Some notes on divine forgiveness

Jesus teaches us to pray to the Father: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. My question: is Jesus asking us to do more than the Father is prepared to do? Or is he asking us to share in the nature of the Father?

Let me caricature the diabolical side of the doctrine of penal substitution.

Imagine that there is a school. And the head teacher of the school says to the children – you can make the rules. You can decide on what the punishments will be. So the children work out what their rules are going to be. If you’re late for class then this will happen. If you are rude to a teacher this will happen. And so on.

A rule is broken. One boy steals an apple from another boy. The rules stipulate that the punishment is three strokes of the cane. The children discover that the one stealing hasn’t eaten for several days; his family are so poor. So the one whose apple was stolen says ‘I will take the punishment for you’.

Actually, I’m being naughty, this isn’t a caricature, this was a story told to my children at (the otherwise extremely good and beneficial) Mersea Beach Club last week. But this is so bizarre. It’s probably even worse than the story from Bridge over the River Kwai that Nicky Gumbel uses in Alpha, which portrays the Father as a psychotic Japanese guard.

Why can’t the children just say ‘the rules don’t apply here’? Why not ‘mercy triumphs over justice’ (James 2.13)?

No, for some reason, this ‘stepping outside of the box’ is ruled out. What you have is an understanding of the Father that turns his holiness into a mechanism. The argument runs: God is holy, nothing that is not holy can stand in the face of such holiness, our sin is unholy, Jesus takes the heat so that we don’t get kicked out of the kitchen. God’s justice must stand! Otherwise he isn’t Holy! What this really means is that here is what we see as most holy: justice. Justice becomes God, within which God must act and to which God must conform. God cannot simply forgive for that would be to violate his character. There must be some mechanism by which justice is satisfied.

These rules have been graven in stone and handed down on the mountain.

It is not an accident that a mechanical age has raised up a mechanical God. What intrigues me is that the voices which shout most stridently for upholding Scripture against the culture are the ones most deeply implicated in that cultural idolatry.

Rules as such are holy. Irrespective of source or context. This tells of such a querulous faith.

This is not the God of the Bible. Though our sins be as scarlet yet they shall be whiter than snow. Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more. If we confess our sins he who is faithful and just will forgive us. Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice.

Jesus repeats that quotation twice; so shall I: Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice.

The Father is not a machine in a factory, liable to be hazardous to us, and to injure us, unless we treat it with proper respect. That is the pagan conception. That makes God into King Kong needing a virgin to eat.

Either we believe in a God of forgiveness – a God with the power to make all things new – or we believe in a God who cannot forgive, because his holiness and his justice demand recompense.

Do you think I drink the blood of bulls?

Saying Jesus is the satisfaction simply relocates the problem – either the deity is at war in itself, or else we are now in a protected area but the Father’s fundamental character remains unchanged. That is spiritually corrosive – for how can God’s fundamental character be eternally suppressed? The anger emerges somewhere.

This is a salvation issue. That is, it seems to me – and I have seen much too often – that if the doctrine of penal substitution is heartily believed then salvation is prevented. The believer in this doctrine does not experience redemption and the forgiveness of sins. They may feel better for a short while – the ways of the human heart are undoubtedly mysterious – but this underlying rottenness will come to the surface eventually.

For the diabolical doctrine states: God doesn’t really love you. He hates you because you’re a sinner. But he’s been bought off by the bloody sacrifice on the cross. He’s like an abusive parent kept at bay by a restraining order. There is always the fear that one day he’ll come back. And so the soul remains crippled. God’s true character is obscured and occluded.

In this situation the genuine gospel of forgiveness saves lives and sets the captives free. God loves you. Nothing you can do will make God love you more. Nothing you can do will make God love you less. This means you do not have to be afraid. And that means that you can love – for it is only love that can cast out fear, and when Jesus repeatedly tells us not to be afraid, that is because he loves us. That is what it means to love the Lord and walk in his ways. This is why it is good news.

God doesn’t play the game of blame. It’s not that he plays the game but has agreed to give you a free pass. It’s that this game is worldly and demonic and nothing to do with God at all.

If you repent of your sins you will be forgiven. In other words, a fresh start is possible. The slate gets wiped clean.

This is a spiritual reality. This is not something about some future life after death. This is not about some yellow stain upon the soul needing to be washed. Those are metaphors. Salvation is something that happens in daily life. I have seen it happen. And it is a miracle.

To genuinely believe in forgiveness – and to be genuinely given the spiritual strength to take that dynamic forgiveness out into the world – means to see forgiveness as of the very essence of God. If it is not of the being of God to be forgiving, then neither can it be of the being of humanity to be forgiving. We too will end up pretending, if we believe in our hearts that God is only pretending.

And we will live in a society of rules and law and justice. We will be cogs in the machine. We will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Without forgiveness, there is no grace. Without grace, there is no gospel. Without the gospel, we are still dead in our sins and we are of all men the most to be pitied.

Damn this diabolical doctrine to hell.