The problem of forgiveness of sins
Why was Jesus’ death necessary? Could God not show mercy by simply forgiving sins without this death being necessary? According to Anselm of Canterbury (Cur Deus Homo? = Why was God made man?), an English theologian of the 11th century, the process of forgiveness of sins cannot be simplified by comparing forgiveness among men, for personal offenses, with the forgiveness of God, the creator of the laws we transgress. The problem of forgiveness is the clash between divine perfection and human rebellion, between a loving God who forgives and a holy and just God who judges. The solution lies at the cross where mercy and justice of God are reconciled.
The seriousness of sin
Scripture defines sin as an offense against the authority and the love of God, as a challenge to God, as a claim to independence. It is also the refusal to face the seriousness of sin, which leads to its elimination from the vocabulary … replacing it with crime, judged by the State or by disease. But to recognize sin as sin would lead to “the awakening of personal responsibility“.
Man’s moral responsibility is commonly eliminated or reduced by a range of external factors: heredity, education, society, or a man is shaped without responsibility, predetermined by his environment. So all would be the fault of society.
Legal liability depends on the mental or moral responsibility that can be mitigated (eg for children or among the mentally disabled persons), and it depends also on the intention and the will. But the flaws of the human nature or of education cannot be an excuse.
The Bible notes that there is a tension between what influences us – original sin – and our ability to exercise our moral responsibility which is never removed. Responsibility is part of human nature and it is not offset by the fall, i.e. the Intervention of original sin, for man always keeps a minimum of power of decision.
True and false guilt
We are all without excuse because knowing what to do, we did not do it.
We know, indeed, that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do: for what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. Now if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is to say, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.
However, our conscience is not infallible: there is a false sense of guilt, but also a false sense of innocence, a false contrition, a false assurance of forgiveness.
Holiness and wrath of God
Sin is incompatible with God’s holiness and with his wrath which is his reluctance concerning evil and his vigorous opposition to this evil.
The Scriptures illustrated this by several metaphors: the height or transcendence, the distance, light and fire, vomiting in disgust before the disobedience of the people of Israel or the half-heartedness of the Laodicean Church.
I know your deeds, that that you are neither cold nor hot. I whish you were either one or the other! So because you are lukewarm -neither cold nor hot- I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
Even if the God of our contemporaries is rather lax, we must avoid any presumption and not cut corners when we explain the work of atonement. We must keep a proper understanding of the gravity of sin and of God’s majesty.
The satisfaction for sin
Words like satisfaction and substitution provoke much criticism.
To satisfy the devil?
In the early Church, people thought it was the devil who had made the cross necessary as an instrument of his defeat. For several Fathers of the Church, the devil is the master of sin and of death, and the main tyrant from whom Jesus came to free us.
Three errors should be noted
– To give the devil more power than he actually has
– To recognize him as having certain “rights” on man
-To make the cross a barter between God and the devil.
Others define the transaction as a deception (a hook, a mousetrap).
John Stott admits some interest in these theories, but excludes any transaction and above all any deceit between the devil and God.
To satisfy the law?
The moral necessity of satisfying God with the cross is explained by the requirements of the Law, as described in the first five books of the Old Testament, especially in the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20.1-17; Deuteronomy 5.6-21 ). God loves the sinners and desires to save them. The sanction required by law has been applied at the cross and thus the requirements of the Law have been met.
For the Latin fathers of the 4th century, liberation through Christ from the curse of the Law is explained by the application of the legal sentence.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us -for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree”.
For the 16th century Reformers, Christ absolutely had to submit to the Law to separate us from its condemnation. However, if the disobedience to the moral laws of God entails the condemnation, it is not because God is the prisoner of his laws, but because he is their author.
Satisfaction for the honor and the justice of God?
In Cur Deus Homo ?, Anselm rejects the patristic thesis of the ransom: it is mans debt to God that must be paid.
The only voluntary person to effect this satisfaction must necessarily be both fully God and fully man, since no one except a real God could accomplish it. And no one except a genuine man, was obliged to do that.
The Reformers stressed the notion of justice in God and the impossibility to devise a means of salvation which would not have satisfied his justice.
Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) emphasized the objective character of the cross, as the unique way to meet the demands of the divine justice. He also attached great importance to public morality in its two aspects of crime prevention and law enforcement.
Several theologians of the 20th century also applied this concept of God as a “moral governor of the world” to the doctrine of atonement. According to Emil Brunner, sin is an attack against the moral order of the world, which is an expression of the moral will of God. There is an analogy between the natural law and the moral law, none of which can be violated with impunity.
The satisfaction of God himself?
The Scriptures emphasize the perfect consistency of the person of God, who is forced to judge the sinners, while remaining true to himself, using the language of provocation, of fire, of anger. His judgment is inevitable because it is rooted in the holiness of his nature, and in perfect harmony with his requirements and his revealed nature.
NB: literal or approximate quotes of John Stott are in italics.
To be continued