai. Centuries later when the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the NT, who wrote in Greek, He ensured that they never once used exilaskomai. Why? So that the thought of atonement or covering could in no way be linked to the work of Christ.
Some believers argue that the words “whose sins have been covered” in Rom. 4: 7 do link the thought of covering with the work of Christ. Now Rom. 4: 7 is a quotation from Ps 32: 1. Why does Paul quote the psalm? Not to show that our sins are covered but to show “the blessedness of the man to whom God reckons righteousness without works” (v6). The “righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4: 11) is the subject of the chapter. Man can cover sins (James 5: 20; 1 Pet. 4: 8); only God can take them away. Other believers, while admitting that the essential thought in atonement is covering, try to argue that the work of Christ does not cover sins in the literal sense but in the sense of the covering given by an insurance policy. Just as a man would say that he is covered by insurance, they would say that they are similarly covered by the work of Christ. Such an argument is untenable as one cannot take a modern meaning of the English word cover to translate an ancient Hebrew word.
In the epistle to the Hebrews, the work of atonement in the OT sacrifices is contrasted with that of the Lord Jesus: “For the law, having a shadow of the coming good things, not the image itself of the things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually yearly, perfect those who approach. Since, would they not indeed have ceased being offered, on account of the worshipers once purged having no longer any conscience of sins? But in these [there is] a calling to mind of sins yearly. For blood of bulls and goats [is] incapable of taking away sins” (Heb. 10: 1–5). The OT sacrifices atoned for (covered) sins and in doing so left them there––they were incapable of taking them away. They perfected (completed) nothing. They called sins, sins that were still there, to mind and thus a conscience of sins remained. Hence verses 11and 12 go on to say “And every priest stands daily ministering, and offering often the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But he, having offered one sacrifice for sins, sat down in perpetuity at [the] right hand of God”. What contrast in these verses! The OT sacrifices covered sins––only Christ could take them away.
It is clear then why atonement as such has no place in the NT. So why does reconciliation have no place in the OT? Indeed what is reconciliation? If we rely on the dictionary for its meaning we are given the idea of two estranged parties coming together and being made compatible. Now the word that would cover that sort of meaning in Greek is diallassomai, which means to change my feelings toward another so that he changes his feelings towards me. It is thus a mutual matter. This is the word that is used in the Septuagint in 1 Sam. 29: 4 and also in Matt. 5: 24 where it says “… be reconciled to thy brother” (its only occurrence in the NT). Hence it is used by the Spirit of God for reconciliation between man and man where there may be need for an adjustment on both sides. However, IT IS NEVER USED FOR RECONCILIATION BETWEEN GOD AND MAN. Why? Because that is NEVER A MUTUAL MATTER.
The NT speaks of reconciliation (in the spiritual sense) on just five occasions: Rom. 5: 10, Rom. 11: 15, 2 Cor. 5: 18–20, Eph. 2: 16 and Col. 1: 20, 21. In these Scriptures we were viewed as “enemies” (Rom. 5: 10) with both Gentile and Jew being marked by “enmity” (Eph. 2: 16) and at a distance from God, with the Gentile being described as being “afar off” (Eph. 2: 13). Furthermore sins are described as “offences” (2 Cor. 5: 19) and our whole outlook was one of active opposition, we being “alienated and enemies in mind by wicked works” (Col. 1:21). Man’s actions (“wicked works”) demonstrated that his whole thinking was against God (“alienated in mind”). While the Jew positionally, on account of the ways of God dispensationally, was “nigh”, he, like the Gentile, was spiritually and morally “afar off” (Eph. 2: 17).
Now while these Scriptures show man to be the enemy of God, God is never, and never has been, the enemy of man. Man is against God, but God is not against man. It is a one–sided matter. Thus reconciliation is not a mutual matter. This is why the popular theological view that Christ died to reconcile the Father to us is utterly wrong. It was man that needed to be reconciled to God. The distance has been caused by man’s sin––that is where the fault lies. This is stressed by the choice of words in Greek used for reconciliation. As already pointed out, where there is a possibility of a fault on both sides (as in Matt. 5: 24) the word used is diallassomai. However, when the fault is on one side only we have one of two words, neither of which imply any mutuality. The first is katallasso, which is the word used in Rom. 5: 10, Rom. 11: 15 and 2 Cor. 5: 18, 19 and 20. The change implied in the word is to be in the one who is at fault, that is man. The other word is apokatallasso which has the same meaning as katallasso, only it is stronger. This word is found in Eph. 2: 16 and Col. 1: 20, 21. Thus reconciliation requires a change in man––“Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5: 20), but not in God––“For I Jehovah change not” (Mal. 3: 6). We are reconciled to God––not God to us.
