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Reconciliation

Justin Welby BBCWhen Justin Welby took office in March 2013, he announced his three priorities for his ministry as Archbishop. Alongside the renewal of prayer and a commitment to evangelism and witness, reconciliation took centre stage. Inasmuch as prayer is about relationship ‘upward’ to God, and evangelism and witness are about relationship ‘outward’ to other people, reconciliation stands naturally as the middle of these three, since ‘[r]econciliation is about our relationships – with God and with each other.’[1]

It is therefore appropriate to ask: what is the meaning of reconciliation in the New Testament? And what is the relation between the ‘upward’ and the ‘outward’ dimensions of reconciliation? This is an extract from a chapter I have written for a forthcoming book (due out in October). In the first part I look at reconciliation in Paul (particularly in Romans 5 and 2 Cor 5), and this section looks more widely in the gospels.


Reconciliation in the wider NT

If reconciliation is such a significant term in Paul, do we see this in other parts of the New Testament?

One of the striking things about the narratives of Jesus’ healings and deliverances is the way that restoration to wholeness is frequently followed by restoration of relationships and communities. In the brief account of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1.30–31), her restoration to her role in the household as host follows on from her physical healing. The man with a skin disease is likewise returned to his ritual community upon healing (Mark 1.40–44). The Gerasene demoniac, living on the outer fringes of human community when Jesus meets him, is not only delivered from demonic possession but is also restored to his own community: ‘Go home to your own people…’ (lit ‘to your household and your [people]…’ Mark 5.19).

This pattern is found across the gospels. In the carefully structured account of the raising of a widow’s son in Luke 7.11–17 (told in such a way as to echo Elijah’s similar action in 1 Kings 17), Jesus’ compassion stands at the numerical centre of the story.[1] The restoration is made explicit in Luke’s retelling: at the end of the miracle story, Jesus gives the boy back to his mother (v 15). In Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4, the timing of the encounter has a literary/theological significance. The woman can see plainly who Jesus is in the broad light of day, in contrast to Nicodemus in the preceding chapter who still gropes with his questions in the evening twilight.[2] But also has a cultural/historical significance: her noon-time trip to the well also speaks of social rejection and marginalisation. Yet as soon as her eyes are opened as to who Jesus really is, she returns to the community that has rejected her with a passionate invitation: ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Messiah?’ (John 4.29).


But what is equally striking in the gospels is that this reconciliation and restoration of relationships also brings with it sharp division. The most demanding expression of this comes in Jesus’ saying in Matt 10.34–36:

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter–in–law against her mother–in–law—
your enemies will be the members of your own household.’”

Matthew locates this saying within a collection of Jesus’ sayings and teaching that he has gathered together, as is his habit. (The parallel in Luke 12.51–53 sits with other sayings.) It therefore needs to be distinguished from the material on future persecution (10.17–25, which has parallels in Matt 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21) that Matthew has blended in seamlessly to Jesus’ teaching about the present mission of those he is sending out now. In other words, this ‘division’ is not something unique to times of hardship; it is integral to our recognition of Jesus as God’s anointed one. This is made clear both by the preceding say (Matt 10.32–33) which introduces the notion of sharp distinction between those who do and do not acknowledge Jesus, and the use of the saying from Micah 7.6, widely interpreted to relate to the time of the coming Messiah. The irony of this is brought out by Matthew’s setting this saying in the context of a mission which was to proclaim ‘peace’:

Peacemaking is an essential part of the good life (5.9). But the way to peace is not the way of avoidance of conflict, and Jesus will be continuously engaged in robust controversy especially in chs 21–23, while his whole experience will be the opposite of a peaceful way of life. His followers can expect no less, and their mission to establish God’s peaceful rule can be accomplished only by sharing his experience of conflict.[3]

Rembrandt-The_return_of_the_prodigal_sonThis paradox of reconciliation/peace and conflict/division is expressed in narrative form in the story of the ‘Prodigal Son’ in Luke 15.11–32. Although this parable is often taken as the quintessential expression of the gospel of God’s grace, there are some striking contrasts with the previous stories of ‘the lost’ that precede it. The father, whilst anxiously straining to look for the return of his son (usually inferred from v 20), he does not actually follow after him to seek him as the shepherd has sought his lost sheep (v 4) or the woman searching for her lost coin (v 8). In fact, the son is only restored because he has ‘come to his senses’ (v 17) and begun the journey home. There is material loss for the father as well as loss of dignity (in his running, v 20) and a forfeiting of his right to exact retribution on the son who, in asking for his share of the estate, was effectively wishing his father dead. In that sense, the story does not mesh easily with classic models of atonement.

