Another Look: Are We More Gracious than God?

Morning Cross with Pilgrim (2014)

 Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.

• 1 Peter 4:8, NRSV

Love…keeps no record of being wronged.

• 1 Corinthians 13:5, NLT

• • •

This is not meant as a formal theological analysis of the meaning of the atonement. It’s more like street-level questioning of the way people often talk about sin and grace and God, especially when we place too much or exclusive emphasis on the common evangelical metaphor of penal, substitutionary atonement.

Are we more gracious than God?

The following is what I often hear about God and his stance toward our sins. Some of these are direct quotes from sermons or theological writings or evangelistic articles. The sentiments are so common that I will not cite sources or name names. Just Google “sin must be punished,” and you’ll get lots and lots of statements like these.

There is a price tag on sin, and therefore sin must be paid for. God cannot allow sin to go unpunished.

Justice requires that sin be punished, because sin deserves punishment. The justice of God obliges him to punish sin.

God, in his holiness, is infinitely opposed to sin. He cannot overlook it but must act with righteous judgment, exacting vengeance against it.

Since God has given us his Law and commanded us to live by it, he must punish those who break his law. Not to do so would be unjust.

In Scripture, sin is spoken of not merely as a terrible evil; but, much more than this, as legal guilt, which the righteous Judge must punish; as something so abhorrent to his holy nature that he cannot allow himself to be approached by any one on whom that guilt still rests; that he cannot meet with anyone from whom that guilt has not been removed by sacrifice.

In order to avoid defying a part of His character, God must judge sin. God cannot ignore sin no matter how loving and kind He is for to do so would deny one of His attributes, i.e., His righteousness.

God is love, but He is also just and righteous. If so, he must punish wickedness in the same way that a judge in a court must punish for crimes.

God is love, but genuine love cannot mean leaving sin unpunished either. Rather, because he loves us, God took the punishment for our sins on himself in Jesus.

If God could just overlook sin, there would be no need for Christ to have taken our punishment on the cross.

Sin must be punished.  God provided a punishment for our sins – Jesus bore our punishment.  We can choose to accept the punishment that Jesus made on our behalf, or take the punishment ourselves.  Either way, sin must be punished.

I have heard and taught this for decades, and still agree with Scot McKnight, who wrote, “I don’t know how to read elements of (especially) Paul without explaining his soteriology as penal…” (A Community Called Atonement). The Bible’s portrait of God as a righteous judge who punishes evil as part of putting his fallen creation to rights is an undeniable part of the biblical witness.

But, as McKnight also reminds us, “Atonement language includes several evocative metaphors…Each is designed to carry us, like the pole, to the thing. But the metaphor is not the thing.” We need all the metaphors (such as sacrifice, reconciliation, redemption, and ransom) and, even then, must humbly confess that we understand only the the outlines of who God is, how he loves us, and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.

As I was driving today, the verse heading this post came to my mind. It immediately struck me as yet another clue to the unfathomable love and grace of God toward you and me:

“…love covers a multitude of sins.”

These words were written to suffering followers of Jesus Christ, encouraging them to show deep love for one another. The author reminds them what love does — it covers sins. That is, it overlooks them, it regards them as of no account. Love is generous with others and releases them from expectations of sinless perfection. If you love me, you will not hold my sins against me. You will accept me in spite of my weaknesses, failures, and offenses.

As the complementary citation from 1 Corinthians 13 says, “Love…keeps no record of being wronged.” I don’t keep a running tally of your sins. In considering your actions or words, I assume your best intentions. I place the value of remaining on good terms with you above holding you accountable for any grievances I might have against you. Insofar as it depends on me, I try to be at peace with you.

So there are times we choose to ignore each other’s sins and shortcomings. We forget them. We overlook them. We don’t consider them worthy of damaging our relationship. We give each other grace, and space. Freedom to fail. The okay to be imperfect. We are committed to each other in a covenant of love. Sin cannot break that.

If this is what love is, and if God is love, why then can’t we factor in this same attitude in our thinking about how God views us and deals with us in our sins?

Are humans, who show this kind of love to each other, more gracious and loving than God?

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Christian preacher or teacher say,

“God loves you, and he overlooks your sins.”

“God won’t let your sins stand between you and him.”

“God values you too much to hold your weaknesses and failures against you.”

“God loves you so much that not even sin can separate you from him.”

Perhaps he is like the father of the Prodigal Son, and not just like a righteous judge upholding the law.

Love covers a multitude of sins.

However, this is obviously not the whole story either.

