Does God truly forgive our sins? Or does he merely reassign his wrath?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

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Question: I believe that there is really no true forgiveness in God because He is only willing to forgive because He released all his wrath on the Son. If a person wants to truly forgive somebody, then should he or she pardon the person unconditionally — and let go of that wrath and forgive them. Diverting the wrath in order to forgive is not truly forgiving — and God did just that. He released his wrath on His own Son in order to forgive people. After realizing this, I am not sure if I should continue being a Christian. What do you think about this?

Answer: Your point is well taken. It just doesn’t “taste, feel or sound” like forgiveness when God diverts his wrath rather than simply forgiving us and laying his wrath aside. But by laying his wrath aside, God would be sweeping sin under the rug. That’s not forgiving sin — that’s ignoring it! ... and a holy God — One who is just — simply cannot ignore sin like that. This is one of the reasons he sacrificed his Son: he had to (Hebrews 7:27).

But your question stands. Why use a substitute rather than simply forgive? The short answer is if God did not deal with sin directly (and having someone pay for it is a direct action), then we’d have reason to question his character... especially his righteousness and his justice.

“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25–26, NIV)

Questions like yours that require us to look at the nature of God rather than in the common experience of people are difficult to answer. Unlike us, God is infinitely holy — and uniquely so! As such, sin is an affront to the person of God, not merely to his feelings. (Deuteronomy 32:4; Isaiah 6:3; Habakkuk 1:13; 1 John 1:5). The take-home here is that our sins offend God in ways that we can’t even imagine. As such, he cannot merely “forgive it” ... and let everyone get on with their lives.

Here’s the thing: if you sinned against me — since I am sinful too — you would not be assaulting my core (ontological) self. I would feel wounded, of course — and I might even bring you to court! But since I already have a sinful nature, my essential self would not have been challenged by our encounter.

But this is not true of God. His nature is such that he cannot let sin go unaddressed. Therefore, the action of forgiving sin without addressing sin would be contrary to his nature — and even God can’t do things that are contrary to his nature... like dismissing sin with the wave of his hand.

What this means is that the definitions of “forgiveness” and “pardon” — when they are actions of God —will always have an asterisk because they do not mean what they mean in common parlance. You and I as gentlemen may agree to forgive one another without truly addressing the offense — and agree to never speak of it again! But God cannot do that. That’s because the kind of forgiveness required for salvation is different than human-to-human forgiveness... and equating them has skewed your expectations.

God’s forgiveness — by definition — is only possible through the substitutionary (propitiatory) sacrifice of his Son. But why Jesus rather than us? Jesus is the only sinless person who has ever lived (Hebrews 4:15; Acts 4:12), and as such, he was the only person qualified to be the sacrifice for sin. Therefore, he is the only one who could absorb God’s wrath.

“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

The effect of God’s forgiveness on me is that I am pardoned and forgiven — just like in the normal sense of the word. But thoughtful Christians understand what’s behind those words... and that’s where you are today.

This, however, is how Christianity works... so don’t let this turn you from Christ. Let it turn you to Christ. I get it that punishing someone else for our sins sounds messy and unfair. But it is unfair to Christ, not to us... and I pray that this answer has given you cause to persevere rather than abandon the One who sacrificed his Son... so he will never have to abandon you (Deuteronomy 31:6; Romans 8:38-39).

Would you consider reviewing the steps of salvation to make sure you understand the mechanics of it all? If so, go to the following link:

Thank you again for coming to Mainsail Ministries with this question.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 2020309 Does the fact that God redirects his wrath mean that he does not truly forgive us?).

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