It does, however, match the pattern of reconciliation that we have already seen. Though the son expresses his desire to accept the consequences of his action, it is the father who absorbs the cost and thereby effects the restoration of relationship, highlighted by the gift of robe and ring (v 22). And the second half of the story, the complaint of the elder son at his father’s generosity and forgiveness, is integral to the whole even though it is often treated as an appendix to the main story. Luke has structured this as a close parallel to the situation of Jesus, as he makes clear in verses 1 and 2. The ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ come near to listen to Jesus, whilst the Pharisees and scribes grumble about his acceptance of them; the younger son returns to the father and is accepted by him whilst the elder son stays in the field complaining. So the reconciliation that Jesus brings, at cost to himself, in breaking down division and forming a new, unified humanity, brings division between those who will accept this reconciliation and those who will not.

Joel Green sees the parable characterised in precisely these terms:

The younger son attempts to reconstrue their relationship as one of master/hired hand—a definition at odds with his father’s persistence in regarding him in filial terms. Accepting his status as son, he is reconciled to his father and restored as a member of the family.

Will [the scribes and Pharisees] identify with God’s will and, having done so, join repentant sinners at the table?… Or, refusing to embrace God’s gracious calculus, which works to include those who (re)turn to him, will they exclude themselves from the family of God?[4]


The Dynamics of Reconciliation

We therefore see the following dynamics at work in the New Testament’s exposition of reconciliation:

  1. Reconciliation is primarily the work of God, and is primarily between God and humanity. It is enormously costly, but against all the cultural norms, in this relationship it is God, the offended party, who both takes the initiative and pays the cost.
  2. Reconciliation between humanity and God then flows out into reconciliation amongst humanity; God’s goal and purpose for humanity is to break down every dividing wall of hostility which would frustrate this.
  3. It is therefore not possible to separate reconciliation amongst people with their reconciliation to God; the first flows from the second. Reconciliation amongst people never stands as a separate activity, or a goal in itself, separate from the reconciliation of humanity to God. It might function as a sign pointing to reconciliation to God, but in the New Testament it always follows and never precedes it. (Matt 5.24 is not an exception to this; reconciliation with the ‘brother’ is prompted by the prospect of reconciliation with God in the sacrifice to be offered.)
  4. Paradoxically, because the reconciled unity of humanity is always connected with God and his purposes, this idea can actually be a cause of division—division between those who will accept God’s agenda for reconciliation, and those who reject it, either in its terms or in its goal.

These dynamics shed light on particular examples of conflict and its resolution elsewhere in the NT. A key example is the difference between those teaching that Gentiles must be circumcised, and Paul and Barnabas (joined by Peter) opposing them in Acts 15. The division on the issue was sharp and significant: there was ‘no small dissention and debate’ (Acts 15.2) The process is instructive; after ‘much debate’, they listen to the key testimonies of Peter, Barnabas and Paul, and then James proposes a way forward with reference to what God has said in Scripture (albeit quoting the Septuagint rather than Hebrew text). And, as Richard Bauckham has demonstrated, the only requirements that are imposed on Gentiles joining the community of believers express a four-fold summary of the Holiness Code from Lev 17–26.[5] The intention of God as expressed in the Scriptures is the key reference point in resolving the conflict and effecting reconciliation.