This idea of “love covering sins” is simply one metaphor among many — a metaphor of relationship that grows out of the stuff of everyday life: family, friends, neighbors, fellow congregation members, coworkers, teammates, partners, fellow citizens. It grows out of living descriptions (not definitions) of love in action and the gracious forbearance, patience, and kindness human beings often show each other in commonplace daily interactions. It doesn’t indicate that we fail to take sin seriously. It just means we think other aspects of relating to each other are more important. It means putting sin in its place and not allowing it to win by pitting us against each other.

But there are times when other metaphors must take precedence. Sin can and does break relationships, and reconciliation is required. Sin, from one perspective, is a crime, and justice must be served through the payment of a penalty. Sin takes us captive, and we need to be set free (redemption) by some sort of payment (ransom) or atoning sacrifice.

All these metaphors become real in the person of Jesus Christ. We are perhaps most familiar and conversant with the concept of Jesus paying the just penalty for our sins by dying on the cross in our place.

But even on the cross, Jesus uttered the words, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). That is not the language of penal substitution. Those are words of generosity — Jesus is asking God to overlook the ignorance of his executioners.

Maybe sometimes Jesus just looks us in the eye, touches us, and says, “Go in peace.” Maybe sometimes he just runs down the road, throws his arms around us, and welcomes us home.

Maybe sometimes he just lets us off the hook.

His love covers a multitude of sins.

77 thoughts on “Another Look: Are We More Gracious than God?

  1. There isn’t enough self-sacrificial love in our increasingly exploitative and monetarized “relationships” to justify the agenda of the Sexual Revolution.

    Of course that horse has long since escaped the barn. The horse has gone to the city and become a C-level executive in a transport company, petitioning the FTC to allow a merger with the Mules.

    You must keep better company than I. I have not been fortunate in my homosexual acquaintances. The best I have seen has been a couple of really sweet guys horribly abused by the hit ’em and quit ’em crowd.


  2. You can forget God at the very foot of the oldest, most traditional altar on Earth. And if two human beings of whatever gender self-sacrificially love each other, does that not fulfill in its own way the Greatest Commandment?


  3. Never much liked Narnia but I love the space trilogy. One does not quickly forget one’s first encounter with a Sorn.


  4. “In “On the Incarnation”, St Athanasius says one of the reasons Christ came was to dispel our ignorance about who God is.”

    Indeed. And “Bible knowledge” is no sure defense against that ignorance. “You dilligently search the Scriptures…”


  5. Ok then let me rephrase my question. What bad thing do you think will happen if human beings express their sexuality free from censorship or coercion?


  6. Beware of putting yourself in the middle of your own salvation drama, or melodrama. It generates ego-inflation on a grand scale. Spiritually centered ego-inflation may have not been too ugly a thing on Walt Whitman, but then he wasn’t a Christian; in Christians it tends to hideousness.


  7. “I can think of no place more likely to do lasting damage to someone than in the Pelvic Arena.”

    Who sleeps with whom won’t bankrupt someone, or starve them, or get them killed (well, it might, if they live in an area that enforces the death penalty for “Aberrant” sexually), or destroy the environment they depend on for life. Priorities, man.


  8. Saying that God “can not” is the problem. Better to say what God “will not” do, but it’s his choice. We tend to hold God to the Law, as if that were a higher power than God, as if he were a lesser pagan god subject to the Fates.


  9. I can think of no place more likely to do lasting damage to someone than in the Pelvic Arena. Let’s give the “Fundamentalists and Republicans are only concerned about Pelvic Issues” bit a rest.

    According to Fr. Stephen Freeman, Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory believed that the issue of incarnation as male and female is going to convulse the Church (both Orthodox and wider) as no other issue had since the time of the Arians.

    I’ll quote Eeyore here, something I thought I’d never do, but he nailed it:

    We want what God doesn’t want and/or reality can’t give us (same thing). And we’d rather have what we want as an illusion, than what is real if it doesn’t give us what we want. We’re rather stupid that way.


  10. It seems to me that most folks who believe in inerrant scripture and espouse literal interpretation actually do that strange way of reading the Bible. While claiming exegesis they actually practice eisegesis.


  11. Then gosh I wonder what they think about “The Last Battle” where the Calormen soldier who only lived to serve Tash in an honorable way found himself in the kindom of Aslan 🙂


  12. God saves us, he redeems and changes us, by loving us, not by making us or anyone else understand where our evil choices come from. That’s not to deny that a level of understanding, about our responsibility for our evil choices and God’s persistent love for us despite those choices, isn’t important; but it is an understanding about God’s commitment in Jesus Christ to loving us no matter the price, it is relational understanding, not an abstract propositional knowledge. It is knowing in the fullness of being, in our bowels, to use some Authorized Version language.


