Friday, April 15, 2011

On Forgiveness and Atonement

You can find a very good series of posts on the Resurrection over at Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength. Anne is a careful thinker and a devoted follower of Christ, and I believe her posts deserve wide readership, which is why I have linked to her blog on my sidebar; and you'll notice this is a rare exception to my rule about non-Orthodox links!

One post, though, startles me; it's this one, on atonement and forgiveness. It's in response to a critique of Christianity; and its premise is that atonement involves our guilt being vicariously punished in Christ. That's not terribly surprising, given that the author is Lutheran. But I'd still like to take a look at the reasoning offered for such an assertion, and to suggest that the attack upon Christianity could be better rebutted.

Anne writes:

When we look at our own guilt for various things we have done, we know that our simple regret – as genuine and miserable as it may be – neither works to destroy the evil that is in us nor satisfies those we have wronged.
True, regret is ineffectual. Repentance, on the other hand, making a U-turn toward God, does work to destroy the evil in us.  (And it isn't miserable!  It's bittersweet.) 

As for satisfying those who were wronged, God does ultimately satisfy them, just not by punishing us. (Chastisement for our correction, yes; punishment in the sense of retribution, no.)  Punishing does nothing to restore to those who were wronged anything that had been unjustly taken from them. It merely gratifies their lust for revenge, which is hardly a Christian attitude. God, though, ultimately does restore to everyone whatever is good for him, and many times over.

While on the surface the idea seems attractive that God might forgive us without any punishment, if that had been the case then we would have concluded that wrongdoing was not really that serious.
If God only “forgave” with punishment, then there would actually be no forgiveness. It would mean He collects the full price, which is the exact opposite of forgiving the debt. It would mean He merely lets us off the hook.  This is not the same as forgiving and because of the terrible terms, is no longer beautiful, either, as forgiveness is so very beautiful.

As for our regarding sin as not really that serious, there’s no way!  Regardless of which atonement theory we espouse, we cannot look at Christ on the Cross and imagine this is insignificant, or is a way of dealing with some trivial matter.

And we would have concluded that wrongdoing was not very serious based on what (in that case) would have been fact – that God simply shrugged and forgave.

It certainly would not have been fact. God never simply shrugged when He forgave. His forgiveness took the form of dying to destroy death! And all that’s just the icing on the cake, the cake being the whole long saga of salvation history beginning in Genesis.

And the story doesn’t end with His forgiveness, either. Instead of just shrugging as if nothing had happened, God makes like the father of the Prodigal. He robes us with new clothing, puts a ring on our finger, arranges a feast. That is, He restores us, transfigures us, deifies us.

That said, it isn’t as though the forgiveness itself were at all difficult for God. He didn’t have to wrestle with Himself over it or struggle inwardly or anything. The forgiveness itself was the very, very easy part; putting it into concrete effect was the amazing feat.

But if God was willing to redeem anyone, no matter how serious the offense, then how would could we keep any idea of justice, that [some]thing had genuinely been wrong?
Well, we couldn’t; and that's a wonderful thing. We could not, I mean, retain any idea of that kind of “justice.” We would have to change our too-human idea of what justice is. We would have to learn that Divine Justice is orders of magnitude greater.  (And we would still clearly - perhaps more clearly - understand how wrong were our deeds.)

If God chose to merely overlook a sin, no matter how serious, then what about the harm that had been done and the vileness of some of the actions that were forgiven?
The supposition here seems to be that to forgive outright, without punishment, is merely to overlook. Not so. Far from overlooking sin, God spends all of human history working to defeat it, that epic war reaching its climax upon the Cross and its promised consummation at the end of time.

As for the harm done, punishment-based “justice” does nothing whatsoever to undo the harm. You can put to death the murderer, but that will not bring my loved one back to life or back to me. You can put the child molester to death, but the child can never be un-raped.  The aggrieved will still grieve.

Divine Justice, on the other hand, actually rights wrongs, undoes the harm, wipes away every tear, corrects and heals everything, making it all as God originally intended it to be. That’s what justice really means: to put things right.  That's the just thing to do.  (And as our mothers did tell us, didn't they, two wrongs don't make a right.)

As for the vileness of the wrongdoing, that very vileness displays the love of God all the more greatly when the sinner is transfigured in Christ into a tear-drenched saint, spending his time loving and praying and doing as much good as he can – when Saul of Tarsus becomes St. Paul, for example.

