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A Ministry of Reconciliation

From the editor:

In this week's featured sermon, John MacArthur says, "Never has the world seen a God who by nature is a lover. Never has the world seen a God who weeps over the plight of those who are under his sovereign rule. This was new in the pagan world. We have a God who is by nature a Savior." In this message John identifies other core truths of the gospel of grace.


I was flying to El Paso to do a men's conference for Calvary Chapel, and I was seated in that dreaded middle seat. I was working on some thoughts with my Bible open. An Arab was sitting next to me. I could sense his curiosity. He kept glancing over from the window seat and looking at what I was doing. Finally, maybe thirty minutes into the flight, he said, "Excuse me, sir. May I ask you a question?" I said, "Sure." He said, "I'm from Iran, and I am new in America. I see you have a Bible. I don't understand American religion. Maybe you could answer a question for me. What is the difference between a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Baptist?"

That was his question. I don't know how it got framed up like that, but that was it. When you're from Iran, everybody's a Muslim. It's not hard to sort it out, but over here in America, it is a bit confusing, to put it mildly. There are twenty-eight thousand denominations.

I said to the man, "I can answer that." So I gave him a little explanation of Catholicism and how the Reformation came along and elevated justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. I made it as simple as I could. Then I talked about Baptists being the largest Protestant denomination in America—again, as simply as I could. I then said, "Could I ask you a question?" He said, "Of course." I asked, "Do Muslims have sins?" (Of course I knew they had sins. I just wanted to hear him say it.) "Oh, we have many sins," he said. "We have so many sins I don't even know all the sins!" I said, "Can I ask you another question? Do you do those sins?" "All the time I do those sins," he said. "In fact, I'll be honest with you—I am going to El Paso to do some sins." A pretty honest guy! I pressed further: "Do you mind if I ask what sins you're going to do in El Paso?" He said, "Well, I was immigrating,"—there's a big immigration location right through El Paso—"and during the immigration process I met a girl. I'm going to El Paso to do some sins with her." I said, "Well, let me ask you another question. How does God—as you understand God—feel about your sins?" "It's very bad," he said. "Very bad." I said, "How bad is it?" He said, "I could go to hell." I said, "You don't want to go there, do you?" "No," he said. I said, "Well, then why do you keep doing these sins?" "I can't help it," he said. "Is there any hope for you?" I asked. I'll never forget what he said—this is a direct quote—"I hope the god will forgive me." I said, "Why are you so special he should do that? Why should he forgive you? For what reason?" "I don't know," he replied. "I just hope." I said, "Well, I know him personally, and he won't."

What I said to him absolutely blew his mind. But the first thing that blew his mind was the first half of that statement: I know him personally. He said to me, "You know the god personally?" I said, "I do, and I can tell you he will not forgive your sin because he's of purer eyes, and he has anger toward the wicked every day. He's going to cast them into eternal hell. But would you like to hear some really good news about your sin?" "Yes, I would," he said. So I explained to him the gospel. I had the opportunity to get his address and send him some material. I directed him toward a church. I can only pray that he has followed through. But I do know this: I put a serious damper on a weekend in El Paso!

We are called to a ministry of reconciliation.

Our passage is one of those great passages in Scripture with which we are most familiar. It contains perhaps the most significant single statement about the significance of the gospel anywhere in the epistles of Paul.

To begin with, I want you to notice that the word reconcile—or a form of the word reconcile—is used five times in this passage. That unlocks for us the theme of the passage. It's about reconciliation.

The Bible makes it clear that all people are sinners. They are sinners by nature. They are sinners by conduct. They are sinners from birth. And because of this sin, they are alienated from a holy God. This alienation from God prevents every sinner from having fellowship with God, who is too perfectly holy to have anything to do with sinners except to reject them and to punish them forever. Such a series of realities is an indication that the most deadly virus in the world is the SIN virus. And like many viruses, the SIN virus can kill everyone it infects—not just in time, but in eternity; not just physically, but spiritually. Praise God, then, that there is a cure for the SIN virus. And you and I are the dispensers of the cure. Are we not?

