Justice in Forgiveness

A friend called me a few days ago. He had been trying to call me for a few days, but he lives on the other side of the earth and our schedules just hadn’t matched up. I could tell it was about something urgent, so I tried my best to make time for him. Finally, he was able to tell me his news. He told me about how his 18-year-old sister was driving home drunk after a night of partying and she ran over a pedestrian and killed her. To make matters worse, this is a part of the world where human life is cheap, and these things can be swept under the rug with enough clout. So now, there was this girl who had just killed a person, and now she was facing no consequences. Not only that, but she is now making herself out to be the victim, seeking the pity of others. My friend was furious on the phone with me, and admittedly I was pretty upset too. A person was dead, a soul that God loves, and the person culpable neither would be held responsible nor displayed any sense of remorse. How can a human life be taken, and the world see no repercussion? How can someone kill, and escape consequence? I rolled these questions around in my mind for the rest of that day. Some were easy to answer. No sin escapes God’s final judgement. Every act will be called into accountability. Even if this girl walks away free from this grievous act, she will one day answer for it before the judgement seat of Christ. These questions came with nice biblical answers, except something was still bothering me. This girl, though now a killer, was no less precious a soul to Christ, and her entrance into the Kingdom would be no less celebrated.

This later thought created a conflict of emotions in me. First came anger that she killed someone and acted like it was nothing, but then pity that her actions may have just alienated her from anyone who would point her to Christ. I myself was to blame! I, by all profession a Christian, had as my first reaction a desire to see her judged for what she did. She deserves everything coming to her, is what I thought. Yet, I knew that this was not a Christ-like way of thinking. So, I began to think about her potential salvation and reconciliation. What a beautiful thought! That God could, through the wooing of his Spirit, quicken the dead and unrepentant heart to contrition and new life! The human in me continued to rage: a person was dead, and no hand-wave of forgiveness could change that. If this girl was saved, and final judgement came, that person would indeed have been killed without justice. I have heard this argument a lot in discussion with nonbelievers. The case study is this: If Stalin was supposedly saved a moment before death, and under the Christian system he would escape any and every repercussion for the atrocities he committed, then God cannot be just. It would be more concise to say that the idea of forgiveness of sins is contrary to the concept of justice. If God’s grace freely pardons sin, then the grace of God is not just, and so God himself who dispenses such grace must also be unjust.

This is a difficult question and I hope that you recognize it as such, because it represents a very logical conclusion of human thinking. The problem with Christian theology, and explaining it to nonbelievers, is it usurps logical human thinking. In fact, it is self-aware in doing so. How often does the Bible recognize in clear declaration that its conclusions do not align with human logic? I’ll help you: often. The issue is that humans think with logical rules, like mathematics, but God wrote math. What would happen if one day he decided to write a different math? The truth is, you probably wouldn’t even notice, it just would be. But while the entirety of the universe would change, and all logic with it, God would remain as he was before. Now in the topic of rules and laws, and writing rules and laws, we expect those who create such legislation to likewise be subject to the legislation that is enforced. First, this line of thinking is flawed as a result of democratic thought in the modern world. Democratic theory is based ultimately on the idea that all men are created equal, and so not even those who write the laws ought to be above their jurisdiction. This is a beautiful conclusion that has benefited the world tremendously, but it fails us in the discussion of theology because we are no longer considering a homogeneous set of beings. Plainly, God is not human. While all men are indeed created equal, and share in the imago dei, not all beings are equal. Humans seem to be above animals, and God above humans. In the same way that the laws of humans do not apply to animals, the similarly don’t necessarily apply to God. Second, God has imparted within mankind a part of his nature through his breath and image, and so we can relate to him through human concepts because they find their origin in him. To illustrate this, we will use the topic at hand. Why can humans conceive of justice? Because God is just.