So we begin to look at justice rather than merely overlooking the wrong. What is the worst punishment that justice can ask?
Rather, what is the best outcome justice can seek? Correction of the wrong, healing of the harm, transformation of the sinner, hatred overcome by Love, fear vanquished by faith, despair by hope, darkness by Light, death swallowed up in immortality, disobedience replaced by loving obedience...
Jesus’ punishment – the extreme punishment of death, reserved for the worst of crimes – is sufficient to satisfy justice for the most serious of offenses.
In fact, even fallen human justice is not at all satisfied by an innocent man dying while the guilty go free. (How would a victim’s family feel, or the community feel, if a serial killer were let off the hook and some innocent volunteer were executed instead? Some justice!  No, we all know this will not do; that's why even devout believers in penal atonement do not seek to imitate the Lord by going before a judge and asking to be allowed to take the sentence in lieu of the convicted person.  They all know this will never satisfy justice.)  Nor is justice satisfied when a debt is owed by paying the creditor with money taken from his own account. Or by God the Father requiring to be repaid but God the Son not requiring it. Doesn’t justice require the Son to collect the debt we owe Him, as much as it had required the same of the Father?

In this way our atonement has left no doubt that the wrongs being atoned are not a slight matter but are in fact dreadful.
This is evident in any case when we behold the Cross and see what the Savior had to endure in the course of conquering death and defeating satan.

In this way our fear is quieted as to whether our particular sin is beyond the price that was paid.
Our fear is more than quieted when we truly repent (which, let's bear in mind, doesn't mean simply to regret, or even to ask God's forgiveness, but to change course). Then and only then our fear is quenched, expunged, wiped out, by peace, by the instant, tender communion with the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth.  As we repent, and to the same extent we repent, we become aware of God's fathomless, unconditional, infinite, astonishing forgiveness, compassion and kindness, Who, like the householder in Matthew 20, does not give to each of us what we deserve, but finds it perfectly just to be better to the laborers than He was required to be; Who, like the king in the parable of the Unjust Servant, simply cancels our debt; Who instead of prosecuting, blotted out the indictment against us and "took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross."  (Colossians 2:14)


David Garner said...

I'm not familiar with either the blog or its author, but I can sympathize with her view predominately because it is apparent she has no other possibility in mind. Sin is punished. God will exact His justice. There is no other way.

In fact, when we were considering Orthodoxy, the atonement STILL didn't make sense to me for quite a few months. It took some time for my mind to "undo" all of the sin=punishment, atonement=taking on my punishment ideas and for me to realize that rather than cosmic "justice," God was fixing a car, healing a patient, putting the roof back on a destroyed house or re-paving a driveway.

The problem wasn't that I was "guilty" (I was that, of course, but that wasn't my predominate problem). The problem was I was sick, broken, dying, deformed, crippled. Once I learned to view my problem in those terms, the atonement made more sense than it ever did under the sin/justice/punishment paradigm.

GretchenJoanna said...

Thank you, Anastasia - and David. I appreciate your efforts to get through my Protestant mindset to enlighten me with a good understanding. I trust that my heart is there, even when my feeble mind is slow to learn, and of course will never fully comprehend.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

The Lord said:

For I desired [from you] mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

Hosea 6:6

God's justice means God gets what He really wants. Not the legalities, but the substance.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

GretchenJoanna, if it may help, you could search my blog, using the box near the top right of it, on "justice" and find reams of material. Most of it isn't really relevant, being mere passing mentions of the word, but some of it you may perhaps find useful.

GretchenJoanna said...

I know you have a lot here -- "atonement" is another good search word, as I recall -- and once I did search and bookmark on behalf of a young friend. For myself, I think I must copy the text into a document which I can then print off and read more carefully. I am not very good at protracted reading-thinking at the computer monitor.

Weekend Fisher said...

(Hm, I posted this once before but blogger gave me an error. Let's try this again.)

Hi again

Thank you for the link, and for the thoughtfulness and graciousness here.

Much of my response was framed specifically to address the critiques raised by Mr Martin in his earlier article. Even the wording and the framing were often borrowed from him to show that, even within his own framework, the criticisms did not stand.

I have no wish to argue with your thoughts here; I sympathize with many of them.

Still, for a response to a particular article, I would not change the response that I had made to Mr Martin, since it was the best way I can find to respond to those particular criticisms in a way that might be understood by someone who thinks in those terms.

The thing you've made me consider is how much a third-party reader would understand, not having read the original article to which I was responding. I wonder if I might do well to add some more material there, to make the context more apparent to those who had not read the original article.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF