James Denney.

The Christian doctrine of reconciliation online

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"Nisi poenae fuisset particeps anima, corporibus tantum fuisset
Redemptor . . . Haec nostra sapientia est, probe sentire quanti
constiterit Dei filio nostra salus."

Calvin, hist. Religionis Christiance, ii. omi. 12.







The Cunningham Lectures for 1917


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Dr. Denney's illness prevented him from delivering these
lectures in the spring of the present year. Fortunately,
however, he had prepared them not only for delivery but
for publication, and on his death the MS. was found prac-
tically completed among his papers. One or two passages,
especially in the notes, to which he had merely pencilled a
reference in the margin, have been filled in from his note-
books. An index has also been added. But otherwise the
text of the MS. is now printed exactly as he wrote it.

J. M.



The Experimental Basis of the Doctrine .... i

Reconciliation in the Christian Thought of the Fast 26

The New Testament Doctrine of Reconciliation . . 121

The Need of Reconciliation 185

Reconciliation as Achieved by Christ 233

Reconciliation as Realised in Human Life .... 286

Index 333





Reconciliation is a term of wide scope and various applica-
tion, and it is hardly possible to conceive a life or a religion
which should dispense with it. There is always some kind
of strain or tension between man and his environment, and
man has always an interest in overcoming the strain, in re-
solving the discord in his situation into a harmony, in getting
the environment to be his ally rather than his adversary.
The process by which his end is attained may be described
as one of reconciliation, but whether the reconciliation is
adequate depends on whether his conception of the environ-
ment is equal to the truth. Men may be very dimly and
imperfectly conscious of the nature of the strain which dis-
quiets their life, and may seek to overcome it in blind and
insufficient ways. They may interpret it as physical in its
origin when it is really ethical, or as the misapprehension of a
moral order when it is really antagonism to a personal God,
and in either case the reconciliation they seek will fail to
give the peace of which they are in quest. Nevertheless,
reconciliation and nothing else is what they want, and its
place in religion is central and vital.

It may be said that in the widest sense what men crave to
be reconciled to is life, the conditions of existence in their
sternness and transiency. Life is short and it is hard, and
ever since men have thought and felt, they have been exercised



with the problem of how to adjust themselves to its laws
and to find peace. They have a deep sense that life is lost
when this adjustment is not made, and men live and die
unreconciled to the very conditions of life.

"Sed quia semper aves quod abest, praesentia temnis.
Imperfecta tibi elapsa est ingrataque vita." ^

Few men have been so profoundly conscious as the great
poet who wrote these lines, of man's need of reconciliation
to the very terms on which life is held. He did not seek
to evade them by any light-hearted pursuit of enjoyment;
his hope was in science, in the power of thought, in winning
men to see and accept the inexorable necessities to which
life is subject, and by accepting to overcome them. We may
think that this is not much, and that as the necessities are
inexorable it is all one whether we accept them or not, but
this is really not true. It makes all the difference in the
world whether a child accepts the order of the family in
which he lives as an order not to be questioned, or is per-
petually resenting it, and the greatest minds of our race have
found a peace almost too deep for utterance in realising and
accepting the inevitable order of the world. They are at
once lost and uplifted in something unimaginably greater
than themselves, and the words in which they utter their
experience go deeper than ever plummet sounded.

"Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,
Atque metus omnes et inexorabile fatum
Subjecit pedibus strepitumque Acherontis avari." '

* Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, iii. 957. See Ritschl's definition, iii. 189.
'Virgil, Georgics, ii. 490-2.



Here is a peace which passes understanding, a great recon-
ciliation, coveted by the poet and promised to all who
can master things in their sources, and, realising that they
are what they are, can accept them as such. Whether
they achieve it or not, there is an instinct for this peace in
all human beings. As soon as we know anything we know
that we are compassed about with necessity, and that to
accept the necessities which nature lays upon us not only
gives dignity to our own nature by making us partakers in
the immensity of the universe, but brings rest and reconcilia-
tion to our minds.

If spirits so gifted as Lucretius and Virgil celebrated this
reconciliation in the ancient world, it has had an even more
illustrious prophet in modern times in Goethe. Goethe was
not only a poet but a man of science, and he valued science
not for its practical applications but for the sense it created
and fostered of the ultimate oneness of man and the universe
— in other words, for this peculiar reconciling virtue. In
spite of frictions and tensions, it was one and the same power
which revealed itself in the life, constitution, and course of
nature, and in the being of man. The way to peace was not
to resist nature, or to pervert it, or to triumph over it, but
to realise our original and indefeasible unity with it. This
is the cause, as much as the consequence, of Goethe's devo-
tion to Spinoza. Nothing could be more congenial to him
than a writer whose whole mind is summed up in the phrase,
Quicquid est in Deo est. This was what he felt by instinct,
and what he wished to see confirmed and illustrated by re-
flection, and therefore Spinoza was for him the prince of
philosophers. On the other hand, he had a peculiar antipathy
to Kant, because Kant was as profoundly conscious of the
differences in the world as Spinoza of its ultimate unity. By



