Does God “forgive” if Jesus pays our penalty (Part 2 of 2)

In part one of this post, we highlighted a claim by Greg Boyd about divine forgiveness.

As Boyd argued, the idea that God forgives our sins, and the idea that Jesus paid the penalty for them cannot both be true.  They are incompatible, at least as he sees it.

His argument involved the following analogy:

“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.”

For starters, there are several things that I appreciate about Boyd’s work. We both have disagreements with aspects of Reformed theology (though I am not an Open Theist), and his book The Myth of a Christian Nation has great points about how (according to the subtitle) “the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.” In addition, Boyd does a fantastic job of communicating theology in ways that are understandable to the average person, and his emphasis on the Christus Victor model of atonement is often very helpful. I like him.

Yet on the present subject, I think there is good reason why this is not a particularly common argument (are there others who make it?).

The main problem, in my view, centers on a false assumption about what forgiveness entails.

The crucial question is thus: Does the forgiveness necessitate that no punishment may be handed down for the offense? Boyd assumes so, but this seems obviously wrong.

Consider, for example, the parents who (incredibly) choose to forgive the murderer of their child. While this is an amazing act of grace, it by no means implies (as Boyd seems to assume) that all penalties must be waived for the crime. Indeed, no thoughtful person would respond to the parents’ action by proclaiming: “Well, it’s very nice that you did that, but it is not forgiveness, because the criminal is still in jail.”

In this regard, Boyd is simply wrong about what forgiveness means. It need not be antithetical to all legal consequences.

Moving back to the many biblical examples, it is telling that Israel’s absolution often comes after (or alongside) the enactment of certain covenantal penalties—things like exile, or a defeat at the hands of enemies. Here too forgiveness need not imply a total lack of punishment. Often, as with Christ, it comes through the shedding of blood (Eph. 1.7). And in the case of penal substitution, the assumption is that divine faithfulness to the covenant means that our forgiveness comes because God himself decides to bear the curse of the Law.

In the end, Boyd’s claim seems to misunderstand both the meaning of forgiveness in our contemporary culture (e.g., the example of the forgiving parents), and its meaning within the biblical and covenantal narrative. Of course, this does not prove that penal substitution is correct—it could well be wrong for many other reasons—but it does show that this particular claim has some false assumptions.

On a related note, one thing I have appreciated in the recent growth of analytic theology—as exemplified by folks like Tom McCall and Oliver Crisp—is a concern to be a bit more careful about such issues of terminological precision and argumentative rigor.

While this concern is not unique to analytic theology, it is sometimes stunning (as in the above example from Boyd) how quickly theologians make sweeping conclusions without ever clarifying or mounting an argument for what a given concept actually means. In fairness, most all of us have been guilty of this.

Thankfully, though, there is one thing that Boyd’s argument get’s right: with God there is forgiveness.


On a related note, if you are interested in an introduction to analytic theology, Tom McCall’s new book (An Introduction to Analytic Christian Theology) is a great read.

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