Saturday, 14 August 2010

Sorry doesn't remove the stain

Richard Dawkins, straying outside his field of expertise (noticeably), has made many dogmatic but juvenile and mistaken assertions about religion in general and Christianity in particular.  In one of his attacks he asked the question, If God wants to forgive people why doesn't He just forgive them, why does He need blood?  Now Richard Dawkins was voted one of the top three intellectuals in the world, and it may surprise you to know that I am not one of the other two, but I can answer the question - the answer is because God is righteous and sin matters. 

We'll take a more in depth look at the issue because it is something people seem to struggle with, why does God need blood to forgive sins?  The objection seeks to imply that God is brutal or blood-thirsty. It should be pointed out that when the New Testament talks about the blood of Christ it's alluding back to the Old Testament sacrificial system.  God was dwelling amongst the Israelites in a very particular way then, and so those who sinned had to die, but then no one would be left because all sin, so God instituted a sacrificial system which would be an illustration of what the Messiah would do when He came.  In this sacrificial system of atonement the death of a certain type of animal would be accepted instead of the death of the sinners.  The blood in Old Testament sacrifices was nothing more than the indication that a life had been given, and thus God’s penalty against the sinner had been executed. So when the New Testament speaks about the blood of Christ it is a reference to this, and speaks of the Lord’s sacrificial death, telling us that the penalty against sin was executed upon Christ.  So if we remove the misconception that God wants gore, then the objection is why could God not just forgive sins? Why did Christ have to die as a sacrifice?

The answer is because God is righteous and merciful.  If God forgave people without Christ having died, then it means that sins have gone unpunished and a righteous God cannot allow that.  Such is God’s righteousness that every sin must be answered for and the penalty executed.  If God didn't punish sins then it means ultimately that sin doesn’t matter.  If God does not demand that sins be punished how can He demand that they don’t be practised?  If God shows mercy at the expense of justice then where does God draw the line?  What sins can God tolerate?  This creates a god who tolerates and overlooks sin - the true God cannot do that - it would be to deny His own nature.

A few months ago we were having our dinner and I was pouring a drink of juice for my oldest son (he was four years old at the time), he was messing about and caused the juice to spill over my shirt.  As I growled "Luke!" he said, "Sorry, dad."  He sensed I was still somewhat vexed about the whole episode, so he said, "Dad, I said sorry so that makes it OK."  I responded by saying, "Luke, sorry doesn't remove the stain."  Neither it does - but forgetting about the stain on my shirt (tough as that is), many say that repentance should be the basis of forgiveness from God, but this still isn't righteous – of course someone should be sorry for his sins and be repentant, but sorry doesn't remove the stain!  It doesn't cover the sins he has committed or pay the penalty those sins deserve, any more than the repentance of a rapist or murderer would mean he shouldn't go to prison for his crimes. Lack of repentance would just be another sin on top of the ones he had committed! The repentance of the guilty person would actually entail recognition that he deserves to be punished for his crime. When someone turns himself in for a crime he has committed it is usually because his conscience tells him he ought to be punished – he doesn’t say, “I’m sorry for what I’ve done and therefore can forget about it.” Thus, there needed to be a sacrifice that would propitiate God, not by making Him forego His wrath (the pagan notion of propitiation), but by actually bearing the wrath. The Lord paid the penalty for sins on the cross. By nature of God’s wrath and Christ’s sacrifice, the price He paid was of infinite value, and all who turn to Christ in repentance are placed “in Him” by God, and His payment becomes theirs, allowing them to use the language of substitution – He suffered instead of me, thus I go free. God received full payment in the death of Christ in respect of sin, and thus all may have their sins righteously forgiven, and they will if they avail of the provision made.

Some object and say that this is still unjust because the one sinning should bear the punishment - it's immoral to punish a third party.  This objection is overcome because the third party isn't really a third party - He is the offended party - it is God Himself in the Person of the Son who undertakes to bear the punishment.  This is not some unwilling or unwitting victim, this is one who voluntarily and knowingly gave Himself.

The objection has been offered that the courts would never accept an innocent party going to prison for a guilty person, and this may be true, but for good reasons which the Gospel gloriously overcomes.  Why would our courts not allow this system of substitution? 
Firstly, because it could never be known if the substitute was truly willing or if he was being put up to it or manipulated - it would be open to all sorts of abuses of that nature.  Such an abuse isn't possible with Christ - no one ever could have put Him up to this.  He said Himself concerning His life, "No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (John 10 v 18).
Secondly, it wouldn't work in our courts because the judge could never know if the guilty party is truly repentant - he could clothe himself in sackcloth, cover himself in ashes, shed crocodile tears and walk away giggling, but this isn't something that is a liability in God's court.  He's not fooled by a pretence of penitence - He can see to the heart and He knows if someone has truly repented, i.e. if they have changed their mind to agree with God on the seriousness of their sin.  No one will be cleansed who doesn't see their sins as disgusting and defiling; no one will be forgiven who doesn't see their sins as offensive and rebellious; no one will be saved who doesn't see their sins as damning and deserving of hell.
Thirdly, it wouldn't work in our courts because, if the guilty party had some condition that gave them a propensity towards the crime, that propensity remains untouched.  For example, say a man was an alcoholic and he killed someone as a result of driving under the influence of drink, he could be truly sorry but he remains as enslaved to drink as ever and would leave the courtroom free from the penalty of his crime but still enslaved to the power of drink, meaning he might succumb to the temptation again the next time he walks past the pub.  God (needless to say) has got that covered, and the Gospel deals with that too!  In the treatise of the Gospel (Paul's letter to the Romans) up to chapter 5 v 11 Paul is showing how we walk free from the courtroom, but from chapter 5 v 12 through into chapter 8 Paul shows how we walk from from the power of sin in our lives.
Fourthly, it wouldn't work in our courts because the person harmed by the guilty party's actions would need to be (and probably wouldn't be) satisfied with the arrangement.  If a family member of yours was murdered, you, like me, would want the murderer to pay the penalty.  But when we think of the forgiveness God is offering, He is the offended party, and yet He is prepared to let the guilty sinner go free if they repent and claim the Substitute as theirs. 
So it's not unjust – the penalty is paid, the offended party (God) and the Judge (God) are satisfied, and the One paying the penalty (God in the Person of the Son) is doing it willingly.  The cross is the place where God's justice and God's mercy meet - no other religion has such a place, and that is why if you want mercy you need Christ, the One who suffered for sins and rose again.