Dr. Charles Ryrie was my professor for the doctrine of salvation. I remember him discussing 2 Cor 5:18-21 one day in class. This comment stuck with me: “Reconciled people need reconciliation.” In 2 Cor 5:19, Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” That sounds like universal reconciliation. But then in v 20, Paul says, “we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” How is it that everyone was already reconciled to God because of the shed blood of Christ and yet those same people need to “be reconciled to God”?
This blog is the result of a question I received from Steve, a friend in the ministry:
I have a question about 2 Corinthians 5:17-21.
What is the exact nature of the reconciliation referenced in this passage? In light of v. 21, I had assumed it was a part of receiving eternal life/salvation from hell, but v. 20 confuses me because Paul seems to be inviting the Corinthian readers to reconciliation. I have always assumed that his readers were already saved (from hell) and thus reconciled to God.
The word “you” in v. 20 is in italics. Is Paul just saying that as ambassadors we generically implore on Christ’s behalf, “be reconciled to God”? Not specifically to the Corinthians “we implore you . . . be reconciled to God”?
Grace and Peace!
I have not grappled with this passage in a long time. I had come to some conclusions. But this question pushed me back to the text.
Steve is correct. The word you in v 20 is not in the Greek. Either no word should be supplied, resulting in slightly awkward English, “We implore on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God,” or a generic word should be added: “We implore people on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” I prefer the latter.
Verse 19 is talking about unlimited atonement. The result of the atonement is that God has already reconciled the world to Himself. He has removed the sin barrier for everyone.
The word reconcile (katallassō) refers to “the exchange of hostility for a friendly relationship” (BDAG, p. 521). The death of Christ means that God in some sense no longer is in a hostile relationship with unbelievers. However, compare Col 1:21-22: “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight.” Prior to their faith in Christ, the people in Colossae were “alienated and enemies.” But the enmity was on their side. They were enemies in their minds. The reconciliation of Col 1:21 is the same as the command to “be reconciled to God” in 2 Cor 5:20.
The fact that God has reconciled the world to Himself does not mean that the unbeliever has been reconciled to God. Note the differences between vv 19 and 20. In the former case: a) the reconciliation has already occurred; b) God is the one who did the reconciling; and c) He reconciled the world to Himself (heautō). In the latter case: a) the reconciliation has yet to occur; b) God is the one doing the reconciling, but humans must respond properly (i.e., believe in Christ) for it to occur; and c) those who believe in Christ are reconciled to God (tō Theō).
The word for (gar) at the start of v 21 indicates that Paul is now explaining what he just said in v 20. God the Father put the sins of the world upon His Son, the one “who knew no sin.” The sinless Son, made to be sin, died “for us,” for the whole world (v 19). The result of His removing the sin barrier is that “we might become the righteous of God in Him.”
Verse 21 interprets v 20. To be reconciled to God is to become the righteousness of God in Him [Christ].” By believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, we are justified, that is, we are declared righteous. Compare Rom 3:22, “the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.”
Barnett comments on v 19:
What, then, is the significance of the change of tense of “God … reconciling” from “God … reconciled” of the previous verse? Is reconciliation complete or incomplete? It is held that the mere use of a present tense does not determine the sense that something is ongoing or incomplete. The flow of the passage must also be evaluated. Thus, when taken with the completed action “God … reconciled … through Christ[‘s death]” (v. 18), the words “God was … reconciling … not counting their trespasses against them,” serve to emphasize that God’s work of reconciliation stands finished and complete (Second Corinthians, p. 307).
Lowery comments on v 21: “The sins of the world were placed on Him so that, in turn, His righteousness could be given those who trust Him (Rom. 5:17) and are thus in Him. That gift of righteousness is obtainable only by faith (Rom. 3:22; 6:23; Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 3:9)” (“2 Corinthians,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 568). Lenski adds, “God did not make him ‘a sinner.’…The idea of God making anyone a sinner, to say nothing of his own Son, is unthinkable. God did something else entirely: he laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:6) so that he bore our sins in his own body on the tree (1 Pet. 2:24), so that he was made a curse for us (Gal. 3:13) (First and Second Corinthians, pp. 1052-53).
Therefore, I think Dr. Ryrie was correct when he said that reconciled people need reconciliation. God is ready and able to justify us, although we are ungodly (Rom 4:5). The cross means that God had reconciled the world to Himself. Now, for anyone to experience being reconciled to God, he needs to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for everlasting life/justification.
Great question, Steve. I hope my answer is helpful.