Why can’t God just forgive?

Why can’t God just forgive? image

‘Look, I just can’t see why God can’t just forgive. Forgive! It’s a simple concept really. Humans seem to manage it just fine.’

‘What do you mean?

‘Well, if someone does something to me – wrongs me in some way – when they say sorry and ask for forgiveness I just forgive them. I don’t need to say, oh, and by the way, I am going to take my son and kill him just to make sure. That just seems like a barbaric extra – and completely unnecessary.’

‘But – ‘

‘Take the parable of the prodigal son, for instance. What happens there? The son wrongs the father. He comes to his senses in a far country and makes his way home. What does the father do?’

‘Well, he runs to see him.’

‘Exactly: he just simply embraces the son and forgives him. And he throws a party. There’s no business of saying, ‘hey, I would forgive you, but I have to offer some kind of sacrifice first. The only sacrifice is the fatted calf that is killed for meat for the party! Where is any need for all those theories of the atonement here? There isn’t any. In fact, the son doesn’t even have to do anything to win back the father. And the father simply forgives! No atonement needed.’

‘Wait a minute, though. The gospels seem pretty clear that Jesus knew he had to die, and that this was something God had ordained. Remember how Jesus prayed in the garden – ‘take this cup from me?’ ‘

‘Ah, yes, but Jesus dies on the cross to wake us up to the fact that God is ready to forgive. God comes to us in mercy, but we throw it all back in his face. It shows how dreadfully stuffed up we are. And we remember the cross because it rebukes us and reminds us that God is ready to forgive – it isn’t some celestial transaction.’

‘Well I think you are misunderstanding the nature of forgiveness, here.’


‘Well hang on a minute: forgiveness is not simply saying ‘no worries, it doesn’t matter’. When we forgive, think about what goes on: when I say ‘I forgive you’ I am actually judging you.’
‘I am not getting it –‘

‘If I forgive you, by definition I am agreeing that what you did was wrong. Right? Saying ‘no worries’ is the opposite – it says that what you did doesn’t matter. But ‘I forgive you’ says ‘you were wrong’.


‘And what’s more, when you say ‘I forgive you’ you are saying ‘this hurt me’. Or at least, ‘there is something between us’. And the person forgiving is saying ‘I will bear this hurt on myself. I will wear the cost of your actions against against me, so that we can be reconciled.’ Forgiveness is not a matter of ‘just forgiving’.

‘OK, but I still don’t see why the cross of Jesus was needed as a mechanism to make God’s forgiveness work. Surely torturing an innocent man is a morally questionable way to go about it.’

‘Well that’s where we have to remember who we are talking about. Jesus is not an innocent victim of our sins on the cross. He is precisely not that! He is in fact the one against whom we sinned in the first place – that is, God. This matters, because when the Bible talks about him bearing the punishment for our sins, or having the sins of the world placed upon his shoulders, it is talking about God himself – the one with whom we need to be reconciled. He is the judge who bears the judgement.’


‘And this IS God ‘just forgiving’. On the cross, when Jesus stood in our place and bore the wrath of God upon his shoulders, he was showing how God himself both judges us – he says, yes, sin matters – and bears the burden of the things that separate us from him. Jesus isn’t an innocent bystander – he is the one to whom the debt is owed paying the debt himself. The cross shows us that God is bearing the price of our own sins upon himself.’

‘So would you say that God was angry with human sins?’

‘Well I would – but that’s a great question. Can we talk about that next time?’




Feature photo: circulating

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

Comments (2)

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  • Jonathan Howes
    April 2, 13 - 11:31am
    I like how you broaden the categories beyond the sphere of accountancy in talking about forgiveness. It's helpful how you make the problem sound relational not just forensic.
    I wonder, though, whether the NT really portrays Jesus as 'the one against whom we sinned in the first place' - as the offended party? I know we can reason our way there via Trinity. But is this a significant NT theme, or aspect of its Christology?
  • Nick Gilbert
    April 2, 13 - 12:41pm
    Jonathan, maybe passages like that in Acts 3 suggest something like what you say? Suggesting Jesus, not just God, being a wronged party? Peter to the Israelites, starting at 3:13:

    "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.

    "You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see."