2 Corinthians 5:16-20
The Reconciling Christ of Creation
If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve had a rift in one of your relationships that, by grace, ended in reconciliation. I suppose you needn’t have lived long. Even children experience this. Some of my children, for instance, have had friends that split from them for one reason or another; and in most cases, by God’s grace, those friendships find reconciliation. Who comes to mind for you? Mother-daughter, Father-son, brother-brother, sister-sister, husband-wife, colleague-colleague? Have a think on one person from whom you separated (or who left you) because of some conflict. Now think about how God has reconciled you to each other.
Are you thanking the God of reconciliation for that work of grace? It wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Of course, I’m certainly not oblivious to the perhaps more-than-common experience of a break in a relationship that hasn’t yet ended in reconciliation. Nevertheless, those instances of reconciliation sure do give us hopeful hearts that God might do the same for those relationships yet to be reconciled. Those illustrations where God’s grace of reconciliation is on full display are not accidental, incidental, or even surprising. They ought, rather, to be expected and greatly anticipated. Why? Put simply: It is in God’s good nature to reconcile.
To put reconciliation in perspective, the biblical worldview is a must-have framework. A theology of reconciliation is in order. The word in 2 Corinthians 5 for reconciliation (καταλλάσσω/katallassō), along with its verbal forms, has to do with the exchange of a hostile relationship for a friendly one (Rom. 5:10; 1 Cor. 7:11). However, we must first speak of what predated the hostility. Before the hostility, there was goodness and communion. At the conclusion of the first chapter in Genesis, we’re told that after God saw everything that he had made (heavens and earth), behold!, it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The capstone of this very good creation was man made in God’s image: in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Adam communed with God. Adam communed with Eve. All was very good. God’s creation wasn’t creationally neutral. It wasn’t morally neutral either. This sinless nature needed no gracious improvement. What was needed was for Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, and to resist any serpentine temptation that would come their way during the time of probation. If they did not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, their estate of original knowledge, righteousness, and holiness would be forever established and their communion with God and each other perfectly confirmed.
Enter hostility. We all know the story. Adam and Eve fell. With the sin of Adam, all those in Adam fell likewise. It was Adam’s sin that subjected the world to futility, weakness, disease, and death. With the evil and sin of Adam, therefore, came a creation that bears thorns and thistles, one that is in need of redemption itself. Before Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, however, they’re left with a prophecy of future victory over the serpent (Gen. 3:15), which Adam appropriated by faith by naming his wife Eve, the mother of the living. With life comes communion and reconciliation, bursting forth from Eve’s womb (Gen. 3:20). The prophecy was confirmed by the death and blood of the animals whose skins covered the image bearers’ iniquity (Gen. 3:21). For Paul, this hostility has reared its ugly head in our darkened minds. We used to view Christ according to the flesh (2 Cor. 5:16). Our hearts were fleshly, so we viewed Christ according to that sinful, fleshly nature. We who lived according to the flesh set our minds on the things of the flesh (Rom. 8:5), not considering Christ as he truly is. What a terrifying thought! To view the exalted, glorious, resurrected, God-Man as a mere man! To see Christ only as a prophet, or a moral teacher, or a sage, or a man who was just a model of compassion and love! As true as those are of Christ, they only make sense in the light of his true humanity and true deity. That fleshly mindset was, in a word, hostile (Rom. 8:7). What we needed was a mind inhabited by the Spirit.
Enter grace. From Genesis 3:15 to the end of God’s scriptural revelation, we have a story of the God who reconciles, working this mighty work of reconciliation of the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). Paul is pleased to announce that he is a minister of this New Covenant ministry of reconciliation (v. 18). But before he could become that minister, he himself needed to view Christ Spiritually. Praise be to God that Paul (and we!) no longer regard Christ according to the flesh (v. 16)! The old man has passed away, and along with it all old things, and behold, the new man (rather, the New Man) has come, and along with Him all new things (v. 17). We have been saved by Christ to view him rightly. We are a new creation. The new creation sees Christ for who he truly is. God the Creator in Christ reconciles us to himself. We who were once enemies of Christ, dead in our trespasses and sins, are now reconciled and have become friends to Christ! This work of reconciliation was accomplished through God’s not imputing our transgressions against us (v. 19), which we’ll look at more in the next post. For the rest of this post, I want to address what Paul is getting at with the idea of God reconciling the world.
