A Brick in the Valley

Atonement Wars and Forgiveness
June 7, 2007, 7:29 pm
Filed under: Doctrine, Forgiveness

 The current atonement debate has implications far beyond the doctrine of salvation.  We are beginning to see how a departure from the Reformation understanding of the atonement will trickle down into areas of practical theology such as forgiveness.

It is also true that people are reading therapeutic approaches in the area of forgiveness back into doctrine. . .

Our church family knows that during our recent series on the doctrine of salvation, I have stressed that it is crucial that we understand the nature of atonement.  I have also mentioned that this area is being debated heavily right now.   If you would like an overview of some of the debate happening over the nature of the atonement, you can read some of the writings on Adrian Warnock’s blog.

 In researching the book I am contracted to write with Crossway, Unpacking Forgiveness, it is interesting to note that the effects of this discussion are now being felt in how interpersonal forgiveness is viewed. 

In The Faces of Forgiveness, page 103, Leron Shults argues that “the deleterious effects of the dominance of legal metaphors in the Christian doctrine of salvation have nowhere been felt more deeply than in the understanding of forgiveness.”

Paraphrased, the Reformation understanding of the atonement (and the idea that Jesus paid the penalty for our sin and that his righteousness was imputed to us) has resulted in us misunderstanding how we should forgive one another.

Now we are seeing that many are defining forgiveness from a therapeutic/feelings based point of view rather than through the categories of the Bible.  In the Bible, forgiveness is defined as,

Forgiveness – a commitment by the offended to graciously pardon the repentant from moral obligation or liability.

But, increasingly, Christians are adopting definitions further from the Bible and closer to Wikipedia:

Forgiveness is the mental, emotional and/or spiritual process of ceasing to feel resentment, indignation or anger against another person for a perceived offence, difference or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution[1]. This definition, however, is subject to much philosophical critique.

Notice how feelings centered this definition is.

 The point here is that what we believe about the nature of the atonement immediately impacts what we believe about the doctrine of salvation.  But, it will quickly shape our views of practical areas of theology such as how we forgive the people to whom we relate.

The reverse is true as well.  What we believe and live out in areas of practical theology are read back into basic doctrines.  Not surprisingly, some have read back a therapeutic definition of forgiveness into the doctrine of salvation, so that it is argued that there are “forgiven” people in Hell.  One author recently wrote, “Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for (Bell, Velvet Elvis, page 146).”

 Do you see how this happened?

(1) Forgiveness is defined essentially as not feeling bitter and being willing to reconcile.

(2) Given that God offers salvation to all, it must be true that those in Hell are forgiven.

(3) Therefore, Hell is full of forgiven people.

So, a therapeutic understanding of interpersonal forgiveness is read back into how we define God’s forgiveness.

What does it mean to be forgiven if forgiven people still go to Hell?


17 Comments so far
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I also see how theology of the atonement affects the doctrine of forgiveness. Certain presentations of penal substitutionary atonement lead to the astonishing conclusion that “God never forgives – he punishes”, which is a quote from UCCF director Richard Cunningham. I understand this as really meaning that God always punishes sin, even if the one punished may be innocent Jesus rather than the guilty party, and thus that the guilty party is not really forgiven (in your biblical sense) because there is no actual pardon involved. Thus forgiveness becomes a mirage, a misunderstanding by those who don’t realise that Christ has been punished for their sin.

This version of PSA has certainly “resulted in us misunderstanding how we should forgive one another”. We read Ephesians 4:32, “forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”, and we see that the example God gave is that he “forgave” only through punishing his innocent Son. Is this to be taken as an example for us of how to forgive one another? If someone sins against us, are we to punish our innocent children for the sin and only then “forgive” the sinner? There is a serious issue here which needs to be addressed. I hope that in your book, and perhaps in this blog, you can provide an answer to this question.

Comment by Peter Kirk

Thanks for your question.

I agree that the basic principle is that we forgive in a Christ-like way. This means the free and gracious offer of forgiveness to anyone regardless of the offense. It’s an amazing Gospel.

I have not previously heard the suggestion that we inflict the punishment on our children and I am sure you meant it tongue in cheek. I think how we would apply God’s example to our own forgiveness of others is that we would be willing to absorb the cost personally.

That is the first time I have seen the quote that God always punishes and never forgives. That would be a hard claim to sustain given that the Bible says that God forgives. Perhaps, a better way to say it would be that God is always just. And, forgiveness does not happen at the expense of the justice of God.