So why is reconciliation peculiar to the NT? The answer lies in what reconciliation deals with. Look at the language again. We are “enemies” (Rom. 5: 10), marked by “enmity” (Eph. 2: 16) and “afar off” (Eph. 2: 13, 17). What reconciliation addresses is not so much what we have done (that is linked more with forgiveness and justification) but what we were and where we were. The first two questions God asked of man, as recorded in Scripture, were “Where art thou?” (Gen 3: 9) and “What hast thou done?” (Gen. 4: 10). Reconciliation addresses the first question; forgiveness the second. The first question is directed at man’s state and the second question is directed at his actions that flow from that state. Man’s state is generally not taken up in the OT but his actions are. In the NT we have not only man’s actions but his state as well––not only sins, but sin. In the OT there were sacrifices for sins––but no sacrifice for sin. In the NT God goes to the heart of the matter and I find that not only are my sins gone but the man who did the sins has gone in judgement as well! The latter is the point that is involved in reconciliation. Hence peace is the result of both justification (Rom. 5: 1) and reconciliation (Eph. 2: 14–17): Peace in regard to what I have done; peace in regard to what I was.
Some think of reconciliation as bridging the distance between God and man but if that is the case, then the distance is still there. Reconciliation deals with the cause of the distance. The cause of the distance is the old man––the flesh––but for the believer that has now gone from the eye of God: “Our old man has been crucified with [him]” (Rom. 6: 6). When Christ was forsaken by God (Matt. 27: 46), He became where we were, that is, “afar off” and at a distance from God, in order to deal with that which caused the distance. He was forsaken, so that we might be brought to God (1 Pet. 3: 18). Reconciliation is not a bridge between old and new. The flesh is unchangeable and thus irreconcilable––“That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3: 6) and “they that are in flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8: 8). The old man, the flesh, cannot be reconciled; the new man (Eph. 2: 15) needs no reconciliation. It is the persons who are reconciled. With my old man gone from the sight of God, the cause of the distance is also gone, and I am reconciled.
While only persons are forgiven and justified, both persons and things are the subject of reconciliation (Col. 1: 20, 21). When reconciliation refers to persons, there is no future aspect. I am reconciled now. It is a past and finished matter: “we have been reconciled” … “we have received the reconciliation” (Rom 5: 10, 11). See the language used too: we are reconciled to God “through the death of his Son” (v10). It is not through the death of the Lord, or of Christ, but of His Son. It shows what was involved for God to remove all distance. It brings the intensity of His feelings into the matter. In order that we might be brought to God, His Son had to experience the distance. It was God Himself that removed that distance––there was no movement on my side. The fact that reconciliation is a completed thing now means that I am as near to God now as I ever will be in heaven.
Now the death of Christ did not make God favourable to man. God was always favourable to man as proved by 2 Cor. 5: 19. This verse does not speak of Christ’s death, but of His presence here on earth. It is what the apostle calls the ministry of reconciliation: “how that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their offences” (2 Cor. 5: 19). Christ’s very presence on earth demonstrated God’s attitude towards a rebellious world: “For God has not sent his Son into the world that he may judge the world, but that the world may be saved through him” (John 3: 17). It is not the limited aspect of Christ coming as Israel’s Messiah––true though that is in its own setting––but the fulfilment of divine purpose in its widest aspect to all men, demonstrating God’s attitude to them. The words “reconciling the world to himself” do not mean that the world is reconciled as there is no thought whatever in the Greek of an accomplished action here. The world is where it always was––against God; God is where He always was––favourable to men. The sense of this verse is that the effect of Christ’s presence here was to show God’s favourable attitude towards all men. Furthermore, at the present moment God still has this attitude.
We have a similar thought in Eph. 2: 17. The apostle had just spoken of the cross and the slaying of the enmity between Jew and Gentile and he says “and, coming, he has preached the glad tidings of peace to you who [were] afar off, and [the glad tidings of] peace to those [who were] nigh”. Most think that Christ is viewed in this verse as actually preaching the Gospel instrumentally through others, but this will not do. If it were by others, such as the apostles, then the word going would be more suitable than coming, and again if it were by others then the words “and coming” are rendered redundant! The historical order of the preaching was always to the Jew first and then the Gentile––which is the very reverse of what we have here and hence indicates that apostolic preaching is not what is meant. View this verse in the light of 2 Cor. 5: 19 and all is clear. The fact of Christ’s presence here, the “coming”, was the preaching––His being here was a testimony in itself. Not only is this in line with Acts 10: 36 but it also agrees with the whole tenor of Luke’s Gospel which generally is wider in scope than Matthew. Peace, the grand result of reconciliation, is spoken of more in Luke’s Gospel than in the other three Gospels put together. It is in Luke (Luke 2: 13, 14) that we have the angels “praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good pleasure in men”. God’s good pleasure in men is identified with the ministry of reconciliation. A few verses further on we read of Simeon giving his prophecy and saying “a light for revelation of [the] Gentiles and [the] glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2: 32)––the same order as in Ephesians, the Gentile and then the Jew.