Paul’s perspective on this issue in his letter to the Galatians illustrates the same dynamic of unity and division highlighted by Green’s comment on Luke 15. The reason why Paul sounds to polemical—antagonistic, even—is because he sees God’s inclusive invitation as under threat from those who would reject it by imposing additional requirements. This would make something other than reconciliation with God the basis of reconciliation between the two parties.[6]

We see the same dynamic at work from another perspective, that of James himself, in his circular letter.[7] Since God is one, in whom there is changing or turning (James 2.19, 1.17), then there must be unity in every aspect of the lives of believers. We cannot separate faith from action (2.14); we cannot speak with both good and harmful words (3.11); we cannot treat rich and poor in different ways (2.2); and we cannot tolerate conflict and disputes (4.1). Yet, into this vision of unified humanity (which sits most comfortably in the wisdom tradition) James introduces the theme of eschatological judgement and separation (5.1). God will judge those who reject the unity that he is and the unity that he brings.


Our differences cannot be resolved simply by attending to the two parties in conflict; they have to resolved with reference to a third point, the truth about the God to whom both these sides have been reconciled. That is the only effective grounds for mutual agreement.


[1] “Archbishop Justin’s Priorities.” Retrieved 28th April 2015

[1] See Green, The Gospel of Luke

[2] Perhaps the best exposition of the contrasts between John 3 and John 4 can be found in Stibbe, John

[3] France, The Gospel of Matthew p 408

[4] Green, The Gospel of Luke pp 579, 586.

[5] Bauckham ‘James and the Gentiles’ in Witherington (ed), History, Literature, and Society in the Book of Acts pp 172–3. Bauckham argues that the first listing of these conditions in Acts 15.20 is a less accurate summary than the second listing in Luke’s version of the letter which is sent in Acts 15.29. See ibid p 183. For the significance of this specifically on the sexuality debate in the Church, see Goddard, God, Gentiles and Gay Christians.

[6] The previous consensus on Galatians, the ‘North Galatian hypothesis’, saw Paul’s letter as written to a group he has not visited, therefore written later and not connected with the Council of Jerusalem. The consensus now is the ‘South Galatian hypothesis’, that Paul is writing to the cities he visited in his early travels with Barnabas, so his visits to Jerusalem mentioned in Galatians correspond in some way to his visit in Acts 15. For further details see Paul, “Resolving Conflict in Galatians 2.”

[7] For a full discussion of authorship see Davids, Epistle of James pp 2–22


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14 Responses to Reconciliation

  1. James Byron May 4, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

    As ever, interesting piece, Ian, especially framing reconciliation as a dual human-God process.

    I guess it can be boiled down to “Reconciliation on whose terms?” The language of reconciliation so often skirts past issues of power and control. In a Christian setting, “On God’s terms,” is the obvious answer, but of course, the division is caused by disagreement over what God’s terms are.

    How then to move forward? I’d favor the classic liberal approach of diversity managed by the rule of law, but in framing that, a reconciliation process needs to face issues of power head-on, and allow for adversarial elements. The determination to suppress argument instead of manage and channel it is a weakness of the current fashion for putting feelings on a pedestal.

    To disagree well, we have to get comfortable with conflict, and respecting our opponents.

    • Ian Paul May 5, 2015 at 6:44 pm #

      Thanks, James—I think I would entirely agree. One of my observations (which also arise in the earlier section of the chapter on Paul) is that neither Jesus nor Paul (following his example) seem to be too worried about conflict and confrontation.

      I am very suspicious of any focus on reconciliation which does not offer the same sense of robust engagement.

  2. David May 5, 2015 at 8:40 am #

    (Small typo with a big effect:

    “Since God is one, in whom there is changing or turning”)

  3. Andrew Godsall May 5, 2015 at 11:19 am #

    Interesting piece again Ian. But I think there is a fatal flaw. You say:

    “Our differences cannot be resolved simply by attending to the two parties in conflict; they have to resolved with reference to a third point, the truth about the God to whom both these sides have been reconciled. That is the only effective grounds for mutual agreement.”

    Clearly there are differences about ‘the truth about the God….’. How are those ‘truths’ reconciled, especially when there can be such radically different interpretations of scripture?

