The death of Jesus on the cross is the forgiveness of God. One might think the meaning and acceptability of that statement would be clear and universal among Christians, but there is a surprising amount of disagreement among Christians about the relationship between Jesus’ death and God’s forgiveness of sins. It seems to me that there are two misconceptions about the Atonement that separate the reality of God’s forgiveness from the death of Jesus:
- The idea that Jesus’ death makes it possible for God to forgive sins;
- The idea that Jesus’ death merely demonstrates God’s forgiveness.
The latter misconception is a faulty reaction against the obvious errors of the former.
The correct understanding of the Atonement is this: the death of Jesus on the cross is the forgiveness of God. It doesn’t merely make it possible for God to forgive us. Neither does it merely demonstrate God’s forgiveness. In the death of Jesus, God is forgiving us and demonstrating that forgiveness, because with God the demonstration of a thing is no different from the reality of the thing. God doesn’t simply show or promise his love for us in the death of Jesus. He loves us through the death of Jesus. He puts that love into effect.
The Unity of Interior and Exterior with God
What do I mean that with God the demonstration of a thing is no different from the reality of the thing? Because we humans exist in a reality that we do not determine and because we live within time, we can decide something that is not yet a reality or that may never become a reality. We can also feel something without that feeling ever being demonstrated. Our existence in relation to the rest of creation is such that we are dependent on factors outside of ourselves for our existence and for the realization of our interior life in the exterior world. It is also such that we have only very limited ability to realize that interior life in the exterior world. All this means that there is an inevitable distinction in our lives between mind and matter, between decision and performance, between feeling and demonstration.
Admittedly, even in purely human relationships we do not tolerate perpetual distinction between feeling and demonstration. If a man says he loves a woman but never shows it, the woman has reason to believe that there is no true feeling of love in the man’s heart. But the fact remains that there is no necessary connection between our interior life and our exterior world. We have to put our interior world into effect with effort that is distinct from the interior world, and there is no guarantee that our effort will succeed.
God’s existence in relation to creation, however, is a very different matter. He is not dependent on any other reality for his existence. On the contrary, the rest of reality is entirely dependent on his will for its continued existence. In a sense, we could say that the entirety of creation exists within the mind of God (and yet is distinct from God – I’m not proposing a modified pantheism). Moreover, God is in no way limited in his ability to perform his will. He speaks and it is. “Speaking”, in fact, is an anthropomorphism. God has no physicality (except for that which he adopts), so he has no mouth and vocal chords. For the eternal God to “speak” is entirely synonymous with God both deciding and performing. So there is nothing inhibiting God from realizing his interior life in the exterior, other than God’s decision not to enact that interior life. And God’s decision not to enact that interior life is more accurately understood as a decision not to enact it at the present moment. God’s final judgment of human sin is already decided and, in an eternal sense, performed (either in the death of Jesus or in the inevitable final judgment). We who live within the stream of time see that performance only in part if at all, but in the broadest scope there is no distinction between God’s interior life and the exterior performance of that interior life.
Let me quickly reiterate that this is not an endorsement of pantheism or panentheism. Notice that I am not saying that there is no distinction between God and creation. God is everywhere present but distinct from reality, because reality is dependent on God’s mind and will for its existence. Reality could cease to be reality, but God would still exist. Pantheism and panentheism would have trouble with that hypothetical situation. What I am saying is that because God is transcendent and omnipotent, and because he is that upon which the rest of what exists is predicated, there is no distinction between God’s decision and the performance of that decision, and there is no distinction between God’s feeling or action and the demonstration of that feeling or action.
Examining the Two Misconceptions About Atonement
Misconception (1): Mechanistic Atonement
So let’s return to the two misconceptions, particularly the first: Jesus’ death makes it possible for God to forgive us. This is a mechanistic understanding of the Atonement that holds that God needed a particular human to die in a particular way before he was free to forgive sins. Now, there is a very biblical idea that in some sense the death of Jesus had to happen the way it happened (e.g., Matthew 26:54). But this idea should not be construed that God was somehow constrained by something external to himself, or even that God himself built into the world a mechanism or formula that had to be satisfied before God himself was allowed to forgive sin. This would entail that there is some rule or reality that transcends God himself or that is sovereign over God, even if (nonsensically) God the Father created this rule and subjected himself to it (what purpose would this serve?). No, the sovereign God has no need to satisfy any requirement, to execute the steps of any procedure, or to check the boxes of any list before he is free to forgive sins. If God’s sovereignty means anything, it means this.
Misconception (2): Symbolic Atonement
But here is where the second misconception comes in. In reacting to a mechanistic understanding of the Atonement, some would say that because God is free to forgive sins without satisfying any requirements, the only significance of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins is that it demonstrates or reveals God’s love and forgiveness. Without the death of Jesus, our sins would still be forgiven, but we wouldn’t know it. Now, it is absolutely biblical to say that the death of Jesus shows us God’s love in a way that we could not have known it otherwise (Romans 5:8 and the surrounding passage). But if the death of Jesus was nothing more than a picture, if nothing really happened in the death of Jesus that pertained to the interior life of God, if there is no necessary connection between the picture and the reality behind the picture, then how does that picture have any power to convince us of the reality behind the picture? How does the death of Jesus prove God’s love?
Correct Conception: Enacted Atonement
The answer is that the death of Jesus shows us God’s love precisely because something truly happened in the death of Jesus that pertained to the interior life of God. The death of Jesus cost God something. Indeed, in a way it cost him everything, because forgiveness always has a cost.
We need to understand what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is the denial of self for the sake of relationship with another. Forgiveness is the giving up of one’s right to receive back what is owed. Because of this, ultimately, forgiveness is the taking upon oneself the responsibility for another’s trespass. We can see this most clearly in the forgiveness of debt. If my friend owes me $100 but he cannot repay it, I can, for the sake of our friendship, forgive the $100. I can make it a gift. Whatever he used that $100 for, when I forgive the debt it becomes no longer him who spent it but me. I have chosen to own the debt. My friend is no worse off, but I am now $100 lighter. And if I have truly forgiven him, I won’t hold this $100 against him (again, there can be a disconnect between the interior and exterior worlds of human beings).
In response to the death of Jesus, God does not say, “Finally, somebody takes responsbility for all of this, so now I can forgive sins.” Nor through the death of Jesus does God merely say, “See? This is how much I love you. It would be like this.” Rather, in the death of Jesus God is saying, “You are the one’s who sinned, but I take this responsibility on myself. That’s how much I love you.” Whether we see it as the sacrifice of the Father’s beloved Son, or whether we see it as God himself dying on our behalf (because both ways of looking at the death of Jesus are true and biblical), the death of Jesus is the moment when human sin costs God everything, because in that moment God takes upon himself the responsibility for human sin. And we know how seriously human sin grieves God, because the Noah story (regardless of its historicity) tells us that human sin drives him to the brink of denying himself, admitting defeat, and destroying his creation.
It has sometimes been the case that Christian theologians, in reaction to so-called Patripassianism, have downplayed the suffering of the Father in the death of Jesus. Certainly, it was not the Father that was crucified. The Father, by which we mean God in his eternal and transcendent otherness (God in the classic sense), by definition cannot be crucified. But it was not the Son only who forgives sins. Rather, it is the fulness of God who forgives sins. Therefore, the eternal God most certainly suffers in his Triune totality as he, in his Triune totality, takes upon himself the responsibility for human sin and forgives us. The Son was crucified, but Father most certainly suffered the burden of sin as he forgave us in the death of Jesus.