Rethinking How God Forgives Sins

//Rethinking How God Forgives Sins

Rethinking How God Forgives Sins

I heard in a sermon several years ago a story about the song “In Christ Alone” by Stuart Townend. Apparently the song was being used where there was concern about a line in the second stanza that reads “Till on that cross where Jesus died / The wrath of God was satisfied.” The promoters wanted the line changed because it seemed to them a barbarian concept out of step with modern Christian thought, but Mr. Townend refused to bend. The line would stand or the song would not be available. To Mr. Townend and most of evangelical Christianity at least, this was a non-negotiable point of belief. Jesus paid for our sins on the cross by taking our punishment for sin so we wouldn’t have to. I myself use to think that you couldn’t account for God’s forgiveness without it. When I read the Old Testament sacrifices, it seemed right. But many statements in the New Testament created a nagging feeling that I was missing something.

Not long after I became a Christian Believer, I struggled with the question of how the death of Jesus 2,000 years ago could have any real effect on “paying for” my sins today. It was regularly explained as a kind of mystical transaction in heaven that my faith in Jesus allowed to take place: my sins for His righteousness. At the time I wasn’t aware of the platonic philosophy behind this, and none in my circle doubted the concept.

The basic theory that Orthodox Christianity relies on since the time of Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) is called Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement. This theory states that God’s glory was at stake in the sin question. Should sin be allowed to go on unpunished, the glory of God would be diminished.1 And it was construed, God could not simply forgive sin without becoming complicit in the evil. This, of course put sinful human race into a hopeless situation. Every person was shut up under sin2 and therefore no forgiveness could be effected from God by us. Eternal separation from God was the inescapable result. But, the theory goes, God provides a solution to the problem by sending His Son, born into the human race and named Jesus (meaning “Yahweh Saves”). Jesus of Nazareth lives a perfectly sinless life but offers himself for the punishment of all our sins which takes place when Jesus is crucified on a Roman cross at Calvary. At the point Jesus cries out “My God, My God why have You forsaken Me,” it is asserted that the sins of the world are placed on Jesus shoulders and the full wrath of God is poured out on Jesus. In a judicial transaction however, Jesus’ perfect righteousness is then exchanged for our sinfulness on the basis of proffered faith. And in many traditions, even that faith is predetermined by the election of God. 3 Isaiah 53 is pointed to when arguing for this sin-righteousness exchange:

Surely He took out infirmities
and carried out sorrows
yet we considered Him stricken by God
smitten by Him and afflicted
But He was pierced for our transgressions
He was crushed for our iniquities
the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him
and by His wounds we are healed …
and the Lord has laid on Him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)


After the suffering of His [the Son] soul
He [God] will see the light of life and be satisfied
By His knowledge My Righteous Servant will justify the many
and He will bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:11)

Sounds pretty clear and makes so much sense I did not doubt the veracity of the Satisfaction doctrine.4 But something underlying the doctrine ran counter to much else I read in the Bible. As I have stated elsewhere and in other blogs, the New Testament makes no clear statement that the wrath of God is being poured out on Jesus though it can sometimes be inferred from some passages as long as you come to those passages with the doctrine in tact.5 More concerning however is a series of problems that arise once this doctrine is assumed. First of all, the idea of punishing the innocent for the guilty and letting the guilty go free is denounced in Scripture.6 It will not do to say that Jesus is offering Himself freely in this way, since it is certainly the Father’s will that Jesus suffer. Secondly, the kind of separation of the Father and Son suggested by the Satisfaction Theory begins to run counter to the whole notion of the trinity.7

But what is most concerning is the notion that God must punish affronts to His dignity and glory (the heart of Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory) whereas Jesus prohibits us from seeking satisfaction from those who harm us. In the Lord’s Prayer He specifically calls attention to the requirement that we forgive those who have sinned against us if we wish to be forgiven.8 In addition, judging others is to be eschewed.9 And when Jesus expounds on this principle, He relates a parable of king who forgives a servant 10,000 talents of debt freely without requiring that the debt be paid by anyone else. When that servant refuses to freely forgive his brother’s debt of 100 denarii, he is thrown into prison till he repays the full 10,000 talents.10 This of course is a parable and drawing conclusive theology requires caution since a parable is designed to emphasize a singular point, in this case the requirement to forgive if one wishes to be forgiven, but still, there is no indication that the king does anything except cancel the debt freely. The king himself incurs the loss just as Jesus is asking His disciples to do. And what Jesus Himself does.11

