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?


16 thoughts on “Can’t God Just Forgive?”

  1. I don’t see why you couldn’t start there. I think it comes down to the extent to which incomplete = incorrect. I think it’s safe to say that talking about the death of Christ without the resurrection of Christ (in the same sense that you would omit atonement when discussing forgiveness), would be incomplete to the point of being incorrect in some way. Omitting the latter renders the former incoherent. Is this the case with forgiveness? I’m not sure. I can honestly see both sides. I guess I would see the atonement as further explaining the nature and basis of the forgiveness, not so much as the other half that, when paired with forgiveness, makes the whole.

    I personally subscribe to the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. But the fact that I just called it a “theory”, and admittedly one among many, is telling. There is no “theory” of forgiveness. We’re either forgiven or we’re not.

    1. Daniel, I think this Luke-Acts testimony is a very important point to make because it cuts off the notion the Cross was about the Father dumping His Wrath on Jesus (something Scripture never says). Instead, Luke-Acts is very clear this was a murder at the hands of the Jews/Romans (Luke 24:45f; Acts 2:23f; 3:14f; 4:10, etc, etc). That said, there is mention of remission of sins within that context (Lk 24:47; Acts 13:38f).

      More importantly, Luke-Acts sets up the most important event in salvation history, which was Pentecost. Everything Jesus did was to bring about Pentecost, even the Cross was to bring about Pentecost (cf Galatians 3:13f). Luke sees Jesus through “physicians eyes,” so the ultimate healing act is to give mankind the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

      Also, it’s important to teach Penal Substitution is NOT compatible with the Biblical concept of “Atonement”.

      1. The Messiah, the King of Israel, and the high priest represented the people of Israel; what they did, the people were also responsible for, and vice versa. Jesus, taking on all three roles, becomes Israel-in-the-flesh, and in the ultimate act of faithfulness, juxtaposed with Israel’s continued faithlessness, He submits to the cross.

        There is good evidence that verses such as Galatians 2:20, Romans 3:22, 26, Galatians 3:22, Ephesians 3:12, and Philippians 3:9 should read faithfulness of Christ, rather than faith in Christ. The point is that it is the faithfulness of Christ that led Him to complete obedience, nonviolence, submission, passion, trust, love, etc (in other words, truly being God, and truly being Human), which led to the cross, and the vindication came in the Resurrection. By being IN Christ, and Christ being IN us, the People of God identify with Him in much the same way as the people of Israel with their king/priest/messiah. Therefore, what can be said of Him can be said of us, and vice versa: “therefore, there is now no condemnation for those IN Christ Jesus.”

        As for what role sacrifice played in the OT, and how it was realized and fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice in the cross, I am not well-versed. Certainly there is an element of atonement, though I wonder if the sacrifices were meant to get rid of sin, or if it was to show the people’s faithfulness to God by giving Him something that they needed to live.

  2. Why did Luke omit the “ransom for many” remark that Jesus made? There are too many possible answers that don’t really fit with each other for us to say.

    1. He was trying to articulate a view of the atonement (let’s say, the Christus Victor view, for the sake of argument), and thought that adding that remark would only muddy the waters, or he omitted it for other stylistic reasons.

    2. He didn’t know what to make of it, or maybe he didn’t think it was especially important, so he used material he understood better.

    3. He agreed with it, but didn’t want to go there.

    4. He disagreed with it.

    5. He agreed with it, and he knew what to make of it, but he thought his audience would find it confusing or distracting or repulsive.

    6. He agreed with it and understood it, but figured that St. Paul had already covered it well enough.

    7. He had had enough of quoting St. Mark and just couldn’t stomach any more.

    8. He planned to treat it in his second installment (“Acts”) but just didn’t get around to it.

    9. His treatment was on one of the pages of the Sinaiticus manuscript that got burned before von Tischendorf rescued it.

    Can we eliminate any of the first 6? If not, doesn’t any answer involve as much speculation as it does tight reasoning? That’s as far as I can get in the process, but if there are methods to move things beyond that impasse, I would like to learn them.



  3. Daniel, thanks for asking about starting points “with people who find the idea of God needing payment to be barbaric, weird, etc.”

    And I’m assuming that we’re looking for starting points that do not simply forget the cross or make it void of purpose.

    You suggest an answer might lay in the purpose of the cross featured in Luke/Acts – that of fulfilling scriptures about rejection, “so that Israel will see that they, as much as the Gentiles, stand in need of the forgiveness of God”.

