Why It Makes No Sense to Say ‘God Forgives You’

Jason Micheli —  March 20, 2014 — 4 Comments

imagesDeadly Sins and Atonement Theories are both on my mind and on the preaching docket this Lent.

This weekend I’ll have limited preaching time due to our Worship Through Service event, but I hope to give a few minutes to reflecting on how Wrath plays into our understanding of God and ourselves.

Spoiler: Jesus’ (the True Human) Wrath is most usually directed at mistreatment of the poor and marginalized.

I blame it on Dennis Perry, who gave me Aquinas to read as soon as I came to faith as a teenager, but I’ve always been troubled, theologically and intellectually, by the notion that salvation’s balance requires Jesus’ death to be paid to God.

Such a transaction- and that’s exactly the language used by proponents- posits a change in God’s disposition towards us because of Jesus’ suffering and death.

I’ve always found this problematic and partial because God, by (ancient) definition is immune to change.

God is not a god.

The God of ex nihilo fame is not a being within the universe. God is pure Essence. Perfect. Changeless. Eternal.

God, as John says, just is…LOVE.

God isn’t loving; God is LOVE with no potentiality. No room for any addition of anything. No cause, as the FIRST CAUSE, to be affected by anything.

God, for good and for ill, is not affected by us at all.

God just loves. Us. God’s creatures. Gratis. Just as we were created. Gratis. The gift never ceases to be given.

Which begs the question:

How is it possible that God is ‘offended’ by our Sin?

How is God’s mind, disposition or will changed by anything we do or don’t do?

The Bible speaks of God in the masculine, which we all recognize is an anthropomorphism made for communication’s sake.

Is it possible God’s anger, wrath, jealousy is also a necessary anthropomorphism made for very urgent, compelling reasons within the life of God’s People? To narrate their experience of the world and with God?

I understand the above will strike many as overly metaphysical, the oft-repeated if ill-informed indictment that metaphysics represents a Hellenization of the Biblical God. Understanding such a disagreement, I nonetheless assert that mine isn’t a solitary perspective but is one with at least half of Christian history behind it.

UnknownGiving articulation to that ancient Thomistic perspective is Herbert McCabe:

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 accepts our apology or 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.

We can forgive enemies even though they do not apologize and are not contrite. But such forgiveness … does not help them, does not re-create them. In such forgiveness we are changed, we change from being vengeful to being forgiving, but our enemy does not change.

When it comes to God, however, it would make no sense to say he forgives the sinner without the sinner being contrite.For 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.

Jason Micheli


4 responses to Why It Makes No Sense to Say ‘God Forgives You’

  1. I guess, right off hand I would ask two questions:

    1. Did Jesus express wrath when he cleared the money changers out of the Temple?
    2. Did Jesus express wrath when he cursed the fig tree?
    3. Is justice and attribute of God? If so, can their be justice without wrath?

    The theory you posit is so radical, that I’m not sure what would be left of the Bible.

    • 1. Yes.
      2. Ditto.
      3. Requires more than I can get into now. McCabe and Aquinas argue that what we see in Jesus is the True, Only True, Human Being. Jesus’ anger and wrath is the virtuous, human form of those emotions of which ours our only partial, sinful versions. As for God, they both want to maintain God’s Absolute distinction from creation as a first principle. Something that is quite, if not always obviously so (Genesis 1, John 1, 1 John 4) scriptural. So, it’s not so much about God’s attributes but about whether God changes or has potentiality which the use of God’s wrath when we speak of the Cross implies.

  2. What is missing for me from this discussion is the historical relationship God created with his people, the Hebrews, from the very beginning: He is a God unlike any other, loving, relational, just, faithful and merciful and, because of that, prompting a reciprocal relationship with Him. And the Hebrews and we fail over and over and over in this basic principle of relationship. God, of course, knows this and knows that reciprocity on our part is impossible. Thus the Day of Atonement, the judgement seat becomes the mercy seat through the blood, etc, etc, etc – over and over and over until Christ (Himself) on the cross “finishes” the need to keep fixing the relationship. So He does it for us, makes it possible by using Himself as the vehicle through which we can have a perfect relationship with Him. Thankfully, I’ve never been all tripped up about the idea of God’s “wrath.” For me, it seems perfectly plausible that where there is Holiness there can be no sin. God, by His holy nature, cannot be in the presence of sin, NOT because it affects Him in any way but because it destroys the sinner/sin. Let me rephrase that, sin cannot be in the presence of Holiness or it will, by virtue of God’s holiness, be destroyed. Call that wrath or whatever you want, but that’s how I understand it and understand WHY there did indeed need to be God Himself through Christ in OUR form taking on all the sin from before and that is and that will come and destroying it with His own self so that eternal, good and perfect and intimate and holy relationship can take place between the created and the Creator. I enjoyed this essay.

    • I should just repost your response as it’s a good summary and points out how, in scripture, the metaphors of sacrifice and the law court are two distinct ones. Too often, I think, we take the anger motif from the latter and impose it upon the former which has to do with liberation not wrath. It’s more than I can respond to here but there’ve been two general paths of thinking since the start of the Church with one taking the logical insights of Greek philosophy (God is not a being in the universe, God is immutable and impassible etc) and finding in the God who creates from nothing (and is thus apart from and independent of creation) a parallel. Other Christians- primarily Protestants following sola scriptura- have insisted that the God of the philosophers is not the God we find in scripture. I like to say if 1+ 1 = 2, it = 2 whether scripture tells us so or not- all truth is God’s truth and so the real God is somewhere behind both our reading of the text and our thinking about the world. Of course, the one foundational thing that both the Greeks and the Old Testament agree on is that God, in his essence, is by definition unknowable 🙂

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