"And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and has committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)
I am not at all surprised when a reflecting man is forced to lay his Bible aside in despair, not being able to master its difficulties, for assuredly there are vast difficulties within it. Even the living children of God are often and often sorely puzzled as to the meaning of certain passages of the Scriptures. Yea, even the ministers of God are sometimes at a dead lock, not knowing how to reconcile one Scripture statement with another. It is nothing short of thorough-paced dishonesty or ignorance to assert that the Bible is an easy book to comprehend. I grant that what is absolutely necessary for salvation is within the reach of the understanding of the wayfaring man though a fool, but to understand all that the Holy Ghost has indited is not only a very hard but an impossible thing in our present position. What makes matters worse is, our minds are often averse to work, and so, when we meet with a difficulty, we are inclined to pass it over rather than go into it. Hence we have confused ideas upon the great question of God's plan of salvation, and are the ready prey for the propagation of divers and strange doctrines. What makes matters worse still is, our minds have a natural bias towards error. O awful fact! We all incline towards human nature's view of the plan of salvation, which would represent God as offering pardon to all, and man as a free agent to accept it or reject it. Naturally, we cannot abide to hear that salvation, in its plan, in its power, and in its appropriation is all of the Lord. But it is so, nevertheless, though a score of passages from Scripture were brought forward to disprove the fact.
My text has suggested these remarks, for, first, it is a very difficult one, and, secondly, it is often employed as a powerful weapon against the truth as it is in Jesus. Let us, then, approach it in all humility and teachableness, praying for the Spirit of God to unfold its meaning to us.
I. To the Arminian or free-willer this Scripture presents no difficulty at all, for herein he thinks he has his entire scheme plainly developed. "Here," says he, "we have an account of what God has done to save sinners, and the commission He has given to His ministers, to offer salvation to all." But such a one never thinks of the other side of the question, namely, that God is a Sovereign "who will have mercy on whom He will have mercy." (Rom. 9:15) Or of the fact that none of Christ's sheep shall ever perish, (Matt. 18:14) or that if the sins of all men be not imputed to them, all men must be saved. These things never trouble the free-willer, for he is a poor superficial thing, filled with self-conceit, and ready to take everything for granted, whether proved or not. But the quickened soul is not satisfied with anything short of truth. Now to understand this Scripture, we must get to know the meaning of three words in it, "reconciling," "world," and "imputing;" we shall then bid fair to grasp the apostle's meaning both in the text and the context.
First, what is it to reconcile? Reconcile is to re-adjust, to make to agree, to restore to favor. When friends fall out, they are said to be at variance, but when they make it up they are said to be reconciled. Now, the case with God and man was this: God and man were originally friends, close friends, but man behaved badly, ungratefully, sinfully towards God, and thus was there a breach made between them. And, as is invariably the case with the offending party, man hated God after the offence, in fact he turned his back upon God, and well might God withdraw His presence from man, but the enmity is confined to man. This estrangement between the parties would have been perpetual, were it not for God; but He, in His pity for wretched man, brought to light a scheme that He had had in His mind from all eternity, by which man might be reconciled to Him, or restored to His favor. That scheme was sketched out to man in Eden, and was fully carried out by Christ upon the cross. Thus was God in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. I think the expression is remarkable; it is not God was reconciling Himself unto the world, but God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, thereby intimating that estrangement and enmity were on the part of man, not God. Now, mark you, this reconciliation must have been objectively, not subjectively, by which I mean that though it is said to be done, or to have been done, many persons for whom it was done did not enjoy the results till long after it had been done. For instance, you who are now realizing the sweets of reconciliation, remember the times when you were alienated in your minds towards God; (Col. 1:21) at that time you could not have been said to be reconciled to God, though it is true that God was in Christ reconciling you to Himself ages and ages ago. Well, such is reconciliation, a restoring to friendship, a bringing together again of those who had been parted through misunderstanding or fault or sin.
