In particular, our insistence that according to the gospel the cross of Christ is the only ground on which God forgives sins bewilders many people. ‘Why should forgiveness depend on Christ’s death?’ they ask. ‘Why does God not simply forgive us, without the necessity of the cross?’He then goes on to quote the cynical French phrase which translates (roughly): ‘The good God will forgive me; that’s his job.’ This is not far different from the Muslims who wonder why there should be any difficulty in God deciding to forgive sins.
In answering this question he quotes Anselm (in Cur Deus Homo):
If anybody imagines, he wrote, that God can simply forgive us as we forgive others, that person ‘has not yet considered the seriousness of sin’, or literally ‘what a heavy weight sin is’ (i.xxi).He adds:
‘The second answer might be expressed similarly: ‘You have not yet considered the majesty of God.’ It is when our perception of God and man, or of holiness and sin are askew that our understanding of the atonement is bound to be askew also.He goes on:
The crucial question we should ask, therefore, is a different one. It is not why God finds it difficult to forgive, but how God finds it possible to forgive at all. As Emil Brunner put it, ‘Forgiveness is the very opposite of anything which can be taken for granted. Nothing is less obvious than forgiveness.’ (Mediator, p.448). . . . The problem of forgiveness is constituted by the inevitable collision between divine perfection and human rebellion, between God as he is and us as we are. . . . How then could God express his holy love? – his love in forgiving sinners without compromising his holiness, and his holiness in judging sinners without frustrating his love? Confronted by human evil, how could God be true to himself as holy love? In Isaiah’s words, how could he be simultaneously ‘a righteous God and a Saviour’ (45:21)?The thing for us to reflect on is whether we sometimes forget that there is a ‘Problem of Forgiveness’? Do we downplay the significance of human sin or perhaps forget the depths of God’s holiness? Do we ‘expect’ God to forgive us and forget what a huge thing it is for God to send his Son into the world to bear the punishment we deserve in order to bring us the forgiveness we do not deserve?