This post was originally published in May 2018. –ed.
Reconciliation is difficult with people and impossible with God. We can build bridges to those previously offended and patch the wounds of those we’ve hurt. But God is perfectly righteous and perfectly just. We are powerless to repair the damage done by our crimes against Him.
Put simply, we cannot reconcile with God. We need the One whom we’ve offended to make the initial move. That’s why our understanding of reconciliation with God must be viewed from His perspective—that it is His will to be reconciled to us. And that’s exactly what we see in 2 Corinthians 5:18–21.
Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:18–21)
Paul begins 2 Corinthians 5:18 by saying, “Now all these things are from God.” What things? We have to look back at what he was saying in verse 17. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” All that is new in regeneration, all that accompanies the new birth, all that is transformed in conversion, and all that is made new again in salvation—all of it comes from God. His role in the reconciliation of man is a theme Paul returns to again and again in these verses: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). In verse 20 he describes the ministry of reconciliation “as though God were making an appeal through us.” He doesn’t want us to lose sight of the divine power behind this reconciling, redeeming work. No matter how He sees fit to use us, it’s always God’s work.
The Problem with False Gods
Throughout my ministry I’ve tried to help people differentiate between the true gospel and the twisted, false gospel of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the many things that has corrupted that system so badly is the dependence on Mary. If Catholics want to make any progress from a spiritual standpoint, they instantly go to Mary. Why is that? Because she is perceived by most Catholics as more sympathetic, more compassionate, and more full of grace than any of the persons of the Trinity. So, the thinking goes, it’s best to go first to Mary, because Jesus can’t refuse His mother. If you can get Mary on your side, Jesus will always cave in to Mary, and then you’re really on your way to God. That is why Mary dominates the Roman Catholic system—they believe she’s the gateway to God’s blessing and favor.
Not only is this a blasphemous lie, it’s a direct assault on the nature and character of God. Far from being some distant, distracted deity, the God of Scripture is loving and compassionate. More than that, He is our Savior.
The notion that God is a loving and compassionate Savior contradicts the core doctrines of the world’s religions. If you study the history of religion, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a savior god among them. When men and demons design gods, that’s simply not how they design them. Demonic religious systems don’t concoct deities anything like the God of the Bible. Instead, they generally range from indifferent to severely hostile. Just consider some of the false gods with whom the Israelites were enamored—starting with Baal.
The problem with Baal was that he didn’t pay attention to people. To get his attention, the priests of Baal would leap around, screaming and slashing their skin with swords, as they did in their confrontation with Elijah (1 Kings 18:20-40). It reads like a horrific, stomach-churning display. And what did Elijah say about Baal? “Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). That is a deity of demonic invention—a god of indifference who has to be awakened to the plight of his worshipers.
Worse still was the Canaanite god Molech. He was believed to be a scourge to mankind, and could only be satiated with the sacrifice of infants and small children. His followers had to burn their babies to get his attention and fend off his wrath.
That’s just a glimpse into the panoply of demonic false gods. And not one of them is a gracious, loving savior to his people.
The God of the Bible stands in sharp contrast. The pages of Scripture are loaded with references to God’s gracious, saving nature—it’s inescapable. We need to understand that reconciliation does not start with the sinner, or some cosmic cry that God responds to. We don’t have to ask God to accept the sinner—we don’t have to coax Him into it through pressure or praise. He is not reluctant to save. Reconciliation begins with God—it’s woven into His glorious nature. First Timothy 4:10 puts it as concisely as any verse in Scripture. Paul calls God “the Savior of all men, especially of believers.”