    • Don Benson May 5, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

      Andrew
      Simple logic tells you that however many different interpretations of scripture there are there can only be one truth; truth cannot oppose itself or offer a variety of possibilities. So you cannot really ask “how are those ‘truths’ reconciled”?

      If God is one and we are truly reconciled to him we then ought to be reconciled to each other too. But we can only be truly reconciled to Him when we are ready to accept His truth in its entirety. If we are willing to do this but honestly disagree on some aspect of what we think His truth is we must be ready to accept that one or both of us has got it wrong.

      At this point we clearly cannot be reconciled and we have to revisit our certainty of what the truth is. Humility (which is borne of honesty) may lead us both to the conclusion that we are uncertain and we can at least be reconciled on this point. But we cannot use a false notion of humility as an excuse for accepting as true something which we clearly do not believe is true merely for the sake of ‘reconciliation’. Sometimes we may have to accept that reconciliation has to wait; God is patient, we may need to be patient too. In practical Christian terms this implies that orthodoxy in doctrine (for example) should continue to be accepted by both sides until there is honest agreement on where it is wrong.

      In summary perhaps it could be said that truth has to trump reconciliation, and that may just be a sad fact of our human imperfection.

      • Andrew Godsall May 5, 2015 at 3:59 pm #

        Don: I’m not convinced about the logic of ‘one truth’ I’m afraid. I used to be 40 years ago but time is a healer. I am in mind of John Robinson’s book ‘Truth is two eyed’ – which I think he later came to revise to be ‘Truth is many eyed’. He wrote this:

        “By temperament, training or tradition most of us have allowed ourselves to become one-eyed or so monocular in our vision of reality that effectively our ‘lazy eye’, spiritually speaking, contributes nothing. And some people, not least religious people, deliberately close that other eye, because, in a sense that Jesus did not mean it, it is a cause of ‘offence’. They would rather be blinkered and bigoted. And if in that mood they pluck it out, it is scarcely likely to save them from hell, and their vision of ‘life’ will certainly be mean and narrow.

        … Readiness to look at reality through both eyes at once brings the promise of extra-dimensionality and depth, but presents the labour of a fresh learning and focusing progress. It also, as we shall see, brings the danger of a mixed or syncretistic vision, which in dealing with Hinduism is again always very present.

        … But this book is written out of the conviction that neither the labour nor the danger should be allowed to act as a deterrent. For to live in a society of competing one-eyed men represents an impoverished and, in an inescapably unified world, an increasingly dangerous condition.”

    • Ian Paul May 5, 2015 at 6:48 pm #

      Andrew, glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for your continued engagement.

      I don’t think there is a simple answer about how competing understandings of truth can be reconciled, though I find Ricoeur’s take on it (for instance, in his collection ‘Conflict of Interpretations’) interesting and profitable. Part of the issue (according to Ricoeur) is both a reductionism that arises from deploying only a hermeneutic of suspicion, but also an ‘over-detemination’ of methods, whereby one insight claims to have the whole answer whereas it needs to contribute to the whole alongside other insights.

      I am not sure that that answers your discussion with Don about one or many truths. But we need to think more carefully both about how different insights might enrich each other (as you suggest) but also about how some competing claims are, of necessity, irreconcilable, and in some arenas it is simply not possible to sit on the fence (as I think Don is rightly arguing).

  4. David Shepherd May 5, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

    I think that the nature of reconciliation also needs to be expressed in the light of the creational Kingship rights of God.

    Christ clearly delineated his differences from the prominent sects within first-century Judaism, in respect of inconspicuous devotions, offerings and charitable deeds, Nevertheless, He expressed the understanding of self-deception as a part of God’s judgment upon those who would willfully arrogate their own authority above the word of God.

    ‘Let them alone, They be blind guides’; ‘Let the wheat and the tares grow together’ both indicate that the Kingdom of God relinquishes to willful to their desires should persuasion of the truth not effect moral change.

    In most cases, Christ simply continued to pursue His mission without challenging His detractors directly and often retreated temporarily after they disputed or condemned his actions as a contradiction of their wholly man-made traditions.