Secondly. We now come to define the word "world," as used in the Scriptures. It is usually interpreted as man in general--all men--the entire human family. But how can this be, when thousands and millions of men have died hating God--men who have never laid aside their enmity to God? Were they reconciled? It will not do to say, "Yes, but it was their own fault; they wouldn't be reconciled;" for multitudes of them never heard a word about God's scheme at all. Besides, the text is explicit, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself." The thing is done; and, if a man has an interest in it, he will assuredly hear it, and assuredly reap the benefits of it; for the Holy Ghost has undertaken to teach him all about it. Just look into the 14th and 15th verses. Now, the meaning of the proposition "for" here is "instead of," and the passage ought to be rendered thus: "If One died instead of the all for whom He died, then they all died with Him, and He died instead of the all, that they which live," etc. (Alford) are dead to the reigning and damning power of sin. This being the case, how can "the all," or "the world," mean all men without exception? Do all men live unto Christ? Are all men thus dead? Are all men justified? "Christ rose again for our justification," we are told, but surely every man has not been justified. The solution is here. The apostle was once of the same mind with the rest, that, as Christ came of the flesh of Abraham, and was of the kindred of the Jews, the benefit of His death extended no farther than to the flesh of which He came, to the Jews; but Paul learnt better, and that Christ's death extended far beyond those limits, even to the Gentiles, whom the Lord would call. This will explain the 16th and 17th verses. That is to say, "I once was of a different mind: I looked upon Christ as a Jew, but now I know Him no more thus, but will teach that they who are not of His flesh have as great a portion in Him as those who are. If any man," etc., etc., he is in a new condition; he is reconciled to God, whereas he was an alien to Him before. The term "world," then, means not every individual of the human family, but God's people amongst the Gentiles as well as amongst the Jews--all the people whom Jesus saves--all His sheep for whom He laid down His life.
Thirdly. This will appear demonstratively through the meaning of the word "imputing." One single sentence from Scripture settles the thing at once. It is, "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin;" (Rom. 4:8) Blessed is the man whom the Lord will not charge with sin, or blessed is the man whose sin is covered. Now, our text tells us--ver. 19, in other words, that the world's sins will not be charged upon them--that the world's sins are covered, all blotted out in His blood, for read ver. 21. Now, I ask, how can this be the case if the word "world" be made to mean every individual of the human family? Surely the idea is preposterous. But the simple meaning of the passage is, "God was in Christ, reconciling both Jews and Gentiles to Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them;" or, in other words, "God was in Christ, reconciling His people unto," etc. It now only remains for me, before I make some use of all this, to explain ver. 20. This is a great favorite with our free-willing friends, for they think they have good warrant here for their harangues to dead sinners. But it is quite a mistake. You will perceive that the pronoun "you," repeated twice, is not in the original. Hence our version gives a false impression of the apostle's meaning. Paul was not offering reconciliation to the world, but simply proclaiming the good news. He was not beseeching the believing Corinthians to be reconciled to God, for how could he? They were already reconciled, or professed as much. But the meaning is, Paul is here describing the commission he and his coadjutors had from the Lord. It is as if he had said, "We are God's ambassadors to proclaim this message of reconciliation effected by Christ Jesus. We go about beseeching and praying men (not all men, but men who, like you, profess to believe), Be reconciled in that reconciliation in which God was in Christ the Reconciler, and beware how ye are tempted aside by other views." And I think this throws a beautiful light upon ver. 10 and 11. It is as much as to say, "There is no other escape from the terror of the Lord, nor from an awful judgment to come, but this plan of God's, by which He has reconciled His people to Himself. Oh, fling aside all other schemes, and 'Be reconciled in that reconciliation in which God was in Christ the Reconciler.'"
II. How precious are the Scriptures when the Spirit of God gives us light and knowledge to understand them! I thank God from my heart that He has enabled me to master the difficulties in this place, and to point to Christ, and Him alone, as the means of reconciling sinners unto God. Believe me that your prayers will not do it, your repentance will not do it, your tears will not do it, your works and strivings will not do it. It is Christ that must do it. And now the question is, Has He done it for you and me? Remember what I told you at the beginning, that it is possible for this work to have been done for those who do not yet know of it or enjoy its benefits. But just say: 1. What are your feelings towards God? 2. Are you at peace with or at enmity? 3. Do you bow to His authority? Do you admire Him in His perfections? Do you believe in His plan of salvation? 4. Have you aught to urge against Him? 5. Do you acknowledge your estrangement from Him, and can you now say that you desire to be friends with Him? If so, be assured you are reconciled to Him, that God was in Christ long ago reconciling you unto Himself. The thing is done, and done for ever. There will be no more falling out, for you are in Christ Jesus, in whom God has declared Himself well pleased.