The Immediate Savior of All Men
In spite of the glorious truth it expresses, that verse can trip us up. Often people will ask, in what sense is God the Savior of all men? Critics and skeptics seize on that phrase in their attempts to spot contradictions between the Old and New Testaments. They ask, what kind of “Savior” God kills all those people? But that’s not really the question. We don’t sit in judgment of God’s judgment. The question is not, why did God send bears out of the woods to destroy a group of boys who yelled “bald head” at a prophet (2 Kings 2:23-24)? The question is not, why did the ground open up and swallow people whole for violating Old Testament law (Numbers 16)? The question is not, why did God displace and destroy the idolatrous Canaanites? The question is not, why does God destroy the globe and preserve only Noah and his family? Those questions are easy to answer: the wages of sin—no matter how great or small the sin might seem to us—is always death (Romans 6:23).
The harder question to answer is this: Why are we still alive? Why has God allowed some sinners to live? Why does anybody survive the due penalty of their sin? The answer is that God, by nature, is a gracious and merciful Savior. He “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” alike (Matthew 5:45). He allows the unregenerate to fall in love and have families. He allows them to appreciate beautiful music, good food, laughter, and the other simple pleasures of life. They enjoy the blessings of His creation, when they rightly ought to be languishing in the torment of hell. God allows it because He is, by nature, a Savior.
That’s essentially what 1 Timothy 4 is saying. God is the Savior of all men in this sense: physically and temporally on a general level. If nothing else, we see the saving nature of God manifest in the fact that He grants sinners time to be reconciled to Him. Paul makes a similar point in Romans 2 when he says “the kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Simply sparing unrepentant men and women from the due penalty of their sin—even temporarily—is an act of unfathomable kindness from God and evidence of His gracious, saving nature.
The Eternal Savior of His Elect
Luke 15:11–32 contains the greatest of Christ’s parables—the story of the prodigal son—and it paints a vivid, humbling picture of God’s saving nature. The hero of the parable is certainly not the prodigal son, nor is it his pharisaical brother. The hero is actually the father. And the most dramatic and instructive moment in the parable is when the father is looking off in the distance for any sign of his wretched, wandering son. The young man had shirked his duties and responsibilities to his father and family, cashed out his birthright, and departed for all the perverse pleasures of the Gentile world. He had foolishly wasted his inheritance that rightly belonged to the family estate—funds that might have taken multiple generations to build up and secure. He had effectively stolen from his family to support his profligate lifestyle. And yet the father kept watch for any sign of his return.
And when he finally saw him, what did he do? He ran out to meet him. It’s a stunning detail in the story—one that we can easily overlook with our twenty-first century eyes. Put simply, Middle Eastern noblemen didn’t run for anyone. We have literature from that time period that suggests that even among the Jews, it was considered a shame for a man to show his legs. It would have been unthinkable for a Middle Eastern nobleman to hike up his robes and run through the streets. But that’s what this father did—actually, the Greek word indicates it was a full sprint. As fast as he could, with shameful abandon and no concern for propriety or his own dignity, this father sprinted out to meet his wayward son.
Don’t forget that Jesus was telling this parable to Pharisees, among others. They would have been shocked to hear of the father running out to meet such a son. And when the father reached the young man, they likely expected the father to brutally slap him across the face to indicate his disdain for the son’s wretched behavior. They might have expected the father to refuse to give the son a place in the house, or to make him sit covered in ashes in the middle of the village, heaping public shame and scorn on him for such an embarrassment. That’s what the Pharisees would have expected, because it is the judgmental, holier-than-thou way they responded to sin.
But that’s not what happened. Jesus said the father threw his arms around his son, kissed him all over his filthy head, put a ring on his finger, put a robe on him, and ushered him back into the household to celebrate his return. It’s a vivid depiction of full reconciliation and full restoration to familial privileges.
The father is the Lord, who sprints after lost sinners, eager to rescue and redeem them from their wretched wickedness. He doesn’t vengefully hold their sin over them, but gladly welcomes them into the joy of His eternal household. God and all of heaven rejoice over the repentance of one sinner, and the reconciliation of another prodigal. No one has to convince God to save the sinner—the work of reconciliation is born out of His nature as a Savior.
(Adapted from Good News)