If you follow the idea of atonement that I began to develop yesterday, namely that the atonement is ultimately about divine forgiveness, then you can readily see that a payment is truly made to atone (lit: to make us one again). This payment, says Jim Danaher, is one that “God makes to himself, which means that he suffers the loss” (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear, 99). Let this claim sink in for a moment before you read on. In fact, please read this entire paragraph several times.
When I first began to grasp this idea it seemed so completely right to me yet it was something that I had never heard before, at least heard so clearly stated. It answered a lot of questions, though I freely admit that it did not answer all of them. As I hope to show it has the power to give us a better, and more love-centered, explanation of what Jesus actually did in dying for us on the cross. He took our debt upon himself and then out of his profound love he forgave it through his death.
One of the central texts for this view is in Matthew 18. In what has been called “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” we read these words:
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (NRSV, Matthew 18:23-35).
In this story the king forgave a debtor a huge debt, one amounting to “ten thousand talents” (verse 24). This is 375 tons of silver. The “talent” was the highest form of currency at the time and the value fluctuated just as modern currency does in our day. Most agree that the only possible equivalent in our time would be something akin to “millions and millions of dollars.” The point here is simple – this debt was just too big to be paid. Yet the king receives the debtor, cancels his immense debt by forgiving it, and then sets the man completely free.
The point I wish to underscore here is that real debt always costs something to forgive it. Our debt to the high king of heaven is so immense that we cannot possibly pay it. Thus to forgive our immense debt will cost the heavenly king a great deal. This is why true forgiveness is so rare in our world. It just costs too much!
But this story goes on to say that the man who was profoundly forgiven of such great debt by the king then went out and seized a slave of his who owed him a debt of “a hundred denarii.” A denarius is considered to be a working person’s daily wage. A hundred denarii is a large debt but it could, over some time, be paid off little by little. In our currency this debt would be a few thousand dollars.
The point of the story is clear. The man who was forgiven such a huge debt will not forgive a person who owes him a relatively small debt. In the words of James P. Danaher, “He obviously thought that the cost of forgiving the debt was greater than his love for the one who asked for his mercy” (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear, 99).
Of course the idea of a debt to be forgiven is not always about a monetary debt. The point, however, would be the same. With every debt to be forgiven there is a true cost involved in forgiveness to the one who forgives. This cost will vary from case to case. Why will we not forgive? “Many times what it costs us to forgive is our appearance of righteousness. When we refuse to forgive, we insist–consciously or subconsciously–that everyone know that we are the innocent victim, and the other party is the guilty one” (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear, 99).
It is here that I think Danaher nails his case about Christ’s death being primarily about canceling our debt through forgiveness. He says that when we forgive we do not care if the entire world knows that the other person is a criminal. If we forgive we are willing, even if we are the totally innocent party, to assume the price of the debt for the sake of our love for the other person. This kind of payment requires death. In the case of our human relationships there must be a death to our selves and thus to our right to punish the other person and make them pay for our pain. This brings about, Danaher argues, the “death of our false self.” The problem is that, “We are usually not able to suffer the cost of our reputation” (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear, 99).
I believe this is amazing stuff. If it is true then I submit to you that we are on the road to a wholly different understanding of our sin (debt) and of God’s infinite grace (forgiveness). We do not need someone to die simply to pay off Satan or to restore (or appease) the honor and dignity of God the Father. We need someone to die, someone who is wholly innocent, so that we can be truly forgiven and then brought back into intimate relationship with the very One who we sinned against personally. By forgiveness, which is at the very heart of reconciliation, we are restored to God though Christ’s payment of our incredible debt. Such is our great salvation and such is the great love of our God.