Where we tend to find ourselves pushed toward the satisfaction of God’s wrath is in the Old Testament sacrificial system. The killing of sheep and goats for sin and guilt offerings very much look like sin is being atoned for by punishing the animals with death. But is this really the case? First, it is not so obvious that Old Testament Jews thought of the death of the animal made atonement as much as the “blood” of the animal.12 The Bible specifically states “the life of the flesh is in the blood.”13 It seems that it is not the death of the animal but it’s life that is in view. If the animal is “without blemish,” its unblemished life may be construed to be what is offered.

Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the Jews thought that punishment for sin was something related to sacrifices. Statements in Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah as well as certain texts in Second Temple Period literature suggest that Jews saw the exile as punishment for their sins and that until God sent the Messiah to restore Israel, her sins would not be forgiven (at least as a Nation).14 Yet sacrifices for sin and guilt continued to be offered which, if the exile itself was the punishment, suggests there is something else in view. N.T. Wright voices the following problem:

At this point we are faced with something of a puzzle. We know beyond
any doubt that the great majority of Jews took part in the sacrificial system,
but we do not know why––or rather we do not know what they would have
said if asked why they went through these rituals. Doubtless there would
have been talk of Israel and her God, of forgiveness, cleansing, atonement,
celebration, worship. Doubtless too, there would be mention of the Torah’s
having commanded that sacrifices be offered … But what was the inner
rationale? … according to what inner rationale was the killing of animals
and birds thought to effect the atonement and forgiveness which those
who did it clearly believed it did effect?15

The question is a good one because it lingers in the background of the average discussion of these things whether conducted in a casual setting or a seminary classroom. Wright suggests that the sacrificial system was a way of expressing the belief that God would fulfill His promises to restore Israel.

… the sacrificial system functioned as a way of enacting and institutionalizing
one aspect of the worldview … the belief that Israel’s covenant God would
restore the fortunes of His people, creating them as His true redeemed
humanity; and that what He would thus do for the nation as a whole He
would do for individuals within the nation …16

This faith in the faithfulness of God was not created through the sacrifices but rather affirmed by them. It was an understanding that even the exile itself was proof that God was being faithful to His promises.17 But if God was faithful to punish with exile, He would also be faithful to restore Israel when they returned to obedience.18 Again Wright makes this observation:

There was no suggestion either of them (repentance or sacrifice) was seen
by Jews, as the means of entry into the covenant people. That was effected by
birth and (for males) by circumcision. Rather repentance and sacrifice were part
of the means by which the Jews maintained their status as the covenant people,
enabling Jews to stay within the boundaries when they might in theory have been

But the exile and its aftermath created a different problem. The people of Israel had broken their side of the covenant with God through their continuous and unrepentant idolatry. Exile from the land, the destruction of the temple, the ending of the daily sacrifice, the lost of national sovereignty marked the death of the nation. It would now require a resurrection of sorts to restore the people to God’s promises. The idea of sacrifice took on added meaning.

One clue to the sub- or semi-conscious meaning accorded to sacrifice in
this period may be its partial integration with the history of Israel as a whole.
If the exile itself was seen as a ‘death’, and therefore return from exile as a
‘resurrection’, it is not a long step to see the death of Israel as in some sense
sacrificial, so that the exile becomes not simply a time when she languishes
in Babylon, serving a forlorn sentence in a foreign land, but actually a time
through which the sin she has committed is expiated.20

Once again we see that it wasn’t that the sacrifices themselves that expiated the sin, but rather a return to trusting in the faithfulness of God, even in the exile, and particularly God’s faithfulness to His promise to restore Israel. The burnt offering was not a sacrifice for sin but an act of worship consecrating the whole person to God. It was completely burned up with the exception of the blood (which was poured out) and the skin (which was given to the priests).21 It acknowledged that God was the one who provided the animals for both the sacrifices as well as for Israel’s provision in the first place. The peace, sin and guilt offerings were mostly eaten in community with a portion being given to the priests. Sacrifice was a statement of faith in God and His promises–a thankful celebration of His care for their wellbeing. And Israel’s restoration was at the top of the list of God’s promises they were affirming.

