As you’ve likely seen around here if you’ve listened before, we hit all sorts of issues. Last week, we dealt with an ethical issue, a moral issue of how we treat people at the end of their life. We’ve also looked at why there are books in our Bible or books that are not in our Bible. We’ve talked about theological issues and worldview issues and everything in between, because as Christians, we often get asked or have our own questions about a wide array of topics, everything from, was Jesus actually divine to why is there not a certain verse in my Bible but it’s in someone else’s, and everything in between.
Well, today we’re going to deal with a theological question, one that seems to imply that maybe God is not as fair or as good or as just as it would seem. The question often goes something like this, “is it really forgiveness if someone had to die?” In other words, we all say God forgives sins, God is gracious, but is it actually just for God to have sent Jesus to die in order for that forgiveness to happen, for that forgiveness to be extended? Isn’t the greater forgiveness if Jesus didn’t have to die, if the Father didn’t send the Son?
Wrapped up in this question are some other questions, which we’ve talked about before, questions like, was it cosmic child abuse for the Father to send the Son to die? We’ve said, no, it actually wasn’t. The Son willingly went on his own. He wasn’t an unwilling participant in the plan of the crucifixion. He willingly laid down his life. As Jesus says himself, “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord.” But that’s related to today’s question. “Is it actually forgiveness? Is it actually gracious forgiveness if someone had to die in order for someone else to be forgiven?”
Why do we think our standard is better?
Now on the face of it, it seems like this person has understood part, at least, of what the Bible says, that Jesus did need to die for there to be forgiveness of sins. Based on that understanding of what scripture says, they are then asking this question. But the question back to this person, before we endeavor to provide a reason or an explanation, is going to be something like, “why do you think it can’t work that way? Why do you think your standard is better than the one that scripture presents?”
There are different ways to couch that. Some people you can be more direct with than others, and some you might need to perhaps couch it in a little softer language, but that’s the fundamental question. Why do we think we know better than God? If you’re actually granting for the sake of conversation that God did say that someone needed to die in order for someone else to be forgiven, who are we to say that’s wrong? If God is the standard for morality and what right and wrong is, and if there is a God, he is that standard. Then if that is the case, why do we think we know better? How could we ever know better?
We actually couldn’t, because the only reason there is good and bad in the world is because there is God. You can’t have good without God. You can’t have evil without good. If there is an objective standard, it must be God in his character, himself. We can’t judge God from our own vantage point. We don’t have any leg or ground to stand on. Where would the moral foundation come from to say that God’s actions were wrong if God is the foundation? If someone wants to say God is not the foundation, well, then what’s the foundation? A consensus? Would it happen to be evolution? We’ve talked about all these possible groundings for morality in the past. They just simply don’t work. They’re inconsistent or have no actual objective foundation. The only possible standard for judging God’s actions is God himself.
Now that might still leave the person with a question. I think it often still leaves Christians with a question. I can acknowledge that, yes, God is the standard, and I can still say, “I don’t understand this.” I think that’s fair. The attitude of the heart is what’s different. There’s a difference in questioning God, saying, “I don’t know that you have the right to do that,” or, “That’s the wrong way to do it,” or, “How could you do that?” or in asking a question that seeks to understand more fully how things fit together. The attitude of the heart is different there.
We can give an answer to how this works from scripture. In Hebrews 9:22, it says that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. Look at the Old Testament. There needed to be a blood sacrifice in order for sins to be forgiven, in order for them to be passed over until the time of Christ. The blood of an animal, a certain type of animal, a worthy type of animal in sacrifice needed to be given. It didn’t count for all time. it just kind of covered over sins, but nonetheless, the Old Testament foundation sets up that when a sacrifice was made, it was made for a certain people for their sins, and it covered the sins of the people for whom it was offered.
There was a correlation between whom the sacrifice was offered, for the intent, and who was actually affected by that. There was a blood offering in the Old Testament for sins. If you don’t understand your Old Testament, it’s very hard to understand the book of Hebrews. (It’s actually hard to understand the book of Hebrews in general, but especially if you don’t have a good, solid Old Testament foundation.)
In making a point about Jesus, the author to the Hebrews is leveraging an understanding of the sacrificial system from the Old Testament, because he’s saying that forgiveness in the Old Testament and the old covenant required a blood sacrifice. It’s actually the same way in the new covenant. Jesus is the last sacrifice of the old covenant, and so we see from the Bible that there’s actually something that needs to die for someone else to live, that there is a payment that’s required for the forgiveness of sins.
All forgiveness costs something
Now this still doesn’t necessarily deal with and answer the question initially asked, is it really forgiveness if someone has to die? We’ve shown from scripture that, yes, actually, forgiveness in God’s eyes does require something to be done, something to die, some blood to be offered in order for a person’s sins to be forgiven. But this still doesn’t really fit with how we talk and think about forgiveness, does it?
