“The Ministry of Reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 1–7) #BCCSundaySchool2019

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation
–2 Corinthians 5:18

Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians presents us with a context that is difficult to understand. There is a good reason for this: it is not Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. It is at least his Third Letter to the Corinthians, and it may be an amalgamation of parts of his Third and Fourth Letters to the Corinthians. But we know that Paul refers to at least four letters to the Church at Corinth, and we know that only two of them appear in our scriptures. So we have to infer a lot.

Scholars today call the missing letter to the Corinthians “the Severe Letter” or “the Letter of Tears” after Paul’s description of it in 2 Cor. 2:4, “For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears.” The Severe Letter, most surmise, involved Paul chastising the Church for something that he perceived on a previous visit. The two most common contenders are the toleration of sexual immorality and the encouragement of rival Christian missionaries. Both explanations have plenty of partisans.

But for our purposes, it is not important to know why Paul chastised the Corinthians. We just have to understand that he chastised them, that he understood them to be offended, and that he tries in Second Corinthians to effect a reconciliation. Because reconciliation–both earthly and divine–is the dominant theme of what we now call “Second (or, sometimes, Two) Corinthians.”

The opening chapters of Second Corinthians are a master class in pursuing reconciliation without backing down from criticism. Paul begins by affirming that his purpose in chastising the Corinthians was “not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2:4). Such statements can sound glib. It is fairly standard to couch aggressive behavior in the language of love. But Paul means it, and he intends to prove it and to use his own process of reconciliation as a model for explaining the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

But Paul has work to do before making theological generalizations. Apparently, Paul has recently cancelled a visit to Corinth and written them the Severe Letter instead. This has lead the members of the Church to think that he no longer wants anything to do with them. So he has to reframe his absence in the context of his expressed love:

But I call on God as witness against me: it was to spare you that I did not come again to Corinth. I do not mean to imply that we lord it over your faith; rather, we are workers with you for your joy, because you stand firm in the faith.

So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice; for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. (1:23-25; 2:1-3)

Note here that the explanation goes from the end of Chapter 1 through the beginning of Chapter 2. This is one of those instances where some much later editor put a chapter break, for no apparent reason, right in the middle of a coherent idea. And the idea requires us to parse a non-existent context, but basically Paul seems to be saying something like: “I had hard things to say to you, and I wanted to spare you another painful visit. So I wrote a hard letter instead, and now I want to restore our relationship so I can come and show you how much I love you.”

Paul’s strategy here is straight from D&C 121: 43: “Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.” In this instance, though, we don’t have access to the sharpness, just the increase of love. Without the earlier letter, Paul’s constant expressions of love may seem cloying. But in context, they are a necessary part of rebuilding his relationship with the beloved congregation.

In a passage of enormous rhetorical sophistication, Paul switches the perspective and puts the congregation in his shoes as the discipliner and shower forth of love. He speaks of the way that they have recently disciplined an offender, possibly one of the subjects of the Severe Letter, and urges them to forgive him and show love for him because that is what Christians do:

But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything.Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. And we do this so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs. (2 Cor. 2:  5-11)

And now we see Paul’s full vision of “the Ministry of Reconciliation.” Paul forgives the congregation and shows his great love for them. The congregation forgives a transgressor and shows great love for him. And both of these become types of what Christ has done for everybody: offered us forgiveness, even though we are all great sinners, and shown forth unconditional love for us in the process:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5: 16-21)

Reconciliation is the point–the entire point–of the Gospel. The natural state is a state of separateness: human beings are separate from each other, opposed to each other’s interest, and locked in a zero-sum game with the rest of the world. We are also separated from God and from the divine nature within ourselves. We become disciples as we reconcile ourselves to all of these things: to godliness through the power of the Atonement, and to each other through the difficult, painstaking, frustrating, and endlessly rewarding process of repenting, forgiving each other, and turning enemies into friends. This is the ministry of reconciliation, and, in the end, it is what matters most.


  1. Thanks for the context of the epistle. That’s helpful.
    I’m tempted to turn reconciliation into compromise, because that’s what we do a lot of the time here in mortality. You give a little, I give a little, meet in the middle, etc. But that’s not what this is, right? God can’t meet us halfway. He can’t sacrifice absolute truths for half-truth. So since reconciliation isn’t compromise, what is it?

  2. Stephen Hardy says:

    I don’t think that reconciliation or even forgiveness has anything to do with compromise. It has to do with love. Michael has taught me repeatedly this year that Zion will not be built by those who are love-able, but by those who love.

  3. Love is not a negotiation. It is just love. Michael this is a profound and beautiful explication on this Epistle. Thank you. I feel a softening of hearts on both sides of this letter. The opening verses have symmetry with Alma 7, that Christ knows how to comfort us, and our main purpose is to comfort each other.

  4. Paul, and these writings at BCC, keep reminding me that the criminal justice system and market economies are both poor metaphors for God’s work. There’s something different, something bigger, going on.

  5. Kif Augustine says:

    The second half of my lesson in the Hillcrest 8th Ward today was all Michael Austin. On one of my powerpoint slides, I put your title and at the bottom a hat tip to you with a link to this BCC post.
    I closed by saying “My friend Michael Austin has this to say about reconciliation” and then read your last paragraph. Sister Liston in the back asked what translation of scripture I was using. No translation needed, just the straight up scripture from Michael Austin.

  6. Thank you, Michael, and all of you who post about the weekly reading assignments. I’ve always particularly loved the New Testament…until I reached the Pauline letters. Then I would become an Ethiopian eunuch, who needed someone to guide me. You and the others, along with Raymond E. Brown, have been my Philips this year. I now have a far greater appreciation of Paul himself, and I better understand the counsel he gave to the various Christian communities he visited, as well as the context in which that counsel was given. I’m most grateful.

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