    The invisible Arbitrator in all of these kinds of disputes is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of truth has no hesitation in resisting those defiant of God’s intentional mission in the world, whether by reasoned exposure of the self-vindicating motives behind their speculations, or by reasoned exposure of their contradiction of earlier prophetic revelation as rank disobedience.

    In both cases, once unmasked, the reaction to this exposure was the angry reversal of blame (Acts 7)

    Even in Matthew 21, instead of defending His authority, Jesus simply exposed the double-standards of his critics. (Matt. 21:23 – 27).

    His response also involves two parables (the Two Sons and the Tenants) that express the threat of judgment targeting both the insidious rebellion and destructive arrogance of the chief priests in their resistance to any change that might undermine their incumbent authority.

    The cursing of the fruitless fig tree on the previous day is echoed in Jesus’ spoken words that condemn the obdurate authority of chief priests as powerfully as they have delivered mercy to the penitent during his ministry.

    ‘For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.’ (Matt. 21:31)

    ‘“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.’ (Matt. 21:43 – 44)

    As ever, the Kingdom of God advances with the promise of God’s open-hearted offer of eternal generosity to restore us from moral failure. For some, it is joyfully accepted as the power for a new beginning. Others, like the chief priests, become so hardened with unjustified contempt that they are eventually and reluctantly handed over to the custody of the vices that they love.

    And as they do so, the fully spurned grace moves towards the unassuming, but honest moral outsiders, only to be replaced in the lives of the arrogant by over-confident blindness to the gathering storm-clouds of divine judgment.

    The alternative to reconciliation on God’s terms is eventual retribution, the token of which is the custody of an abiding contempt for any reconciliation with God’s terms as expressed through the writings of the prophets and apostles.

    • Ian Paul May 5, 2015 at 6:51 pm #

      Thanks, David.

      One thing that is interesting in all this is the way that a cosmic vision in Paul takes the place of the ‘kingdom’ language in the gospels and Jesus (though interestingly these are combined in Rev 11.15 as an expression of eschatological goal: ‘Now the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christos.’

      There is more detail in this in the first part of the chapter…for which you will need to wait until October!

  5. Phill May 5, 2015 at 4:10 pm #

    I wonder where the modern drive for reconciliation (dare I say, ‘reconciliation at all costs’?) comes from, given that this is not the way the church has done things in the past. For example, Athanasius thought the eternal Sonship of Christ to be of such importance that reconciliation with the Arians was not possible.

    It seems to me that prioritising reconciliation above doctrine actually devalues doctrine for all of us. It sweeps any differences under the carpet, claiming them to be insignificant trifles, when clearly they are not.

    And, as David pointed out very well, there are passages which say pretty clearly that not every issue is ‘adiaphora’, that lines must be drawn and we cannot reconcile with false teaching (Acts 20:29-31; 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 4:3-4; Jude 3-4; Rev 2:2 and so on).

    • James Byron May 5, 2015 at 4:43 pm #

      Well said, Phill: reconciliation shouldn’t be prioritized above other concerns, be they doctrine, or some other value. That’s realpolitik, not Christianity.

      Reading the reports of the shared conversations (now there’s tautology!), I was impressed by the openness and strength of all participants; but disturbed at the neutrality of the process. By which I mean, debate about church policy was, it appeared, discouraged in the name of empathy.

      Empathy is of course important, but truth, and the justice arising from that truth, far more so. Neutrality can so easily become amorality.

    • Ian Paul May 5, 2015 at 6:53 pm #

      Phill, if one was being cynical, one might suggest it is a current trend.

      However, I think it would also be possible to argue that it is a. a rediscovery of a neglected biblical truth. In the first part I agree with several other commentators that ‘reconciliation’ is actually at the centre of Paul’s theology, rather than e.g. justification or e.g. the Spirit.

      And you could also (as I think Justin Welby would say) that b. it is a key response to a world which is riven ever more deeply and catastrophically by conflict. It is now the biggest reality in global politics.

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