The Nature of Forgiveness

The assertion that Jesus paid for our sins has caused confusion within the body of Christ. It is casually accepted that our salvation hinges on a legal transfer of some sort between two members of the Trinity—Jesus and His Father. This has become the nearly unanimous answer to the question, “Who did Christ pay?” If Christ indeed paid the Father for sin then it was retributive justice that was served and not public justice. We should remember that under retributive justice no forgiveness is possible. Forgiveness, correctly defined, is the relaxation of a legitimate claim. According to this definition God could not have, as one hymn puts it, “paid the debt and forgave Me all my sin.”

Let me illustrate: If I borrow one hundred dollars on the condition that it be repaid at a later date, the lender has a legitimate claim. But when I return the money, the claim against me is not relaxed but fulfilled. No forgiveness takes place whatsoever. Taking the illustration one step further, let’s assume that after borrowing the hundred dollars, I find for some reason that I am unable to repay my debt. A good friend of mine, however, is good enough to offer one hundred dollars in my stead. Again we have the same result. The claim against me has not been relaxed but fulfilled, and similarly no forgiveness whatsoever takes place. The Bible teaching on the nature of forgiveness is seen in one of Jesus’ parables:

For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a certain king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. And when he had begun to settle them, there was brought to him one who owed him ten thousand talents. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. Matthew 18:23–27 (NASB)

The sole reason for the slave’s release was his lord’s compassion. Forgiveness in this parable is certainly the relaxation of a legitimate claim. No third party intervened, no bargain was made, the debtor was simply released from his debt. It is possible to receive payment on a claim, and it is permissible to forgive a claim, but you cannot do both! The Bible portrays a God who is completely desirous and willing to forgive sin without receiving any payment to satisfy a vindictive urge.

Elaborating on the subject, Dr. Nathan Beman states,

“The existence of the attribute of mercy was, like God Himself, eternal; and no new and super added motive was necessary in order to elicit this attribute in action. The atonement was operated not as a bribe, or reward, or original cause, influencing the divine feelings; nor as a moral persuasive to the exercise of compassions hitherto unfelt; but it opened a channel in which existing affections might freely flow; and, at the same time, it rendered the pardon and salvation of the sinner consistent with every principle of the divine government—and every attribute of the divine nature. In one word, the atonement was not the procuring cause of mercy, but it was the mode in which mercy was to find for itself an illustrious expression in the system of the Gospel.” [1]Nathan Beman, The Atonement In Its Relations to God and Man, Newman–1844, p. 35.

One school of thought states that the atonement totally satisfied retributive justice (the so called satisfaction doctrine). If this is true, then we face the prospect of a divided Trinity, the second Person of the Trinity being more loving than the first! Biblical scholar Gustaf Aulen shares Augustine’s early concern over this concept.

He seems to intend a pointed rejection of any such idea. He denies that God the Father can be in any way ‘placated’ by the Son’s death; for in that case there would be a difference of some kind, even a conflict, between the Father and the Son: but that is unthinkable, for between the Father and the Son there is always the most perfect harmony. [2]Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, Macmillan, p. 58.

The strongest implication of this doctrine, however, ought to make us shudder. If God demands repayment for what sin was done to Him—if He requires full, vindictive satisfaction before releasing His claim—we find ourselves facing the conclusion that there is no loving moral Being in the universe! Fortunately this is not the case. The Bible explains God’s purposes in the death of Christ.

Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Romans 3:24–26 (NASB)

Jesus’ death was a public demonstration. This type of public demonstration was the substitute God needed in order to satisfy public justice, since public justice did allow for pardon. This public demonstration of the sufferings of Christ solved God’s governmental problem by revealing the Lawgiver as just and wise in dispensing with the penalty. At the same time, it allowed Him to do what His heart really wanted to do—forgive the offender He loved.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Nathan Beman, The Atonement In Its Relations to God and Man, Newman–1844, p. 35.
2. Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, Macmillan, p. 58.