Comment by cdbrauns

Thank you, Chris. I certainly agree with your “free and gracious offer of forgiveness to anyone regardless of the offense”. Yes, the idea of punishing our own children is tongue in cheek, but then I reject the idea of God the Father punishing Jesus in any sense which implies that they are acting independently, or that there is subordination in the Trinity. Rather, God forgives by absorbs the cost of sin within his triune self, even at great personal cost, and we should forgive in the same way.

Comment by Peter Kirk

Hi Peter. I enjoyed perusing your blog last night. Everyone should visit your spot if for no other reason to see the picture.

Are you uncomfortable with even the idea of “functional subordination” within the Trinity?

Comment by cdbrauns

Yes, I am unhappy with “functional subordination” as presented by Grudem et al which seems to be eternal and so indistinguishable from ontological subordination, which is effectively the Arian heresy. I accept that there was some kind of voluntary and temporary functional subordination involved in the Incarnation, as described in Philippians 2. But it isn’t that Jesus voluntarily subordinated himself and then the Father realised he had his chance to punish the Son. Jesus taking the punishment was part of the divine plan from the beginning, and the Son had an equal place with the Father in formulating that plan. So it is wrong to say that the Father punished the Son in a way which excludes that the Son took the punishment on himself.

Comment by Peter Kirk

This is broader than you think. Over in the PCA and OPC there is this thing called the ‘Federal Vision’ which, among other novel things, has advocates who say that there are people in the visible church called, ‘Non-Elect Covenant Memebers'(NECM) sometimes also called ,oddly enough, ‘the believing non-elect’. This group actually comes into possession of all the redemptive benefits of the truly elect-including’the forgiveness of sins’, but, alas, God does not give to these poor slobs the ‘grace of perservence’ and so they ‘lose’ their justification along with the forgiveness of sins. And this , they proudly tell us is the ‘real’ Reformed position. Some of them, ignore of John Owen’s famous ‘condrum’ that he posed to his Arminian opponents, actually contend that there will be people in hell who had some, but not all of their sins forgiven. Not a pretty picture.

Comment by G.L.W.Johnson

The issue discussed here reminds me of the same attitude in McLaren’s “Generous Orthodoxy,” which I’m currently reading. These postmodern prophets (McLaren, Bell, Grenz) seem to loath anything coming out of the Reformation and modernism although I find it ironic that their counter arguments are presented with modern logic. They also do a great job at identifying problems with the Reformation writers and modernism, but then swing to the far left in their attempt to correct the ship.

I would agree that judicial forgiveness has (or should, or will eventually have) an emotional effect, but to throw out judicial/legal forgiveness in favor of this emotional forgiveness is unbalanced and dangerous (Would we really want an emotional kind of forgiveness from God? What if his mood changed like ours so often does?).

It seems to me that in an attempt to correct perceived errors, many of the postmodern writers develop a whole new set of problems.

Balance seems to be a much-needed discipline in present Christian theology.

Comment by Jeremy Carr

GLW, you are right. It is broader than I realize. I was not at all aware of that discussion. What is amazing to me is to see how doctrinal foundations effect the entire structure of how people live.

Comment by cdbrauns

Jeremy, it reminds me of the Howard Hendricks quote, “Balance is the temporary moment when we go from one extreme to the other.” I see many areas theologically and practically where we are over-correcting. We have driven directly from one road ditch to the other.

Comment by cdbrauns

I know I may be accused of being a miserable pedant … but can I poke for a moment at this quote from the blog entry?

In the Bible, forgiveness is defined as,

Forgiveness – a commitment by the offended to graciously pardon the repentant from moral obligation or liability.

Of course, those words (in bold) do not appear in the Bible! So, the statement as it stands simply isn’t true. There are (as I’m sure you know, given the research you must be doing for your book project), other ways of understanding how the Bible understands, portrays, displays, teaches, “forgiveness”.

Perhaps what you mean is something like: “I believe a synthetic understanding of the Bible’s teaching on forgivenss is that it is a commitment by… (etc.)”. Yes?

David Reimer

Comment by David Reimer

Yes, you’re right, I was synthesizing a synthetic or systematic understanding of biblical teaching on forgiveness. . .

In in answer to your questions, stated and implied:

(1) What with not knowing you and all, I have no idea if you are miserable. Your tone seems happy enough here.

(2) “Pedant” might stick.