    I can’t help noticing that this was also the purpose of the Baptism of John (maybe 3 years before the cross). When he invited ‘all Israel’ to submit to a procedure ordained strictly for Gentile proselytes outside the promise, John was in substance saying that Israel recognize that they needed to renew their side of the covenant (not that God was unfaithful but that his people were unfaithful).

    If we argue that the purpose of the cross is the same as the purpose of baptism, at least the connection made by early Christians between baptism and death ‘in Christ’ still makes sense. But I’m skeptical of the built-in redundancy and the overall ‘neatness’ of the whole thing (since it was developed as a retrospect on the cross).

    In other words, I think there’s some higher purpose in the cross than in the baptism of John.

  4. Maybe it’s because God doesn’t seem interested in offering forgiveness without also restoring the person or nation being forgiven. His goal is to save people from sin itself, not just from its consequences. We participate in the death of Christ and are raised with him, so the cross is important because it’s through the death of Jesus that the

  5. In the gospels Jesus forgives sins and the issue has to do with his authority to do so. In Acts the resurrection vindicates Jesus’ claim that “the Son of man has authority to forgive sins on earth.”

    So, for me, forgiveness of sins is a matter of authority. I assume Jesus forgives our sins the same way he forgave sins during his earthly ministry. That is, the One who has authority to forgive sins on earth is still alive.

    That’s my take.

  6. The New Testament talks about God’s resolution of our sin problem in several different ways. Most of these overlap to some extent, and the NT is not shy about mixing metaphors, but here are some of them.

    Personal Relation – involves forgiveness, offense, reconciliation, loyalty, betrayal, fellowship, etc.
    Sacrifice – involves guilt as pollution, cleansing, etc.
    Law – involves guilt as transgression, courts, sentencing, acquittal, punishment, reward for conformity, etc.
    Power – involves sin and others as oppressors, Christ as liberator,
    Life/being – involves life and death, health and sickness, healing, resurrection, new creation, etc.
    Commerce – involves debt, being bought back (redemption), exchange, damage we have done, etc.

    Each metaphor-set points to some reality or problem that God dealt with in the atonement, some action he took in Christ to bring us back to himself. “Just forgiving” us deals with the personal relations problem pretty well. It does not deal with our offenses before the law, our slavery to sin and death, our oppression by Satan or Rome, our “decaying back into the nothing from which we were made” (Athanasius), our sickness-unto-death, our insatiable desire to be a false god and flee the true one, any debts we owe or damage we have done. It would not connect us to God. It would not supply us with the new life we need, much less union with Christ.

    Neither is penal substitution the only way that the Bible describes the work of God in Christ, nor does it account for all the ways that the Bible speaks of that work, nor is it even the majority report. It needs the other metaphors.


    1. Barth and Jungel point out that Western theology usually focuses on guilt and grace; Eastern theologians have been more concerned with the distinction/gap between created, temporal life and eternal life inherent in God.

      Rather than perceiving atonement of Jesus primarily in terms of forgiveness, Douglas Campbell describes atonement as “an act that rescues, rather like the exodus” (“What Is at Stake in the Reading of Romans 1-3? An Elliptical Response to the Concerns of Gorman and Tilling”, *Journal for the Study of Paul and his Letters*, 1.1(2011) p. 123).

      Jesus’ incarnation, life, death on the cross, resurrection, and exaltation effect rescue (including forgiveness; freedom from condemnation).

      The singular Christ-centered act of rescue is unconditioned, transforming transfer (saving deliverance) from the perishable, Sin-enslaved, relationally dysfunctional domain of the first Adam to the power sphere of Spirit-enabled resurrection life in Christ, the man of heaven.

      Broadly conceived, atonement is the storied “project plan” of the Word’s downward emptying, self-giving to death, and upward journey to exaltation–”…appointed God’s son by power according to a spirit of holiness by resurrecting from the dead” (Romans 1:4).

      Because of the divine gift of atonement in Christ, humanity receives:

      1. Revelation of the loving Father, who is entirely Christ-like and “for us”

      2. The Spirit of Christ (and the Father) that takes up permanent residence and enlivens and transforms those who believe

      3. Eternal union of believers as reconciled and saved sons and daughters in Christ.

      As a teaching metaphor, the crucified and resurrected Jesus embodies the the living, enacted “Project Plan” of divine atonement. Atonement is not a functional schematic nor blueprint that can operate apart from the Savior. Atonement is always the faithful act of Jesus of Nazareth. Atonement is His unique story, encompassing how believers, formerly “in Adam”–Jews and Gentiles alike–are graciously rescued and transferred to the Lordship of Christ and participate “in Him” eternally to the glory of the Father.


