Q: “If God can do anything, can’t he forgive without someone dying? I mean, my parents taught me to forgive people – nobody dies in that scenario.”
Jon Steingard, a former Hawk Nelson Christian rock band member, made the following statement in his lengthy Instagram post announcing that he no longer believes in God. For Jon, it’s clear: he forgives those who wrong him without anyone dying; so, why can’t God do the same?
Well, this is a question that requires some great thought. Forgiveness and the death of Christ lie at the heart of foundational Christian doctrine. It is the first thing new babes in Christ learn early on in their “first steps” of Christianity. With that said, I’ll go into why God mandates death for sin. Then, I’ll put it all together to give a clear, concise answer
Why humans forgive each other
What does it mean to forgive?
Why do humans forgive each other? To answer this question, we must understand the meaning of “forgive.” What does it mean to forgive? It means to embrace a person that you’ve been angry against. It means to let a wrong go and choose to “clear the air” with the person. If they wronged you, you cancel the wrong and choose to love instead of let the wrong ruin a friendship or relationship.
Whenever someone wrongs us, we have an opportunity to show love instead of revenge. We can choose to love as God loves us, or we can choose to “get even” instead and create more hostility (thereby making things worse). To forgive is to take “the higher road,” the better road.
Why do we forgive?
The Lord’s Prayer
But why do we forgive? We know what forgiveness is. We know how it goes. We know what to do when we forgive someone. But the next question becomes, “why do we forgive?” Why do we do it? What’s the benefit in doing it? Do we do it just because we want our friend back, and we want to preserve our friendship? Some do it for solely this reason: to preserve a long-standing friendship. Some do it because it is of no benefit to hold a grudge (which is true). But Christians do it primarily because our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ tells us in Scripture to forgive our fellow man so that He, Jesus, will forgive us:
8 “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. 9 In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
13 And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
14 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:8-15, NKJV)
In what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus prays “and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” In other words, “Lord, as we forgive others for what they owe us, we pray you forgive our debts.” Jesus then says in Matthew 6:14-15 that we won’t be forgiven of our sins before God if we don’t forgive others for their wrongdoing toward us. I can’t expect God to forgive me for my sins but won’t forgive others when they’ve wronged me.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
Jesus goes on to show how this works in the Parable of The Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:23-35. The Parable concerns a servant who owed a debt. He pleaded with his master to forgive him, and the master does. But then the forgiven servant goes and requests that his servant pay a debt. Whereas the forgiven servant could’ve shown mercy to his servant and simply canceled his debt, he didn’t. Instead, he took the servant by the throat, told him to pay what he owed, and when he could not, threw the pleading servant into prison until he received every last cent of the 100 denarii he was owed. Some of his fellow servants saw what the forgiven servant did and went and told the servant’s master. And once the forgiven servant was brought before his master, he was thrown into prison as well until he could pay his balance.
The Parable sends the message that, unless we forgive others, our Master, our Heavenly Father, will not forgive us. So, we don’t just forgive “out of the goodness of our hearts,” as some would say. Rather, we forgive because we love, and love is of God, and our God has commanded us to forgive so that we too, are forgiven.
Why does God forgive us?
We understand forgiving each other. Like the Unforgiving Servant, we realize that we too, have wrong. We too, have debts that we cannot pay. Rather than force someone to pay what they cannot, we forgive them. And in return, we experience forgiveness.
But, if God commands us to forgive others so that He will forgive us, the next question is this: Why does God have to forgive us? We understand that we commit wrong with others. And yet, do we commit wrong before God? Do we wrong God?
The answer to both those questions is “yes,” we wrong God. And so God forgives us because, to use a statement many understand, “He practices what He preaches.” Imagine how things would be if God told us to forgive each other, yet He didn’t forgive us?
God forgives us because He loves us. When we wrong Him, He forgives us because He has promised in His Word that, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God is faithful to forgive us, but why is He just to forgive us? Because He’s merciful. But a merciful God without justice is unreliable.
A God who merely gives mercy without requiring any responsibility from the offending party, that is humanity, is not a just God. This is why the Apostle John says in 1 John 1:9 (I just quoted it) that, “if we confess our sins,” God forgives us. He’s always willing to forgive, but He won’t do it without our confession. In the same way that God is always willing to save but won’t save unless we confess our sins and believe in His Son Jesus, He won’t forgive us unless we confess it to Him. Confession is the acknowledgment that we have offended God, that we have done wrong.
Does God Forgive Without Penalty?
God forgives us when we confess our sins, but does confession really cost us anything? Other than our pride, not much. And yet, confession doesn’t come without sacrifice. While we sacrifice nothing but our pride to confess our sin, forgiveness doesn’t come without cost. What cost is that, you may ask?
The cost of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. God is faithful to forgive His children, Christians, believers, of their sin, but He can only do so because they are covered with the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ, who gave His life for the sins of the world. God required the sacrifice of lambs, rams, and goats as sacrifice for sin. The Israelites in the Old Testament had to offer up an animal whenever they sinned. Just read the Book of Leviticus from beginning to end. We know that the blood of animals could not cover sin, but the sacrifices themselves were symbolic of The Great Sacrifice to come: that is, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world, God’s only Son, Jesus Christ. This is why the apostle John calls Jesus “the Lamb of God”: because he understood Jesus’ mission was a fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrifices (John 1:29, 36; Revelation 7:17; 15:3; 19:9; 21:22, 23; 22:1, 3).
For, “without shedding of blood there is no remission” of sins (Hebrews 9:22). Jesus, then, had to offer His life because sin required a blood sacrifice. And only Jesus could die once for all and through one death remove the penalty forever for those who believe in Him.