The careful reader of the Old Testament may ask “Wasn’t the act of placing the offerer’s hand on the animal’s head before killing it an act of placing his sin on the animal?”22 This is a possible reading, but in fact the text never really says that. Though identification with the animal is proper, it has to be inferred that it is the sin of the offerer that is being placed on the animal.23 But this inference runs into a problem. The only time the Bible specifically states that sins are placed on an animal, that animal is not sacrificed but rather driven off into the desert. It is true that the sacrificed animals made atonement for sin, but it is not clear that the atonement was because the animal absorbed the sins of the people and by dying, took punishment in their place. On the Day of Atonement, a live goat was taken by the high priest who then, laying his hand on the head, confessed the people’s sins and put them on the goat’s head. God then commands, “He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.”24

That this goat is not sacrificed is in keeping with the requirement that animals selected for sacrificed to the Lord must be “without defect,” in the same way that Jesus was without sin. It can be inferred that a sacrifice soaked in sin was not acceptable, which seems to run counter to the notion that Jesus absorbed the sins of human race to endure their punishment for sin.25

If then Jesus was not being punished for our sins, what does it mean that He died for our sins. The answer to this would take several articles (which is what this blog is trying to do in aggregate), but a short answer can be supplied. It was the sinfulness of the human race that indeed put Jesus on the cross. The sinful human race is in rebellion against God and is violently opposed to anyone who truly obeys Him.26 The violence of the world was directed at Jesus attempting to force Him to abandon His trust in the Father. This is the point of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. The devil tempts Jesus to stop trusting His Father for provision while hungry and alone in the desert. He also tempts Jesus to test to see whether God can be trusted with His safety. Again he tempts Jesus to distrust His Fathers promise to share the wealth of creation freely. At the cross, Jesus was faced with the greatest injustice of all but did not utter threats and although He could have called on His Father for legions of angels to destroy His enemies, He continued to act out of the Father’s love for lost humanity instead.27 As Peter puts it “Jesus kept on entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.”28 As such, He became our representative for a new type of humanity.

As with the Old Testament Sacrifices, it was Jesus’ trust in His Father’s promises while bearing the brunt of human sin that established a new humanity who will themselves operate in the same way. Jesus dies for me and my sinfulness in that He trusted the Father completely even unto death and provided a way for me to follow. Jesus didn’t have to take this step. He freely did it for me and for all of the human race. My acceptance of this new kind of life comes when I am baptized into the Messiah’s death and I die with Him.29 This dying is both an act of ending my former way of life by choice and by the help of the Holy Spirit. As a result, I am by God’s grace born into a new type of humanity. One that prays with Jesus, “Not my will but Thine be done” and “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In returning to the Shepherd of my soul30 by believing that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so I will also be raised, I am placed into the new humanity that not only seeks forgiveness from God but prays for God to forgive those who have sinned against them. All those born into that new humanity are thereby forgiven of their sins. This new humanity was established by a new, second Adam, Jesus the Messiah–the true humanity that God originally intended.

So how are sins forgiven? Our debt is simply cancelled31 in the manner of the king in Jesus parable.32 God just accepts the loss. He gains us back however by putting us right with what was originally intended in creation through the faithfulness of Jesus the Son who was also one of us and who did what we couldn’t: trust God even if it meant the loss of everything else. The resurrection of Christ proves to us that God will be faithful even unto our death and empowers us to trust as Jesus trusted. And unlike the Maccabee martyrs, Jesus didn’t just do this for those who were His family and friends but He did it for His enemies.33

How then are sins–especially of serious evil like the holocaust, serial murder, rape and the like–punished? The punishment is indeed great. For those who refuse to die to this way of life and continue in hostility to God, there will be eternal separation from God. Anyone who thinks this is no big consequence, consider this: everything we have ever hoped for, longed for, yes even deeply hungered for is in God. To be cut off from Him is to be cut off from all that makes life worthwhile. In other words, to be cut off from Him is to make life eternally unbearable. But salvation from our distrustful self-protectiveness and our fearful self-seeking is possible–if only we will trust Him.