emphasising these differences, and especially the ultimate
difference between the physical and the ethical, and between
right and wrong, with an implacable logical rigour, Kant
gave the problem of reconciliation new aspects. It became
far more difficult than when it was regarded merely as the
problem of adapting oneself to the conditions of existence;
perhaps in the form which it assumed in the hands of Kant,
it became not merely difficult but impossible; the only
philosophy Kant left open to himself was a philosophy of
antinomies, all problem and no solution. But though the
pantheistic reconciliation which merely assumes the unity
of man and nature is less than Christian, it is not worthless
or unreal. There are problems inevitable to the Christian
which it has not raised, but on its own ground its value is
not to be disputed. A truth which moved Lucretius and
Virgil to the depths of their being, and which is pervasive
and powerful in Spinoza, Goethe, and Wordsworth, is a truth
which must have room made for it in every complete doctrine
of reconciliation. We must have the peace which consists
in being at one with the world and with the necessities in
which it enfolds us, as well as the peace of reconciliation in
the specifically Christian sense. And we must be able to
bring the two into relation to each other, and to comprehend
them as one.

In the ancient world the ideals known to the Greeks as
&T&.pa^La, and dTrd^eia represent something akin to recon-
ciliation. They represent a life that is untroubled either
by circumstances, events, or emotions; and though they lend
themselves easily to caricature because they easily degenerated
into pedantry, they bear witness to some of the facts on
which the need of reconciliation rests. The common life
of men is restless, troubled, exposed to constant disturbance



both from without and within, and, different as their methods
were of seeking to reconcile men to the conditions of exist-
ence, Stoics and Epicureans were far nearer than is often
admitted in their conception of the end to be attained.
Both wished to be delivered from what they saw made life
painful and futile; both wished what might in a large sense
be called redemption from a "vain conversation," and the
reconciliation and peace which came in its train. The curious
mixture of the Stoic and the Epicurean in Montaigne, whom
a recent biographer describes as Stoicien par Epicureisme^
and who alike in his Stoicism and Epicureanism was seeking
to adjust his life wisely to the conditions of reality, shows the
affinity of these different tempers. The solutions, however,
of the problem of life embodied in terms like arapa^la and
6.Tr6.dei,a, and worked out by rules like dvkxov and airexov —
endure and forbear — do not cover in its whole extent
the need of reconciliation. They are moralising rather
than ethical. Their interest is too exclusively in the
individual, and they have too little sense of the original
unity of man and nature so impressively represented by the
great poets.

It is only when we come to the higher forms of religion that
the problem of reconciliation becomes acute, and the expe-
rience connected with it well defined. The assumption —
which is also the experience — of the highest form of religion,
as we have it represented in the Christian Scriptures, is the
existence of a personal God and of personal relations between
that God and man. When these relations are interrupted
or deranged by man's action, he finds himself alienated or
estranged from God, and the need of reconciliation emerges.
The personal God of the Bible is of course the Creator of
the universe, and estrangement from Him means in a sense



estrangement from everything that is, and demands a recon-
ciliation of corresponding scope. Still, the heart of the
reconciliation lies in the readjustment or restoration of the
true personal relation between God and the creature which
has lapsed by its own act into alienation from Him ; in other
words, it consists in the forgiveness of sins. Reconciliation
to God comes through God's forgiveness of that by which
we have been estranged from Him; and of all experiences
in the religion of sinful men, it is the most deeply felt and
far reaching. We do not need here to measure what is or
is not within its power, but every one who knows what it is
to be forgiven, knows also that forgiveness is the greatest
regenerative force in the life of man.

Just because the experience of reconciliation is the central
and fundamental experience of the Christian religion, the
doctrine of reconciliation is not so much one doctrine as the
inspiration and focus of all. Hence when any given doctrine
of reconciliation is criticised, it is through an assumed system
of Christian truth with which it is alleged to be inconsistent,
or through some element of such a system. Such and such
a view, it will be said, is unsound, because it does not enable
us to do justice to admitted truths about God, or man, or
the new life, or the Church, or perhaps the teaching or the
spirit of Jesus. It is therefore not an abnormal but a nat-
ural and logically inevitable phenomenon that the third and
constructive volume of Ritschl's great work Rechtfertigung
und V ersohnung widens out into a fairly complete dogmatic
system. The core of it, under the heading of The Presupposi-
tions^ contains the doctrines of God, of Sin, and of the Person
and Work of Christ, which are essential as the basis of the
Christian doctrine of justification and reconciliation ; and a
further proof is attempted both that the forgiveness of sins



