Chapter Four of John Stott’s book The Cross of Christ is entitled “The Problem of Forgiveness” and the emphasis should be placed on the word problem. He begins his chapter setting up his main discussion points and states in his introduction that it “should be” difficult for God to forgive man’s sins. We have a perfect God and His perfect Son who were the instigators of the process of forgiveness and they decided to make ultimate sacrifices. God is righteous and for forgiveness to occur, He chose to excuse “unrighteous” human behavior. God also chose to give His Son to man so His Son would be killed, atoning for mankind’s sins. The Old Testament atonement of men sacrificing unblemished animals and “first fruits” to God was not good enough. God determined that there must be a Divine Human sacrifice. Of course Jesus was the One who had to undergo a painful torture and death, a conviction and sentencing He did not deserve. He had done no wrong.
Talk about problems. None of us can understand this from a Godly point-of-view but I guess if I were God, I would have problems with it. I am not sure man deserves all this.
Stott’s first point is why should God sacrifice so much for humans who don’t think that sin is big deal? They don’t understand “The Gravity of Sin.” In man’s mind, sin is no longer relevant. We don’t acknowledge it or talk about it and we don’t need anyone to save us from it. God’s laws seem old-fashioned. In our own self-centered world view, we can now be autonomous beings, independent of God.
Let’s add a second problem to the mix: the problem of “Human Moral Responsibility.” We exclaim is it fair to blame human beings for their misconduct? If the problem of sin cannot be dealt with by ignoring it, Stott says let’s say that God’s judgement is just not fair.
I have bad genes which predispose me to sinning. I have a hormonal imbalance that causes me to feel negative thoughts which lead me to perform negative actions. I have inherited a temperament from my father or mother [or both] which causes me to do bad acts. My parents failed to teach me right from wrong. My education did not prepare me for righteous living. I come from a neighborhood that is full of criminal activity; I had to learn to sin to survive on the streets. The list goes on and on.
Reasons that God’s judgement is not fair…
Look closely at all of my examples. Are they reasons or are they excuses for sinning? Stott writes “We accept the concept of diminished responsibility, but not the total dissolution of all responsibility” . The reason we won’t go all the way into “I can’t help myself mode” is that we just can’t accept the idea that we are automatons. We like our ability to make free choices except when it leads us to sin. Stott admits “we are conditioned by our genes and upbringing, but the human spirit (not to mention the Christian mind) protests against the reductionism that declares a human being to be nothing but a computer” . Within what we call “reasonable limits,” we like being free agents making choices and when we make bad choices, we may even feel sorry because we know we could have behaved differently. We may even engage in justification behavior, trying to persuade others to excuse our bad behavior. We want them to understand our point of view. Maybe our argument is “diminished responsibility.”
Can we turn to the Bible to support this view? Of course we can. One can point to the Book of Genesis and the doctrine of original sin. The very nature that we have all inherited from Adam means that we have a “tainted” nature that leads us to sinning. Jesus says in Mark 7: 21-23 that “from within, out of men’s hearts” evil thoughts and actions come. Jesus describes a sinner as a slave to sin (John 8: 34). Even after Jesus dies to liberate us from sin, we are not rid of the idea of original sin. Paul in Romans 7: 25 states: “So then I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”
Does this sound like we have something that can diminish our responsibility for our actions?
Stott feels that original sin does have power over us, but it does not destroy our responsibility to make righteous choices. God is patient with us because He knows how we are formed. He is slow to anger and does not treat us as the sinners we are, but He does not absolve us completely. Scripture treats us as responsible human beings. In the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, man must choose between life and death, good and evil, living God and idols. Scripture “exhorts” us to be obedient and declares our punishment when we are disobedient. We don’t get a “diminished responsibility” pass.
Jesus was well aware of man’s ability for choosing sin over righteousness. In Matthew 23: 37 He declares to the people of Jerusalem “I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” He was really saying that people were strong-willed and unable to make the right choice. He says in John 5: 40 “you refuse to come to Me.” Inability to commit to Christ is not based on some environmental factor or some genetic force; people are “choosing” not to come to Him even though they have human flaws.
Emil Brunner from his book Man in Revolt emphasizes our responsibility as an indispensable aspect of being human. Man must be seen as a “thinking and willing being,” responsible to God. The choice to believe is “not…a task but a gift …not law but grace.” The choice to be responsible is a sign of belief, a sign of love. Brunner states that responsibility is not just an attribute of human existence, but is the “substance” of human existence. It “contains everything… [it is] that which distinguishes man from all other creatures.” Brunner goes even further on the importance of human responsibility: “if responsibility be eliminated, the whole meaning of human existence disappears.”
That is a strong statement. That indeed is a problem!
Ok, we have not been very successful in dodging responsibility for our actions. Genetic influences cannot be blamed or inherited temperament. Poor upbringing won’t absolve us of our sins; neither will poor educational preparation. Pointing to the social environment won’t even help, so where are we?
We fall back on Adam and the idea of original sin in The Garden, but even that won’t work. Stott writes [has the] “fall seriously weakened humankind’s responsibility? Are we responsible for our actions any longer? Yes, we are. Man never sins purely out of weakness, but always also in the fact that he lets himself go in weakness.” Stott is very clear when he writes “even in the dullest sinner there is a spark of decision.” He goes so far as to declare acts against God “defiant rebellion” [Stott, 98]. It seems that all of our weak-kneed defenses for dodging responsibility do not work.
I know it shows my age, but I am reminded of a popular sitcom from the 70’s entitled “Sanford and Son.” In the show, Fred Sanford [comedian Red Foxx] experienced times when he made mistakes and had to own up to his errors. Of course, the bigger the mistake, the more it was hard to accept blame. When all else failed, he faked a heart attack and declared he was going to see his deceased wife: “I’m coming to see you Elizabeth. This is the big one!” That was his way of deflecting responsibility for his actions.
Stott says of course we would all like to “shuffle off our responsibility” for our own wickedness but we can’t do that. Man is responsible for his own sin. It does not work to ignore the need for forgiveness by acting like sin is not a “big deal” anymore. In this discussion, avoiding responsibility for sin is not a better strategy.
Stott uses Emil Brunner to close this section of his discussion of the problem of forgiveness and it is easy to see why.
Brunner’s statement is so strong.
Brunner writes “No fate, no metaphysical constitution, no weakness of nature, but himself, man in the centre of his personality is made responsible* for his sin.”
*bolding, italics and underlining mine…