It afforded me much pleasure to hear during the past week that my exposition of the context of this Scripture proved to be edifying to some of you on last Sunday morning. Those little acknowledgments for benefits received by a congregation are amongst the few solaces that a minister of the Gospel enjoys in the midst of his varied trials. They are proofs that God has been with him, and with his people. That must be a miserable ministry that does not draw forth the gratitude of a congregation, and that must be a miserable congregation that is not grateful for the work of patience and labor of love on the part of the minister. I thank God that I have not such a congregation, but one (at least many in it) that can appreciate a truthful exposition of the word of God; and I pray God that He may increase my usefulness more and more, and both your and my knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, before I expound my text for you, I must briefly recapitulate what was said on last Sunday morning in connection with the context.
I. You will remember that we first mastered the meaning of three important words in the context, namely, "reconcile," "world," and "impute."
First. We saw that reconcile was to restore to favor--that the purpose of God to do this by man was stated in Eden, and accomplished on the cross, and that this wondrous work was done objectively there, and is done subjectively to each interested in it when the Holy Spirit takes of the things of Christ, and shows them to the soul. We saw too, that this was a perfect work--that, when once done, it is done for ever; there can be no more estrangement.
Secondly. This gave us clear views with regard to the meaning of the word "world," for of course it must follow, that if all men without exception cannot possibly be interested in this work. This was further established by the fact brought out in the 14th and 15th verses, the true reading of which is, "If One died instead of all, then the all died, and He died instead of those all, that they might live," etc. (Alford). Whence it follows that if Christ literally died instead of every man, without exception, every man without exception must be justified, either objectively or subjectively; but, as every man without exception is not this justified, Christ could not have died for all, in this sense.
Thirdly. The meaning of the word "impute" demonstrated the thing; for, as it is to charge with (and not imputing is not to charge with), it must follow that if the word "world" means every man, without exception, every man, without exception, will be cleared from his sins; but, as we know that this will not be the case, it is plain that the word "world" cannot mean every man in this sense.
In short, I showed you that the word "world" here means the Gentiles especially--of course, the Gentiles interested in the work; and the apostle employs it to set to rights the then common notion that only those belonging to Christ after the flesh were interested in the work. I furthermore proved to you that the apostle here cannot possibly be exhorting every man to be reconciled to God (for he was addressing those who were already reconciled, or professed to be reconciled), but that he is describing his commission, which was to proclaim the fact that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself; and that if the expression, "Be ye reconciled to God" (20th verse), have any allusion to the saints at Corinth at all, it can only be in the strictest passive sense, and would mean this, "Rest in that reconciliation in which God was in Christ the Reconciler." The Corinthian believers might have been like other believers, hesitating and doubting under false teachers, and fancying there was something for them to do, in order to perfect their salvation, and then Paul would have been justified in exhorting, "I pray you rest in that reconciliation," etc.
The whole context from the 10th to the 20th verses might be briefly paraphrased: "Knowing the terror of the Lord out of Christ, and of a judgment to come, I persuade men making a profession of Christianity, to abide in the reconciliation in which God was in Christ the Reconciler, and not to deceive themselves by supposing that they can mend matters by anything they can do." I believe this to be the unstrained meaning of the context. This wears a very different aspect to the popular interpretation given, which warrants preachers to exhort dead sinners to reconcile themselves unto God, or to give up their prejudices, and close with God, who is offering to be friends with them. I might elaborate here, but time will not permit.