If someone sins against you and you say, “Well, if I forgive them, I’m not asking for something from them. I’m not demanding something from someone else,” it actually seems to some people like our human kind of forgiveness is more of a higher ideal and virtue than God’s forgiveness. I’ve heard this said before, but if we go back to our initial concept, who are we to judge God? If God set the standard, then surely he meets the standard and we do not. If we start to feel like our standards of morality are higher than God’s, we have very much veered off the path of truth, but I can understand the impulse.
Here’s the thing, We don’t actually forgive the way we think we forgive. We think we forgive and we don’t require something. There’s no payment that’s made. But that’s not actually true, because when you are sinned against, you are actually the one paying if you choose to forgive the debt. If someone steals from you, let’s say they take $1000 and they’re caught, and let’s say you have the opportunity to make them repay that debt they now have to you because they have stolen from you.
Well, let’s say you don’t say that. You actually say, “I forgive that debt.” Who has chosen to pay for the debt? You have. You have chosen to say, “I am going to eat the loss there. I am going to, in a way, pay for it.” and here’s the key point, “it is going to cost me $1000 to forgive this debt,” because you could have gotten it back, but you chose to assume that liability and that payment yourself. So it actually does cost something every time anything is forgiven. We are saying, “I am not going to pursue what is rightfully mine,” and that’s what happened at the cross.
Now it’s not exactly the same, but it is analogous. It is functionally similar and the same. Whenever we forgive, we are the ones accepting the payment of that debt. But here’s where a key difference comes in, and this goes back to what I was saying earlier about the fact that we often see things differently than God and it is we who are wrong, not God. This is the difference: God is just. He actually requires justice to be met and dealt in every circumstance where it is required.
It’s actually unjust for justice not to be done, so God must judge and he must judge justly. If God is going to forgive a debt, it is going to cost him something because justice still must be done. Someone must be punished, something must pay. God willingly offers himself in the person of Jesus for that debt. He doesn’t just say, “You know what? I’m going to let it go,” because he can’t do that. He can’t—in virtue of being just and holy—deal with his law being transgressed. It’s actually unjust not to punish the person who has committed the crime. We often think, oh, it’s the most gracious thing to do as Christians to say, well, someone shouldn’t be punished. No, actually they should. We can forgive them as people, but the law’s job is actually to punish evildoers.
Our forgiveness of someone and their forgiveness in God’s eyes doesn’t mean that the law shouldn’t still punish their crime. It’s similar with God, because God, in wanting to forgive must still be just, so he punishes Jesus in our place to show that he is just and also the justifier of those who are in Christ. That’s what Paul says in Romans. Far from saying it is a lower form of forgiveness for something to have to die in God’s eyes, it’s actually a higher form of forgiveness. It’s a higher virtue, because God maintains his justice, which he would not have done if something were not required to be punished for our sin, and he supplies that which is punished as himself. He himself is punished.
That is the highest form of love, right? He loved us when we did not yet love him. He loved us when he died for us when we were still sinners. That’s the highest form of love. But it actually goes a step further, because in being the sacrifice for sin, he glorifies himself, and is seen to be beautiful and just and gracious and holy in a way he would not have if he had not paid for sin. Out of love for himself, he pays for our sin. As we see in Ephesians 1, that salvation, all of it, including most certainly what was done at the cross, was done “to the praise of his glorious grace,” that we might praise him because he did what he could not do. He glorifies himself in saving us. You can’t separate out God’s love for us with his love for himself at the cross. They are certainly different, but they are expressed in multiple intents at the same time.
All of that to say God forgives in the most pure way, and we can’t judge him according to our standards. More than that, any time someone forgives a debt, and our sin is a debt against God, it is talked about in terms of commercial language, we are ransomed. We are bought with a price. We are declared not guilty. These are commercial and judicial terms. All of that to say when that happens even with us in our personal lives, when we forgive someone, we are assuming that debt. We are saying, “You know what? I will pay that in your place.” But the one key difference is that God in his fundamental character is holy and just, and so sin must be punished.
He supplies the punishment for that sin in himself, in the person of Christ. That’s something we should praise him for, like is mentioned in Ephesians 1. We should certainly praise him for the glory of his grace, for displaying the highest form of love to us.
Let’s always pay attention to and realize when someone is bringing in a non-Biblical standard that still trades on things that are only true in Christianity, to then judge God by.
Like we talked about initially, bringing in a concept of morality which has no ground outside of Christianity, to then judge God by and find him to be somehow lacking. We need to be able to identify those and point them out and show that they don’t actually work. They’re inconsistent. They don’t have a foundation to stand on. The only true foundation for morality and forgiveness and grace and holiness and understanding any of that is found in Biblical Christianity.
Well, I will talk with you next week on Unapologetic.