Perhaps in recent weeks you have been given the opportunity to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” one of Charles Wesley’s great Christmas carols. The angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King: peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” Nowhere is the theme of reconciliation better pictured than in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, which has been called one of the apostle Paul’s charters of Christian ministry.
Paul explains that this new reconciled relationship believers enjoy because of their union with Christ (v. 17) is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ. And now He has given us the ministry of reconciliation (v. 18), reminding us that the Lord has committed to us the message of reconciliation (v. 19). Reconciliation involves the restoration of peace in the midst of estrangement as seen in Romans 5:6-11, the exchange of hostility for a friendly relationship.
Behind Paul’s words in Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5 stands the reality of the world’s fallenness, characterized by sin, selfishness, enmity and death. His appeal reminds us that our lives and service as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) are not to be characterized by this fallen order, but by living and serving for the One who died for us (vv. 14, 21). Moreover, we recognize that this One who died in our place is now risen and exalted (v. 15).
With application for our day, we are reminded not to long for some idyllic, peaceful world of days gone by through some nostalgic lens as a way of dealing with our fractured world. Neither are we to see the present challenges in our own context primarily through the insights of contemporary sociologists, but rather from a radically different perspective, a distinctively Christ-centered one. Paul’s new understanding of reality is shaped by this encompassing theme of reconciliation, a theme ever so different from that of the hostility, brokenness, fragmentation and decay now present in the world because of sin. Indeed, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.
God’s reconciling action was not only historically completed at the cross. There is an ongoing aspect to it for us today as the message of reconciliation is shared and lived out for the world to hear and see, so that men and women will believe this good news of the gospel. At its foundation, the message of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5 primarily involves the individual’s vertical relationship with God, but it also points beyond these important foundational truths. As commentators remind us, we must be reconciled to God before we can participate in the ministry of reconciliation.
Paul’s teaching also has corporate and communal implications for us. We have not only been reconciled to God, which is the basis for all other dimensions of Paul’s thought, but as we see in Ephesians 2, the walls have been broken down so that we are also reconciled with one another (vv. 11-19).
Reconciliation has not only been objectively accomplished at the cross, but this marvelous truth is also to be subjectively applied. It is not only vertical in its relationship to God, but horizontal in its relationship with others; not only personal (2 Corinthians 5), but also cosmic and eschatological in its scope and reach (Romans 11; Colossians 1). Though those who have received the gift of reconciling grace have already experienced peace with God and with others, our current experience pales in comparison to God’s future work for us as individuals and for His church.
We now celebrate and give thanks for this wonderful gift made possible by God’s abundant grace to us in Christ, the One who knew no sin, and who became sin for us in order that we might become the righteousness of God (v. 21). We are now given the high calling to be ambassadors for Christ (v. 20), agents of reconciliation who model these peace-filled relationships in every sphere of life.
We are called to proclaim this good news of reconciliation and to be agents of peace in this hostile, broken, fractured world. While every generation of Christians since the first century has shared this call, there have been few times like the present, coming out of the difficult and strained 2020 year, in which prioritizing our call as agents of reconciliation has mattered more. The call to be agents of reconciliation is multidimensional, actualized by proclamation, by example, by ministry and by relationships. We are invited to listen carefully and serve faithfully with a new humility in the midst of a fallen world.
We must understand that we are called to be agents of reconciliation in a world characterized by brokenness, prejudice, polarization, racism and division. Sadly, these effects of sin can be seen not just in the world, but among professing followers of Christ as well. As we enter this new year, let us celebrate afresh the good news of what Christ has done for us, reconciling us to Himself. Let us also emphasize anew the full implications of what it means to have been given the ministry of reconciliation.
Let us hear the call to be agents of reconciliation in the year ahead, refusing to fall into the trap of being characterized by infighting over less important matters that lead to disunity. Instead, the time is right to manifest for a watching world what it means to be hopeful and collaborative agents of reconciliation, crossing all geographic, economic, racial and ethnic lines.
One of the things that will authenticate this message of reconciliation is the way we love one another, the way we serve together in harmony, and the way we carry out our ministry in shared, cooperative and collaborative ways. Doing so will point the way forward, calling us out of our insularity, particularly where we can join with others who have received Christ’s gift of reconciliation to serve together in cultural and societal engagement, including efforts related to racial reconciliation.
We need to trust God to bring a fresh wind of His Spirit to bring renewal to our gospel convictions, to strengthen our commitments to the church, and our service to society. May the Lord help us to relate to one another in love and humility, bringing new life to our shared ministry across our Baptist and evangelical communities.
We pray not only for renewed convictions and a fresh understanding of the doctrine of reconciliation, its depth and multiple dimensions, but also for a new appreciation for its daily implications on our calling. Agents of reconciliation need to display a genuine orthodoxy as well as an authentic orthopraxy that can be seen by a world which seemingly stands on the verge of giving up on the Christian faith. As we enter this new year, I trust you will join me in praying for the Lord to help us prioritize our calling to be agents of reconciliation in 2021, doing so for the eternal glory of our great God.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David S. Dockery is interim provost and distinguished professor of theology at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of the International Alliance for Christian Education.)