Apr 052010
 

There’s a lot on my mind lately, but, though it’s not really a great pressing concern to me, I keep coming back to one particular issue.  Perhaps that means it will be illuminating to somebody, so here it is.

From several places, I’ve heard what appears to be a common objection to the Gospel message:

“Why did Jesus have to die?  If God was so eager to forgive us, why go through the whole shtick of executing an innocent person?  Why is that even necessary—why couldn’t God just, well, forgive us?”

This is a perfectly valid question, and it makes a lot of sense to ask it.  After all, there is something that seems just plain wrong about saying, “God decided to punish an innocent person instead of a guilty one… because He is so concerned about justice.”

But one thing I’ve found about many people’s objections to Christian beliefs is that they object to something that it is absolutely right to object to, except that it doesn’t happen to be a Christian belief.  For instance, I once saw a blog post wherein the author was railing against the Apostle Paul because (he said) Paul taught the false doctrine that Christians were obliged to keep the whole Old Testament Law to be saved.  That doctrine is certainly worth objecting to, which might be one reason the Apostle Paul objected so strongly to it in his epistles. And then of course there’s my 20 Reasons to Abandon a Bugaboo.

Be that as it may, I think we have a similar case here.  The idea that God punished an innocent person instead of just forgiving us does seem objectionable.  But is it really the Gospel message?  Maybe not.  Hang onto your hats; let’s take a look.

Part of the confusion here comes from what I call the “Person C” Fallacy.  Too often, you hear the Gospel message presented like this:  God (Person A) takes the crimes of a human being (Person B) and places them on an innocent third party, Jesus (Person C), whom He then proceeds to torture and kill so Person B doesn’t have to suffer the consequences.  Doesn’t Person B think Person A is a great guy?

A typical skeptic would say to that, “But that’s so unfair, unjust, and cruel!”

The typical skeptic would be absolutely right.

The answer, like the answer to so many objections to the Bible, is 1) That idea really is a moral dilemma, and 2) That idea is not what’s taught in the Bible. At all.  Even if you’ve heard some Christians say it is.

If your eyebrows are raised at this point, just work with me here.  Look at what the Bible teaches about Jesus. Jesus is said to be “God… manifested in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16).  In other words, He was not Person C; He was Person A.  God doesn’t punish some random innocent third party; He takes the penalty for our sins on Himself.  Punishing someone else may be cruel, but voluntarily suffering for someone else is heroic, heartbreaking, and amazingly gracious.

That’s only part of it—even if Jesus is God, why did He have to die at all?  Again, if God is so anxious to forgive, why doesn’t he just wipe the slate clean, say “I forgive you,” and start all over again?

The answer:  That’s exactly what God did do.  And that’s exactly why Jesus had to die.

Confused?  Stay with me.  The confusion this time comes from our English word “forgive.”  We can use the word “forgive” in two different ways:

1) You offend me or otherwise hurt me, but I say, “I forgive you.”  That means, “You hurt me, but I’ll overlook it because I don’t want it to wreck our relationship.  No hard feelings.”

2) You borrow a thousand dollars from me, fall on hard times, and can’t pay it back.  I say, “That’s OK; I’ll forgive you your debt.”  That means, “You now no longer owe me a thousand dollars.  On your records, it’s as though you’d never defaulted on the loan.”

On my records… well, I’m out a thousand dollars.  That’s the price I’d have to pay to forgive the debt.

The Greek language, in which the New Testament was originally written, simplifies matters a bit by having a different word for each of these meanings.  (Charizomai is the first and aphiemi the second, for those interested.)

Now clearly, when people ask “Why couldn’t God just forgive us,” they’re thinking about meaning #1.  And it’s true that that first word does pop up in the Greek New Testament a few times in reference to forgiving people who have offended you.  But by far the more common word is the second—the one that’s used in reference to forgiving debts.  Here is just a quick sampling of some of the more notable uses:

When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.”  –Mark 2:7

“Who can forgive sins but God alone?” –Luke 5:21

“…the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins…” –Luke 5:24

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. –1 John 1:9

And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. –James 5:15

It even occurs in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).

Now remember this is aphiemi, the kind of forgiveness that has to do not with overlooking the feelings but with clearing the accounts.  As an interesting word-study aside, aphiemi in other contexts can be translated “leave behind,” “let alone,” “send away,” or even “divorce”—it’s talking about making a clean and total break with something.

So God doesn’t just overlook our sins and say “no hard feelings” (though He does that too of course).  He does something even greater: The sin that was in your account book gets crossed out.  That debt you couldn’t pay back gets canceled. Your sins are sent away—left behind—divorced.

That’s great news for us, but what does it mean for God?  Remember, when a debt is forgiven, the creditor becomes the one who suffers the loss.  And sin carries a big loss with it: “The wages of sin is death,” according to the Bible (Romans 6:23).  Sin carries a consequence, just like work carries a wage.  You work an hour; you get a set amount of money.  You commit a sin, and something inevitably happens to your soul.  You die.

By the way, I don’t think that God decided to set an arbitrary punishment for certain actions: “If they covet, let’s see… I know, I’ll give them the death penalty, bwa ha ha ha.”  I see God’s moral laws as an attempt to keep us from doing something that would destroy us whether He made the rule or not: “DANGER!  KEEP OUT!  HIGH VOLTAGE! If you touch the wire, you’ll die!”  The sign is there to keep you from being killed, not to kill you.

