What Christ opens no man can shut; what Christ shuts, no man can open.
One of the most important biblical concepts is that of representation. In Scripture and salvation history, God has chosen to form and preserve a people for himself through covenants, agreements cut with covenant “heads”—Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ among them. God’s liturgical engagement with his people is also representational in numerous ways. In the levitical sacrificial system, for example, the high priest confessed the sins of the Israelite nation and performed ritual sacrifices to appease the just wrath of Yahweh (Leviticus 16). So too did kings represent the nation, prophets speak to and for the nation, and judges lead the nation in perilous times.
In the Old Testament, then, contrition took public form. The high priest confessed not only his sins, but the sins of all Israel. In the New Testament, a change takes place. God still has a people for himself, but he forms this covenant community not through a discrete nation, but an ingathering of Jew and Gentile alike (Romans 9-11). The gospel of grace in Christ crucified and resurrected entails not that God will create a second people for himself—composed of non-Israelites—but rather that the Abrahamic promises find their fulfillment in the Messiah. As the gospel is loosed, people from every tribe and tongue become citizens of the spiritual kingdom of Christ (Luke 11:20; Matthew 12:28; Hebrews 12:18-29). This is the true people of God; this is what the old covenant nation pointed to as the realization of the Abrahamic covenant.
What we call the “theocratic” dimension of the Old Testament has therefore ceased. By this I mean that you cannot look at any one nation on the earth today and identify it as the household of God. The household of God is not a building or a political entity at all; it is the blood-bought church of Christ, the church made up of redeemed sinners (1 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 10:21). There is no longer a ritual overseen by a high priest in which one imperfect human person confesses the sins of any “national” people of God. Every Christian confesses sin to one another, and Christ the high priest intercedes for us at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19; James 5:16; Hebrews 7:25). This is the pattern of our confession. We have a perfect high priest who prays for us continually, and out of the overflow of this intercession we confess sin to one another.
We are not misers when it comes to acknowledging our guilt. The Christian’s everyday life is to be rich in confession. The more mature we grow by the Spirit’s power, the more quickly we confess our sin to God and to man. This is particularly needful as the believer is not saved to be a covert secret agent in the kingdom of darkness. We are saved into the church. The church is bigger than us; the church predates us; the church has a definite form and structure given it by God. We have done nothing, not even the tiniest little thing, to form or sustain or order the church. The church is entirely God’s idea, and God will do in his church what he wills, and God will do with his church what he wills (Matthew 16:17-19). We enter the church, then, in a posture of profound submission and humility, for in entering the church we are stepping into God’s own story.
The church is a boisterous, even strange place. It is not neat and clean. It is not wordless and emotionless and mess-less (to coin a word). The church is a living body (1 Corinthians 12:13). It is composed, as we have noted above, of people from every background and tribe. If this sounds antiseptic on paper, we may know that it is not (and was not) in reality. The early church boggled at the new covenant principle that Jew and Gentile were one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27-28). Think about this afresh: apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, though taught by the God-man himself, did not grasp the radical unity of the church. Consider anew Peter’s almost comic confusion over this matter—in Acts 10:17 he was διηπόρει,“inwardly perplexed,” the term used to describe Herod’s total bewilderment over Christ in Luke 9:7. The Bible is saying in layman’s terms that Peter had no idea what was going on in terms of Gentile inclusion in the family of God.
The unity of Jew and Gentile in the church was messy. Divisions arose and complaints flew (see Acts 6). But the teaching of the apostles—including once-bewildered Peter—was that Christ had created “one new man” through his substitutionary death (Ephesians 2:15). Jew and Gentile were not to be segregated. They were not to be in separate churches, Jewish churches being cordoned off from Gentile churches. The two were not merely able to find unity; the two groups, once at enmity of the most profound kind with one another (in many variations) were in fact already united through the cross-work of Jesus Christ. (See this recent book on racial unity for more reflection on this crucial theological matter.)
We know that the realization of this glorious gospel truth did not come cheaply. Jew and Gentile alike felt great “hostility” to those not of their own background (Ephesians 2:16). There was much, we can assume with confidence, that the Ephesian church—as just one example—had to sort out. Why else would Paul call for the Ephesians to live together “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3)? This situation was not easy. It was very hard. Peoples who had lived in lifelong hostility to one another were now thrust together in the local expression of Christ’s own body. Despite this, believers were to live together ἐν ἀγάπη,“lovingly” (see Merkle, Ephesians, ed. Köstenberger and Yarbrough, B&H Academic, 114).
The preceding shows us what the first-century church and the twenty-first century church need: unity grounded in Christic love. We are to express this love by acting humbly and gently and patiently. We are to bear with one another in love. We can know that this means confessing our sins, acknowledging our shortcomings, and endeavoring to learn more about one another in order to love one another better. In the apostolic age, it is clear that the church faced great challenges in embracing this kind of spirit. Perhaps it is oddly comforting to us to read these directives some two millennia later.
