Based on what I outlined previously, I can imagine that a few objections might be raised to my conclusions (as unofficial as they might be…).

First, we might follow this logic:

  • If God has already forgiven humanity for its sinfulness;
  • and, in fact, the very coming of Christ is the great revelation of this reality;
  • why, then, would we be concerned with the notion of asking for forgiveness?

That is, if our notions of “penalty” were really just confounded all along and we are not actually under any impending punishment for our sins, why the biblical injunctions to “confess” our sins?

I think this is a good question, but I also think it’s imminently answer-able within the structure I have suggested. As before, however, it requires getting beyond the notions of “penalty” and “requirement” that have plagued our thinking about forgiveness and atonement. But first, let’s take a look at what’s deficient in the other model.

In these old paradigms, the act of “asking” for forgiveness is, in actuality, a request that the presumed “laws” of justice be put on hold. After all, transgression–within a penal model–necessitates satisfaction, whether in act or consequence. Therefore, the plea for forgiveness is a hope against hope that just maybe “this time” justice and the requirements of the law will be suspended.

However, as we see in the consummation of the theologies built on this model, no such suspension of justice is possible. Rather, these theologies orbit precisely around the precept that the law and its consequences must necessarily and absolutely be satisfied; therefore, in order to “forgive” (which, as we saw, is not really forgiveness at all…) God must do something within the divine being whereby the requirements of divine justice might be satisfied; in the case of these theologies, this is accomplished through the punishment of Godself in Christ’s death on the cross.

So we see that even within these “classical” models of thought, the notion of “asking” for forgiveness is as equally absurd as one might accuse my suggestion of being. After all, if the satisfaction of divine justice is accomplished in divine isolation through an act of Godself in the chastisement of Christ, what room remains for the plea for the suspension of divine justice? If divine justice has been satisfied fully and finally through the timeless act of Christ’s ultimate atonement, those from whose “accounts” the penalty has been expunged through Christ’s substitutionary work are in no more need of “forgiveness” than those who are gratuitously forgiven by God by mere divine will and desire (which is similar to what I have argued). That is, if Christ, through his death, has “released” God from the compulsion to punish humanity for its sins, there remains no obligation for which humans might appeal that God “pass over.” The request for forgiveness becomes, in effect, completely superfluous, a prayer without any meaningful content or consequence whatsoever.

The Source of the Misunderstanding

The actual reason for the superfluousness of the prayer for forgiveness within the penal model, however, is that the formulation of the problem of sin and its relationship to divine/human relationships suffers from an improper orientation. In this model, the primordial problem of human sinfulness is that the same has incurred the necessary and otherwise unavoidable wrath of God, which wrath is to be understood as being primarily manifested through divine violence in the punishment of humans (although rhetorically veiled in the language of “upholding the divine, eternal, and holy law of God”). Understood as such, the ultimate desired result of “forgiveness” is that the wrath of God be averted. Forgiveness, as I mentioned before, is equivalent to the removal of the threat of divine violence and retribution against humanity for its sins against God.

And this is precisely why the prayer for forgiveness within such a model is inexplicably meaningless. If the prospect of punishment is removed through Christ’s substitutionary bearing of actual divine violence, the threat has been rendered entirely innocuous. “Forgiveness” has been attained through Christ’s solitary work (not a request for it), and there is nothing more to be wrested from the otherwise unyielding will of the divine.

Therefore, what should we make of the numerous biblical injunctions to “confess our sins”? I would argue that these instructions are made more intelligible when we step away from penal conceptions of divine/human relationship, and pursue such conversations–as I suggested earlier–on the basis of our understanding of the relationships which we experience in our own realities.

Coming Back to Our Senses

Before, I shared the example of my relationship with my daughter to explicate my understanding of divine forgiveness. With no intention of pressing my illustration too far, let’s return to this to think about the place of confession and “asking for forgiveness” in human relationships.

As I mentioned in the earlier conversation, perhaps the most fundamental character of my forgiveness for my daughter’s transgressions is that it is based not on her actions, either positive or negative, but is rather rooted exclusively in my love for her. There is nothing she could do to suspend my forgiveness or love for her (as imperfect as it is), nor could she do anything to somehow “compel” me to forgive her (given a scenario in which I was unwilling to do so, which I’ve argued is antithetical to nature of my love for my daughter…). What must be understood, however, is that although forgiveness has the primacy in our relationship (e.g., it is the instigator of the nature of our reconciliation, NOT a reaction to some manner of atonement), this does not mean that the nature of our relationship is left unchanged by her transgression. Quite to the contrary, breaches of trust, deliberate disobedience, inappropriate behavior–all of these create fractures within our relationship…fractures which must be healed in order for the relationship to be restored.

And here we come to the primary difference between the conception of forgiveness that I am advocating and that which might be found in a penal model of atonement. In my understanding, the reality of forgiveness is NOT a release from obligation to the divine, nor is it a removal of the threat of eternal punishment and dissolution. Rather, it is fundamentally a conduit to the restoration and reconciliation of humanity and God through the great Mediator Christ.

The difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, of course, is crucial to grasp. Forgiveness is a necessary variable in the act of reconciliation, for without the deliberate “passing over” of the wrong, there can be no restoration of relationship. Forgiveness, in the great drama of reconciliation, is simply the proactive outreach of the offended to the offender wherein that to which the offended might have every “right” is deliberately forfeited so that the two may become one again. It is the purposeful “letting go” of the desire or intention of seeking retribution, for the forgiving heart knows that true “justice” is found in restoration, not dissolution; is realized in recreation, not destruction.

So in the life and work of Christ, we see the true heart of the eternally loving, eternally forgiving God. Christ’s advent is the great proclamation to all of human history that in spite of the ancient and yet-enduring rebellion, God’s intention for humanity is not to seek vengeance and “equity” on the scales of eternal justice. Rather, Christ’s disclosing of God as “Parent,” the everlasting father and mother of all humanity, reveals that God desires and seeks to be reconciled to the creation. Across the epochs of space/time, the everlasting God reaches down and in and through the immanence of the Spirit of Christ, urging and pleading with the creation to return to the source and life of all. Yet the call to reconciliation and restoration is not based on a prior condition of “satisfaction” for the infinite years of open enmity toward God; rather, the offer–no–the fullness of forgiveness itself precedes the invitation. In Christ is revealed the consummation of God’s everlasting and unconquerable love, mercy, and grace poured out upon that which God has created…a love which seeks, through the Spirit of Christ, to reconcile all of creation to God.

Therefore, in the prayer for forgiveness, we can find great release. We need not nervously depend upon our prayer to “compel” God to “pass over” our sins. God has already revealed in Christ that our sins are forgiven. Our prayer for forgiveness, then, is really for us. It is a means whereby we can acknowledge and confess our rebellion and sinfulness. It is a conduit whereby we come to grips with the gravity of our depravity, a mechanism for grasping the destruction that our hatred and violence wreaks upon a creation that God loves. When my daughter asks for my forgiveness, her request comes from a place of understanding and regret for her wrong. As mentioned before, this act will never “compel” me to forgive her, for my forgiveness of her has come before any confession she could ever make. Nonetheless, her’s is a move toward reconciliation, a necessary step toward the restoration of our relationship.

In the same way, I believe our prayers for divine forgiveness have a similar character. Rather than pleas for escape from divine violence, they are the movements whereby we begin to enter back into the reconciliation to which God’s ever-preceding forgiveness calls us. By setting aside our sinfulness and choosing the grace of God, we begin–even in the smallest of ways–to complete the divine embrace which God has forever begun in and through the Spirit of Christ in creation.

Read Part I

Read Part II