If God Doesn’t Give a Damn about Your Sin, What’s Forgiveness?

Jason Micheli —  May 5, 2014 — 7 Comments

image001This weekend both in a blog post and in my sermon I emphasized the ancient doctrine of God’s immutability:

Immutability = God doesn’t change.

Far from being a deficiency in God, I’m increasingly convinced that retrieving the ancient conception of God is vitally necessary in a post-Christian culture. Too often the god I hear young people reject is a god but not the God of Genesis 1, John 1, Colossians 1 or even Thomas Aquinas.

St Thomas AquinasSpeaking of Aquinas, my comments this weekend channeled the theologian Herbert McCabe who himself spent his lifetime channeling the ‘dumb ox.’

About God’s immutability, McCabe writes:

“It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this; that God deals out to us what we deserve. … I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all.

Look at the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son takes his inheritance and squanders it in a far country. Eventually he finds himself impoverished and hungry. In despair he acknowledges how his sin has altered his relationship to his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

But what precisely has changed?

Has the father ceased to love his son?

Has he become the angry patriarch the son now fears him to be?

On the contrary, the father has been waiting for his son to return, and upon seeing him in the distance, he jubilantly rushes to greet and welcome him home.

No, what has changed is the son. Because of his sin, the prodigal is no longer capable of seeing the father as he really is.”

McCabe continues: images

“Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us.

The father does not need to be persuaded to forgive and welcome his son. He does not need to change his mind. He loves his son. That is his truth. All the son needs to do is to see his sin for what it is. He recognizes himself as a sinner, and at that moment he ceases to be one. His contrition is forgiveness. All the rest is celebration and feasting: “This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us.”

God doesn’t change his mind about us, McCabe declares;

“God changes our mind about him—again and again and again.”

That, in sum, is the point of everything McCabe ever wrote.

Next, McCabe hides the dense, nuanced theology of Aquinas behind his simple, spare prose:

“God is not a being within the universe; he is not a part of the world. He is the infinite mystery who utterly transcends the world he has made. The world makes no literal difference to God. This is what we mean when we say that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. He did not have to create the universe, and if he had chosen not to, his glory and being would not have been diminished one iota.

God plus the world is not greater than God alone. The world does not add anything to God; it does not change or affect God. Ultimately it does not make a difference to God. God is God, in infinite glory, majesty, and love.”

Crucial to the ancient Christians’ view of God’s immutability is Genesis 1 where we are told that God created the universe from no-thing. In stark contrast to the pagan worldview, scripture conceives of God as totally transcendent of contingent creation.

This distinction between Creator and the creature, therefore, qualifies all our speech about God. We must use language if we are to proclaim the gospel, yet, as Thomas Aquinas noted, the metaphorical nature of these stories must be affirmed, if the Christian distinction between Creator and creature is to be respected.

UnknownOne such problem of language is forgiveness.

Christians talk about the forgiveness of God;

but what exactly do we mean when we say God forgives us?

McCabe elaborates:

“God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin. So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but agrees to overlook the insult. What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re- creative and redemptive side of forgiveness.

All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God.

We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner. God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God. It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us.”

Now, I know the pushback that will come at this point. The language of scripture IS filled with conflicting images of God—the image of the wrathful God who hates our sin, who requires propitiation; the image of the God who endures our sins, who is jealous, who is righteously angry at injustice.

While it’s true scripture speaks this way, it is also necessary, says McCabe, for us to think clearly:

“The initiative is always with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of God is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.

So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom.”

God is not a god.

Nor is God the Jekyll and Hyde of so much Calvinism, the god so many people rightly reject, fear or secretly loathe.

God is not a god we need to appease. God is not a god we need to persuade in order for him to forgive.

God is not a god who puts conditions on his mercy and care.

God is the God who comes to us in love, only in love, relentlessly and passionately in love.


Jason Micheli


7 responses to If God Doesn’t Give a Damn about Your Sin, What’s Forgiveness?

  1. First, thanks for this post. I’ve read it twice already and will probably need another pass before writing the post it has inspired. McCabe’s language especially helps me name the problematic ways vestiges of an old (for me) way of viewing forgiveness (penal substitutionary and whatnot) still exist in what I thought was a new framework.

    Re: wrath. Following Aquinas/McCabe/Micheli, if God’s posture is one of constant and persistent love toward us, then could wrath be described as our experience of that love when we remain (persist?) in sin? I’m not happy with my last bit of phrasing there, but don’t have a better alternative right now. I’m thinking of George MacDonald’s quote “love loves unto purity.” Or from McCabe, the “trauma of re-birth.”

    Maybe this connects love and wrath too closely, but seems like it has potential. It may also put too much onus on our experience, but I’m Wesleyan enough not to be too scared of that. What do you think?

    • Jason Micheli May 5, 2014 at 4:54 PM

      Thanks for the follow-through Josh. Yes, I actually happen to think of hell in exactly that way- the light of God’s love experienced as fire for those who turn their backs on God. The Great Divorce is actually the only thing of CS Lewis’ I like, but showing Hell as chosen by those in it is exactly right I think.
      And I think it’s lost how much Wesley owed the Church Fathers who did not think God’s ‘attributes’ named different realities or parts of God but were different ways we named the one reality that God is love. I’m interested to see the post…

  2. There’s definitely some wisdom in this post. However, I don’t think it can be wholly persuasive when it fails to apply its premise to the scriptures which do not support the premise. For example, reference is made to Genesis 1, but there’s also Genesis 2-3. Reference is made to the prodigal son, but there’s also the parable of the talents. Finally, Jesus himself told us to pray to “Abba.” He was not inviting us to a relationship with the “immutable” but with the Father. So, while I think there is some good food for thought, at this stage I would consider it more of a hypothesis than a tested theory.

  3. With respect to forgiveness,the change that happens in us not only changes how we view God, but how we forgive others. God’s forgiveness in us allows us to forgive others.

  4. Thanks for this! I used to understand the satan as accusing us before God, as in Job. But now I understand it is more frequently impugning God’s goodness to us, as in the garden, and the story of the prodigal. Such an accusation, if not resisted, seems to be the gateway to so much of our sins.

    The post is also tremendously helpful in thinking through the relationship between our repentance and reconciliation with God. I’m interested to hear more on that.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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