Enter grace for the world. Because God cares about his creation, it’s not a wonder that he’d seek its reconciliation to himself. This truth is often expressed by the idea of grace restoring nature. The God of creation desires to return his world to its status of “very good.” God affirms nature. In fact, nature itself is a revelation of God (Ps. 19:1-2; Rom. 1:19-20). God is the maker of heaven and earth (Gen. 1), the earth is his fullness (Ps. 24:1), and God’s goal is to have a new heaven-and-earth (Rev. 21:1-4). God’s work of re-creation, contrary to some Christians, is not hostile to or dismissive of creation. As Bavinck says, Christianity “is the true, pure, full religion, the restoration to a right relation with God and, therefore, also with creation” (The Sacrifice of Praise, 54). As new creations in Christ, we begin to relate rightly with God’s whole creation.
All this makes sense given the truth of Christ’s kingship over all creation and all the nations, as all the nations become the heritage of the Son of God; the ends of the earth are his possession (Ps. 2:8). That’s why Jesus told his disciples to baptize and disciple the nations, as Christ would be with them, even to the end of the age and earth (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). Even the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rev. 11:15). Not one square inch of the world belongs to anyone but Christ the King. Neither nook nor cranny is neglected by its King. And in prophetic fashion, one day (which begins now!) “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14; cf. also Isa. 11:9). That’s what God promised Abraham (Gen. 17:4-5), which truly aids our thinking in understanding Acts 2:39. The promise of salvation is given to Jews, to their covenant children, and to all those Gentiles (i.e., nations) that the Lord will call to himself. The promise is given to us, to our covenant children, and to all he will call to himself.
All this language sounds universalistic, and it is! This is not the kind of universalism that ignores the Bible and says that every last person on earth will ultimately be saved, that no one will go to hell. That’s a heresy and ought to be rejected. We, however, can still speak of the universality or Catholicity of our confession in Christ, and by it we mean that “Christianity is a world religion, destined for every status and class, place and time” (Bavinck, ibid., 51, my emphasis). That’s the affirmation of Scripture. John 3:16 affirms that God is for both Jew and Gentile, the whole world! In Revelation 5:9, the saints were singing a new song to the Lamb that is their Lord, for by his blood, he ransomed people “from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Didn’t Jesus himself show his love and care for both nature itself and its image-bearing inhabitants? Bavinck thought so. Pointing to Jesus’ liberal use of nature (grass, lilies, birds of the air, fish of the sea, vine and fig trees, the mustard seed, the grain of wheat, etc.), Bavinck says that Jesus “loves nature with a childlike joy” (ibid., 56). How could Christ hate, reject, ignore, or even abandon his created nature? It’s unthinkable. He entered creation to redeem his creation. When we consider how much our children play with nature, are amazed by it, gaze at it, and through it see the beauty, power, creativity, and glory of God, should we not likewise consider how Christ loves it as well? Bavinck, showing Jesus’ redemptive use of nature for the world, says, “Jesus laid down his natural life for our sakes, but he also took it up again and rose from the dead….The bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead is the decisive proof that Christianity does not stand in opposition to anything human or natural, but God’s holy will is to perfectly redeem all of creation” (ibid., 56). In some Christian circles we succumb to a kind of redemptive myopia. We tend to think only of Christ’s restoration of individuals in some atomistic fashion. But the Creator, Redeemer, and King Christ has regard, care, and love for more than the individual sinner. He cares for the families of individuals, the heads of households, the leaders of tribes, the peoples of all nations: the whole world itself, really. It’s his after all. Come to think of it, why wouldn’t he reconcile it to himself? Enter God.