So there’s the dilemma: God wants to forgive us our sins as a creditor would forgive his debtor.  But if He does that, He’s left with the debt, and in that case, that means He has to suffer death.

God can’t die.  But a human can.

If God became a human, then He could die and the debt would be absorbed.  The books would be balanced all around.  There would be both justice (because the books would be fairly balanced) and mercy (because we didn’t have to die).

So Jesus is not Person C, nor even just Person A: He’s person AB.  If Jesus is not fully God and fully Man, this whole arrangement is impossible: If Jesus is only A, B, or C, there’s an insuperable moral dilemma.  But if Jesus is who the Bible says He is, there’s Amazing Grace.

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them”
(2 Corinthians 5:19).

  • Joivre

    Wow – You are amazing! You just tackled one of the biggest and most important discourses in theology in one post! And I understood it perfectly. Amazing!

    • @Joivre: Thanks; I’m glad you liked it! I try to put things understandably (perhaps a throwback to my days teaching kids?), so it’s gratifying when it comes off.

  • I really like the way you explain this. Thank you. I don’t think I ever read about the two words for forgiveness before. I have read about the cancellation of debt, but I think knowing about the other word is important, too.

    I like your AB analogy.

  • Eric…I have so appreciated the way you write…the way you explain things. You are a true blessing. Therefore, I have awarded you a Prolific Blogger Award. You can pick it up here: http://littlervonthehillside.wordpress.com/2010/04/29/prolific-blogger-award/

    Thank you for writing this blog. Thank you for showing your heart for our L-rd!

    • Wow, thanks! This may be my first blog award ever. I’m honored. 🙂

  • You deserve it! 🙂

  • A very good explanation. Thank you for posting your thoughts. It brought to mind another seemingly simple explanations of what it means for the believer to be justified. I am referring to “it means, it’s just-as-if-I’d never sinned”. This explanation is used in evangelical circles all the time. It rubs me the wrong way because I have sinned. I am justified because God chose me, and I am trusting in Jesus who lived the righteous life I could not live and paid the debt for my sin that I could not pay. Believers are justified or “declared righteous” by God, which is the only way to the kingdom of God, through the grace of God alone. The righteousness I cling to is Christ’s alone but is reckoned to my account by God. Again the debt is forgiven.

    • Excellent point, Barry! Thanks for your comment.

    • I get what you are saying, Barry…however…”just as if I never sinned” is not the same as “actually never sinned”. I see it as total and complete forgiveness…so total and complete that the sin is never again held against us…as in cast into the depths of the sea or thrown as far as the east is from the west.

      While it does talk somewhere about G-d forgetting our sins…it never says that we don’t. We have the benefit of always being conscious of just how much we have been forgiven and of the things from which we have been delivered. That is awesome! It is a part of our story…or rather “His”tory in us…the work He has done.

      Anyway…just some thoughts that struck me. I am no theologian…and, regardless of what the theologians say about it…I am just going to be the grateful recipient of that forgiveness and of His righteousness!

      Good conversation!

      • Duh! Can’t type. I meant that it never says that we DO! As in, it never says that we do forget our sins. I know that we are confronted by our sinfulness all the time…or at least I am.

  • fred

    But that really doesn’t answer the question. Your assumption you base your answer on, ie. “the wages of sin is death,” is a metaphysical rule that, presumably, was created by God himself, and therefore is subjected to his modification. Why not just change it so no one has to suffer and die?

    • Fred – Great question. I already kind of answered it in the post:

      I don’t think that God decided to set an arbitrary punishment for certain actions: “If they covet, let’s see… I know, I’ll give them the death penalty, bwa ha ha ha.” I see God’s moral laws as an attempt to keep us from doing something that would destroy us whether He made the rule or not.

      In other words (in my view), “Sin –> Death” is a causal relationship, not so much like “If you violate the speed limit we will make you pay a fine” but like “If you drink this cyanide it will kill you.” Yes, God could theoretically fix things so that none of our actions had bad consequences, but after a certain point that is tantamount to removing free will. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, God could (say) miraculously change every gun into a water pistol when it was fired, but there is no practical difference between that and making automatons who don’t have the choice not to kill. And of course, a being that can’t choose can’t love, and thus ultimately can’t be perfectly happy. It’s an inherent part of the system, both the good and the bad.

      Lewis goes into more detail on this in The Problem of Pain, which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it already.

      Thanks for the comment! I appreciate your thoughts.

  • Z.G.

    In your response to fred, you said that if God took away bad consequences, he would destroy free will. You left out a third possibility, though, that God could reduce the consequence for sin to something less severe than death of the soul and still preserve free will. Under that scenario, we would still have to choose whether or not to love God and refrain from sin. I think a skeptic would still have a problem believing that an all-loving, all-powerful God could not reduce the death penalty to a life sentence.

    • Z.G. — I think you missed my point a bit. My idea is that the consequence is intrinsic to the action itself, not something God arbitrarily sets. For instance, somebody who commits the sin of hate becomes a hateful person until they stop hating — that’s what it means to hate. Most people would agree that that is a form of spiritual death; hate produces misery. The action itself results in the penalty, so to change the consequence would be to change the rules of cause and effect, negating free will. Even if God somehow gave them a “life sentence,” that would just mean the person would spend eternity being unrepentantly hateful and thus miserable: not most people’s idea of heaven. (The other place, maybe…)

      Of course I’m not sure whether that would convince a skeptic — I guess it would depend on the skeptic — but it works for me. Thanks for taking the time to comment! I appreciate the pushback.