Is there a ‘Problem of Forgiveness’? Dissonant voices

Four voices.  Only one of them resembles the tone and accent of the Master.

Faustus Socinus (1578)

As we saw elsewhere Paul likewise instructs us to be imitators of God: just as he forgave our sins through Christ, we should forgive each other, but if God so forgave our sins through Christ, that he yet demanded the punishment of them from Christ itself, what prevents us from seeking satisfaction for ourselves for the offenses of our neighbours?

Brian McLaren (2006)

The traditional understanding says that God asks of us something that God is incapable of Himself. God asks us to forgive people. But God is incapable of forgiving. God can’t forgive unless He punishes somebody in place of the person He was going to forgive. God doesn’t say things to you—Forgive your wife, and then go kick the dog to vent your anger. God asks you to actually forgive. And there’s a certain sense that, a common understanding of the atonement presents a God who is incapable of forgiving. Unless He kicks somebody else.

Steve Chalke (2004)

Is it not strange for Jesus (God incarnate) on the one hand to say ‘do not return evil for evil’ while still looking for retribution himself? Similarly wouldn’t it be inconsistent for God to warn us not to be angry with each other and yet burn with wrath himself, or tell us to ‘love our enemies’ when he obviously couldn’t quite bring himself to do the same without demanding massive appeasement? If these things are true, what does it mean to ‘be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5:48)? If it is true that Jesus is ‘the Word of God’ then how can his message be inconsistent with his nature? If the cross has anything to do with penal substitution then Jesus teaching becomes a divine case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. I, for one, believe that God practices what he preaches!

John Stott (1986)

‘Why should our forgiveness depend on Christ’s death?’…’Why does God not simply forgive us, without the necessity of the cross?’…’After all’, the objector may continue, ‘if we sin against another, we are required to forgive one another.  We are even warned of dire consequences if we refuse.  Why can’t God practise what he preaches and be equally generous?  Nobody’s death is necessary before we forgive each other.  Why then does God make such a fuss about forgiving us and even declare it impossible without his Son’s “sacrifice for sin”?’

For us to argue, ‘We forgive each other unconditionally, let God do the same to us’, betrays not sophistication but shallowness, since it overlooks the elementary fact that we are not God.  We are private individuals, and other people’s misdemeanours are personal injuries.  God is not a private individual, however, nor is sin just a personal injury.  On the contrary, God himself is the maker of the laws we break, and sin is rebellion against him.

The reason why many people give the wrong answers to questions about the cross, and even ask the wrong questions, is that they have carefully considered neither the seriousness of sin nor the majesty of God.

(HT: Martin Downes)

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

5 thoughts on “Is there a ‘Problem of Forgiveness’? Dissonant voices

  1. I’ll take one copy of “The Cross of Christ” over everything the other three guys have written or are preaching. I cannot help hearkening back to Prov. 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him [and accept the divine wisdom and decree], and He will guide your pathway.”

  2. Forgiveness

    ‘Graciously dealing’
    ‘Sending away’, ‘loosing’.
    God is merciful, gracious
    Long suffering,
    Abundant in goodness
    And truth
    Mercy keeping
    For thousands
    Iniquity forgiving
    Transgressions blotting
    Guilt and sin pardoning.
    A sacrifice atoning
    For the penitent confessing,
    Wrath assuaging
    At the .mercy seat propitiating:
    Jesus our ransom, redeeming
    His death substituting
    Representing and justifying
    To God reconciling.
    The Father initiating,
    The Son accomplishing
    The Spirit convicting
    Remission applying,
    As we too are forgiving
    Of those who are offending,
    Against us who are sinning

    “Oh the depth of the knowledge of the grace of our Lord”

  3. I can’t help but think that the death of Christ achieved far more than we can ever imagine, cost more than we will ever understand and is more mysterious than could ever comprehend.

    I thank God for those who are willing to grapple honestly with the difficult questions, on both sides of the argument. The danger is, however, that those arguing against penal substitution simply provoke an increasingly narrow and polarised description of what Christ’s death achieved on the part of those arguing for it.

    I am simply grateful and awestruck that my saviour died for me. I know I don’t quite know how the cross achieved what it did. I am just so relieved that Jesus died and that I can walk with him and love him and grow in him and invite others to meet him, knowing that I can do so in the freedom of knowing that the cross alone has achieved my salvation and I can act from gratefulness and love in perfect freedom knowing that I deserve nothing but have been given everything. That anything I do I can give as a gift to God because I have nothing to earn. It’s glorious!

    • Penal substitutionary atonement is the foundation for every other aspect and application of the accomplishment of the cross. The primary requirement is that God’s justice is upheld and our guilt removed. Wrath and mercy meet in that singular atoning offering. That’s why Jesus is ultimately so precious.

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