Too many Christians think of divine forgiveness as something that utterly overturns justice and sets it asideas if God's mercy nullified His justiceas if God's love defeated and revoked His hatred of sin. That's not how forgiveness works.
s forgiveness from sin grounded only in the love and mercy and goodness of Godapart 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 todayincluding multitudes who identify themselves as Christiansthink 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 atonementan expiation, a payment, a reprisal, or a propitiationfor 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).
We understand instinctively that it is unjust to let evil go unpunished. The truly righteous long for God to deal with evildoers. Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the Temple featured this plea for justice: "Hear thou from heaven, and do, and judge thy servants, by requiting the wicked, by recompensing his way upon his own head" (1 Chronicles 6:23). According to Revelation 6:10, the souls of those martyred for their faith constantly cry to God, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?"
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).
One of the great mysteries not revealed in the Old Testament but fully revealed in the gospel is a clear answer to the age-old question of how forgiveness is possible without compromising the justice of God. Christ fully satisfied God's justice on behalf of those whom He saves. He bore the penalty of their sin when He died on the cross. The gospel declares "His righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Romans 3:26).
Christ offered a full atonement that included payment in full for all the sins of every sinner who would ever believe. "[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21)"whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness" (Romans 3:25). "He Himself is the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 2:2).
Our thoughts about such things are almost always too shallow. We take God's mercy for granted and ignore His holy justice. But a right view of God will always exalt His righteous hatred for sin as much as it magnifies His love and mercy. God's mercy is not some maudlin sentiment that causes Him to forget about His holiness and set aside His righteous anger against sin. The demands of righteousness must be fully and completely satisfied if God is ever going to forgive sin. He cannot and will not simply overlook sin as if it didn't really matter.
In other words, the gospel is not only a message about the love of God. It is that; but it is not only that. The true gospel magnifies His justice as much as it magnifies His love.
When was the last time you thought of the gospel as a message about divine justice?
We tend not to think in those terms. Invariably, when you hear the gospel presented these days, all the stress is on the love of God, and His righteous abhorrence of sin is rarely even mentioned. "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." We love to talk about forgiveness, but rarely is there any attention given to the fact that God demanded payment for sin in full, and if that payment had not been made, there would never have been any forgiveness whatsoever:
"Without shedding of blood there is no remission" (Hebrews 9:22).