When the concept of the atonement is primarily understood as divine forgiveness we have been given a clear way to understand how God can be both just and justifier. He can demand payment for an offense and yet at the same time he can provide forgiveness in himself as the person who pays for our offense. He can do both at the same time.
Be honest. No one enjoys suffering. In fact, if a person desires to suffer we seriously wonder if they are mentally healthy. But if the reason for our suffering is just and understandable, on other grounds that we might not readily see at first glance, then most of us can face it with some degree of strength. What makes suffering particularly hard to accept is this – if we are suffering because of an injustice done to us then it truly seems unbearable. The reason for this perplexity is that we rarely think of ourselves in a negative light. We believe that we do not deserve to suffer because we are not that guilty. One of the greatest trials a sufferer faces is to grasp that they may not be (directly) deserving of their suffering yet in fact they deserve, at least before God, so much more. But if we could truly see ourselves as guilty of having walked away from God’s love then we would be better able to grasp our profound need for his great forgiveness. Because we do not imagine ourselves as truly guilty we are not willing to suffer pain in order to love deeply. If I have learned anything in the last fifteen years of my life it is this – suffering brings divine love and true patience. I believe that this gets to the root of our human problem and this is true because our sin breaks our loving relationship with the God who loves us so much. There is no vast chasm between us and God, only a lover right by our side who is wounded by our self-willed independence. (More about this tomorrow.)
Consider the parable of the prodigal son in light of my point. The youngest son cost his dad half of his entire estate. He wished that his father was dead so he could get his money and then when he asked for it and got it he spent it all on himself. Yet his father still loved him so much. He longingly waited for him to return home, to a deep relationship. The thing which really mattered to the father was to regain his son. But the older son valued his estate and status more than anything else. He could not grasp his father’s love for his brother and the intense desire that he had to be reconciled with this younger, prodigal brother. The father’s extravagant mercy and forgiveness seemed completely illogical to him. The point of this story is that most of us are a lot more like the older brother when we should be a lot more like the father (i.e., the loving Father of our Lord Jesus). We know the call of discipleship well enough. We realize that this is a Spirit-given call to be like our heavenly Father; i.e., forgiving, loving and reconciling. When the parable is understood in this way the story could be better called: “The Parable of the Unloving, Unforgiving Older Son.” Tragically, when our view of the atonement is too closely centered on appeasing the Father’s wrath I believe with all my heart the real danger is that we will miss the point of the atonement – namely that God loves us so much that Jesus suffered in order to forgive our sins and bring us back to God our Father in true reconciliation.
Jim Danaher rightly concludes:
This concept of forgiveness provides a way to understand how God can be just, and demand payment for an offense, and forgiving in his willingness to be the one who pays for the offense all at the same time. This idea of atonement as forgiveness also gives us a way to better understand the suffering of Jesus and the nature of the Godhead. One of the problems with the satisfaction theory, and the idea that the Father poured out his wrath upon his Son, is that in Christian theology the Father and Son are united within the oneness of the triune Godhead. If God is three persons, yet one, how can we understand the Father’s wrath being poured out on Jesus for the sake of satisfying the Father’s honor? If the Father and Jesus are one, then by the Father pouring his wrath upon Jesus, he is in fact pouring his wrath upon himself. Since they are one, the punishment leveled against Jesus is equally leveled upon the Father as well. In a very real sense that is exactly what happens when God decides to forgive human beings for our rejection of the relationship he desires to have with us, and all the destruction that follows. All three persons of the Godhead, and not just Jesus, suffer the offense that Jesus manifests. Thus, by understanding the nature of forgiveness, and by understanding that the atonement is essentially a matter of forgiveness, we have a better perspective from which to view the cross and equally the nature of God (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear, 102).
There is a profoundly important theological issue in this way of thinking; an issue that repeatedly arises when we speak of the Son suffering the wrath of God the Father on the cross. When our thinking is stuck on penal substitution then it gives us a very conflicted perspective about Jesus as both God and man at same time. This has even led some to suggest, in rather odd and (in point of fact) heretical ways, that Jesus suffered God’s wrath in his humanity but not in his divinity. When this occurs we think that we are protecting the divine nature from human emotion and personal feelings. Some popular conservative Christians remind us that we can only conceive of God as impassible, that is without emotions as we know and humanly understand them. If we accept this old philosophical notion about God’s character and nature then our view of God must be that he can never suffer. If this is true then we are faced with a huge problem since Jesus is God and Jesus suffers in order to redeem us. (Believe me, this error runs through many sermons and prayers that I have heard from wonderful Christians and a few that I once preached myself!) But the greater mystery is that in the incarnation God and man were perfectly joined in Jesus without division or co-mingling. He was one person with two natures, fully divine and fully human. So who suffered on Calvary’s tree? God or man?
Do you understand then why contemporary Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926) refers to this great mystery in the title of an important book as Inhabiting the Crucified God?
To see the atonement as forgiveness in the way I have explained allows us to properly understand the cruciform logic of God suffering for us in order to forgive us of all our sin. I believe that it also reveals to us the heart of our triune God in a glorious and wonderful way. When we grasp this we can then rightly say with the beloved apostle, “God is love.”