Alienation was one of the “buzz words” of the twentieth century and a key idea in Marxist communism. Karl Marx held that a fundamental problem with the world was the deep alienation between the working classes and the fruits of their labor. He believed that if only we could set the worker free to enjoy ownership in his labor, a foundational element of the world’s ills would be dissipated. This was part of the central message of communism.
Marx failed to take account of what became obvious behind the iron and bamboo curtains: human greed, pride, and the lust for power. It became increasingly clear in communist states that there was deep-dyed and high-reaching corruption. Instead of bringing reconciliation, communism simply continued to sustain human sinfulness. Alienation remained.
With the rise of psychiatry and psychology, not least in their “pop” versions, we have now become a therapeutic culture—patients who need inner healing, victims who need a better self-image. Our deepest problem is now seen to be personal alienation—whether from those around us or from ourselves. Thus, many therapists set out to deal with those alienations as if they were “sicknesses” without any moral dimension, behavior patterns for which the individual bears no personal moral responsibility.
In so many instances, however, this is what the philosophers call a “category mistake.” It treats as illness behavior patterns that properly belong to the category of moral disorder. It should not surprise us that such therapy cannot solve the world’s ills. Neither should we expect it to. Therapy that takes no account of man’s deepest problem—sin—can never resolve man’s deepest alienation—his broken relationship with God.
A socioeconomic theory cannot bring world-scale or individual reconciliation when the basic problem is moral. Treating sinful behavior as a medical category and prescribing chemical therapy will not solve alienations that are not caused by chemical deficiency. The problem is not ultimately economic, biological, or chemical.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul squarely faces the basic problem. He deals with the mother alienation that gives birth to all other alienations: the alienation between God and man, man and God. His desire is to explain the divine remedy for it.
But first we need to consider why this reconciliation is so necessary.
Christians no longer live for themselves (2 Cor. 5:15). The implication is that before we become Christians, we do live this way. Our worldview is self-focused. Man is, in Martin Luther’s words, “incurvatus in se”— turned in on himself, self-obsessed. We belong to what Christopher Lasch has called a culture of narcissism. All this stands in sharp contrast with the divine design, which is—as the famous words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism put it—that we should glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
So we are seriously adrift. We have distorted God’s original design. Contemporary men and women find it almost impossible to conceive that they were made to glorify and to enjoy God. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that the very idea of living for the glory of God appears to be many people’s idea of hell. We might rework the famous words in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, “Hell is other people.” To many, hell is the presence of God. But to live for ourselves, that is heaven.
Or is it?
Tragically, instead of finding profound and lasting pleasure in God’s world, we find only increased alienation there.
Alienation from God is not only real but dangerous—and the depth of the alienation is evidenced by the fact that we think we are in no danger at all. The sobering truth, however, is that “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).
The average person finds this analysis distasteful. He is, in his own view, far from being alienated from God. But there are simple tests for this alienation. Mention the words “the Lord Jesus Christ” and watch the reaction; it may vary from an embarrassed silence to a violent argument. Why this response? The New Testament indicates that God’s great purpose is that we should honor His Son. Therefore, not to honor Him is, surely, to be deeply alienated from Him.
So when Paul speaks about the need for the gospel in this way, he hits the nail on the head. If reminding people that they are by nature alienated from God arouses hostility in them, no further proof of their alienation is needed.
But Paul also knows that the gospel perfectly fits the human condition. We are warped and twisted in our alienation from God. The gospel tells us that Jesus Christ came to replace that alienation with reconciliation.
Paul uses the language of reconciliation several times in 2 Corinthians 5 (vv. 18, 19, 20, 21). He is an ambassador of Jesus Christ with a marvelous message: God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. We are now called to be reconciled to God—to give up our resistance and to yield to Him.
This sounds more like a sermon for the marketplace rather than for the local church in Corinth. Yet Paul is preaching to Christians. It is as if he were saying to them: “What you need to hear most of all is the gospel, and the gospel that you need to hear is the same gospel I preach out there in the marketplace.” He understands that our greatest need, whether we are Christians or not, is to respond to the gospel. So whether he is speaking to non-Christians or to Christians, he is unashamed to say to them, “Understand this, respond to God’s saving grace in Christ, and life will be transformed."
This excerpt is adapted from By Grace Alone by Sinclair Ferguson.