Man crossA few days ago, Scottish speaker and itinerant minister Phil Drysdale published the following tweet:

I thought it was so good that I shared it on Facebook, where it very quickly racked up a good number of “likes” and a few shares. Not one single person voiced any objection. Clearly, Phil’s words connected with quite a few people and elicited a positive heart response. I was glad about this… but it also gave me pause. Why?

For this simple reason: for all the popularity of the message conveyed by the above tweet, when you boil it all down, the vast majority of western evangelical Christians — from whose ranks a good number of my Facebook friends are drawn — fundamentally believe that their salvation depends on someone being punished for their sins.

Here’s the issue: it seems to me that many people will gladly accept that God is not interested in punishing them for their sins, as long as they can continue to believe that punishment remains a necessary part of the equation at some level. But suggest that God doesn’t need or want to punish anyone for their sins, and you’ll probably be called a heretic quicker than you say “Away from me, evildoers!”

The reason for this, in my opinion, is quite simple: we’ve been taught that sin is something that, for reasons of cosmic justice and God’s holiness, must be punished. Further, we’ve been taught that the only fitting punishment for sin is death. Apparently there’s no way around this; it has the status of a universal law, written into the fabric of the cosmos. That being the case, the only way we can escape our deserved punishment of death (which is what we mean by being “saved”) is for someone else to be killed in our place. Enter Jesus, spotless Lamb of God, who willingly takes the punishment for us.

I have a number of problems with this approach to sin, punishment and salvation. Let me give you just two.

First, Jesus clearly instructed his disciples to forgive one another freely, from the heart. He did not tell them to forgive their brothers as long as due recompense was paid or an appropriate sacrifice offered. Now, if Jesus, being the exact imprint of God’s very being, told his followers very clearly and unambiguously to forgive one another freely, does it not seem somewhat incongruous to persist in thinking that God can and will only forgive us if a life is first sacrificed?

Second, consider the nature of the ancient gods of pagan religion. These were angry, violent, warring gods, the kind of gods you most certainly did not want to get on the wrong side of, for fear of all kinds of horrible consequences, including your demise at their hands. And how did you keep on the right side of these gods? Primarily by making sure you always offered appropriate sacrifices at the appointed times.

Yet even the Old Testament makes it very clear that God is so different from the gods of pagan religion that no comparison is to be drawn between them. The prophet Micah goes so far as to ask, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity?” If God is only to be placated by sacrifice, whether a continuous stream of animal sacrifices or the death of his Son Jesus, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, what then is the essential difference between this God and all the other gods?

I put it to you that what sets the one true God apart from any other god is that there is no vengeance or retribution in him at all. My friend Michael Hardin puts it this way in his paradigm-shifting book The Jesus Driven Life:

Jesus did not come to fulfill the logic of the sacrificial system (either Jewish or pagan) but to expose it and put an end to its reign in our lives.

I contend that the reason we so want to continue to believe that God is retributive, and that sin must therefore be punished, is that it is in out nature to believe this. We want it to be true so we ourselves can continue withholding forgiveness, resenting and punishing others, and separating people into good and bad, worthy and unworthy, forgivable and beyond the pale.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s much less challenging for me to believe in a God who is retributive than in a God who is ultimately all-forgiving. The former gives me justification for my own judgemental attitudes; the latter leaves me nowhere to go. The flip side is that a retributive, sacrifice-demanding God has no basis upon which to command me to freely forgive others.

So, with thanks to Phil for his thought-provoking tweet, allow me take the thought a little further: God freely forgives your sins without any punishment whatsoever. His desire is to heal you from your sins and their consequences. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, it’s okay: you can come to him without the slightest fear.

[ Image: Pablo Flores ]