For those who are interested in theology, here is another atonement post with a question to consider:

In the Bible, God is a forgiver.

As Psalm 130 states:

If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,

Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness (vss. 3-4a).

Dozens of passages could be added to this, but as Alexander Pope wrote: “To err is human; to forgive is divine.”

So here is what may seem like a strange question:

  • Can we really say that God “forgave” sins if Jesus paid the price for them?

For many Christians, one meaning of the cross is that Christ willingly bore the penalty that we deserved. Therefore, there is “no condemnation” for us (Rom. 8.1), because Jesus was condemned in our place. This is referred to as “penal substitution,” and it sometimes focuses on the idea that sin’s price was paid in full.

Yet for the contemporary theologian Greg Boyd, this runs counter to the Bible’s claim that God “forgives.”

As Boyd argues, forgiveness is “the release of a debt.” Yet:

“If God must always get what is coming to him in order to forgive (namely, “a kill”), does God ever really forgive?”[1]

Boyd thinks not. And for him, this is yet another reason to abandon penal substitution for more coherent understandings of atonement (see more here ). As he explains:

“If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone or other pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? Yes, you got off the hook. But forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”[2]

So what do you think? Does Boyd’s point resonate with you? Why or why not?

While I would not claim that penal substitution is somehow the “most important” model of atonement, I am currently looking at some objections to it for a chapter in a larger book. Hence the repetition of the penal substitution questions.

This question builds on two previous posts (here and here), which examined a related objection  involving the parable of the Prodigal Son. If you are new, see those prior posts for further context.



[1] Gregory Boyd, “Christus Victor Response,” in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, eds. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 104.

[2] Gregory Boyd, “The Danger of the Penal Substitution View of Atonement.” Re|knew. November 20, 2014. Accessed April 2, 2016.

4 thoughts on “Does God “forgive” if Jesus pays our penalty? (Part 1 of 2)

  1. On reading Boyd’s quote regarding the hundred dollar debt, I find myself wanting to like the idea that the debt is forgiven without any need to pay it, yet there is discomfort in that there seems to be injustice because the person never received his/her one hundred dollars. One is freed from debt, but the other loses what he had, so is there anything for him/her? In relating this to God, Christ and man, I hold that there is love and justice working in unison. It is because of God’s love that we are pardoned, yet I see Boyd’s point, but I interpret that he may be diminishing the need to satisfy justice, for God is just. I like the simple illustration, but if it was me, I would want the hundred dollars back too.


  2. In response to Boyd’s quote about the debt, I would say that God did release a debt. He released our debt, but when Jesus took our debt on himself, he did not release His newfound debt. For example, let’s say there are two cars on a NASCAR team with two drivers of those cars, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Jimmie Johnson is in the playoffs to win the championship, but Jeff Gordon is not. However, Jimmie gets in a fight with Danica Patrick and gets suspended. But Jeff Gordon does not want Jimmie to be in a position where he would lose this championship, so he volunteers to take the suspension for him. NASCAR honors this decision. Jeff Gordon is like Jesus for us. Jesus voluntarily took our debt so that it could be released for us, just like Jeff took Jimmie’s “debt” so he could win the championship (this is not a true story by the way). NASCAR allowed this and was like “God” in canceling Jimmie’s suspension and putting on Jeff Gordon.


  3. I would also pose the observation that debt ($$, property) is not as important as human life or values such as justice or mercy. So it seems reasonable and justifiable, even commendable to forgive a large monetary debt in this life, because eternally it simply isn’t that important! But would we want God to do the same? Sin runs amok eternally and absolutely, it marrs creation, it dehumanizes His image bearers, it is repulsive to a Father who loves us unconditionally, and rightfully so. So, to wipe the slate clean, as Boyd seems to suggest with his amended idea of forgiveness, without God “getting what is coming to him” (not sure what that means) would be unjust (like Billy said!), and therefore contrary to His nature.
    Indeed, it would certainly still be considered forgiveness if Father God, now the Son of God, takes on the penalty of His (already just) system. Using the Boyd analogy, (actually there’s no good human equivalent for the trinity that remotely relates, but) that would be like the lender creatively and unexpectedly paying the money back himself somehow (off shore accounts, savings bonds, tax returns, you name it). So no, no one else is being extracted for the debt, this is a purely internal affair and a miraculous one at that.(:
    (Now I think I’m asserting what Paige wrote, just without any NASCAR)
    I’m not familiar with Boyd’s beliefs regarding the trinity, but if he held a less orthodox view (although Open Theists have a higher view of scripture than say, Process Theologians) that may account for some of his conclusions.
    I understand some of the issues surrounding atonement, particularly penal substitution, but I’m not entirely convinced that the objection Boyd posed is one of them.


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