Did God really forgive sin on the cross? Did he pay the debt of sin his people owed?

One line of thinking suggests that to understand the cross as penal substitution is to deny the reality of God’s forgiveness. We usually think forgiving a debt means releasing someone from the obligation of paying it, right? But then if we think of the cross as Jesus paying our debt, then on the face of things, it would seem God didn’t actually forgive it. The choice would be forgiveness or payment—one or the other, but not both. In which case, to think of the cross as substitution and payment is to rob us of a God who truly forgives.

But is that correct? Do those options capture how God relates to us?

Creator and Sub-Creators

Let me ask a different question: Did God really create the universe?

It seems like a silly question at first, but let’s think about it. What do we usually mean when we say someone’s “created” something? At the very least they’ve produced some new object or state of affairs. But in each case, this involves taking something old and rearranging it into a new form.

Creating new music, for example, involves taking pre-existing notes and shaping them into a new form. Creating a chair means taking wood, stone, or synthetic materials and shaping them into a new form. Even intellectual creations like concepts are usually traceable to some earlier idea, either by way of development or response.

But God didn’t do that when he created the universe. At least not at first.

At first, God created things ex nihilo—out of nothing. First there is only God, and then God speaks, and by his power that which is not God appears. God doesn’t need pre-existent material to reshape. He makes the material, then shapes it as he sees fit.

You may think I’ve pulled a trick here. And I kind of have. Typically in theological discussions like these, the relationship is reversed. We make God the standard for what it means to “create” and work our way down. In the primary sense of the term, then, to create means “to bring things into existence out of nothing.” But when we talk about reshaping pre-existing material, we’re really talking about making. To speak of human “creation” is to speak analogously.

To get at this truth, J. R. R. Tolkien coined a new term and said humans are really “sub-creators.” Our creating comes after God’s creating. It is all an analogous and derivative reflection of the Creator in whose image we are made.

Like and Unlike

In a sense, we come back to Swiss theologian Karl Barth’s provocative line when discussing personality and the triune Godhead: “The doubtful thing is not whether God is a person, but whether we are.” We might wonder whether it’s appropriate to use the term “person” for God since he is infinite in three persons. But in reality, we have things backward. Trinitarian personhood may not be the kind of personhood we typically experience, but it’s the primary reality of personhood.

All of this is a roundabout way of pointing out that we should acknowledge an analogical dimension whenever we speak about God’s being and God’s activities. There will always be similarity and dissimilarity when speaking of our acts and God’s.

Part of this flows from the fact that God is a being like no other. God is the “Being” who grounds all other being(s). Everything depends on him, and he depends on nothing but his own triune fullness. As the absolute Creator, his relationship to the world is unique. No other being stands in relationship to anything else as God does to what he has made. And there’s something there that can’t be fully captured by human language.

This is partly why God has described his relationship to us in so many ways: King, Father, Judge, Friend, Lord, Shepherd, Lover, and so on. All these names and roles capture some dimension of what God’s relationship to the world and his creatures is like, though none pictures it entirely.

Forgiver and Sub-Forgivers

So what does this have to do with forgiveness? For one thing, it should make us question whether we should start with a generic definition of forgiveness and assume it applies to God without modification. Should we really think forgiveness will be exactly the same for us as it is for the God who relates to us as Creator and Judge, King and Father, Lord and Lover?

Let’s think about that for a second. Is there anyone else who stands in relation to other creatures the way he does? Does anyone else sustain another person in being for the whole of his existence? Is anyone else owed absolute love, loyalty, worship, and devotion? Is anyone else responsible to maintain the order and beauty of the universe he has made? To give justice to and for each and every individual creature?

Perhaps the relationship between God’s forgiveness and ours is something like God’s creation and ours. Perhaps the Creator-creature distinction matters here as well.

Many have pointed out that when you and I forgive something (a debt, an injury to property, and so on), we have foregone making the other person pay. But in one sense we have agreed to pay it ourselves. We shoulder the debt and “pay” it for them. This is how things typically work.

But here is the marvel of God’s forgiveness at the cross: It’s both like and unlike our forgiveness in that God assumes our debt. He takes responsibility for it. At the same time, he pays it as one of us. And in this way, he actually wipes it out himself on the cross. Only God’s forgiveness, then, is the sort that erases guilt and debt in an absolute sense. 

What’s more, this is how, as the infinitely wise God, he wills to forgive such that he can enact all at once the various ways he relates to his creatures—King and Judge, Father and Lover. Because he is God, he does not fail to maintain justice, even as he performs mercy.

And this is not a weaker, or lesser forgiveness. It is a truer and deeper forgiveness.

We have to get used to thinking about “forgiveness” as an analogical term, much like creation. We are commanded to forgive as God forgives us in Christ (Eph. 4:32). Only, as with creation, we must realize God’s forgiveness isn’t the questionable form—ours is. Indeed, our forgiveness is founded on his.

Perhaps we ought to paraphrase Tolkien and say we are “sub-forgivers”; we can only forgive because we’ve been forgiven by the One who shed his blood for us.

Jesus paid it all. And forgiveness is yours in him.