What can the brutal death of a single Jew, two thousand years ago, have to do with us finding peace with God? And why, if God wishes to forgive us, why does he not just do so, without all the paraphernalia of sacrifice?
As one sceptic put it: “Of course God will forgive me; that’s his job”.
It might further be objected that we are required by God himself to freely forgive one another. Why can’t God simply do the same with us?
We may begin our response with the words of Anselm. If anyone asks, he wrote, why God cannot simply forgive as we forgive others, he has ‘not yet considered the seriousness of sin’. And, we might add, ‘or considered the majesty of God’.
To expect God to do for us what we are expected to do for one another is to overlook the basic fact that we are not God. The amazing thing is not that God finds it difficult to forgive, but that he finds it possible to forgive at all. In the words of Carnegie Simpson, ‘forgiveness is to man the plainest of duties; to God it is the profoundest of problems.’
1. Consider, then, the gravity of sin. Sin is transgression of God’s moral law. It is revolt against God himself.
2. Consider human moral responsibility. We are not ‘beyond freedom and dignity’, as B.F. Skinner asserted. We are responsible for our behaviour. We are influenced by, but not at the mercy of, our genes and our environment. A sane person is held responsible in law, and we are likewise responsible before God and his law.
3. Consider true and false guilt. As sinful people who are responsible for our sins, we are guilty before God. We are liable to the penalty for our wrongdoing. And (in order to deflect the criticisms of some) it is not that Christianity is pre-occupied with sin per se but with the forgiveness of sin. We see in the Cross not only what we have done to Christ, but also what he has done for us. A guilty conscience is no blessing, unless it brings us to forgiveness. False guilt there may be; but there is also false innocence, which says, ‘”Peace, peace,” when there is no peace’ (Jer 8:11). There may be a false neurosis about sin; but there is also a false apathy, that excuses itself (as many Nazi war criminals did when they protested that they were ‘just following orders’).
4. Consider God’s holiness and wrath. The holiness of God is foundational to biblical religion. And his wrath is precisely his holy reaction to evil. And we may not, with C.H. Dodd and A.T. Hanson, dilute the concept of wrath by making it impersonal – the inexorable process whereby the sinner reaps what he sows. While we must not equate God’s anger with human anger (for the latter is too often arbitrary, whereas the former is always principled), or disconnect it from his love for the offender, we must maintain nevertheless that he has a settled antagonism against all that is evil.
God is wholly other than the evil which he so steadily and firmly opposes. He is the ‘high and lofty One’. He is distant from us, such that we shudder to approach him. He is depicted as shining ‘light’ and burning ‘fire’. He is even described metaphorically is ‘vomiting’ in the presence of evil, Lev 18:25-28; 20:22-23; Psa 95:10; Numb 21:5; Rev 3:16. How different from our modern easygoing God!
‘We must, therefore, hold fast to the biblical revelation of the living God who hates evil, is disgusted and angered by it, and refuses ever to come to terms with it. In consequence, we may be sure that, when he searched in his mercy for some way to forgive, cleanse and accept evil-doers, it was not along the road of moral compromise. It had to be a way which was expressive equally of his love and of his wrath…
‘All inadequate doctrines of the atonement are due to inadequate doctrines of God and man. If we bring God down to our level and raise ourselves to his, then of course we see no need for a radical salvation, let alone for a radical atonement to secure it. When, on the other hand, we have glimpsed the blinding glory of the holiness of God, and have been so convinced of our sin by the Holy Spirit that w tremble before God and acknowledge what we are, namely ‘hell-deserving sinners’, then and only then does the necessity of the cross appear so obvious that we are astonished we never saw it before.’
Based on Stott, The Cross of Christ, 87-108.