Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Problem of Forgiveness

Our insistence that according to the Gospel the cross of Christ is the only ground on which God forgives sins bewilders many people. “Why should our forgiveness depend on Christ’s death?” they ask. “Why does God not simply forgive us, without the necessity of the Cross?” As the French cynic put it, “The good God will forgive me; that’s His job (or His specialty).” “After all,” the objector may continue, “if we sin against one another, we are required to forgive one another. We are even warned of dire consequences if we refuse. Why can’t God practice what He preaches and be equally generous? Nobody’s death is necessary before we forgive each other. Why does God make so much fuss about forgiving us and even declare it impossible without His Son’s ‘sacrifice for sin’? It sounds like a primitive superstition which modern people should long since have discarded.”

It is essential to ask and to face these questions. Two answers may be given to them immediately. The first was supplied by Anselm in his great book Cur Deus Homo? at the end of the eleventh century. If anybody imagines, he wrote, that God can simply forgive us as we forgive others, that person has “not yet considered the seriousness of sin,” or literally “what a heavy weight sin is” (i.xxi). The second answer might be expressed similarly: “You have not yet considered the majesty of God.” It is when our perception of God and man, or of holiness and sin, are askew that our understanding of the Atonement is bound to be askew also.

The fact is that the analogy between our forgiveness and God’s is far from being exact. True, Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” But He was teaching the impossibility of the unforgiving being forgiven, and so the obligation of the forgiven to forgive, as is clear from the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant; He was not drawing any parallel between God and us in relation to the basis of forgiveness. 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 misdemeanors are personal injuries. God is not a private individual, however, nor is sin just a personal injury. On the contrary, God is Himself the maker of the laws we break, and sin is rebellion against Him.

The crucial question we should ask, therefore, is a different one. It is not why God finds it difficult to forgive, but how He finds it possible to do so at all. In the words of Carnegie Simpson, “forgiveness is to man the plainest of duties; to God it is the profoundest of problems.”

The problem of forgiveness is constituted by the inevitable collision between divine perfection and human rebellion, between God as He is and us as we are. The obstacle to forgiveness is neither our sin alone, nor our guilt alone, but also the divine reaction in love and wrath toward guilty sinners. For, although indeed “God is love,” yet we have to remember that His love is “holy love,” love which yearns over sinners while at the same time refusing to condone their sin. How, then, could God express His holy love?—His love in forgiving sinners without compromising His holiness, and His holiness in judging sinners without frustrating His love?

At the Cross, in holy love, God through Christ paid the full penalty of our disobedience Himself. He bore the judgment we deserve in order to bring us the forgiveness we do not deserve. On the Cross, divine mercy and justice were equally expressed and eternally reconciled. God’s holy love was “satisfied.”

All inadequate doctrines of the Atonement are due to inadequate doctrines of God and man. If we bring God down to our level and raise ourselves to His, then, of course, we see no need for a radical salvation, let alone for a radical atonement to secure it. When, on the other hand, we have glimpsed the blinding glory of the holiness of God, and have been so convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit that we tremble before God and acknowledge what we are, namely “hell-deserving sinners,” then and only then does the necessity of the Cross appear so obvious that we are astonished we never saw it before.

The essential background to the Cross, therefore, is a balanced understanding of the gravity of sin and the majesty of God. If we diminish either, we thereby diminish the Cross. If we reinterpret sin as a lapse instead of a rebellion, and God as indulgent instead of indignant, then naturally the Cross appears superfluous. But to dethrone God and enthrone ourselves not only dispenses with the Cross; it also degrades both God and man. A biblical view of God and ourselves, however, that is, of our sin and of God’s wrath, honors both.