  1. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo was influenced by Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book X in which God cannot allow His glory to be degraded by human interaction. Aristotle then on replaces Plato in Medieval Catholic theological formulation until the Reformation. See Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light, Chapter 12 (esp. Kin loc 3712-3733)
  2. Romans 3:9, 11:32
  3. Ephesians 1:3-7 is often the first place proponents go to demonstrate this. What is often missed is the use of the second person plural when referring to those “chosen.” I would argue that what is being discussed here in election is which “community” rather than which “individual.”
  4. There are problems with interpreting this passage as “satisfying the wrath of God” which is not explicitly mentioned in the passage but I have no space here to exegete it fully. The reader can infer that the “satisfaction” of verse 11 is referencing God’s wrath but is stated to be upon “seeing the light of life.”
  5. In addition to Isaiah 53, see 2 Corinthians 5:21. Many other passages can be used to infer that God’s wrath is the central feature in Jesus “dying for our sins” such as 1 Corinthians 15:3, Romans 5:6-8, Galatians 3:13, et al, but to exegete these passages is not in the scope of this article.
  6. Psalm 94:21, Proverbs 17:15, 26. There are many passages that talk about judging with just judgment meaning that they shall not favor the rich over the poor but rather right over wrong. See Deuteronomy 16:18.
  7. Luke 22:42 and parallels. It is possible to assert that the one God takes this on Himself but with the idea that the Father is pouring out wrath on the Son we are in danger of destroying the tri-unity of God. The Father had to be at the cross with the Son to avoid postulating two separate beings.
  8. Matthew 6:14-15
  9. Matthew 7:1-5
  10. Matthew 18:21-35
  11. Luke 23:33-34. Jesus prayer at the cross for His tormentors forgiveness is part of the self-revelation of God. Jesus does it because it is what He sees the Father doing. John 5:19
  12. e.g. Leviticus 4:27-35
  13. Leviticus 17:11 c.f. Romans 5:9-10
  14. See Ezra 9:7, Nehemiah 9:33-37, Daniel 9:4-14. Although a remnant was allowed to return to Jerusalem, Israel still saw herself enslaved in exile and still awaiting the restoration that would signal the forgiveness of sins. See also, 2 Maccabees 7:32-38
  15. N.T. Wright, The New Testament and The People of God, (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1992) p. 274
  16. Ibid, p. 275
  17. See Deuteronomy 28:15-68
  18. Deuteronomy 29-30
  19. Wright, 1992, p. 275
  20. Ibid, p. 276
  21. Jacob Neusner, The Comparative Hermeneutics of Rabbinic Judaism: Why This and Not That?, p. 144
  22. Leviticus 1:4, 3:2, 3:8, et al
  23. As stated above, it is just as possible to read this identification with the unblemished life of the animal
  24. Leviticus 16:21-22
  25. The Hebrew Bible says that this goat is “for Azazel”. Leviticus 17:7 prohibits the Israelites from offering sacrifices “to satyrs (goats) in whose service they used to prostitute themselves.” It could be argued that the scape goat was just a replacement for this illegitimate practice. But this doesn’t change the fact that “the goat will bear all their faults away with it into the desert” (16:22). The sins are not punished by death but rather by exile perhaps as the demons themselves have been exiled from the presence of God.
  26. John 15:18-19
  27. Matthew 26:53
  28. 1 Peter 2:23
  29. Romans 6:3-4
  30. 1 Peter 2:25
  31. See Colossians 2:14 especially as it relates to verses 9-13.
  32. Matthew 18:27
  33. Romans 5:6-8

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