God has made it possible, based upon this wonderful word reconciliation, for sinners to be reconciled to him. That is the message we proclaim: "God will forgive all Your sins. Are you interested? That's the good news." We proclaim that the hostility between the sinner and God can end now and forever.

The term reconciliation defines what we're all about. In fact, you will notice in verse 18 that God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. At the end of verse 19, it says that he has committed to us the word of reconciliation. In verse 20, it says we are ambassadors—that is, we take this message, this word, this ministry, to an alien land. It is our duty. It is our responsibility to tell people they can be reconciled to God. That's our mission. That's what we live to do.

This ministry of reconciliation is the reason we've been left in this world. I think that's clear from this passage. But what isn't clear is how this all unfolds theologically. Let me give you a little bit of a theological lesson from this text.

Reconciliation is made possible by the will of God.

There are a number of things that flow out of this text that are essential to understanding the gospel. If we are ambassadors in the ministry of reconciliation, it's critical for us to clearly understand the message. You might assume that we understand the message, but that would be a wrong assumption. Some of the leading minds in evangelicalism are still grappling with the nature and meaning of the gospel—and 450 years have passed since the Reformation! It's safe to assume that Satan is going to attack Christianity at its core, and the core is the gospel. So there's always going to be a battle to clarify and purify the gospel. If we're going to be involved in the ministry of reconciliation, preach the word of reconciliation, be ambassadors for God in an alien world, we need to understand this message clearly.

From a human standpoint, reconciliation seems impossible. There's nothing a sinner can do. There is nothing a sinner can contrive. There is no system a sinner can invent. There's no series of ceremonies or series of works or series of behaviors that a sinner can do that causes him or her to be reconciled to God. If there is to be any reconciliation at all, it's going to have to come from God. That's the first point that I want you to notice in this text: reconciliation is by the will of God.

In verse 18, Paul has just talked about being a new creation in Christ. He writes, "All these things are of God." Salvation is from God. God is a saving God by nature. This is such an important thing to understand. There is nothing we can do to satisfy the just wrath of a holy God. There is nothing we can do to change our nature. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves acceptable to him. There is nothing we can do to be worthy in his sight. So if any change is to happen in our relationship, God has to initiate it. Sinners cannot decide to be reconciled to God and devise some means to accomplish that. Sinners have no power to do that. We are offenders who can do absolutely nothing, and that's what makes the gospel so wonderful. God so loved the world that he devised the means of reconciliation. This is not foreign to his nature.

When you study pagan religions, you're going to find there's a spectrum on which deities exist that goes from apathetic to violently hostile. I'll give you an illustration. The most familiar false god in the land of Canaan when Israel came in was a god named Baal. Baal can best be defined as a god who was indifferent or apathetic. That is clearly indicated in the story where Elijah went up on Mount Carmel, and there was a test to see who was God. You remember the story: the prophets of Baal built an altar, Elijah built an altar, and they had a competition of sorts to see whose God would first send fire. The prophets of Baal called on Baal, going through all their histrionics, slicing themselves up and doing whatever they thought would get his attention. Elijah said, "Maybe he is sleeping. Maybe he's on a vacation." Elijah proved how the god of Baal is a god of apathy. He was a deity that couldn't care less. This is the god of apathy. If you want help from this god, you have to rattle his cage loud enough to wake him up!

But there was another god who illustrated the other extreme in the land of Canaan. His name was Molech. Molech was a frightening god—not an indifferent one. This violently hostile god would only be appeased if you took your little baby and incinerated it alive.

As you consider the nature of Baal and Molech and all the other gods of history, never has the world seen a God who by nature is a Savior. Never has the world seen a God who by nature is a lover. Never has the world seen a God who weeps over the plight of those who are under his sovereign rule. The story of Christ was new to a pagan world. Today, we have a God who by nature is a Savior. We don't have to worry about whether God will receive the sinner. He's a Savior by nature.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve sinned. Immediately, God shows up and says, "Adam, where are you?" And he's been seeking sinners ever since. Remember the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son in Luke 15? Remember what happens when all three are found? Celebration! Rejoicing! That's the heart of God. We don't have a reluctant father going out to embrace the prodigal, do we? We have a father who runs out, falls on his face, and kisses the prodigal, placing a ring on his finger, putting a robe on his body, throwing the biggest party he's ever thrown because his son has come home. That's the heart of God. That's the story of the loving father, the forgiving Father. He is by nature of a Savior, and lavishes love upon those who believe. This is the wonder of salvation: the ministry of reconciliation begins with the fact that it is by the will of God.

