During my not-quite-eternal-but-still-15-hour return drive from Wichita to Kentucky over Christmas break, I happened to catch a radio interview of James Garlow, pastor of the ridiculously huge Skyline Wesleyan Church in sunny San Diego. On this program, Garlow was discussing his newest book, Heaven and the Afterlife, alternating between questions from the show’s host and callers to the show.

One call-in was particularly interesting. A woman, who was clearly in the midst of a significant existential crisis, asked some pointed questions about the nature of God’s forgiveness. As she described, she believed that her past sins had been forgiven when she was saved, but was worried about her chances for heaven if she at some point forgot to ask forgiveness for future sins. In other words, she wondered if God would bar the doors to heaven if she died without asking forgiveness for any unconfessed sins. 

As I listened, I felt very sympathetic for this woman, for she was clearly in the midst of some significant emotional distress. I also felt very frustrated because the source of her distress was simply an inheritance of bad theology, a severe misunderstanding of the nature of humanity’s relationship to God and the fundamental nature of God’s forgiveness.

In the domain of popular (mostly Western) theology, we often sing songs about the interpersonal relationship of God and humanity, and gush about the intimacy of divine/human fellowship that can be had through faith. There are moving sermons about the deep love that God has for humanity, and hundreds of thousands of books line the shelves with self-help for finding a more “personal” relationship with the Creator. Yet despite this focus, it’s interesting: the moment the conversation turns to sin and forgiveness, suddenly all “personal” language is dropped, and much of popular theology starts down an entirely different linguistic course.

Without question, the most common language used to describe sin, forgiveness, atonement, etc., is that of the legal disciplines. But it’s not only “language”–entire theological structures have been built around this language (or perhaps visa-versa…), and this nomenclature has worked its way into the popular theology of the masses.

The Penal Model of Sin

So what does this theology say? Well, let’s start with sin and punishment. In a nutshell, God is pictured as the divine and perfect law giver. Humans, as created by God, are compelled to follow God’s holy law. Failure to follow the law–sin–is punishable by God. Of course, it is well understood that all humans have sinned, so the fate of all humans is death and eternal punishment. As God is unwilling (or unable) to forgo punishing the law-transgressing-humans, this theology envisions that provision for escape from the deserved punishment is made through Christ who, in a not-terribly-well-understood exchange, incurs the “penalty” of all (or at least some…) human sin, bearing within his own person the divine blood-lust for the punishment of sin. Now that humans (or at least some of them…) are no longer under the threat of punishment, they can resume their happy songs about the love and intimacy of God, for God is no longer a threat to their existential being. It is this removal of the threat of divine punishment, then, that we understand as “forgiveness.”

While dozens of books could be (and have been) written outlining the tremendous theological and logical holes in this conception of atonement, the most striking to me is that is ignores completely the primal place that real forgiveness has in describing how human persons are reconciled to God.

So What About Forgiveness?

According to most common sense and technical definitions, core to the concept of “forgiveness” is the idea of “remission,” “passing over,” “cancellation,” etc. For example, when a financial debt is “forgiven,” the record of the debtor’s obligation is wiped out. When a court of law “pardons” a convict, punishment for the perpetrator’s crime is commuted. When a friend “forgives” the transgression of another friend, the mistake or offense is excused and the record of the wrong is not held against the offending friend. Whether it is financial, legal, or interpersonal, the concept of forgiveness has a remarkable uniformity: the one forgiven is absolved of fault, obligation, or punishment.

In the popular theological system I described, however, the concept of forgiveness is poignantly absent. After all, even though it is suggested that humans are absolved of the guilt and just punishment of their sins through Christ’s “substitutionary” work, this absolution is not based on a removal or remission of the penalty. Quite to the contrary, absolution is granted to humanity PRECISELY because the punishment has been transferred to and actualized upon someone else–Godself, in the case of God’s punishment of Christ for humanity’s sin on the cross.

Some, of course, might balk at this and argue that even though the penalty for human sinfulness has been transferred, the forgiveness of humanity by God is still real in that it is God’s free choice to transmute the punishment to Christ. While there might be a small window of opportunity to make this argument, it feels incredibly disingenuous.

For example, let’s imagine that I have accumulated a million dollars in debt from my credit card company. Now consider that the credit card company *graciously* agrees to completely forgive my debt–the one catch being that they will transfer my entire debt to a family member, friend, or complete stranger. Is that really forgiveness? What of the prisoner on death row? Imagine that the judge removes the sentence from the condemned, but bases it on the condition that another prisoner dies in his place? Is that really forgiveness? Or what of a friend wronged? What if the offended friend forgives by merely transferring the anger and revenge to another friend? Is that really forgiveness? In each of these cases, what passes for “forgiveness” in certain theologies should be practically understood as something entirely opposite–within this “transaction,” there is no “passing over,” only a transference, a “passing on.”

What I’m getting at is simply this: the concept of forgiveness that resonates naturally within each of us is decidedly absent within much of the theologizing we do about forgiveness. We erect complicated, systematic[ish], and logical[ish] structures in order to create dogmatic paradigms that cohere with whatever philosophical predilections we may have. Yet when we step back from the systematics, the rhetoric, and the easy assumptions that we’ve all swallowed for so long, something just doesn’t jive.

So how do we recapture the profundity of forgiveness, despite the theological structures behind which we tend to obscure it? I don’t have perfect, or probably even great answers, but my suggestion would be to go back to the language that Jesus used when describing God.

Back to Forgiveness

Although Christ used a variety of adjectives to describe God, the primary and most existentially-accessible language he used was that of describing God as “Father,” specifically as “his” Father. This intensely parental metaphor, in a very real sense, was itself a type for describing Christ’s ultimate work in the Incarnation–bridging the life and reality of the divine to that creation which God deeply and eternally loves, revealing the limitless immanence of God within the history of humanity. And lest we think that this metaphor for the relationship of God to humanity is incapable of theological use, we have Christ himself pressing it to describe, on several occasions, how this parental relationship is to be understood in the outplaying of religious belief.

For example, consider the famous passage in Matthew 7 where Jesus compares the love of God–as Father–to the love of human fathers:

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11).

In this important passage, Jesus is not simply showing that God’s love–as Father–is greater than that of human parents for their children. No, even more dramatically he is emphatically stating that there is something encapsulated within the human experience that, if even in a shadowed form, reflects the actuality of the divine. In this example, Jesus proclaims that although human love is imperfect, even still it has real and meaningful parallels with the love of God. Or in another way (and perhaps more importantly), Christ suggests that what we understand of human love is in itself meaningful and profoundly instructive to how we are to think of and theologize about the love of God–as Father–that Christ came to reveal.

Within this window of freedom, let me offer some thoughts I’ve had from personal experience that inform my understanding of God’s forgiveness.

Continued in Part II