Why does God require death for divine forgiveness?
We forgive others because God demands it. We can’t expect divine forgiveness if we can’t forgive fellow humans. And God forgives us because of the death of His Son, Jesus, and our reception of that. God is faithful to forgive us because He’s merciful and loving, but He can only do that because Jesus Christ shed His blood for us. This is why the Apostle John refers to Jesus as “the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2).
The word “propitiation” refers to appeasing atonement. Jesus is the appeasing sacrifice; by giving His life, He offered up His life as a sweet-smelling savor to God, who was pleased with His life offering. This is how the Apostle Paul refers to Jesus’ sacrifice of His life:
Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. (Ephesians 5:1-2, NKJV)
Jesus is the sweet-smelling sacrifice that propitiates (or appeases) God’s wrath. This is why He’s called “the propitiation for our sins,” and not only ours, but the sins of the whole world.
The atheist problem with death for divine forgiveness
Atheists, including Steingard now, who says he no longer believes in God, struggle with the idea that death is mandatory for divine forgiveness (that is, forgiveness from God). But why? Why is death a problem for them?
If you remember Steingard’s question above, he says that he doesn’t understand why God requires death for divine forgiveness. He forgives his friends, he says, and that doesn’t require death.
Ah, but there’s Jon’s problem because, au contraire, the forgiveness he extends to his friend and his friend to him does mandate death. The reason? Because every sin or wrong we commit against our fellow humans is a sin we commit ultimately against God. Think back to King David. When he murdered Uriah and took Bathsheba to be his wife, did he commit wrong against Uriah only? No. He also committed wrong against God, which explains why he says to God in his confession, “Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:4). So being forgiven by those we offend or wrong is only half of the equation. We must go to God and ask for forgiveness because we’ve also sinned against Him. In sinning against God, we’ve broken a commandment and have transgressed His Law.
And because we transgress His law, “The wages of sin is death,” Romans 6:23 says.
God is sovereign over and righteous in His Law
But here’s where the atheist chimes in and says, “But why is the penalty death for sin? Why can’t God just pardon us without requiring the loss of life?” The only response here pertains to divine sovereignty: That is, God requires death for sin because that’s what He wants. It’s His Law, after all.
This response doesn’t sit well with the atheist because he or she believes that the death of Jesus is unnecessary bloodshed. Why does Jesus die when God could just pardon the sins of humanity? And yet, God doesn’t just pardon the sin because to do so is to not be just. When a wrong is done, restitution must be made. Since humanity offended God in its original sin in Genesis 3, humanity has to make it right. Yet, only God could come back from the dead and offer the perfect sacrifice. And so, since God the Father is offended, and humanity is the offending party, there must be a mediator to make it right. Jesus Christ is that mediator between God and men, the only mediator (1 Timothy 2:5).
God says in his word that wrongdoing requires restoration. If a person takes something, they must restore what they’ve taken. So, how could God mandate that but not mandate a price for transgression of His Law? If God simply pardoned people for sin and required nothing but an “I’m sorry,” how would mankind perceive God’s sin? The same atheists that critique God’s death requirement for divine forgiveness are the same ones that would say, “You can’t take God seriously” if He simply pardoned sin and required nothing in return.
It’s like asking if the judge in the courtroom can merely pardon the criminal without requiring jail time for murdering someone. The judge wouldn’t be just if he or she lets the murderer get off without a day of jail time. In the same way, God, the Judge of all the earth, has decided that man cannot be merely pardoned for his transgression; someone must pay the price for it. And yet, instead of making humanity pay it, He sends His Son to take on human flesh and die in our place. This is what we know as the Doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
God requires death for divine forgiveness of humanity’s sin. In the same way He decided that mankind would be saved “by grace through faith,” He decided death would be the penalty for sin. It’s His choosing, His choice, His terms. And, though atheists attack why death is necessary in the first place, God has set His terms for salvation and sin. And who are we to decide that we don’t like God’s terms? Are we on God’s level that we can judge what He decides to do? If He sets the terms for His Law, does God not have the right to do that?
If you design a business, don’t you have a right to determine the rules, the layout, the number of employees, who you want those employees to be, and so on? If someone says, “I don’t like your list of products,” are you not going to tell them something to the effect of, “it’s my business and this is how I’ve decided to do it?” Surely, you might ask for some feedback on how you can make it better, but ultimately, your choices are what the business will reflect because It’s. Your. Business. God has His business: salvation, saving souls, His Law. And He decides how we are saved. It is His business. And because He’s sovereign, we don’t have the right to tell God what we don’t like about His business.
Ultimately, God requires the death of His Son Jesus for divine forgiveness because that’s His Law. It’s the way He designed it.
Understand, though, that the Lord doesn’t make the requirement for us and not live by it Himself. When humanity sinned, God didn’t just leave us helpless and refuse to save us. Per His death penalty for sin, God Himself complies with His Law and sends Jesus to die on mankind’s behalf.
Why do we forgive others? Because God won’t forgive us unless we forgive others. Why does God forgive us? Because He’s promised to forgive believers when they confess their sins. And why do we even have the right to ask for forgiveness? Because we’ve received His Son, Jesus, the Lamb of God, as our Lord and Savior. And upon accepting the sweet-smelling sacrifice, God is appeased and we are justified by faith in Jesus. Ultimately, God chose to place all of humanity’s sin on Jesus, and He chose to save us in Jesus. And in Jesus, God the Father is both just and the justifier because He condemns and saves in His Son (Romans 3:21-26).