II. 2 Cor. 5:21. In that little verse is the scheme of God's salvation. There is the imputation of sin on the one hand to an innocent, all-holy Person; and the imputation of righteousness, on the other, to unworthy, sinful, polluted creatures. The prophet and the apostle might well exclaim, "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him." (1 Cor. 2:9) Brethren, listen, you that are subjectively reconciled to God, and you that may be objectively reconciled, though you do not know it or feel it yet: Christ was made sin for you, and in your stead bore all its terrible consequences; and you are made by that mysterious transaction the righteousness of God in Him. Poor guilty sinner, can you believe it? "All things are possible to him that believeth." If you can believe this with your heart you are a saved man: nothing whatever for you to do; the thing is already done. But what is involved in that heart work? A thorough conviction of the need there was for such a Saviour. No believer in a half Saviour or a co-operative Saviour, no believer in man-power, ever believed with his heart the scheme by which God has chosen to save His people. It is this accursed delusion of self-saving that is ruining so many souls. It is this audacious attempt to rob God, that will bring damnation on so many souls. Sinner, believe me, until you can understand God's plan of reconciliation, which consisted in the substitution of Christ for man, and man for Christ, you can never see light. But, on the other hand, whoever you are who feel your need for such substitution, and are longing for an experimental knowledge of it, you are already made the righteousness of God in Christ. Herein lies the great mystery of the atonement: Christ treated as if guilty of our sins; we treated as if the workers of His righteousness. This is the Gospel that has comforted poor sorrowing sinners in all ages, and has mortified and confounded audacious and self-righteous rebels since the world began.
But now to the last portion of the text. (2 Cor. 6:1-4) There are two or three difficulties here. Now bear in mind what has already been laid before you, and look upon the passage as if there were no break between it and the last verses of the preceding chapter. Observe "with Him" is not in the original. It is a pity that the translators should have ever introduced it. We can in no correct sense be said to be workers together with God. But the apostle's meaning was, "We apostles as workers together," etc. What is the meaning of the last clause? It is a favorite passage with those who hold that a man may fall finally away from grace. But this is an awful error. A man may fall from his profession of the doctrines of grace, but never from that grace that God puts in the heart. "Nothing shall ever separate." etc. (Rom. 8:35,39) The seed is incorruptible, never-dying. They that are justified, God will glorify. But the phrase "grace of God" is often used in the Scriptures to describe the Gospel, also "gracious gifts," and particularly such as qualify men for the ministry (Rom. 1:5; 12:6; Eph. 3:8; 1 Cor. 15:10), and it is manifestly in this sense it is used here. The connection of this ver. 1 with ver. 3,4 (the second is in a parenthesis) prove this: read ver. 3,4. The meaning is, "We apostles as fellow-workers beseech you ministers also, that the gifts bestowed on you for the proclamation of the message of reconciliation be not suffered to lie neglected, but that you use and improve them to the advantage of the Church, and the glory of God, and furthermore, that you give no offense in anything," etc.
But what connection has ver. 2 with this exposition? We must first get to know the meaning of this verse. Part of it is a quotation from Isaiah 49:7,8.
Jehovah is here assuring the Messiah that He had heard Him in His intercession for the Gentiles. Mark you that, and now think of the "world" of our context, and you will have the meaning.
It is this, the ministers of the Church of Corinth had begun to hesitate, it is likely, in proclaiming the whole truth. They might have thought that the time had not yet come for the proclamation of reconciliation of the Gentiles, or of the world. "We beseech you," says Paul, "that you proclaim this news abroad, Messiah has been heard, Messiah's work is done. He has reconciled the Gentiles to God. 'Behold, it is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation.' Now, for the whole of God's chosen." As for the popular interpretation and adaptation of the latter clause of ver. 2, which induces men to urge sinners to come now to God, for the next moment it may be too late, it is the most absurd and ridiculous and unwarrantable nonsense in the world. The simple meaning is as I have given it to you.
III. And now for a word upon the whole. My dear hearers, as I was observing last Sunday morning, it is one of the greatest blessings and sweetest privileges in the world to be given the mind of Christ, as it is revealed in the Scriptures--to understand what the Lord says to us in this book. As the apostle says, "What use is any sound to us, if we know not what is piped or harped?" Men might as well be talking to us in a tongue we never learnt, if we don't understand what they say to us about God and Christ and salvation. Many of those poor fellows don't know themselves what they are talking about. But oh, when a poor guilty sinner gets to know that of a surety Christ has taken upon Himself all his guilt, that He has wrought out a perfect salvation for him and in his stead, and that there remains nothing for him, the sinner, to do, then true joy takes possession of his soul! Oh, may God fill you believers with all joy and peace! My message to you is the same as Paul's, "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and I pray all poor hesitators to rest in the reconciliation in which God was in Christ the Reconciler: for a perfect salvation like this is the only foundation for a stable peace!"