  7. Where do the scriptures say God ‘needed’ payment at all? What he *wants*, what he *seeks* is obedience, but that’s not the same thing as ‘needing’ some kind of ‘payment’ in ‘satisfaction’ for insulted honor or ‘appeasement’ of ‘wrath’. God did send his Son to be obedient to his plan and even to carry it through all the way to victory— and in this world, obedience to God’s will end up in the murder of the obedient one— it’s that kind of world, and the murderous offenders sadly include all of us, even his own people— but God used the murder to bring about his own purpose, which was the destruction of death. And death was the problem, not God’s ‘honor’.

    As we all (should) know, penal substitutionary atonement theory is based on mediaeval feudal notions of ‘honor’ and its ‘satisfaction’ or ‘appeasement’, rather than on anything in the scriptures. In feudal law, insult had to be cured by payment of satisfaction worthy of the honor of the one insulted, regardless of the means of the guilty to do so. Hence the notion that having insulted an infinite God, we need to ‘appease’ him with an infinite satisfaction, if we are to deflect his ‘just vengeance’— and somehow, that satisfaction ‘has to’ involve suffering. But however much we should suffer, making ‘infinite satisfaction’ is something we finite creatures cannot do. Only one who is infinite God could ever do that… and so, God sent his Son, in order to pour out all his ‘just vengeance’ on him, in our stead.

    God, in this story, has indeed no choice: he ‘has to’ satisfy his blood-lust (or….. *what*?) Anyway, he ‘has to’ take it out either on us (which actually wouldn’t satisfy him, because even if he tortures all of us together for all eternity, we could still suffer only a finite suffering, being finite creatures)— or he can ‘satisfy’ his ‘just vengeance’ on his Son (which would indeed be satisfying, because the suffering of his divine Son would be infinite). Yum yum!!

    Stupid theory, and completely unnecessary, and even atheistic— and conducive, as we are finally beginning to see, to atheism. The strange part of it is that, in this story, God is not actually infinite at all; he is absolutely *subject* to the demonic necessity of his own ‘just’ (= wrathful!) nature— he ‘needs’ to blast someone, he ‘has’ to release his wrath, he ‘must’ even the score, he ‘has to’ receive payment ‘adequate’ to his ‘honor’. Such a fatuously self-enslaved god is worthy, perhaps, of Hitler, but not of Christ. All the worse, that in realizing his ‘justice’, he ‘has to’ torture his only Son, whom he ‘loves’! He’s just a Nazi pedocide. And all this displaced, vengeful *meanness* is certainly not well described as ‘so loved the world’!

    No, but the basic scenario is that the world is fallen. Its fallenness is described variously throughout the Bible as a problem of sin, injustice, faithlessness, disloyalty, congenital disobedience, illness, blindness, uncleanness, enslavement, and death— and etc— and there are metaphors that function appropriately within any of these contexts. But the basic problem is death, not law. We need to keep that firmly in mind. The fundamental ‘need’ here is not legal, but therapeutic, not on God’s side (except insofar as he *does* love us), but on our side, who can neither live, nor love. God can certainly forgive; indeed he does so repeatedly. But the entire problem is that Adam is dead, not that he has devise some form of ‘anger management’ at someone’s infinite expense. To say it again: if the main metaphor were indeed law (Adam just broke his rules)— then he *could* ‘just forgive’. And if he takes his own teachings seriously, he would surely have done so!

    But death is more serious than an infraction that can be forgiven. In fact, death isn’t even a sin; it’s the condition that came about as a result of sin. So where there is death, there is need, not for forgiveness, so much as for life. Thus Jesus went down to death and led its captives forth: ‘Therefore it says, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.’ (Ep 4.8-10). And this, so that ‘the whole body [might be] fitly joined together… unto the building up of itself in love’ (Ep 4.16).

    So Luke talks about the Messiah’s prayer: ‘You will not leave my soul in hades, neither will you allow your Holy One to see corruption’ (Acts 2.27); ‘Seeing this ahead of time, [David] spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that his soul was not left in hades, nor did his flesh see corruption’ (Acts 2.31; 13.34-37). Hades and corruption are where we end up in this world, either because of natural causes, or because of violence. And indeed, ‘In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth’ (Acts 8.33). Seeing this, we might well ask, ‘who shall descend into the deep, that is, to bring the Messiah up again from the dead?’ (Rm 10.7)— yet ‘if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved… for… whoever believes in him shall not be ashamed’ (Rm 10.9-10). Why? Because ‘death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the way that Adam did— who is the figure of him that was to come’ (Rm 5.14). For ‘in Adam all die’, but ‘in the Messiah we shall all be made alive’ (1 Cor 15.22). ‘And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit’ (1 Cor 15.45).

