For a good number of years my dominant image of God was that of a Judge who presided in a heavenly courtroom and demanded payment from his human creation for breaking his law. The God I imagined was bound to the law and intolerant toward sin. God demanded punishment – by death. So God sent Jesus, God’s unique Son, to die, so that God’s justice would be satisfied, and God would be free to release the rest of humankind from the penalty and punishment they deserve for having transgressed God’s law and offended God’s justice.
But then, at some point on my journey when I gave myself permission to question and even doubt, I began to wonder why God’s unique Son would have to die such a cruel death by execution in order to satisfy some broken law, particularly since God is the one who makes the law in the first place. God can change a law anytime God wants to, I reasoned. So why would God require this sort of tit-for-tat, quid-pro-quo justice that would demand the sacrifice of a human life? I began to wonder how this arrangement was that much different than what primitive peoples did when they offered up human lives, and then later, animals to appease the anger of their gods?
These questions led to more questions. So I started down that “slippery slope.” In one sense it was and continues to be a liberating ride, sort of like the kid who finally gets up enough nerve to ride the roller coaster and afterward wants to ride it over and over again. But in other ways it was and continues to be a painful ride, because of those who want me to keep it to myself. Sharing my journey has come with both personal and institutional costs (we have lost church members on account of it – but gained some too). Anyone who has traveled this path knows, as some of you know, that once you give yourself the freedom to question, and once you discover liberating and transforming truth, there’s no going back.
As I reflected on the stories of Jesus with new understanding I wondered how I could have missed the central message that makes the good news good news. I realized that Jesus’ dominant image of God was not a God who sits upon a judgment throne far above his subjects demanding punishment for breaking the law. Rather, Jesus’ dominant image of God was that of an “Abba” – a loving father or mother who is intimately aware and engaged in the life of his or her children. I realized then that Jesus considered all people to be children of God, worthy of love.
God forgives because God loves us with an eternal love, and wants nothing more than to be in relationship with us. When Jesus was criticized for eating with all manner of people, tax collectors and other “sinners” whom the religious leaders condemned as lawbreakers, Jesus said, “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matt. 9:13). The gospel of Jesus is not about a sacrificial offering required to pay off a divine penalty. Rather, it is about sacrificial love committed to the good of others, even to the point of death on a cross (death by Roman crucifixion). This is how Jesus’ life and death constitute an “atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:7-12). We now “live through him” (1 Jn. 4:9) by loving others the way he loves all of us.
Maybe you have seen the roadside billboard that reads: Real Christians, love their enemies. I don’t know who is responsible for that sign, but when I first saw it I said, “Yes, finally, the gospel of Jesus.” God unconditionally forgives us and commands us to do the same to others because God wants us to live free of our grievance stories, and free of our need for revenge and retaliation. There is no personal healing or relational healing without forgiveness.
Forgiveness, of course, is not the same thing as trust. And trust is a necessary ingredient in any kind of restored relationship. Often, restitution is a vital part of reestablishing trust. But forgiveness itself is pure grace.
The gospel of Jesus is captured best in the parable of the waiting father in Luke 15. The father has already unconditionally forgiven his wayward son. When he sees him in the distance returning home, he runs out to embrace him, weeping tears of joy. Then he throws an extravagant welcome home party.
The gospel of Jesus is not about retributive justice. It’s about restorative justice that restores relationships and works for the common good of all people. It’s about good news for the poor, freedom for captives, liberation for the oppressed, sight for the blind, and spreading grace like scattering seeds (Luke 4:16-21).
(This piece was first published in the Frankfort State Journal)