Reconciliation is made possible by an act of forgiveness.

Reconciliation is not only possible by the will of God; it is made possible by an act of forgiveness by God. Verse 19 says that God is able to reconcile the world to himself by "not imputing their trespasses to them." In other words, the only possible way a sinner can be reconciled to God is if God doesn't take their sin into account. If God doesn't hold them guilty, indicting them, the only way that God can reconcile a world of sinners is to forgive them through "the Lamb of God [who] has come to take away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).

The only way God can redeem mankind is if he does not count their sins against them. That's not easy for God to do, because he is holy and just. "Blessed is the man," says Romans 4:8, "whose sin the Lord will not take into account." Psalm 32:2: "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity." My friend on the airplane had a real problem, because he had nothing in his theology that would indicate to him that his god—which is true of all the gods of the world—was at all interested in forgiving him.

Bottom line: our God is a God who reconciles by his will and through an amazing act of forgiveness through his Son.

Reconciliation is made possible by the obedience of faith.

Reconciliation is by the will of God, by an act of forgiveness, and also by the obedience of faith.

According to verse 20, we are ambassadors for Christ in that God uses us to plead with others to "be reconciled to God." What's implied in this verse is that sinners have to make a response. Reconciliation is initiated by God, but you have to respond. So, God says we must plead with people to acknowledge Christ as Savior and Lord, because it is by the obedience of faith that they will be reconciled to God.

The religions of the world don't see it that way. In one way, shape, or form, they all herald a system of works righteousness. You earn salvation by sacramental or ceremonial or moral acts. But Acts 16:31 says, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved." The obedience of faith is the issue. Salvation is by faith and faith alone. Unless a person believes, they'll never have reconciliation with God.

Reconciliation is made possible by the sacrifice of Christ.

All of this brings us to the most important thing I need to point out—the heart and soul of the Christian gospel. How is it possible for God to reconcile sinners? How can he overlook our sin? How can he satisfy his just and holy condemnation of sin with a full and deserved punishment that doesn't destroy the sinner forever? How can he be so gracious and loving and merciful and kind? The answer is in verse 21, a verse that defines the doctrine of salvation: "But he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him."

God can only carry out his plan of salvation by not imputing trespasses and sins against the sinner. But what will he do with their sin? There has to be a punishment. So, God "made him who knew no sin, sin." He sent Jesus, his Son.

Look at the testimony of the New Testament concerning Jesus. Hebrews says that Christ was holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners. Even Pilate said, "I find no fault in him." Others said, "Never a man spake like this man." No one could come up with a legitimate indictment against Christ. Perhaps the greatest testimony of all came from the Father: "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." Christ was sinless. And God made him who knew no sin, sin, for us.

In what sense was Jesus made sin? On the cross God treated Jesus as if Jesus had personally committed every sin that has ever been committed by every person who would ever believe—even though he committed none of them. The innocent died for the guilty. Let me put it simply: God punished Jesus on the cross as if he lived your life. That's the great doctrine of imputation: your sins not imputed to you or put to your account, but your sins imputed to Christ. This allowed God to pour out furious wrath and punishment on Jesus against those sins.

But that's not all. Consider the latter half of the verse: "He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him." Now you're treated by God as if you passed every trial—as if you were righteous in every relationship, righteous in every thought, righteous in every deed. This is grace. This is salvation. And this is the word of reconciliation.

To see an outline of MacArthur's sermon, click here.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.

John MacArthur is pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, as well as an author, conference speaker, chancellor of The Master's University and Seminary, and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry.

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Sermon Outline:


I. It's about reconciliation.

II. Reconciliation is by the will of God.

III. Reconciliation is by the act of forgiveness.

IV. Reconciliation is by the obedience of faith.

V. The doctrine of substitution