It’s Time for New Thinking on Atonement, Part 5: Under Wrath Until Reconciled

This eight-part series introduces the new perspective of Realistic Substitution, which unties the knots and answers the questions that previous theories could not. It is the ancient Realistic view of Adam further developed and applied to Christ.

A One-Sided Reconciliation?
The logic of a one-sided reconciliation, in which God is reconciled to us but we are not yet reconciled to Him, is like the sound of one hand clapping. Reconciliation is mutual or there is no reconciliation. God is not reconciled to us until we believe. This is why elect unbelievers remain under God’s wrath.

Eph. 2:3 ESV
among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

John 3:36 ESV
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

Rom. 1:18 ESV
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

Rom. 2:4-5 ESV
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

Rom. 4:15 ESV
For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

God’s wrath is not removed from us until our sin is removed, and we remain in sin until we believe in Christ and His blood-sacrifice is applied to us.

God Continues to Reconcile the World to Himself
The world is reconciled to God one sinner at a time, as each one comes to faith. No one is reconciled until they are reconciled.

2 Cor. 5:18-20 ESV
18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

God reconciled us to Himself at the same time that He gave us the ministry of reconciliation—at our point of saving faith. God’s acts of “reconciling the world to himself,” and, “not counting their trespasses against them,” and, “entrusting to us the message of reconciliation,” are not spoken of here as past, finished actions, but as ongoing actions. This is further shown by the fact that we are still making God’s appeal, and imploring men, “Be reconciled to God!” From the first moment of Christ’s incarnation, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself—and He has continued to do so even up to today. He is even now reconciling the world to Himself, and He does so through the combination of what Christ did on the cross and the ministry of reconciliation given to believers, whereby we implore men, “Be reconciled to God!”

Eph 2:1-3 ESV
1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Col. 1:21 ESV
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,

You who were once alienated and hostile in mind, a child of wrath—when were you reconciled to God? When was God’s wrath against your sins propitiated?

Col. 1:21-22 ESV
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,

We are now reconciled, now that we have been saved through faith. How is it that we are now reconciled? —Through “his body of flesh by his death.” It is His death then that reconciles us now.

Col. 2:13-14 ESV
13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

When we were still dead in our trespasses, God made us alive in Christ, “having forgiven all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us…” How did He cancel this record of our debt? By nailing it to the cross! Had He nailed it to the cross before we were born it would not need to be further canceled. The language is clear: we were dead in trespasses, and then God made us alive in Christ, and He did so by nailing the record of our debt to the cross. This speaks of our condition when we came to Christ, but does not mean that the two states, dead and alive, were in any way concurrent.

How is it that the record of our sins can be nailed to the cross today? It is by our blessed union with Christ…

Gal. 2:20 ESV
20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Just as I was nailed to that cross at my point of faith (and union with Christ), so also was the record of my debt nailed to that cross at my point of faith.

Eph. 2:1-9 ESV
1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Even when we were dead in our trespasses, the children of wrath by nature (“while we were enemies”), He made us alive together with Christ by grace through faith.

Rom. 5:1 ESV
1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Rom 5:6-11 ESV
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

In verses 6-8, we see that Christ died while all men were still sinners and weak. Paul and his immediate readers did exist at the time of His death, and so the pronoun, “we,” fits doubly for them. But notice the difference for us in v. 9: “…we have now been justified by his blood,…” Now can only refer to the point of faith that is spoken of in v. 1, “justified by faith.” “…much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” This refers to the future “day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:5). Verse 10 is held up by many as establishing that Christ’s death was an immediate transaction that reconciled us to God at the time of His death, but in the light of Col. 1-2 and Eph. 2, we see a different meaning. “While we were enemies” refers to our state before God “made us alive together with him.” We were reconciled to God by the death of His Son at our point of faith; and now that we have been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life from the wrath to come. It is now that we have received reconciliation (v. 11). To be reconciled by the death of the Son does not require that the reconciliation happen at the time of that death—and indeed, it cannot happen at the time of death for those who remain under the wrath of God.

A Present Reconciliation Grounded on a Long-Past Event[10]
John Murray, in his essay, “The Agency in Definitive Sanctification,” recognizes the “tension” between the historical objectivity of Christ dying and rising again, and the fact of the believer subjectively dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ—and that the two are often spoken of in the New Testament as if they were one and the same events.[11] The believer did not die to sin until coming to Christ in faith; and yet, the power of that dying to sin is firmly grounded in the once-and-for-all quality of Christ’s death—as if the historically objective death of Christ somehow became an historically objective fact of the believer’s life once he came to Christ.