is essential if God's ends with men are to be attained, and
that this forgiveness is necessarily based on the work and
passion of Christ. There is something surprising in the
appearance of such speculative discussions as these last in
the work of a writer who is ordinarily so much of a mere
positivist in theology as Ritschl, but they indicate the vital
importance of reconciliation both as an experience and a
doctrine. Everything is essentially related to it, and the
feeling is inevitable that a thing so vital could not be other-
wise than as it is. The more wonderful and essential it is,
the less do we feel at liberty to say that it might have come
to us in some other way than that in which it actually has
come. Rather are we convinced that there is a divine neces-
sity in all that belongs to it; and though it may seem pre-
sumptuous to speak of necessity where God is in question,
we must remember that the only alternative is to pronounce
God ex lex — without law — which is as good as to abandon
thinking altogether. It is not the intention of the writer
to elaborate a system of theology, on the scale of Ritschl's,
round the doctrine of reconciliation; the examination of
what is presupposed in the doctrine will be confined as far
as possible to a study of the nature of sin. But he would
insist that in the experience of reconciliation to God through
Christ is to be found the principle and the touch-stone of all
genuine Christian doctrine: whatever can be derived from
this experience and is consistent with it is true and necessary;
whatever is incompatible with it lacks the essential Christian

It is a commonplace of modern theology that no doctrine
has any value except as it is based on experience, and before
proceeding to the Christian doctrine of reconciliation, it is
indispensable to look at the experience or experiences which



are covered by the term.^ The differentia of Christian recon-
ciliation is that it is inseparable from Christ: it is dependent
on Him and mediated through Him. But Christ Himself
and all the reconciling virtue associated with Him are them-
selves mediated to us in numberless ways. He works upon
us in the way of reconciliation through all the institutions,
customs, convictions, and characters which make up the
Christian world in which we live. In what is called Christen-
dom we have the benefit of an atmosphere ultimately due
to Him, and impregnated with what are in the last resort
powers of reconciliation originally embodied in Him. But
though this is important it is not the main thing. The main
thing — in the sense of that through which the reconciling
power of Christ mainly enters with effect into the lives of
sinful men — is the New Testament witness to Jesus. It is
admitted, as has just been said, that this reaches us indirectly
in ways which can never be fully traced, but it is most power-
ful when the mediation is most direct. An evangelist who
has himself been reconciled to God through Christ, and who
can make the New Testament witness to the reconciling
power of Jesus his own, is a far more powerful minister of
reconciliation than any institution or atmosphere can be.
The sense of responsibility for reconciliation, the duty of
being reconciled, do not become urgent except under a direct
and personal appeal. A reconciled man, preaching Christ
as the way of reconciliation, and preaching Him in the temper
and spirit which the experience of reconciliation creates, is
the most effective mediator of Christ's reconciling power. It
is hardly another thing than this if we say that the recon-
ciling power is most effectively mediated through the New

*"Es ist unmoglich das Object der Religion auf ausserreligiosem Wage zu
erreichcn." Troltsch, Zeitschrift fur Theologie u. Kirche, 1895, p. 432 f.



Testament. For when we read the New Testament with
susceptible minds, we listen to the voice of those who were
once themselves estranged from God, but have been recon-
ciled to Him through Christ, and are letting us into the
secret of their new life; it is the nearest approach we can
make, and therefore the most vital, to the reconciling power
which streamed from Christ Himself. It might be objected
to this view that it connects reconciliation too closely with
the historical Christ, who stands at an immense and ever in-
creasing distance from us; His power, it might be feared,
would grow continually less with time just as a light, though
it may still burn as brightly, grows dim with increasing
distance. But this is not the Christian view. There is
certainly no reconciliation but through the historical Christ:
there is no other Christ of whom we know anything whatever.
But the historical Christ does not belong to the past. The
living Spirit of God makes Him present and eternal ; and it
is not from Palestine, or from the first century of the Christian
era, but here and now that His reconciling power is felt.

Personal relations are inexhaustible, and it would be idle
to try to exhaust the ways in which Christ acts on a sinful
man Tor reconciliation when they come face to face with each
other through the New Testament or through the preaching
of the gospel. But it is possible to indicate some of the lines
along which impressions come.

