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Is God Able To Forgive Sin Without The Cross?

Is God Able To Forgive Sin Without The Cross?

Exploring the Necessity of Christ's Sacrifice

Mitchell Leach

Community Pastor

Peace Church

Published On:

January 10, 2024

Could God the Father have forgiven sin without Jesus dying on the cross? Would it have been possible for God to do this?

Whenever we ask questions like these, our knee-jerk reaction is to think, “God can do whatever he wants.” But the implications of this question will show us a lot about what we believe about God.

If God could

On one side if God can forgive sin without Jesus dying on the cross, then what we see happen to Jesus at the end of the gospels is totally unnecessary. To say that God could forgive sin without the cross makes what happens at the end of the gospels a worthless act of torture towards his own son.

If God cannot

On the other side, it seems like saying God cannot do something is putting a rule or law on God that supersedes his power as if there were a higher authority that he had to submit to. If God can’t why can’t he?

So which is it?

Imagine you invited me and my family over for dinner, and after dinner, it is revealed that my youngest child has broken a window in your house. Not just any window but your big beautiful bay window that faces the road. In that situation, you have two options. You can demand that I pay to fix it. This would be just. My child broke a window, I should pay to make it right. Or you can forgive me.

But in that situation, someone still has to pay, but rather than it being the offending party (me), the cost is shifted to the offended party (you). It’s not like this is something you can leave broken.

Similarly, God cannot simply blink at sin and allow it to disappear magically. There is always a cost involved. The Bible is clear about the reality that we are sinful people (Genesis 3:6–7; Isaiah 59:1–2; Psalm  51:4). And the Bible states that there must be a penalty paid to make what was wrong, right again.

God’s Justice

God is just (Gen 18:25; Deut 32:4). Isaiah 5:16 says, “But the LORD of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness.” [1]

Wayne Grudem, the Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary defines what it means that God is just in his profound book Systematic Theology, “God’s righteousness means that God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final moral standard of what is right.” [2]

God is Who He is

God’s justice or righteousness is a very part of who God is. So rather than thinking that God not being able to forgive sin must be him submitting to a higher authority, think about it as God not being able to go against his very nature. This is also called the doctrine of simplicity. “God’s simplicity entails that his essence and existence are identical, signifying that there is no composition or division within the divine nature.” [3] This means that God is what describes him.

The way we describe God doesn’t divide up his essence but is who he is and how he acts together. God tells us this in Exodus 3:14, when, “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

God therefore cannot “throw off” his justice for a moment to forgive universal sin. To do this would make him cease to be God, as his justice is part of his “Godness.”

God’s Wrath

Because God is perfectly righteous, he has a perfect hate for sin itself. “It is his indignation at sin, his revulsion to evil and all that opposes him, his displeasure at it and the venting of that displeasure. It is his passionate resistance to every will that is set against him.” [4] This is what we call God’s wrath.

J.I. Packer, who is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential theologians of the 20th Century, connects God’s holiness to his disdain of sin when he says, “Every facet of God’s nature and every aspect of his character may properly be spoken of as holy, just because it is his. The core of the concept, however, is God’s purity, which cannot tolerate any form of sin (Hab. 1:13) and thus calls sinners to constant self-abasement in his presence (Isa. 6:5).” [5] God’s wrath is something that we can feel uncomfortable with. The idea that God hates not only sin, but even certain people is unsettling to us in the global west.

In recent years liberal theologians have argued that this idea is false and paints God as a vindictive deity. What this essentially boils down to is whether God can be both good and just at the same time. But this objection isn’t an enlightened response to this doctrine. This has been a point of contention since 300 AD. [6]

But this — like the idea of God’s justice — is part of God’s character and nature, and it is beautiful. God’s wrath (or deep hatred of evil) has always been a part of his character. God’s holiness has been — throughout history — something that sinful man has had to deal with when encountering the living God.

