“I forgive you.”
That potent phrase has been uttered countless times in my house with four young kids and two imperfect parents. It often follows an apology—sometimes under duress—and it occasionally concludes with an embrace.
Forgiveness also flows from Jesus’ work in the doctrine of atonement.
Yet many people wonder why a loving God could not have offered it apart from Christ’s grisly death upon the cross. After all, don’t we often forgive freely? And in turning to parables like the Prodigal Son, doesn’t the father in the story model this forgiveness (Luke 15:11–32)? After all, his gracious welcome is not made contingent on the slaying of an innocent sibling or an unsuspecting pet.
So why didn’t God simply declare sinners forgiven apart from Calvary?
A careful answer would require a lengthy book (or at least a short one). But allow me to briefly highlight a few reasons:
1. Salvation is about more than forgiveness.
Jesus’ saving work is about more than simply uttering a fatherly “I forgive you” over disobedient children. Atonement is also about the defeat of death and Satan; it’s about Christ entering into and empathizing with our human shame and “nakedness”; it’s about ushering in the Kingdom on earth; and it’s about Jesus bearing the covenantal curse so that we might no longer experience that condemnation.
To reduce salvation to a simplistic “I forgive you” overlooks key aspects of our human plight. It shrinks the gospel. And it diminishes the great banquet of salvation to a single course.
2. Forgiveness does not set aside all consequences.
Some argue that the very idea of forgiveness and penalty-bearing are antithetical. “To forgive is to set aside a debt,” it has been said, so if Jesus paid our debt then God did not forgive it.
This logic may work at the level of parking fines, but it falls apart in Scripture. Sin is not a parking ticket. And in Israel’s history, God’s forgiveness often coincides with judgment. For this reason, the true and beautiful claim that God forgives cannot be pitted against the true and beautiful claim that God “condemned sin in the flesh” of the Messiah (Romans 8:3b). As Paul writes elsewhere, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Such texts have nothing to do with the crass or pagan claim that God tortured his innocent Son in order to be nice to us. The focus, as Paul makes clear, is upon the sin’s condemnation (see again Romans 8:3b). Yet it remains true that this judgment happened through the cross. Thus, we shouldn’t pit forgiveness against the possibility of legal consequences.
As proof, many victims of abuse can attest that to forgive a perpetrator does not mean that a legal penalty for the offense should not be exacted. Justice and mercy go together, and we see both upon the cross.
3. Sin is “weightier” than that.
Long ago, the theologian Anselm was asked why God could not simply save sinners apart from Calvary, and apart from all the gritty aspects of the Incarnation. The question is similar to ours: Why not wave a wand and utter “I forgive you”?
Anselm’s reply is justly famous: “You have not yet considered the great weight of sin.”
We need not agree with every part of Anselm’s theology (I certainly don’t) to see his point. Though God may be capable of forgiving apart from sacrifice or judgment, his covenant had always emphasized the seriousness of sin by legal consequences. So just as it would be unjust for an earthly judge to dismiss crimes like rape or murder with a flippant “I forgive you,” so too with God.
The result of sin is not a weakening of God’s desire to forgive but of our desire to be forgiven. This weighty aspect of our problem is ignored by the “Why not just forgive?” perspective. Sin warps us; it hardens hearts; it stops up ears; and it blinds us to God’s patient and persistent offer of redemption. Sin doesn’t stop God from desiring us; sin keeps us from desiring God.
For all these reasons, the “Why not just forgive” response does not take seriously enough the weightiness of sin.
4. God has passed between the pieces.
Here’s one more reason to link forgiveness to the good news of the cross:
Way back in Genesis 15, a flaming torch passed between the pieces of a youthful pigeon.
How’s that for strange start to your Good Friday service?
Though time does not permit a full unpacking of this ancient passage, the story helps us understand a final answer to the question, “Why not just forgive?”
Genesis 15 is a covenant text involving Abraham.
Like marriage today, ancient covenants brought two parties into a relationship of union and obligation. Covenants included stipulations, promises, and penalties for breaking them. That’s where the pigeon—along with the other sacrificial animals—comes into play.
Often in the ancient world, the lower ranking covenant partner (or perhaps both parties) would walk between the carcasses of these animals as a way of saying, “May this happen to me and more if I break the words of the covenant” (See Jeremiah 34:18). Imagine if we did that in weddings now!
To pass between the pieces was to put one’s life and honor on the line. But Abraham doesn’t do that. In Genesis 15, Abraham lies sleeping on the ground like a tired grandpa after Thanksgiving dinner.
Then we read these words:
“When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram . . .” (Genesis 15:17–18).
The Old Testament avoids visual descriptions of God’s form. So instead of describing God, Genesis describes the smoking fire pot and blazing torch that God was carrying.
The scene points forward to why God does not simply say a flippant “I forgive you” over human sin. Instead, he comes in the flesh to bear the curse of the covenant. He does that for us, so that we might be made new.
As I put it in How Jesus Saves:
God places himself on the line by passing through the pieces. God signals his willingness—indeed, his intention—to bear the covenantal curse that should fall on Abraham and his offspring if they should be unfaithful to their vows. This curse involved not just death (Romans 6:23), but exile from the land God promised (Deuteronomy 28:64).
That’s what death is in Scripture: It is exile from the land of the living. Way back in Genesis, God shows that he will bear the penalty for the sins of his people. Like a spouse who accepts the partner’s past and future debts because the two have become one, God will bear the covenantal curse for his wayward bride.
In all these ways, forgiveness is a beautiful benefit of being part of God’s household. Even now, the Father stands with arms wide open for any who would receive his welcoming embrace.
He invites everyone to his great Kingdom banquet, where forgiveness is just appetizer.
If you would like to learn more about how God saves us and the breadth of beauty of his salvation, you’ll enjoy Josh McNall’s How Jesus Saves: Atonement for Ordinary People. In both the book and accompanying videos, McNall addresses this great Christian doctrine with simplicity without sacrificing the nuance this topic demands.
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