I said a moment ago that the words “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5: 19 do not mean that the world is reconciled, yet to some Rom. 11: 15 might seem to say that very thing: “For if their casting away [be the] world’s reconciliation, what [their] reception but life from among [the] dead?” If the world is already reconciled, what is the point of the apostle’s preaching “Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5: 20)? Let me explain. The world is neither saved nor reconciled. In Rom. 11 Paul is saying that the present result of the setting aside of Israel is that blessing goes out to the nations. Verse 15 does not say that the world is reconciled any more than v11 says that the nations are saved. When the Lord addressed the Samaritan woman, He said “for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4: 22). However, subsequent to the rejection of Christ by the Jews and later the rejection of the apostles’ testimony to Christ by them, Paul and Barnabas made this declaration to the Jews: “It was necessary that the word of God should be first spoken to you; but, since ye thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, lo, we turn to the nations” (Acts 13: 46). The result of God’s setting aside of Israel at the present time is not that the nations are saved but by Israel’s fall “[there is] salvation to the nations” (Rom. 11: 11). That salvation, previously limited to Israel, now goes out to the nations, that is, it is available to them, not that they are saved. Similarly in vs12 and 15 Israel’s fall results in wealth and reconciliation being available to the world. However, in verses 12, 14 and 15 where Paul uses “if” arguing from the present to the future, his language is more terse simply speaking of the “world’s wealth” and the “world’s reconciliation” rather than ‘wealth to the world’ and ‘reconciliation to the world’.
Now while only persons are justified, both persons and things are reconciled as shown by Col. 1: 20: “and by him to reconcile all things to itself”. As ever, it is imperative to read the Bible in context, noting carefully what it says and what it does not say. It is “all things” but limited by “on the earth or the things in the heavens” (Col. 1: 20). It is not an absolute “all”. It does not include Hell. When it is a question of persons and all such owning the supremacy of the authority of the Lord Jesus we have “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of heavenly and earthly and infernal [beings], and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ [is] Lord to God [the] Father’s glory” (Phil. 2: 10, 11). All will bow, but all will not be reconciled. So what are the “all things” of Col. 1: 20 that are reconciled? They are what are spoken of in Col. 1: 16: “the visible and the invisible, whether thrones, or lordships, or principalities, or authorities”––it is the thrones (for example) not the persons which occupy them. The visible thrones would be physical thrones on earth such as those of Greece and Persia (see Dan. 11: 1, 2). Yet behind the visible thrones and those who occupy them are spiritual thrones occupied by angelic dignitaries (see Dan. 10: 13, 20, 21). In the spiritual warfare of the Christian we read “because our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against principalities, against authorities, against the universal lords of this darkness, against spiritual [power] of wickedness in the heavenlies” (Eph. 6: 12). It was in such combat that Paul toiled (Col. 1: 29–2: 1). These seats of authority are presently occupied by fallen angels. The occupants will be judged by the saints (1 Cor. 6: 3), but the seats of authority themselves will be reconciled with the result that in the millennial day all things will be reconciled.
One final thought on reconciliation. Not only is reconciliation peculiar to the NT, it is also peculiar to the epistles of Paul. Why is this? Paul alone gives us the ministry of what is unique to Christianity among the NT writers. For example, only he speaks of the Church as the body of Christ, that body formed of both Jew and Gentile. It is in that one body that both are reconciled to God (Eph. 2: 16). Christ is our peace, not only in relation to God personally, but also between Jew and Gentile––“who has made both one” (Eph. 2: 14). How suitable then that Paul should be the one to speak of reconciliation.
It takes time for the natural body to digest food, particularly solid food. This is not wasted time, but time well spent. Haste only brings on indigestion. There is an obvious spiritual parallel here. Ponder this great matter of reconciliation, go over the Scriptures that speak of it again and again and pray that the wonder of it may fill your soul. Then there will be something in the way of answering praise to the One who has reconciled you to Himself through the death of His Son.