System to Cover Sin

This is why understanding the whole Old Testament is so important. As Christians, it is easy to focus our attention on the New Testament because it seems like that’s where the best parts happen. As someone who loves theology, the New Testament is easy because it almost reads like a Western theological work. Yet neglecting to understand the essential ways that God worked throughout the Old Testament will leave us to make major errors in our theology. One main area this happens today is around the idea of atonement.

Mankind’s problem — since the fall — has been that we cannot interact with a holy God. So, back in Leviticus, God lays out a system to atone for sin through the sacrifice of a goat on Yom Kippur (or the day of atonement). This goat would — ceremonially — take the place of the people, and would die for their sin. The reason for this is that the blood of an animal symbolizes its life. Something’s blood is needed to take the rightful place of our own. One life needed to be substituted for our own.

This system was a foreshadowing of what was to be fully realized in the New Testament by the death of Jesus. Because while this was the system God set up for Israel, the blood of bulls and goats couldn’t satisfy God’s wrath against our sin. We needed someone to come to take on our sin so that we could be made right with God. We needed, not an animal, but a human to die to make right what man had made wrong.

The Good News of the Gospel

When Jesus went to the cross he took the full wrath from God the Father for sin on himself. Jesus would die for all those whom God had chosen to be his children. Romans 3:22–25 says “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” [7]

The important word to focus on is the word propitiation. It’s an uncommon word in our vocabulary. It means to appease the wrath of a God. This passage is saying that Jesus (on the cross) was the thing that satisfied the wrath of God for sinners.

In other words, Jesus traded places with me on the cross, because he received what I should have received. He got the full measure of God’s wrath for my sin. And in return, I get to be treated like Jesus should have been treated. This means (among many things) I can have oneness with the Father, freedom from sin, eternal life, and favor in the eyes of God the Father.

It’s like our analogy earlier. On a cosmic scale, there are two options for us. We can either receive justice for our sin. This is what Hell is. It is us paying the price for our sin, which requires an eternal death because our debt is against an eternal God. Or we can receive forgiveness because Jesus took Hell on himself. He paid, in full, the penalty for our sin. Theologically this doctrine is called penal substitutionary atonement. This is a fancy way to say, “Jesus traded places with me on the cross (substitute), paid my penalty, and has atoned for my sins.”

This is the core message of the Christian faith and the reason we worship God. He paid for my sin and took my place. This is a kind of love that is unbelievable. It is the kind of love that propels us to worship and sing

Nothing in my hands I bring,

Simply to Thy cross I cling;

Naked, come to Thee for dress,

Helpless, look to Thee for grace:

Foul, I to the fountain fly,

Wash me, Savior, or I die.

  1. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 5:16.

  2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 203.

  3. Brandon Smith, “God’s Simplicity,” in Lexham Survey of Theology, ed. Mark Ward et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).

  4. Tony Lane, “God’s Wrath,” in Lexham Survey of Theology, ed. Mark Ward et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).

  5. J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), 43.

  6. Origen, “De Principiis,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Frederick Crombie, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 278.

    “Now, since this consideration has weight with some, that the leaders of that heresy (of which we have been speaking) think they have established a kind of division, according to which they have declared that justice is one thing and goodness another, and have applied this division even to divine things, maintaining that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is indeed a good God, but not a just one, whereas the God of the law and the prophets is just, but not good” Origen refutes a heresy that distinguishes between a good God (Father of Jesus Christ) and a just but not good God (God of the Old Testament). He argues that this view misinterprets God's nature, as it fails to recognize that divine justice and goodness are not mutually exclusive but are harmoniously unified in God. He challenges the heretics' understanding of justice and goodness, illustrating through scriptural examples that God's actions, whether seemingly harsh or compassionate, are always just and good. Origen emphasizes that God's justice is not merely punitive but aims at correction and improvement, revealing a deeper, harmonious nature of divine justice and goodness. Origen concludes that the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament is the same, both just and good, rewarding and punishing appropriately. He encourages a deeper understanding of the Scriptures to appreciate the unity of God's nature, rejecting the dualistic view that separates God's justice from His goodness.

  7. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 3:22–25.

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