  13. There’s a strange way of reading the Bible which starts with assuming penal substitution, redefines almost every word written in it to match the theory, then quotes often directly contradictory verses as “supporting” the PSA case.


  14. Indeed, the Ninevites were the Nazis of their day. Maybe even worse. I totally understand why he:

    1) Didn’t want to go preach to them in the first place.
    2) Wanted them to burn.


  15. Oh, that’s an interesting angle. I’m not sure that’s the way penal substitution “someone must pay” people see it, but that’s an interesting take on it.


  16. The concept of infinite punishment for a finite sin bothers me, even God “winked at sin in the past” according to Paul. I think CS Lewis’s concept of the gates of Hell being locked from the inside maybe makes more sense. And I have often wondered why evangelicals like CSL so much as their theology often does not align with his.


  17. I don’t get how you get to penal substitution from saying God won’t tolerate sin: certainly not from the Habakkuk section concerned. The point of the verse, indeed the entire chapter, is that God will not permit evil to continue but will do something to make it stop. It says nothing about payback, substitution, atonement or the requirement for blood or punishment or anything like that at all.


  18. In some cases yes but I was thinking more of the unavoidable consequences like innocent victims and their families in say a school shooting or drunk driving accident. They pay and pay and pay some more for the sins of someone else.


  19. In Jonah’s defense, the Assyrians had just recently wiped out his village in Galilee. It is not unreasonable to believe he had been forced to witness the rape of his wife and children, perhaps his own humiliation as well. In addition he most likely had to endure the taunts of the Ninevites as to his own powerlessness and inability to protect them.

    I ask his intercession when I pray for those who have trouble forgiving, such as those affected by the mosque bombings in Christchurch or the church bombings in Sri Lanka.


  20. Yeah, I hear what you’re saying, especially the “mournful” part. But does that mean He’s out there demanding, “someone must pay”? Especially when it’s sometimes not even the “original” sinner?

    Sure, MY dog ate my shoe, but somebody needs to pay, so THIS dog over here… I’ll take it out on HIM!


  21. The Greek Fathers realized that Socrates/Plato were saying something true – not exhaustive, but true. I don’t know what Plato attributed this *to*, but the Fathers attributed it to our first parents turning away from God as the source of life and knowledge, and the subsequent darkening that came with that rejection of God – the basis for our choosing illusion over reality, among the other consequences of our lack of trust in God. One of the results is that we need God to show us and teach us the things we need to know, especially about himself – to make these things perfectly visible and clear. We need God to forgive us in our ignorance and for those things we do “in knowledge or in ignorance” (as we pray in EO) that are contrary to the way human beings were created to live. In “On the Incarnation”, St Athanasius says one of the reasons Christ came was to dispel our ignorance about who God is.



  22. Not sure exactly what you’re getting at. I understand the incarnation pretty well, including seeing it as essential to salvation. It’s atonement theory in particular that’s difficult because I don’t think we have adequate analogies or metaphors to describe how it all works. I do appreciate N.T. Wright’s approach to some of these kinds of issues; his writing has helped me quite a bit.


  23. But, back to my original point… If God can look at what we are doing to each other and this planet he gave us, and NOT be angry and/or mournful… He would not actually be loving. He’d be indifferent.


  24. We want what God doesn’t want and/or reality can’t give us. And we’d rather have what we want as an illusion, than what is real if it doesn’t give us what we want. We’re rather stupid that way.


  25. “look upon” is a metaphor. What they mean is that a holy God will not tolerate unholiness forever, and there must either be reconciliation (through Christ) or punishment (through Hell).


  26. How do folks like RCS come up with “A holy God CAN NOT look upon sin.” If we look at the Bible stories God saw it all from Cain and David all the way through to Judas and the crucifixion.


  27. There’s a difference between forgiving sins and permitting people to continue sinning. Penal substitution says that the problem between man and God is God, in that God had to find some way he might be permitted (by whom?) to forgive our sins and so cease to reject us. This is a late medieval idea from Anselm of Canterbury which did not previously exist. Up to that point (and still in e.g. the eastern Orthodox tradition) the problem between man and God was man, and God finding away to deal with the fact we won’t stop sinning and cease rejecting him. Jesus is God’s sacrifice to us not our sacrifice to God.


  28. Thank you for your post, John. Yep, God’s “accounting” is far from zero sum. Thankfully. Otherwise, I’d be HOSED!


  29. As I just posted in response to Mike D, I’ve never really understood this “someone must pay” aspect that others seem to associate with God either.