    Thus in the resurrection of the Son of God, ‘even creation itself shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of the sons of God’ (Rom 8.21). This is ‘the resurrection of the dead: It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption’ (1 Cor 15.42). The old Adam, that is, ‘flesh and blood, cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither does corruption inherit incorruption’ (1 Cor 15.50), and ‘he who sows to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows for the Spirit shall reap life everlasting by the Spirit’ (Gal 6.8). So, through the promises of God— or what Luke calls ‘the sure mercies of David’ (Acts 13.34)— ‘we are given exceedingly great and precious promises: that by them [we] might be made partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust’ (2Pet 1.4).

    That last statement is interesting— ‘the corruption that is in the world through lust’— for it suggests that part of our therapy lies in overcoming false desires— but that would be another discussion. Suffice it to say here only that the asceticism required to do this would be a struggle with the effects/affects of death that haunt our nature….

    Western theology, and in particular Western (post-)Enlightenment rationalism, has been fixated on law for many centuries, and therefore has ever had trouble satisfactorily explaining the work of the Messiah as anything more than the reconciliation of God and man. It is telling, in fact, that the resurrection is relatively neglected in Western accounts of our redemption, because what counts is the ‘satisfaction’ of ‘justice’ by bloodshed; and accordingly, ‘new life’ generally means simply a new moral or ethical existence, not the complete renewal and even deification (2 Peter 1.4) of fallen and dead human nature itself (which indeed involves that struggle with the effects/affects of death that haunt our nature, which I mentioned).

    If we start with mediaeval penal substitutionary atonement theory, we will soon meet the angel of death on the road, who says, as he swings the sword of vengeance and lops off our misplaced faith, ‘You can’t get there from here.’

  8. Perhaps the death and resurrection of the Messiah is less about the requirements on God to enable God to forgive and more about what’s needed for us to recognize God can be trusted to forgive.

    It’s noted often enough that the purpose of, say, the ten plagues on Egypt was to persuade Israel that Yahweh could be trusted to rescue them from their bondage. God could have easily dealt with the pesky Pharaoh in a moment. He’s God, after all. But Israel had to be shown that the God Moses was trumpeting was indeed powerful and loved the Hebrews. Finally, the lamb’s blood on the door posts of the Hebrew homesteads was not an ancient Google map for the angel of death (Really, the angel doesn’t know where the Hebrews live?), but rather it was an opportunity for Israel to place its faith in the Lord’s word.

    Perhaps the death and resurrection of the Anointed is not about what God has to do in order to be able to forgive. Could God not forgive at any moment? Does God not forgive Old Testament figures well before Christ’s appearance? Perhaps the death and resurrection of the one long hoped for is a demonstration for all people (particularly the Jews) that indeed God is and will always be faithful.

    1. Mike, those are good observations but if the purpose of the Messiah’s coming was simply to give an example, or a lesson, or to persuade us to go along with a moral code or ‘improvement program’, then it doesn’t really deal with the problem.

      The issue is not simply that we aren’t convinced. It’s that we’re dead. The solution has to be an ontological one, or it ultimately fails to change anything.

      The death and resurrection of the Messiah are not about ‘the requirements on God to enable him to forgive’— God is certainly free to forgive at any time, and he did forgive, in the OT. But on the other hand he is ‘required’ (if you will) to deal with the actual problem, which is not that somebody broke a rule, or insulted his honor, but that his high priest, the mediator through whom his blessing was to come into his ‘very good’ creation, and through whom that creation was to be returned to him— was now just bones in the grave. If God wants to change that, and get his creation back on track, he has to deal with it. So the problem shapes the solution. But the problem (again) is not that he’s offended, or that we have trouble believing; it’s that his creation is in the ditch, and needs repair… or rather, resurrection and life.

  9. For me the cross highlights the dilema of sacrifice inherent in life. The “lower” is sacrificed for the good of the higher in nature. Paradise is where sacrifice is no longer needed. Jesus on the cross represents our dilema with starkness – a point of contemplation concerning the most critical virtue. It is meant to elicit a reaction that jars, awakens, and puts us on a path of commitment. A commitment to love and respect one another no matter the cost; to strive to bring heaven on earth and trust our own ultimate sacrifice, our last breath, to the grace of the Creator. Turning it into a tranaction doesn’t resonate the incarnation nor a loving God.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.