Can’t God Just Forgive?

When people wrestle with atonement theology (i.e., how does the cross, in particular, bring about forgiveness of sins), the objection to atonement theology as a whole is sometimes voiced: why can’t God just forgive? Does God really need some sort of payment?

On the one hand, yes, God can do whatever God wants. This is possible.

On the other hand, we develop our understanding of how the cross works ex post facto. We’re not setting up parameters that have to be met, but trying to understand the biblical witness about how the death of Jesus did, in fact, function. We have books like Hebrews that say things like, “You could almost say that without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” We have the language of Jesus’ death as atoning sacrifice.

So atonement theology is our attempt to make sense of what did happen, not to set requirements on God.

But there’s another piece of the biblical puzzle as well. That piece is Luke-Acts.

Luke seems to go out of his way to mute the idea that Jesus’ death is somehow a ransom or payment for sins. You know that, “Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” saying? It’s replaced by the son of man being among his people as one who serves the table.

Look at the sermons in Acts. Here, of all places, we should get a clear exposition of the purpose of the cross. And we do! But its focused purpose is to fulfill the scripture about Israel rejecting its own Messiah, so that Israel will see that they, as much as the Gentiles, stand in need of the forgiveness of God.

God forgives.

God isn’t paid.

Sin isn’t covered.

Blood doesn’t cleanse.

Canonically, this is not enough. There is more to be said, other developments of the significance of Jesus’ death that need to be incorporated into a fully developed understanding of the atonement.

But here’s the question: is this atonement-free forgiveness a viable starting point for us to take with people who find the idea of God needing payment to be barbaric, weird, etc.? Can we set aside the other angles on Jesus’ death and cultivate a Lukan theology of the God who forgives, and who is at work in the world through Christ and the Spirit, as the gospel with which we begin?


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