  30. –> “…because someone, somewhere has to pay for it…”

    I’ve never understood this thought. Where does it come from? Is there a Biblical basis for “someone must PAY”…? Did God really establish this “rule”? Must someone ALWAYS pay?

    It’s like when my dog chews up my slipper. I don’t go around saying, “SOMEONE MUST PAY, and if not my dog, then YOU!”

    Personally, I think the “someone must pay” viewpoint of God is unhealthy. It makes God out to be readily angry at best, an arrogant, vengeful bully at worst.


  31. The problem is that we’re all Jonahs – we want God to forget OUR sins, but lay the holy smackdown on our enemies for THEIR sins.

    Hence the Culture Wars.
    And if God doesn’t “lay the holy smackdown on our enemies for THEIR sins”, we’ll find somebody who WILL. Like a CHRISTIAN National government. Or Donald Trump.

    — line from a forgotten Fifties Bible-Epic movie

    “A fanatic does what God would do if God only KNEW what was REALLY going on.”
    — can’t remember the source, but it’s a good one-liner


  32. That does seem to be the principal doctrine of a good many variations of Christianity. It also seems very un-Christ-like. Even God, if I remember the story correctly, got annoyed with Jonah for being angry that the people of Ninevah were not destroyed for their sins.


  33. Studying atonement theories in seminary was one of the least satisfying or fruitful things I ever did. So many of the theories are transactional and zero sum in nature. Yet if you look at God’s actions, especially in Jesus, the interactions he has with human beings are anything but transactional and zero sum. So there’s a whole lot more going on than the metaphors suggest.

    This is why I have a really hard time with churches that emphasize the law of God, discipline, penal substitutionary atonement, and total depravity. That approach makes things simpler I guess. But I don’t think it honestly deals with either the human condition or how God interacts with us.


  34. If there is one author whom I regret not knowing more intimately, it is not Karl Barth or Robert Capon. It is the Scottish Origen, George MacDonald. What I know about George MacDonald is at second hand; from CS Lewis and, increasingly, Richard Beck.

    You have to scroll a long way down Dr. Beck’s blog to get to his material on George MacDonald but it is worth it. One thing that Dr. Beck says that George MacDonald taught him is that God wants to save us from sin, not from the consequences of sin. “Aphiesis”, the Greek word for “forgiveness”, is a lot “thicker” than just pardoning.

    Let me not decieve myself. The [eventual] salvation of Donald Trump, or for me, the [eventual] salvation of Jonathan Yaniv is going to cost me something. Maybe, if what George MacDonald says is true, it may cost me what it cost Christ.



  35. I agree. I think God has given us the ability to know that something is better, and yet choose something else. We can knowingly prefer an illusion to reality; how that is so, I don’t know, but that it is so I know from my own inner experience. For making this choice we need God’s forgiveness, and redemption.


  36. The problem is that we’re all Jonahs – we want God to forget OUR sins, but lay the holy smackdown on our enemies for THEIR sins.


  37. “he corrects himself in the second couplet: “Why then DO you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (emphasis added)

    So it seems that God can in fact tolerate sin and evil. Is it required that blood be shed? Maybe.”

    Note the answer God gave Habbakuk. “You’re right – I won’t tolerate Israel’s sin. So I will send the Babylonians to punish them, despite their own wickedness. And then I will punish *them* in *their* turn.”

    But at the end of Habbakuk, the hope isn’t that the unjust will be punished – but that injustice may cease. Because otherwise, the wheel will just keep turning…


  38. I don’t think so. I think Plato/Socrates did not take the potential for psycho/sociopathy into account. A true sociopath may well understand the consequences of their actions – and just not give a $#!t.


  39. The “sin must be punished” theme is very much the voice of the older brother, telling his father how to discipline the prodigal son. “You’re gonna let him get AWAY with that???”

    Along with this goes the theme “God must…” or “God can’t.” I get a rash when I hear statements telling God how he “must” behave, even from people like R.C. Sproul: “A holy God CAN NOT look upon sin. Blood MUST be shed…” Or words to that effect.

    Scriptural justification for this may come from Habakkuk 1:13, the first couplet of which says, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.”

    Again, the “God can’t” mindset, and this from a prophet who should have known better. But he corrects himself in the second couplet: “Why then DO you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (emphasis added)

    So it seems that God can in fact tolerate sin and evil. Is it required that blood be shed? Maybe. I believe that that’s how God redeemed us, once and for all, but I don’t necessarily think that he HAD to do it that way. It’s a love choice, as in John 3:16. And I don’t think each and every sin needs to have a punishment, otherwise what are grace and repentance all about? Again, the older brother.


