Category Archives: atonement

Forgiven? How Do We Know?

My academic teaching and writing require me to consider all aspects of Christian teaching and theology. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the atonement, that is, the meaning of Christian confession that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). In the past year I’ve read thousands of pages looking for insight into this great theme. In the semester just completed my students and I spent five weeks reading and discussing N.T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. What events led the first believers to view Jesus’s death as a saving event? What do Paul and other New Testament writers mean when they say that Jesus died for us? How does his death deal with our sin? These questions and many more have been on my mind for months.

In a chapter for a book I am currently writing I briefly discuss seven theories of the atonement: (1) The Ransom Theory, which says that Jesus offered his soul to the devil in exchange for all human souls; (2) The Christus Victor Theory which says that by dying Jesus defeating the evil forces that hold us in the miserable condition of slavery, weakness, deception, corruption and death; (3) The Recapitulation Theory, which says that by living through all stages of human life, including death and resurrection, and getting it right Jesus undoes Adam’s wretched history and gives humanity a new start; (4) The Deification Theory, which argues that the Son of God by living a full human life, dying and rising, makes his divine life available to all who become united to him; (5) Satisfaction Theory in which Jesus’s death in our place pays the debt we incurred by offending God’s dignity and honor in our disobedience; (6) The Penal Substitution Theory in which Jesus voluntarily endures the just punishment merited by human violation of God’s eternal law; and (7) The Moral Influence Theory in which God’s love demonstrated on the cross provokes our repentance and evokes our love in return.

While meditating on this subject day and night for a year, something dawned on me. I asked myself this question: why do I believe I am forgiven? Why do I believe God loves me and extends me grace? Why do I believe I am free from the power of sin, death and the devil? Why do I believe God gives me a new beginning every day…that I do not need to carry a burden of guilt? What is the bottom line my assurance?

It’s not because I deserve it! If we could deserve it, we wouldn’t need forgiveness in the first place. Also—and here is the main point—it’s not because one or more of these seven theories of the atonement makes everything clear to me. In my view, each of them points toward a truth, but each is also troublingly obscure in some way. So, here is my bottom line: I believe that God’s loves me, that I am forgiven, and that God is my Father because Jesus said so. And I believe Jesus told the truth in all sincerity because he sealed his word with his blood. And I believe Jesus knew the truth of the matter because God raised him from the dead and placed his own seal on the new covenant.

Perhaps there are more reasons, more profound explanations of the atonement, more nuanced treatments of the justice and mercy of God…but this is my bottom line. When my best reasoning fails to bring peace to my heart, I cling to Jesus’s words: “Do not be afraid; you (Ron…and Susan and James) are worth more than many sparrows!” (Luke 12:7).

 

What is Divine Forgiveness?

In the previous post I asked you to consider the question, “What is so bad about sin that we should want to be saved from it?” And the answer that forced itself upon us was that the nature of sin is “absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.” Only when we understand sin’s destructive effects on us does the gospel of Jesus Christ become good news to us. The gospel tells us that Jesus Christ came to rescue us from these ills, restore our health, and lead us to a destiny glorious beyond our imagining. What must Jesus do in order to save us?

Forgiveness

For most believers, the first idea that comes to mind in answer to this question is forgiveness. We need forgiveness for our sins, and Jesus secures divine forgiveness for us. So let’s think about forgiveness. Forgiveness makes sense only in a personal context. Sin causes damage to us and to others. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the interesting question of whether we need forgiveness from ourselves for the damage we cause to ourselves and focus on the damage we cause to other people.) Some damage we cause to other people is reparable and some is not. If you steal my cash, you could correct that harm by repaying the money. However, if you take my life or cause permanent bodily harm, you cannot repair the damage and restore the body to its original condition. But whether the physical damage is reparable or irreparable, great or small, there is another kind of damage that accompanies all sins against other people: insult or offense. Sin against others treats them as having less than human dignity. You put the disturbing thought into their minds that they are unworthy–unworthy of life, possessions, or respect. Of all the possessions a person has, a sense of their own worth is the most precious. If I do not feel that I am worthy of love and respect, I will be afraid of everyone in every situation. I will trust no one. Life becomes a burden.

The instinctive reaction to insult is anger, hatred, and desire for revenge. In revenge, people assert their dignity by attempting to balance harm with harm and insult with insult. Revenge releases anger and provides a momentary sense of relief. It is an effort to restore our damaged sense of worth, to assert and reestablish our dignity. Of course, revenge doesn’t really work to restore confidence in our dignity, because our desire for revenge shows that we never had confidence in our worth! If we had such confidence, the original insult would not have caused us to hate and desire revenge so intensely in the first place.

Now we are prepared to understand the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is refusal to take revenge for insults against us. Where do we find the power to forgive, and why should we forgive those who insult us? Forgiveness is withholding revenge, but this forbearance arises from a deeper source. The forgiving person has the spiritual power to neutralize, absorb, or be immune to insult. The insult does not shake their confidence in their own worth. Hence it does not cause fear, evoke hatred, and provoke violence. But the forgiving person is not only unshakably confident of their own value, they are also unclouded in their perception of their enemy’s dignity. Even while being insulted, they are compassionately aware of their enemy’s lack of clarity about her or his own worth. When you forgive your enemy, unlike when you take revenge on your enemy, you are witnessing to your enemy’s worth as well as your own in a dramatic way. If your enemies can receive your forgiveness, they may also come to perceive their true dignity. Only forgiveness can “balance” the books on the worth of individuals. Only forgiveness can convert an enemy.

Divine Forgiveness

Divine forgiveness follows the same logic as outlined above. When God forgives, God refrains from taking revenge. Divine forgiveness deals with the personal offense and insult sin directs at God. We cannot damage God physically as we can God’s creatures. But when we damage, insult, and withhold love from human beings, we also disbelieve, disobey, and mistrust God. We refuse his love and reject his guidance. We insult God’s dignity indirectly. (Blasphemy is direct insult of God.) God deserves our faith, obedience, and love, but when we sin against his beloved creatures, we display our ingratitude and disrespect. But God does not take revenge. God absorbs and neutralizes the insult, not returning violence for violence. God does not allow our refusal to love him to cause him to stop loving us. Our insults cannot place in God doubt of his divine dignity or lessen his love. Instead, God demonstrates his unchallenged dignity and eternal love by forgiving us. God affirms our worth by maintaining his eternal love for us unchanged

Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ action of forgiving his enemies is the expression in time of God’s eternal love and forgiveness. Let’s get clear on this: the work of Jesus Christ was not designed to change an offended and revenging God into a loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ suffering is not the cause of divine forgiveness. No. Jesus Christ is the visible, temporal enactment of divine forgiveness, of God’s eternal selfless love for us. Jesus is “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev 13:8).

In Jesus Christ, God absorbs and negates human offense and insult. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s sheer, gracious, unexpected, and incomprehensible forgiveness of insult to his divine dignity! In the humanity of Jesus Christ, God became able to suffer and die for us. Jesus’ human love for his Father in time corresponds to his divine love for the Father in eternity and his human suffering and death for us in time corresponds to God’s love and forgiveness for us in eternity. In the suffering and dying of Jesus Christ, divine forgiveness becomes effective for the conversion and salvation of humanity. In Jesus, God’s refusal to take revenge (forgiveness) becomes the negative side of a positive act of rescue from the power of sin and death.

Next Time: Forgiveness is not enough. We need healing, purification, transformation and glorification.