Murray goes on to ask:

[…] When did believers die with Christ to sin, and rise with him to newness of life? It might appear unnecessary to ask this question because, if they died with Christ and rose with him in his resurrection, the time can only be when Christ himself died and rose again. And since Christ himself died once for all and, having risen from the dead, dies no more, it would appear necessary to restrict our death to sin and entrance upon newness of life (after the likeness of Jesus’ resurrection) to the historic past where Jesus died and rose from the dead. There is the tendency to posit such a severe restriction because it appears to guard and support the interests of objectivity, which on all accounts must be maintained in connection with the death and resurrection of Christ. But there are other considerations which must not be discarded. It is to be noted that Paul, in one of the passages where this making alive with Christ is so prominent, speaks of the same persons as being dead in trespasses and sins, as having at one time walked according to the course of this world, as having conducted their life aforetime in the lusts of the flesh, doing the will of the flesh and of the mind, and says that they were children of wrath even as others (Eph. 2:1-4). And not only so—he says that it was when they were dead in trespasses that they were made alive together with Christ (vs. 5). Furthermore, it is too apparent to need demonstration, that the historic events of Calvary and the resurrection from Joseph’s tomb do not register the changes which are continuously being wrought when the people of God are translated from the power of darkness into Christ’s kingdom of life, liberty, and peace. We are thus faced with the tension arising from the demands of the past historical, on the one hand, and the demands of the ethico-religious, on the other. And we cannot tone down the considerations which weigh in both directions.[12]

Murray’s conclusion is starkly similar to what he concluded elsewhere regarding the “tension” between Adam’s sin as an individual and the solidarity of the race:

How can Paul say that “all sinned” and then that one sinned and refer to the same fact? As we attempt to answer this question there is one error we must avoid. We must not tone down the singularity or the universality. Paul’s language is eloquent of both. The only solution is that there must be some kind of solidarity existing between the “one” and the “all” with the result that the sin contemplated can be regarded at the same time and with equal relevance as the sin of the “one” or as the sin of “all”.[13]

The tension that Murray senses between the subjective now and the objective past is the same as that between the act of one and the act of the many in solidarity with the one (whether the one is Adam or Christ). As Murray rightly notes, this objective-subjective historical-contemporary “tension” is also found in the idea of atonement:

Christ expiated the sins of his people in the offering of himself once for all—he purged our sins and sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (cf. Heb. 1:3). But sins are not actually forgiven until there is repentance and faith. Christ propitiated the wrath of God once for all when he died on the tree. But until we are savingly united to Christ we are children of wrath, even as others. We are reconciled to God by the death of Christ, and reconciliation is an accomplished work, but we are not at peace with God until we are justified. Admittedly it is difficult to define the precise relations of the past historical to the continuously operative in these cases. To put it more accurately, it is difficult to determine how the finished action of Christ in the past relates itself to those who are contemplated in that action prior to the time when that past action takes effect in their life history. But this difficulty in no way interferes with the distinction between the finished work and its actual application. Any added difficulty there may be in connection with our present topic arises, not from what is intrinsic to the subject, but from our unfamiliarity with this aspect of our relation to the death and resurrection of Christ.[14]

It seems that Murray senses that there is an answer to this tension that is yet out of reach to him. That answer—that fully resolves the tension—is the shared identity of the spiritual union found in Biblical realism. Because we are partakers of the moral, spiritual nature of the one, then we are made participants in the act of the one. When it comes to the solidarity in Adam, this is more straightforward and easily understood. But when it comes to our solidarity in Christ, it is not so easily understood, since there is a retroactive quality, in that we are first without union with Christ and without any claim to participation in His act. It is only upon our coming to Christ in faith that we are joined to Christ, and that union with His nature makes us participants in all that He did—even though He did it long before we were united to Him.


[10] This section adapted from “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Justification,” accessed at https://kenhamrick.com/2018/12/22/the-role-of-the-holy-spirit-in-justification/
[11] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2, pp. 285-293
[12] Ibid., pp. 289-290
[13] Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, p. 21
[14] Collected Writings, pp. 292-293