Being forgiven by God is more than realizing how “forgiving” God already is


My margin note on the top of page 58 of Adam Hamilton's Not a Silent Night.
My margin note on the top of page 58 of Adam Hamilton’s Not a Silent Night.

I realize I’m in danger of making penal substitution a hobby horse on this blog. I’m happy to do so, however, given the important theological questions at stake: Did Jesus’ death on the cross accomplish something objective, which deals once and for all with with humanity’s problem—my problem—with sin?

Or is the cross effective only inasmuch as it inspires us to change? In other words, does the effectiveness of the cross depend on our response to it?

What’s at stake, therefore, is the question of whether or not the Atonement is objective or subjective.

hamilton2I hope for my sake that the Atonement is objective. If the effectiveness of the cross depends on my weak and waffling response to it—even after 30 years of being a baptized, professing Christian—I’m afraid I’m in trouble.

That is, unless our sins aren’t really a problem for God after all. But if that were so, how do we make sense of most of the Bible, not least of which Romans 1-7? More on that in a moment.

In his new book on Christmas, Not a Silent Night, Adam Hamilton sides with those who believe that the Atonement is subjective. He writes:

Precisely how Jesus’ death saves is a mystery; there are multiple theories of the Atonement, and each carries some important truths. Some view the Atonement—God’s use of the cross to redeem, forgive, and restore us—as though it were a mathematical, economic, or juridical formula. But to me the cross makes the most sense when I recognize it more as poetry, as a divine drama meant to touch our hearts, move us to repentance, and lead us to acceptance of the truth that we are sinners and Jesus is our Savior. It is meant to lead us to accept a love and mercy that we don’t deserve and cannot afford. And it is meant to lead us to an assurance that he has, in the famous words of John Wesley, “taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[1]

Elsewhere Hamilton writes, “Sin alienates us from God, but on the cross God was seeking to help us see the seriousness of our sin, the costliness of our forgiveness, and the magnitude of his love.”[2]

This is about as succinct a statement of the subjective theory of Atonement called “moral influence” as I’ve read. And I don’t disagree that the cross, to some extent, does these things. But notice the emphasis is almost entirely on how we respond to what God has done on the cross: we’re “touched” and “moved,” until we are “helped to see” and “led to accept.”

One of the things that the cross “leads us to accept,” Hamilton says, is the truth that Jesus is our Savior. But I wonder if he isn’t begging the question: Saved how? Saved from what?

If Hamilton is right that the objective theories of Atonement get it wrong—reduced, so he says, to “mathematical, economic, or juridical” formulae—then we are saved from our ignorance: ignorance of our sins, ignorance of the costliness of God’s forgiveness, ignorance of how much God loves us. And how are we saved? Hamilton implies that we’re saved when the cross melts our hardened hearts, and we finally see the truth.

While he’s not entirely wrong, his words don’t go nearly far enough: I would say that we mostly need to saved from our sins themselves—not our ignorance of them or anything else!

Hamilton says that our sin alienates us from God. And I agree, but why does it alienate us? Paul answers this question nicely in his Letter to the Romans: God is holy; God has justifiable wrath toward sin; God is committed to seeing to it that justice is fully and finally done. Among other things, this means that sin must be judged and punished. God was telling the truth in Genesis 2:17 when he warned Adam that eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would lead to death. Paul, inspired as he was by the Spirit, was telling the truth when he said in Romans 3:23 that the wages of sin is death.

Hamilton says that our sins are a serious problem, but they only seem to be problem from our side of the relationship: again, they prevent us from “seeing” properly. If our sins are a problem on God’s side, Hamilton doesn’t say.

Instead, from Hamilton’s perspective, being forgiven isn’t a matter of accepting God’s gift of forgiveness made possible by Christ’s costly, atoning death on the cross, which he suffered willingly out of an incomprehensible love for us; rather, being forgiven is a matter of realizing how “forgiving” God already is.

Which of these alternatives makes better sense of the biblical witness?

1. Adam Hamilton, Not a Silent Night (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 57-8.

2. Ibid., 60.

5 thoughts on “Being forgiven by God is more than realizing how “forgiving” God already is”

  1. This is what happens when you start interpreting the Bible, and this is why God says in the Bible that His word is not a matter of or subject to our own interpretations (2 Pet 1:20).

    Hamilton should try studying the Bible and putting it into practice, instead of appealing to the masses with subjective and humanistic interpretations that appeal to the narcissist in us.

    People need the word of God, not our interpretations of them.

    1. Nice 1 Peter quite. There is a good kind of hermeneutical work that we must do, but we must first interpret scripture in light of everything else scripture says. Hamilton runs roughshod over MOST of the Bible. That ought to make him deeply uncomfortable.

    2. Victor, I am afraid that “this is what happens when you start interpreting the Bible” is not a good start to get you heard by anyone who is not already more conservative than you. Having read some of your blog and other comments, which I think is largely good and well thought-out, I think I know what you are getting at. I think we are in agreement that there is objective truth in Scripture and, as Brent wrote about, objective change in the Atonement. Hamilton is interpreting subjectively when he says “I like to think of it as…” and you are right to criticize that, I believe. *However,* it is highly misguided to claim one does not “interpret” Scriptures. You seem to be denying the whole *orthodox* tradition of Biblical *interpretation.* I learned to interpret the Bible from primarily three people: Kay Arthur, John Wesley, and David Thompson, through their writings on the subject. These are not liberal heretics but simply teachers of orthodox Biblical interpretation according to such rules as: 1) Let Scripture interpret Scripture; 2) Scripture is meant to be understood; 3) Interpret Scripture according to the Rule of Faith, the faith held by the church in all ages. Interpretation is simply the reading and understanding what God meant to communicate to his people through the inspired author – but it is not simple and self-evident and indeed requires the work of the interpretive community of the church through time and space.

      1. Well said, James. I—ahem—interpreted Victor to be speaking of subjective and unprincipled interpretations.

  2. James, thanks for your comments.

    The problem is that there are too many “interpretations” of what the word “interpretation” means.

    Speaking of those less conservative than myself, when “progressives” and “liberals” say “interpretation”, what they usually seem to mean is “giving meaning to the Bible”, by which they seem to mean pretty much whatever meaning suits their agenda, or to be more exact whatever is most politically correct.

    That’s why we have convoluted twistings of Scriptures resulting in “interpretations” that declare that homosexuality and abortion, for examples, are not only not sins in need of repentance, but are good, rights to be celebrated.

    God clearly declares through the Apostle Peter that His word is not of our own interpretations, meaning our interpretations do not equal or supersede the Scriptures.

    Since that is the case, what is the point of us interpreting the Bible at all? What else can it lead to but problems. Does God make His declaration in 2 Pet 1:20 for nothing?

    Now, if by “interpret” we mean “understand”, or “comprehend”, or better yet “apprehend”, then yes we certainly should “interpret” the Scriptures.

    But if that is what we mean, why not just say it? Why confuse things by using the word “interpret” when it is so frequently used in ways that just cause confusion and problems? We are not allowed to give our own meanings to Scriptures, so why use a word that is so often used to mean just that?

    I doubt it would ever have occurred to John Wesley, for example, that interpreting the word of God meant giving meaning to it, as opposed to understanding the meaning that is there.

    I totally agree with the rules of interpretation you listed, but interpretation by those rules means understanding the Scriptures not giving meanings to them–that would be not exegesis but eisegisis.

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