Too many Christians think of divine forgiveness as something that utterly overturns justice and sets it aside—as if God's mercy nullified His justice—as if God's love defeated and revoked His hatred of sin. That's not how forgiveness works.
17 September 2015
by Phil Johnson
Is forgiveness from sin grounded only in the love and mercy and goodness of God—apart from his justice? Does love alone prompt the Almighty to forego the due penalty of sin, wipe out the record of our wrongdoing, and nullify the claims of justice against us, unconditionally?
Or must God Himself be propitiated? In other words, do His righteousness and His holy wrath against sin need to be satisfied before He can forgive?
It truly seems as if most people today—including multitudes who identify themselves as Christians—think God forgives merely because His love overwhelms His holy hatred of sin. Some go even further, rejecting the notion of propitiation altogether, claiming it makes God seem too harsh. The problem with every such view of the atonement is that mercy without propitiation turns forgiveness into an act of injustice.
That is a seriously erroneous view. As a matter of fact, that very idea was one of the main errors of Socinianism.
The original Socinians were 16th-century heretics who denied that God demands any payment for sin as a prerequisite to forgiveness. They insisted instead that He forgives our sin out of the sheer bounty of His kindness alone. They argued that if God demanded an atonement—an expiation, a payment, a reprisal, or a propitiation—for sin, then we shouldn't really call it "forgiveness" when He absolves us. They claimed that sin could either be paid for or forgiven, but not both.
In other words, they defined forgiveness in a way that contradicts and contravenes justice. They were essentially teaching that God could not maintain the demands of His justice and forgive sins at the same time. They thought of forgiveness and justice as two incompatible ideas.
Scripture expressly refutes that idea. One of the most glorious truths of the gospel is that God saved us in a way that upheld His justice. Justice was neither compromised nor set aside; it was completely satisfied. God Himself was thus fully propitiated. And our salvation is therefore grounded in the justice of God as well as His mercy.
That is what the apostle Paul meant when he said in Romans 1:17 that "the righteousness of God [is] revealed" in the gospel. It's also what the apostle John was saying in 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive." He doesn't set aside justice and grant us an unholy amnesty; He forgives because it is an act of justice to do so.
Now, there is a bit if a paradox in that idea. Justice is the moral quality that cries for the punishment of evildoers. Justice fairly screams for retribution whenever a wrong is done: "The wicked shall not be unpunished" (Proverbs 11:21). "[God] will by no means clear the guilty" (Exodus 34:7).
God will judge evil, and that is a good thing. We look forward to that day when the Judge of all the earth will judge the deeds of the wicked and purge evil from the universe. He will not compromise His own righteousness by allowing one sin to go unpunished. Jesus said, "There is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known" (Matt. 10:26). Every sin, even the secret ones, will be brought out in the open and judged. Justice screams for retribution of sin, and God is a God of perfect justice, so He will not let one sin go unpunished.
How then can He forgive sinners?
That's what the atonement is all about: Jesus paid the full penalty of sin on behalf of those who believe. Their sins have already been judged at the cross. "[Christ] Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree" (1 Peter 2:24). Redefine the atonement to remove the idea that Christ suffered the judgment for sin in our place, and you destroy the heart of all gospel truth: "Not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10).