When we see Jesus as He is presented to us in the gospels,
we see a life which is at one with God. All the problems
which distract and baffle us are solved here. There is no
quarrel with the conditions of existence. There is no dis-
content, or querulousness, or rebellion. There is no radical
inconsistency, no humbling division of the soul against
itself. There is no distrust of God, no estrangement from



Him, no sense of sin. In one way it might seem incredible —
it is so purely supernatural when compared with what we
know as nature in ourselves and others; yet incredible as
it might seem, it has never failed to impress men as abso-
lutely real and at the same time as truly human. It is our
life that we see in Jesus, but we see it in its truth and as it
ought to be, a life in God, wholly at one with Him. This
life is its own witness, and there is no human soul to which
it does not appeal. Perhaps we do not need to distinguish
too scrupulously the modes in which the appeal comes home
to us. It may act like a spell or a charm on our whole nature
at once, drawing us by an irresistible constraint to Jesus.
We may be conscious in it of a grace which ensures our wel-
come when we approach, and of an authority which requires
our implicit submission. We may have an unanalysed feeling
that here "all's love and all's law," but through everything
we are conscious that the very presence of such a Being in
our world is a promise of reconciliation. He is not here
for Himself, but for us. There is invitation in His presence
as in His voice : it is as though He were saying all the time,
**Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and
I will give you rest." When we really see Him, and virtue
goes out of Him to heal us, we cry irrepressibly, "Thou, O
Christ, art all I want; more than all in Thee I find." We
do not stay to ask what He has done or what He can do for
us; what He is — not according to a doctrine of His person,
but in the rich and simple reality we see in the evangelists —
is enough for us. He is our peace. The whole promise
and power of reconciliation are in Him, and we know without
proving that He can bring us to God and save to the utter-

But the whole experience of reconciliation may not be



made at once. There are probably many who are first im-
pressed by the power of Jesus to reconcile men to the general
conditions of existence. Their hearts have been set intently
and passionately on things which some can only have if
others want them — on wealth, on worldly honour, on present
and visible success of various kinds; and it gradually dawns
upon them in the presence of Jesus that here is the perfect
life, and that with all these things it has no concern what-
ever. It is absolutely independent of them. It recognises
in them difficulties and temptations, sometimes it might seem
sheer impossibilities, in the path of those who would live the
life which is life indeed; but at the same time it can deliver
us from them. It reveals behind the world of pleasure,
pride, and covetousness another world which is the true
country of the soul, the world of the beatitudes; and when
it wins men to dwell there, and to know what it is to be
poor in spirit and meek and merciful and lovers of righteous-
ness and of peace, it has reconciled them to much that was
once irksome and intolerable in the order of the common
world. When we learn, as the life of Jesus enables us to
do, that a man's life does not consist in the abundance of
the things which he possesses, that though lived on the plane
of nature it is essentially a spiritual life, much that once
estranged us from God and from the conditions of existence
dies away. We can accept much with which we were once
at war, because we are independent of it. This does not
mean that we should have no economic ideals for ourselves or
for society, or that no outward conditions have any meaning
for the life of the soul. It means what we see when we look
at Jesus : namely, that as far as true eternal life is concerned
it can be enjoyed in all its fulness by one who takes no inter-
est and has no part in the ordinary ambitions and conflicts


of men. Something far finer than the drapalla and dirdecta
of ancient moralists, something which reaches deeper and has
a greater power to reconcile man to life, enters into all who
absorb the beatitudes as they are illustrated and embodied
in Jesus Himself.

Sometimes this aspect of reconciliation is not adequately
recognised. The term is restricted too narrowly to a trans-
action in the sphere of conscience. But the end of reconcilia-
tion is to make saints, and no life impresses us as saintly
unless it reflects, however obscurely, the glory of the beati-
tudes. We are not really reconciled to God through Jesus
unless we are reconciled to this as the true life, and we are
not reconciled to this as the true life unless we are reconciled
to renouncing all the passion with which when we were
ignorant of it we sought the chief ends of life elsewhere.

Important, however, as this aspect of reconciliation is, it
must not distract us from what is central: the reconciling
power of Jesus as exhibited in His attitude to sinners. It is
sin which estranges us from God, and creates the problem of
reconciliation. It is sin which hides God's face from us,
and tempts us to shun His presence. It is sin which provokes
His displeasure, and which makes us fear, distrust, and
finally hate Him. In the gospels, indeed, we do not find
any of this abstract language. They do not even speak of
sin in the singular number, as an idea, but only of sins in
the plural, as definite acts. It is not by any doctrine that
we are reconciled to God; the reconciling power for sinful
men lies in the attitude of Jesus to the sinful. This is happily
one of the points in the gospel story about which there can
be no dispute. There might be a question as to whether
Jesus spoke any given word assigned to Him, or as to the
circumstances in which it was spoken, or as to its proper



application; but it is quite inconceivable that the evangelists
should misrepresent so new and wonderful a thing as the
attitude of Jesus to the sinful, or the reconciling power which
accompanied it. Jesus knew what sin was more truly than
any man. He saw it in its roots and in its consequences.

Online LibraryJames DenneyThe Christian doctrine of reconciliation → online text (page 1 of 27)