I realize that I just made a massive epistemological statement that should be backed up with a great deal of discussion and argument, but our conversation is relative to the Christian theological system. So, I will stick to the statement that God as the source of morality and truth is a fundamental presupposition of Christian theology. Jesus recognizes this when he prays to God the Father in his high priestly prayer, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” There is an equivalence here between the word of God, which is a massive topic that the Bible dedicates many words to, and truth itself. See, Genesis 1:1. Since, everything was bara’, or created ex nihilo, by God, then everything is contingent on him. Notably, the word by which everything came into being then is representative of reality itself. His word is truth. Therefore, with all of this philosophical mumbo jumbo in view, we conclude that God himself is the author of justice, and the concept of justice as derived by human logic may not always align with the cosmic justice as defined by God. It is important to make a statement of how the two come to diverge. The justice of God is contingent on the nature of God, which we have seen is contingent on nothing. The justice of man, however, is contingent on three key things, with the possibility of more. First, it is contingent on the justice of God. Human justice finds its origin in the justice of God but is separate from it due to points two and three. Second, it is contingent on human logic. Human have limited potency and science, and any logic derived from imperfection will contain at least some point of imperfection. Third, it is contingent on sin. Humanity has been completely infused with a sin-nature that corrupts human thought, including logic. Finally, we might have laid enough groundwork that we can get back to our original question: is the forgiveness of God just?

The day after learning about this terrible situation, I went to hear a good friend of mine preach. It seemed fitting for my current situation that he was preaching on 1 John. That is where we will head as well. From this short epistle, we will begin at our first point, the totality of God’s forgiveness. John says, “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all unrighteousness.” He goes further, saying, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Here we begin to see that the Bible is also concerned about the relationship between forgiveness and justice. John claims, unlike human logic, that God is actually just to forgive us our sins! There must be then, at least in John’s mind, something that he sees that human logic is not piecing together. The answer is actually here, in the same paragraph, but it is very difficult to see in English. So, we will look elsewhere and see how the idea of forgiveness for sins originates in Scripture.

Although sin permeates Scripture right from chapter 3 of Genesis, Leviticus chapter 4 is really the first time God outlines how to actually be forgiven of sin. The prescription is sacrifice. We know from Genesis chapter 2 that the punishment for sin is death, plain and simple. This incredibly rigid and inflexible law doesn’t change throughout any part of Scripture. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans that even after Christ’s work, “the wages of sin is death.” This points to the extent of God’s holiness. A holy God, in order to maintain such holiness, can only answer unholiness with capital punishment. Therefore, the justice of God also demands death for any and every sin. Within Leviticus chapter 4, however, God outlines a concept not previously utilized. I hesitate to call it new, for once again Paul reminds us in Romans chapter 5 that the justice of God in the manner in which Adam’s sin was counted necessitated our concept found in Leviticus chapter 4. This is the concept of substitution. The justice of God demands death for sin, but Leviticus chapter 4 asks, “But who’s death?” Instead of a person dying for their sin, their sin could be symbolically placed on an animal, who would then suffer the penalty on their behalf. In a way then, it can be seen that forgiveness for sin can only be achieved by carrying out the punishment for that sin, in this case upon an animal. Hebrews chapter 9 details this concept saying, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” This system, however, was not perfect.

Consider back to Adam’s sin as described by Paul in Romans chapter 5, “sin came into the world through one man, and death with sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned,” and, “all died through one man’s trespass,” and see how sin came to all men through one man. In the same way, forgiveness cannot, then, come from an animal. Therefore, the author of Hebrews in chapter 10 calls Leviticus 4 “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities.” The Law’s prescription of animal substitutionary sacrifice for sins “can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Therefore, for ultimate forgiveness from sin, there remained a need beyond Leviticus 4 for a sacrifice for sin.

