God Can’t Forgive

As is clear from the (few) recent comments around here, it’s been many months since the last post (I have stopped posting about the Vos study because of lack of interest; and suspended following the Vos study because of other things going on, but I do plan to pick it up again eventually…). I had a thought based on a recent oldlife post by DGH, and the comment thread there is already too long for me to catch up to, so that seemed as good a reason as any to write it up separately, here. In discussing forgiveness, DGH quotes Mark Jones:

We are all aware, I trust, that all sins are committed against God. Therefore, no one can forgive sins in the way that God can. He has a peculiar authority that we do not have. All sins, whether mediately or immediately, are committed against God. Sometimes the neighbour is the medium, but the sin is still against God.

That is all very true, but it reminded me of a particular difference between the way we can forgive, and the way God can forgive, which is that (in a sense), God can’t. Lemme ‘splain. How do we forgive? Freely. Why? Because we have been forgiven. Freely you have received, freely give. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Parable of the unforgiving servant and all that. Our own forgiveness from God is the ground, the cause, and the spur, of our forgiveness of others.

But what about God? Nobody has ever (legitimately) forgiven God, because he has never done anything that required forgiveness. So how/why does God forgive? Does he just, “out of the goodness of his heart”, let bygones be bygones? No, God can’t do that; he’s too just. God can’t forgive; his justice requires that he must punish. So the ground, the cause, and the spur of God’s forgiveness is that his wrath has been propitiated, and his justice satisfied, in Christ.

This perspective provides a happy resolution to the “dilemma” of those who would carp that God is a hypocrite, in that he requires us to forgive, but poured out his wrath on his own son. God is not telling us “you must not exercise your wrath; you must forgive, even though I poured my wrath on my son.” Instead he is telling us “you must (and can!) forgive, because I poured my wrath on my son (which enabled me to forgive you).”

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4 Responses to God Can’t Forgive

  1. Nick says:

    Hi. Sorry to see so few posts around here lately. I was wondering if you’d be interested in some Reformed/Lutheran dialogue. I know you guys have done a bit of that in the past, if memory serves. This book was written by a former Presbyterian who I believe is pretty fair. I’d love to see some Reformed discussion about it. Just an idea.


  2. RubeRad says:

    Thanks for the tip — that does look like a good book. I doubt I’ll get to it, but I’m glad to know it’s out there, if the need arises I’ll be able to find it again.

  3. RubeRad says:

    Um, you’re welcome?

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