But we also note what is not found in Ephesians 2 or Colossians 2 (or in Acts 10 as the Gentiles are fully welcomed by Peter). There is no teaching in the text that calls Jews to apologize to Gentiles in representational ways for past sins on the part of all Jews, and neither are Gentiles called to somehow make restitution for corporate wrongs on the part of all Gentiles. The “corporate apology” (used in a group sense, not a business sense) becoming common in our day is foreign to the New Testament. We find no summons to identify ourselves individually as a representative of our forebears and, from this basis, somehow right the wrongs of the past. To be sure, we should confess our past sin in coming to Christ, and we should make right what we ruined—as much as we can.
We step carefully here, though, for we know that the one who adds to Scripture will find God adding plagues to them (Revelation 22:18). We place ourselves in some jeopardy of compromising the one complete sacrifice for sin made by Christ if we put ourselves in a kind of ritual atoning position. There are doubtless many today who very much want to be a part of uniting God’s already-Christolocentrically-united-but-sometimes-sadly-divided people. Praise God for such an instinct. But while we should definitely confess and put right whatever we can in earthly terms, we do so knowing that only Jesus can cleanse sin. Only Jesus can judge a man or woman. Only Jesus can enact justice for past wrongs. We love our neighbor and do good to all men, but we cannot make other people right. We cannot cleanse the guilt of our neighbor. We cannot even save our children, close as that relationship is.
To summarize: one danger of the corporate apology is that it puts a given individual in a position that he or she cannot occupy. I am not the representative of a holy nation-state. I am not the high priest of God’s people. Beyond this, I have no biblical summons to make atonement for sin. I do not apologize for the sins of all people from Maine (including, but not limited to, a love for Moxie). I do not apologize for the sins of all 5’7 men. I do not apologize for the wrongdoings of everyone with the last name Strachan (including an almost perverse temptation to entice others to mis-pronounce the name). I do not apologize for the failings of all Protestant theologians (though I myself have many, it must be said). I acknowledge and apologize for my own evil deeds and intentions, to be sure. But I am not appointed by God in a directly biblical sense to any kind of representational apology ministry. Jesus is the only one who can cleanse, and atone, and heal. Jesus, in truth, has already cleansed, and atoned, and healed. Jesus is the only one who can stand in for his people and make things right before God. This, in point of fact, is the very role and ministry and identity for which Christ came to earth (Hebrews 4:14-16). He came to render his people righteous before a holy God, and ready them for eternal glory in the presence of the divine (Romans 4-5; Revelation 21).
Pastors and elders shepherd the body, and so a representational dimension obtains in the new covenant, to be sure (as it does in the family through a man’s headship). The pastor should lead the body in corporate confession. But even here, there is no New Testament summons to a body of elders to offer up repentance for the local community writ large. Neither does the pastor have the ritual duties of the levitical priest. The pastor leads the people in confessing their sins, but cannot in any way usurp the priestly authority of Christ. The pastor actually points the people who are together confessing sin to Christ, and Christ alone. The distinctions here are subtle and admittedly technical, but they matter greatly. The Catholic priest offers absolution for the flock, while the evangelical pastor leads the people to confess their own sins to Christ. Pastors of truly biblical churches cannot singlehandedly forgive sins or absolve their congregations of evil. They may only lead the people into confession, a state in which every believer stands exposed before the Lord.
Let us take great care in our efforts to make good on Christ-secured unity. Let us live humbly and gently and patiently, and act in such ways to brothers and sisters. Let us be slow to anger and slow to speak and quick to listen—and few among us are quick to listen (James 1:19-20). Let us love lavishly and generously. Let us be agents of reconciliation wherever we can. Let us preach that “one new man” is not a construction project that needs to begin, but a demolition of sinful division that has yielded glorious oneness already and will rise into the sky in fullness in days ahead. Let us also be wary of taking on the natural man’s conception of restitution and making it our own. We are grateful for humility wherever we find it, but Christianity is nothing—absolutely nothing—without the atoning, wrath-absorbing, one-new-man-making work of Jesus Christ.
Other people may feel free to step into the high priestly role of Jesus. They may try to heal what is genuinely awful in the past by their own efforts. We must, for our part, remember that Jesus has already done what man cannot do. Though Christians have sometimes made a hash of the scriptural doctrine of ecclesial unity, and have shamefully dishonored and even oppressed fellow members of Christ’s own body in America and all over the world, we have an invincible, ever-renewing hope at the center of our faith. The Jews and Gentiles of Ephesus were not called to involve one another in a complex and ever-embittering system of personal restitution efforts based on past injustices. The Jews and Gentiles of Ephesus were called to confess their own sins, live humbly and lovingly with one another, and image the newness of the “one new man” wrought by the blood of the Son of God.
Groups of various kinds (not only ethnic or racial or national) have committed and will commit evils against one another. It is appropriate to mourn such injustices (Romans 12:15). It is right to reckon with the sins of the fathers and learn from them, grieving over them as we do. But let us take care that we promote Christ as the hope of the earth, Christ as the reconciler of his people, and Christ as the corporate representative of God to his church. Christ is the true shepherd, the great high priest of his people, and the one in whom all the dividing walls fall. What Christ opens no man can shut; what Christ shuts, no man can open.