If we follow Paul’s logic in Romans chapter 5 to its conclusion, we see that “as the trespass of one led to condemnation for all men, so the act of righteousness of one leads to justification and life for all men.” The ultimate substitutionary sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins cannot be an animal, but a man. The Law informs us also that the sacrifice must be perfect, without blemish. So, in order to be a qualified sacrifice, the man must be likewise be perfect. Jesus Christ, having perfectly fulfilled the holy requirement of the Law, stands as the only human qualified to be such a sacrifice. Since a sacrifice of the man Jesus Christ would be considered perfect, the author of Hebrews says, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified,” and later, “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” Therefore, in the question of the extent of the totality of God’s forgiveness, the perfect sacrifice of Christ can be seen to provide forgiveness of all sin through substitution for all time. Note that the Bible never gives a limit regarding the extent of Christ’s forgiveness. The author of Hebrews gives a qualifier for “those who are being sanctified,” but the impression is that to as many that are being sanctified, so the magnitude of Christ’s justifying sacrifice (hereafter to be referred to as grace) abounds. In fact, This is how Paul describes it back once again in Romans chapter 5, saying, “For if all died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God; that is: the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” Therefore, no sin can outpace the forgiveness found in the grace of Jesus, since where sin abounds, grace only abounds all the more.

Knowing that there is a total and final sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin found in the grace of Jesus, we now return to our paragraph in 1 John chapter 1 to look at the justice of that total forgiveness. John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, and, “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” These verses are quite repetitive, and as such they are often overlooked as saying the same thing. The reason for this, as I previously pointed out, is that it is very difficult to see what John is getting at in English. As I often like to do, let’s work backwards. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar because he said all have sinned. Therefore, since we have all sinned, it is necessary for us to be cleansed of that sin. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This is considered just because our punishment for sin has been carried out on a substitutionary sacrifice. So, if we say we have no sacrifice for sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, because the truth is that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.

 Note my translation of “sin,” as “offering for sin,” or “sin offering,” in verse 8. The word translated as “sin,” hamartia in Greek, can also mean “sin offering,” in the right contexts. This comes from a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek, were the Hebrew can mean either “sin,” or “sin offering.” Of course, the Greek Bible also uses the phrase peri hamartias, or “concerning sin,” to refer to sin offerings, so there is some debate on how to translate these. But it seems clear from the immediate context of 1 John chapter 1, that a translation in verse 8 of “sin offering,” is appropriate. Consider the previous verse, “the blood of Jesus,” and see how John has just introduced a reference to Jesus’ sacrifice immediately before his statement in verse 8. This is strengthened by John’s reference to sacrificial propitiation just after in chapter 2 verse 2. Furthermore, such a translation explains that John is not being repetitive in verses 8 and 10, but rather is building an argument; that is, the argument I previously outlined.

When considering for myself how I felt about my friend’s sister killing someone, I thought about my own sin. I hate thinking about my own sin because it seems like there is no end to my own miserable depravity. My corrupt human flesh also gets defensive during this kind of self-reflection, and this instance was no exception. “I’ve done some terrible things, yes,” I said to myself, “but at least I haven’t killed someone.” Theologically, I knew that this was a fallacy. As our previous discussion on the punishment for sin illuminated, the degree to which I’ve sinned has no bearing on the extent to which I am a sinner, nor on my need for a savior. Furthermore, considering my own forgiveness took me to the cross, and Christ’s sacrifice. Sin entered the world through one man, and so it would be defeated by one man. This means that even if I alone had sinned, even once, Christ would still have to die. As this truth began to sink in, I realized that I was no different than my friend’s sister. I too had killed a man; his name is Jesus Christ. Although he had done nothing wrong, and I hated him, he gave himself up to be slaughtered so that I wouldn’t have to. Thank God that he did!

“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a generous person one would dare to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

For my sin, God himself emptied himself, took on the form of a slave, and gave himself up to death on a cross. If I am to be forgiven of my sin, then anyone can be too. And God is still just in this forgiveness, because he ensured that the wrath our sin was due was enacted. He did this by taking that punishment upon himself in substitution for us. As in human justice, according to the justice of God, no action lacks consequence. For it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” For those who are Christians, this repayment has been dealt against our Lord Jesus Christ, and the cosmic tragedy of someone so perfect and beautiful being so utterly crushed is something far worse than the deaths we would have suffered without his grace. In our discussion of biblical retaliation, we saw how Christ commands us to repay evil with greater good. In the grace of Christ, we see him be our ultimate example of what that looks like. When put into proper consideration, the grace of Jesus makes the question of whether or not God’s forgiveness is just seem really rather stupid. Praise God for his justice, for me and for that girl.

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