Reading time: 4 min 43 sec
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:16-18)
This classic text points to a contrast between eternal life on the one hand and the life that is perishing on the other. Typically, this is the singular way modern Christians talk about the saving work of the cross, where God's Son—as the Son of Man—was lifted up to die for our sins. Salvation means Jesus' death on the cross saves us from condemnation, giving us eternal life instead.
I want to draw your attention to other aspects of the cross of Christ (Messiah), additional truths about God's saving work. Salvation, in Hebrew, is a multi-faceted reality. It cannot be and should not be limited to just one stream of thinking, one image, one approach. It is wondrous, and its many facets have multiple implications.
These implications are not only for our spirits but for our souls and our bodies. They impact our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the body of Messiah, indeed with creation itself.
The New Testament provides pictures of atonement but no explanation of atonement. That is an important point. There are significant images like the blood being poured upon the mercy seat, concepts taken from the Temple and the Tabernacle. But there are no theological explanations of atonement.
What the New Testament does provide, in abundance, are the many aspects and implications of this multi-faceted redemptive work of God. And they are breathtaking.
Turn to Colossians chapter one. Colossians is a fantastic letter with profound philosophical and theological reflection. Let's begin at verse nine, Paul writes,
"And so from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his [God's] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God."
"May you be strengthened with all power" [remember that whenever there's a discussion of power, it's in the context of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit], "according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. For he [the Father] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."
To begin with, we have a reference to deliverance as one aspect of atonement. Next, we have a reference to transference, another aspect of atonement. Continue reading in verse 19, "For in him [the Messiah] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross."
So here we have another aspect of atonement, reconciliation. And another, making shalom. And all of this is possible because of Jesus' blood, shed on the cross. Let's read on for the implications of atonement,
"And you who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled" [Paul uses the word a second time] "in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith [in faithfulness], stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven and of which I, Paul, became a minister."
The point here is that we have multiple images of the work of the cross. Yes, justification is also an aspect of atonement. But for Paul and the early church, it is one of many important pictures of salvation at work in a disciples life.
Let's consider reconciliation for a moment. I'm going to do a bit of a contrast for you, just for the purpose of clarity, with justification on the one hand and reconciliation on the other hand. Remember, to think Hebraically it takes two hands.
My goal is to move you a bit beyond your preoccupation with justification as the defining explanation or image of the atoning work of the death of Jesus. Do not misunderstand me, it is wonderfully important. However, do a simple search in a concordance and you'll find that the word reconciliation or reconcile is used by Paul far more than the word justification or justify.
Does that surprise you? We seldom use reconciliation language as Protestants, and when we do it really doesn't mean much to us. Whereas justification is foundational to our very Protestant psyche. Why is that?
Justification, as you know, is a forensic, judicial image of having the right legal standing with respect to the court. You are guilty but then the punishment that is due your guilt is taken and put upon another. In this case, Messiah Yeshua takes the judgment of your sin and the judge effectively declares you no longer guilty, there is therefore now no condemnation. That is a powerful concept.
While justification is a forensic metaphor, reconciliation is a familial one. Justification is about the court, reconciliation is about family. It has to do with relationships that are renewed and restored. Justification is a transaction, reconciliation is a relationship.
Biblically speaking, the process of reconciliation includes four dynamics:
1) There is a disruption of a relationship
2) That disruption is due to some kind of provocation; something has been done that broke or disrupted the relationship
3) One party takes overt actions to remove or deal with the hostility
4) In order that the original relationship can be restored
I want to suggest to you that in Paul's psyche—and it would be well to be so in ours—reconciliation is a far more prevalent and powerful metaphor of salvation than justification. It does not have to be an either/or proposition. It really needs to be both/and because these two aspects of redemption are kind of paradigmatic in shaping the way we think.
I am making a plea that we begin thinking more and more of salvation in terms of the reconciliation model, and not just with the legal justification model in mind.
Why? Because to go forward as kingdom people there is more that needs to be healed in us, more relationships that need to be redeemed—those in our past and those in our present. This is an essential work of the Spirit whom the Father promised and gave us, because of the faithfulness of his Son, Jesus.
This teaching comes from an amazing 8-part audio seminar, recorded at a Haverim School of Discipleship conducted by Dwight Pryor. For your edification, these live recordings are on sale in our store. Click the image below for more information.