The Problem of Forgiveness

These are notes from my reading John R. W. Stott’s classic book, The Cross of Christ.

Why does our forgiveness depend upon the death of Christ? Why does God not just forgive us without the necessity of the cross? Why can’t God practice what he preaches and forgive without condition, as he instructs in Matthew 6:14-15, 18:21-22? If we believe that God can forgive us as we forgive others, we have not yet considered the seriousness of our sin. The obligation of the forgiven is to forgive. God need no forgiveness and we overlook the fact that we are not God. This attitude demonstrates our shallowness. Our sin is not a personal injury toward God, it is downright rebellion against him.

How does God express his holy love? How can he forgive sin without compromising his holiness? How can he judge sinners without frustrating his love? Stott focuses on four concepts:

The Gravity of Sin:

  1. Five Greek words for sin: hamartia (missing the target); adikia (unrighteousness or iniquity); poneria (evil of a vicious kind); paraptoma (trespass or transgression); anomia (lawlessness or disregard of a known law).
  2. The emphasis of Scripture is the godless self-centeredness of sin. We proclaim our independence and autonomy; taking a position reserved for God alone. Sin is defiance, arrogance and the desire to be equal with God.
  3. David’s confession, his sin was against God (Psalm 51:4). Sin cannot be dismissed a simply a cultural taboo or a social blunder. Sin has a willful and defiant or disloyal quality: someone is defiled or offended or hurt.

Human Moral Responsibility:
Is it fair to blame human beings for their misconduct? Are we responsible for our actions? Scapegoats include: genes, chemistry, inherited traits, parental failures, early childhood upbringing, educational or social environment.

Criminal law determines assumes that people have the power to choose whether or not to break the law and treats them accordingly. There is even a distinction between intentional and unintentional homicide (between murder and manslaughter – which is straight out of Mosaic law). Liability also may depend upon moral and mental factors: the intention of the mind and the will. Lack of consciousness and control will always need to be defined. Trying and convicting and sentencing in the courts is based on the assumption people are free to make choices, being free agents.

The Bible emphasizes original sin, as an inheritance, so we are tainted and twisted from the start (Mark 7:21-23, John 8:34). We are enslaved to the world (public fashion and opinion), the flesh (our fallen nature) and the devil (demonic forces). At the same time the Bible tells us that while our responsibility is diminished, it is not demolished. We are morally responsible. We are to choose between life and death, good and evil, between the living God and idols (Matthew 23:37). Yet no one may come unless the Father draws him (John 6:44, 5:40). If men do not come to Christ, is it because they cannot or they will not? This is the debate between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Man does not sin out of weakness but he chooses to let himself go into weakness. There is always a spark of decision.

True and False Guilt: If humans have sinned, and they are responsible for their sins, that makes them guilty before God. There is a guilt that is deserved (John 3:19, men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil). This is a deliberate rejection of truth and goodness. False guilt looks at the cross and senses sorrow and guilt for Christ dying on the cross. We must understand that we did this, we are guilty. But it is false guilt to leave it there, and not talk about forgiveness of that sin. We must not look at the cross and only feel the shame for what we did to Christ, we must see the glory of what he did for us. Like the Prodigal Son, a guilty conscience is a great blessing, but only if it drives us to come home.

If there is false guilt (feeling bad for what we have not done), there is also false innocence (feeling good about the evil we have done). False contrition is unhealthy (ungrounded weeping over guilt) and so is false assurance (ungrounded rejoicing over forgiveness).

To say that someone is not responsible for their actions is to demean him as a human being. Eve blaming the snake, Nazis blaming they were only following orders.

Holiness and God’s Wrath: Our sins separate us from him, his face is hidden and he does not hear our prayers (Habakkuk 1:13, Isaiah 59:1-2). Moses hid his face. Isaiah had a sense of uncleanness. Job sat as a despised man. Ezekiel saw only a likeness of God’s glory. Peter recognized his sinfulness. John fell on his face as though he were a dead man. Closely related to God’s holiness is his wrath, which is the only reaction to evil.

The impersonal character of God’s wrath: this makes wrath not a divine attribute, but it is transformed into a process. Perhaps Paul’s adoption of impersonal wrath is not to affirm that God is not angry, but to emphasize that his anger is void of any personal malice. It is a fact, a process. Perhaps speaking to God’s anger is legitimate anthropomorphism.

Metaphors to God’s separation from sin: height (high and lifted up); distance (we dare not approach too close – Moses, Isaiah, the Tabernacle, and Uzzah); light and fire (a consuming fire that we cannot approach); and the most dramatic is vomiting (idolatrous practices were abhorred, disgusting, loathed, and lukewarmness was to be spit out). The point is that God cannot be in the presence of sin. We must hate evil and be disgusted with it. We cannot walk the road of moral compromise. Sin does not often provoke our anger and we then we do not believe our sin will provoke God’s anger.

This is essential to understanding the cross: balanced understanding of the gravity of our sin and the majesty of God. Diminish either and we diminish the cross. Forgiveness for God is one of the most profound problems. God must not only respect us as responsible beings, but also must respect himself as the only holy God. Before a holy God can forgive us, there must be some kind of necessary satisfaction.

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