“I will love you and forgive you anyway”

I’m still working my way through this essay on atonement (by N.T. Wright again—I promise I’m not his groupie!), but I like what I’m reading so far. Atonement deals with the question, “How does God reconcile us to God’s self through Jesus?” The cross figures heavily into any meaningful discussion of it. There are many biblical images and metaphors for understanding atonement, and none is complete unto itself, but the most biblically well-attested is also the one that is least popular in mainline Protestant circles: penal substitution. The idea that on the cross Jesus stood in for us, and received the punishment that we justly deserved. Not only do we find this idea throughout the New Testament (see 2 Corinthians 5, for example), it is at the heart of Isaiah’s “suffering servant” passage of chapters 40-55.

Many of my fellow Methodists dislike penal substitution because they worry that it’s incompatible with God’s love. If God is love, and God is gracious and forgiving, why does God use something as extreme and brutal and ugly as a cross to deal with sin? I’ve certainly struggled with this thought. But at the heart of this struggle, I’m afraid, is underestimating the problem of sin and evil. That we’re uncomfortable with the cross says much more about us and our view of sin than it says about God’s love and mercy.

Here’s a relevant passage from the essay. I’ll write more about it later.

In his magisterial Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), [Yale theologian Miroslav Volf] demonstrates, with sharp examples from his native Balkans, that it simply won’t do, when faced with radical evil, to say, ‘Oh well, don’t worry, I will love you and forgive you anyway.’ That… is not forgiveness; it is belittling the evil that has been done. Genuine forgiveness must first ‘exclude’, argues Volf, before it can ’embrace’; it must name and shame the evil, and find an appropriate way of dealing with it, before reconciliation can happen. Otherwise we are just papering over the cracks. As I said early on, if God does not hate the wickedness that happens in his beautiful world, he is neither a good nor a just God, and chaos is come again… It isn’t that God happens to have a petulant thing about petty rules. He is the wise and loving creator who cannot abide his creation being despoiled. On the cross he drew the full force not only of that despoiling, but of his own proper, judicial, punitive rejection of it, on to himself. That is what the New Testament says. That is what Jesus himself, I have argued elsewhere, believed what was going on.

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