(3) But, in the pedantic spirit of the thing – – shouldn’t it be “may I poke fun?” Not “can I poke fun?” Surely you have the capacity. Throwing words around like “pedant” demonstrates that. But, if it is rhetorical permission you seek, then “may” would be in order. . .

Seriously though. Thanks for helping with the clarity. You’re absolutely right. I was not quoting a particular verse and if that is not patent to readers then you have helped.

Comment by cdbrauns

On #3 – I’ll decline the “fun” (“poke … at” i.e., in the sense of “poke (v) 1”, sub 7(a): “To inquire or pry into; to rummage or root around or about; to search about”, OED), but take the “may”!

… takes one to know one, that’s what I say! =D

The Happy Pedant

Comment by David Reimer

I am guilty as charged.

Comment by cdbrauns

There is no possibility of any human male having been crucified in anyone’s place and bloodshed be the factor which caused the demise of his life and the crucifixion of that man not be accountable to God as a sin, Gen 9:5. Jesus teaches clearly in the parable of the “Tenants” that God has no other intention toward the people who crucified Jesus than also putting them to death regarding killing his son.

It should be easy enough to see, if any of you have that natural sense operative, that since Jesus clearly says that guilt relative to sin remains as the outstanding issue AFTER his crucifixion that his crucifixion has NOT been a resolution. Jn.16:8 For AFTER Jesus’ crucifixion it is not only the people who have killed God’s only begotten son that are held to accountability but AFTER his crucifixion it is all the inhabitants of the whole world.

Since I suspect you of not being able see obvious things very well it is just as obvious that you have thought that “God does NOT respects persons” means God must have been speaking of others rather than yourselves. What you don’t see, even though it is perfectly obvious to the sighted, that a change in God’s law was made, Heb. 7:12. One word has been added but only regarding that by sin of Jesus’ crucifixion and relative to his loss of life by bloodshed. For the change in the law of God by adding the word Repent to it has made it necessary for each man to Repent of the one sin of Jesus’ crucifixion in order to be forgiven of all sins. Each man must come to God by the faith of obeying the Lord’s command Repent only in regard to God’s demand from each man, Gen. 9:5b, of having to account directly to God for taking his son’s life by bloodshed.

“No man comes unto the father but BY Me.”

There is no other Way the crucifixion of Jesus can be beneficial. For by the change of God’s law you are held accountable of NOT repenting of the sin of Jesus’ murder.

Now do you see that it is true that only a few ever find the small narrow gate into the kingdom of God?

Comment by Theodore A. Jones

Theodore – -thanks for commenting. I read through your remarks a couple of times. Interesting.

Comment by cdbrauns

When we consider what has been accomplished by Jesus’ crucifixion it must thinking and comment which will identify a small narrow passage way to life. Since only a few people do come to understand what is the true accomplishment by Jesus’ crucifixion their expressed thought is not in common with the other perspectives and processes of resolution for the way to be forgiven of all sins. I think it is highly significant that Jesus was crucified at Passover because of individual participation being required to obtain Passover’s benefit of escaping death. On the other hand, though, Passover recognizes the stubbornness of men who refuse to participate and the benefit related to the sacrifice is denied.

We all can read of it being clearly stated that “teaching them to obey whatsoever I have commanded” is urgently important for them, i.e. us.
It is also urgently important for us to clearly understand the requirement of the principle of participation relative to Passover’s benefit and individual participation of this principle relative to the Acts 2:38 command. For the death of a human male caused by bloodshed to be a benefit for an individual there must be put into place a lawful resolution to be a process of salvation for all. There is no possibility that the crucifixion of Jesus is a resolution for sins by itself for his crucifixion is the sin of murder. However when it is understood that the law of God has been given only for the purpose of making sins accountable to God we can begin to understand:

“The law was added so that
the trespass might increase.”
Rom. 5:20

“The trespass” is Jesus’ crucifixion. “The law” is Repent. Therefore all must obey the requirement of participating in the Lord’s Passover by the faith of obedience relative to Jesus’ crucifixion by confessing directly to God of being sorry Jesus’ was crucified. He became sin for us to repent of so that each man might give account to God by the law of participation to obtain the benefit promised by Passover. All men need to hear that the crucifixion of Jesus is accountable to God to save themselves. God will that they not be prevented.

Comment by Theodore A. Jones

[…] Chris rightly insists that forgiveness is not just an emotional matter, and offers this alternative and, according to him, biblical definition: a commitment by the offended to graciously pardon the repentant from moral obligation or liability. […]

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