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Reconciliation is a change of the relationship between God and man based on a changed status of man through the Redemptive Work of Christ. Enmity between God and sinful man was removed by the death of Christ. Reconciliation is then appropriated by each individual sinner through Faith (Acts 10:43; 2Cor. 5:18,19; Eph. 2:16).

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Reconciliation is a doctrine usually ascribed to Paul, although the idea is present wherever estrangement or enmity is overcome and unity restored: Matt. 5:24ff. (brothers, litigants, perhaps man-to-God); bringing lost sheep to fold, prodigal to father, the lost back to God (Luke 19:10; cf. I Pet. 3:18). Indeed reconciliation is exemplified in Jesus' attitude to sinners, the truth in Athanasius's though that incarnation is reconciliation.

The root idea (in Greek) is change of attitude or relationship. Paul applies it to wife and husband (I Cor. 7:11), to Jews and Gentiles reconciled to each other in being reconciled to God (Eph. 2:14ff.), and to the alienated, divisive elements of a fragmented universe "brought under one head" again in Christ (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20). His illustrations include those far off made nigh, strangers made fellow citizens of the household, and dividing walls removed. His testimony to reconciliation's results dwells especially upon peace with God (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:14; Col. 1:20); upon "access" to God's presence (Rom. 5:2; Eph. 2:18; 3:12; see Col. 1:22) in place of estrangement; "joy in God" replacing dread of "wrath" (Rom. 5:9, 11); and assurance that "God is for us," not against us (Rom. 8:31ff.).

The Central Concept of Christianity

Since a right relationship with God is the heart of all religion, reconciliation which makes access, welcome, and fellowship possible for all may be held the central concept in Christianity. But to describe this experience with doctrinal precision raises questions. Man being made for fellowship with God, what is the difficulty requiring Christ's intervention? Since reconciliation involves "not imputing trespasses," "Christ made sin for us" (II Cor. 5:18ff.), part of the answer must be sin, which separates God and men. This "alienation" from God and from his people (Eph. 2:12; 4:18) deepens into resentment, "enmity" (Rom. 5:10), increased by canrnality hostile to God (Rom. 8:7), expressed in rebellious wickedness: "you . . . estranged ... hostile in mind, doing evil deeds" (Col. 1:21). This total attitude of man needs to be removed.

If this were all, then revelation of truth, the example of Christ, the demonstration of divine love, would remove misunderstanding, effecting reconciliation. But Rom. 11:28 (contrasting "enemies" with "beloved"), repeated references to divine "judicial" wrath (Rom. 1:18; 5:9; 12:19), and the whole case for divine condemnation (Rom. 1-3) suggest that men are "the objects of divine hostility" (Denney); that man's sense of estrangement ("a certain fearful looking-for of judgment") witnesses to a barrier on God's side, precluding fellowship, not, certainly, any reluctance in God's mind, which Jesus must change, but a moral, even judicial, barrier that requires the death of Jesus, not merely his message or example, to remove.

Man the Reconciled

Who, then, is reconciled? Certainly man is changed. "We were reconciled ... being reconciled ... we received reconciliation ... he reconciled us ... be ye reconciled" consistently apply reconciliation to man. Estrangement gives place to prayer and fellowship, hostility becomes faith, and rebellion becomes obedience. Further, man is reconciled to men (Eph. 2:14ff.); and also to life itself, "to the discipline God appoints and the duty he commands" (Oman): reconciliation breeds contentment. The world, too, is reconciled (II Cor. 5:19) or to be reconciled (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20).

But this change in man could be affected without Christ by persuasion, example, or education. Yet in the NT the basis of reconciliation is "the death of his Son," "through the cross," "by the blood of his cross," "in his body of flesh by his death" (Rom. 5:10; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20, 22); and its means are "through Christ...made to be sin" (II Cor. 5:18, 21). Some therefore hold that "God is reconciled, in the sense that his will to bless us is realised as it was not before....God would not be to us what he is if Christ had not died" (Denney). Man's sin affects God, so as to require from him judgment, withdrawal, correction, creating for God too a barrier to fellowship, a problem to be resolved before God and sinful man can be at one again. ("At-one-ment" once meant reconciliation; now atonement means reparation, satisfaction, the basis of reconciliation.) Whether or not God could ignore the separation wrought by sin and embrace men in fellowship without further ado, he did not: "We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son."

Arguments against any reconciliation of God to men stress the absence of that expression from the NT; deny wrath, judgment, atonement; and expound a subjective, moral influence theory of reconciliation.

God the Reconciler

Then who reconciles? In all other religions man propitiates his gods. Christianity declares "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (II Cor. 5:19), an accomplished fact which men are urged to accept. "We have received the reconciliation" (Rom. 5:11). As Christ is our peace; as we are reconciled by his death; as God put forward Christ in expiatory power (Rom. 3:25); and as the sin that separates is ours, not God's, only God could reconcile.

The resulting paradox, that God reconciles those he recognizes up to the moment of reconciliation as enemies, is no greater than in the command "Love your enemies." For love always treats its enemies as no enemies at all.

R E O White
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

V. Taylor, Forgiveness and Reconciliation; J. S. Stewart, Man in Christ; J. Denney, Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation.


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Reconciliation is a change from enmity to friendship. It is mutual, i.e., it is a change wrought in both parties who have been at enmity. (1.) In Col. 1:21, 22, the word there used refers to a change wrought in the personal character of the sinner who ceases to be an enemy to God by wicked works, and yields up to him his full confidence and love. In 2 Cor. 5:20 the apostle beseeches the Corinthians to be "reconciled to God", i.e., to lay aside their enmity. (2.) Rom. 5:10 refers not to any change in our disposition toward God, but to God himself, as the party reconciled. Romans 5:11 teaches the same truth. From God we have received "the reconciliation" (R.V.), i.e., he has conferred on us the token of his friendship. So also 2 Cor. 5: 18, 19 speaks of a reconciliation originating with God, and consisting in the removal of his merited wrath.

In Eph. 2: 16 it is clear that the apostle does not refer to the winning back of the sinner in love and loyalty to God, but to the restoration of God's forfeited favour. This is effected by his justice being satisfied, so that he can, in consistency with his own nature, be favourable toward sinners. Justice demands the punishment of sinners. The death of Christ satisfies justice, and so reconciles God to us. This reconciliation makes God our friend, and enables him to pardon and save us. (See Atonement.)

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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