The Heart of the Cross is the second section of the book comprising three chapters, which I shall treat individually, starting with chapter four.
4.The Problem of Forgiveness
God commands us to forgive one another, and warns us of the consequences if we don’t. Why can’t God practise what he preaches and be equally generous? Why does this forgiveness have to involve a gruesome death?
If anybody imagines that God can simply forgive us as we forgive others, that person hasn’t considered a) the seriousness of sin and b) the majesty of God. When our perception of God/holiness and man/sin is skewed, then our understanding of atonement is bound to be distorted as well.
The question we should ask, therefore, is not why God finds it difficult to forgive, but how he finds it possible to do so at all.
To explore the seriousness of sin and the majesty of God, Stott looks at four concepts:
- the gravity of sin
- human moral responsibility
- true and false guilt
- the wrath of God
a. The gravity of sin
The New Testament uses five Greek words which translate “sin”. Some portray its passive aspects, and others its active aspects. All imply the violation, or the falling short of an objective criterion, which is God’s moral law.
Every sin is an active refusal to acknowledge and obey God as our Creator and Lord; a bid for independence; a claim on the position that is God’s alone. That’s why David confessed “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 51:4). [I recommend John Piper’s take on this verse] Ultimately, it was God’s laws David had broken and therefore, it was God he had offended.
b. Human moral responsibility
Are we really responsible for our actions? What role do our genes, our temperament, our social environment, our upbringing, etc, have?
Stott draws a parallel between moral responsibility and legal liability. Generally, criminal law assumes that people have it in their power to choose whether or not to obey the law. Nevertheless, certain ‘excusing’ conditions exist in which the responsibility of a crime can be diminished. For example if a person commits an offence while insane or under duress, criminal liability cannot be established.
There is a similar tension in the Bible. Scripture recognises our diminished responsibility in the face of our enslavement to the world, the flesh (our fallen nature) and the devil. Psalm 103:10 says he does not treat us as our sins deserve. Verse 14 of the same chapter says he remembers that we are dust. See also Isaiah 42:3.
Although our responsibility is diminished, it isn’t destroyed. We are given the choice between God and idols, between death and life (Deut 30:15-20, Joshua 24:15) . We are urged towards obedience, and are remonstrated when we don’t obey.
The final proof of our responsibility will be the day of judgment, when each of us will give an account of what he/ she has done.
c. True and false guilt
Christians have often been criticised for being obsessed with sin, and for trying to induce in others a sense of guilt. To quote Stott:
Is it healthy or not to insist on the gravity of sin, the necessity of atonement, to hold people responsible for their actions, to warn them of the peril of divine judgment, to urge them to confess, repent and turn to Christ? It is healthy. For if there is ‘false guilt’…there is also ‘false innocence’…
Making a true diagnosis can never be unhealthy, provided we go straight to the remedy. It is unhealthy to wallow in guilt which doesn’t lead to confession, repentance, faith in Jesus Christ and so forgiveness.
d. God’s holiness and wrath
The essential background to the cross isn’t only the sin, responsibility and guilt of human beings, but God’s just reaction, i.e. his holiness and wrath. God’s holiness is foundational in the Bible. All those who get a glimpse of his glory—Moses, Isaiah, Job, Ezekiel, John—were unable to endure the sight.
Closely related to God’s holiness is his wrath, his holy reaction to evil. God’s holiness exposes sin, his wrath opposes it. Human sin and divine holiness cannot coexist, and the Bible uses the following metaphors to express this:
- height: God is often addressed as ‘the Most High God’. Height is a symbol for God’s transcendence, his being very different from us.
- distance: Moses was told not to come too close to the burning bush (Exodus 3:5); only the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies and only on the day of atonement. On the las day, those who aren’t in Christ will hear the words, “Depart form me!” (Matthew 7:23, 25:41)
- light and fire: God lives in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16) and is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29)
- vomiting:In the Old Testament, God warned the Israelites against defiling themselves, saying that the land would vomit them out as it did the nations that were there before them (Lev 18:24-28). When Jesus threatens to ‘spit’ the lukewarm Laodicean church, the Greek verb literally means ‘to vomit’. Clearly, God cannot tolerate sin and hypocrisy.
In conclusion, the problem of forgiveness is that sin and wrath stand in its way. Before the holy God can forgive us, some kind of ‘satisfaction’ is necessary.