  40. This gets to the question of sin and evil. Socrates/Plato wrote that no one can intentionally pursue evil, because evil can never be in anyone’s true interest, not even the one who does the evil. As a result, he goes on, we should conclude that evil acts are done from ignorance, not an evil will, but a misinformed one. Was Socrates/Plato right? If so, what we need is gnosis, knowledge, not redemption by salvific acts on the part of God. Do evil acts that follow from ignorance need forgiving, or understanding?


  41. there was an early heresy that separated the God of Wrath from Christ as the Revealer of God

    the Church rejected that heresy


  42. is it possible this (g)od might examine the whole person to fathom the root cause of the destructive behavior, and in searching the person, be able to make better evaluation of what happened and why and how it came to be that this person was involved in the behavior ?


  43. A lot of people still seem locked into this “somebody’s gonna pay” mentality. For one thing, our current political discourse is dominated by the desire for retribution.


  44. If you think about the death of God incarnate in Jesus on the cross, what is that if not the gift of God’s silence to the world?

    I love that line. It’s priceless. And Zen-like. When Christians lament the delay of the Parousia, sometimes we are lamenting that ongoing gift of God’s silence, God’s “dropping the subject of sins”, without taking stock of how much we may benefit from that continuing silence.


  45. Somebody gonna pay. Just not me, right?

    I have to admit this is one of the parts that just doesn’t make any sense to me anymore.

    ps Isn’t it interesting how we ascribe characteristics to God that we would find intolerable in another human being?


  46. I …… still agree with Scot McKnight, who wrote, “I don’t know how to read elements of (especially) Paul without explaining his soteriology as penal…” …… The Bible’s portrait of God as a righteous judge who punishes evil as part of putting his fallen creation to rights is an undeniable part of the biblical witness.

    Yes, but as you point out, this is an interpretative metaphor that Paul is bringing to, as well as finding in, the event of Jesus’ cross. It is not the only metaphor for redemption, even if in some respects it is controlling one; and like a parable, if a metaphor is pressed too far it becomes not only inaccurate but misleading. God is not, after all, a literal judge sitting in a courtroom, either of the first or 21st centuries; he is Creator of the world, who created it out of love. Nor can the divine creative love be something that is suddenly turned into a judicial transaction, and primarily that, when it comes to redemption, which is after all a personal, relational matter, since both human beings and God are persons. Relational love like that of a loving parent (although even that metaphor can be pressed too far), is the central, overarching metaphor, under which the penal metaphor must be subsumed. God may sometimes act as judge, but he is love. Judging is a role God sometimes assumes, but love is of his very essence.


  47. OTOH, a (g)od who doesn’t get angry and upset over deliberate injustice, torture, rape, theft (personal and systemic), environmental destruction, and murder… that wouldn’t say much about THAT (g)od’s morality either, would it?


  48. The thing that I find difficult about the penal view of the atonement is God does not forgive sin. Sin is never forgiven, because someone, somewhere has to pay for it – so God does not forgive, he just shifts his aim a little.


  49. Interestingly, Karl Barth someplace (wish I knew exactly where!!) said as much as the last sentence in your quote, in different words. Something about Jesus’ cross being the price God had to pay to justify his right to continue being the God of a creation so full of suffering and sin. Based on this and other convergences in thinking that I’ve seen between Capon (yes, I knew it was Capon even though you didn’t include his name in your quote, and I’m unfamiliar with that book title — so distinctive is his style, and the mirth that comes across in his theological approach!) and Barth, it seems as if they were reading from the same page — maybe the Bible, huh?


  50. “[…] even God is not above dropping the subject of sins. If you think about the death of God incarnate in Jesus on the cross, what is that if not the gift of God’s silence to the world? After millennia of divine jawboning about the holiness of justice and the wickedness of sin, God himself simply shuts up about the whole business. He dies as a criminal, under the curse of the Law – as if to say, ‘Look, I’m as guilty as you are in this situation because I set it up in the first place; let’s just forget about blame and get on with the party.’ ”

    (From The Mystery of Christ… & Why We Don’t Get It)


  51. Whatever the thing is that the evocative metaphors point us to, that Jesus gave it so freely not only to those who had committed sins directly against himself, but also to those who had committed sins against others points to an authority over the matter of the forgiveness of sins that only he possesses, and that will always make his graciousness greater than ours, no matter which metaphor may or may not be more central or overarching in describing the thing itself. If any Christian is empowered to forgive others for the sins they’ve committed against third parties, it is only insofar as Jesus has commissioned and authorized us to (whether this is only limited to ordained priests is a question we’ll leave aside; that at least some are so empowered is indicated by passages in the gospels).


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