Why forgiveness?

The speaker enthused, “It’s great to know that no matter what we do, we’ve been forgiven!” 

“Yes,” I thought, “but isn’t something missing here?” 

My thoughts turned to historical antecedents: first to a hot debate of a couple of decades ago over the difference between some Christians who promoted Christ’s “lordship” versus those who favored “free grace”. In a nutshell the former group held that salvation has to be accompanied by evident obedience to the Lord to be real; the other group held that grace is absolutely unconditional, so much so that our assurance of salvation is not linked to moral transformation. 

The debate is an old one. My second reflection was about the 17th century English and American Puritans who battled among themselves over much the same question. The free grace crowd were called, pejoratively, antinomians—”opposed to the law”—and members of the lordship-like camp were called “Papists” for sounding too much like duty-defined Roman Catholics. Here’s the point: this is an unresolved debate that regularly divides Christian communities. 

But this was a current event, not a history class, so it forced me to think again about the issue. In listening to the speaker what bothered me was not his celebration of God’s free grace. Christ’s work on the cross was, indeed, free and “once and for all”. His death covered all my sins for all time as I came to be united with Christ by faith. 

Instead it was the way the speaker framed the claim. It sounded too much like a Monopoly player celebrating ownership of a spiritual “Get out of jail free!” card—”isn’t that great! I can continue in my sins and not have any consequences!” 

I may have misread him, of course, but even if I did I suspect my impression represents a widespread point of view. Here’s what he did communicate very clearly. Christ’s death on the cross provides us with freedom from punishment. The message was a pitch for free eternal fire insurance. The point was emphatically human-centered and self-concerned. God was addressed as a divine resource who offers salvation as a service. Smart people will want to take advantage. Sermon’s over. Amen and let’s go home. 

What troubled me is what was not said. That God loves us. That he made us for himself. He is the father of us prodigals, waiting for our hearts to grow weary of our sins. And, yes, we are the prodigals—anyone who is human-centered and self-concerned is a prodigal. We were made to be lovers of God and of others, reciprocating the love that first pours out of God’s heart into our hearts by the Spirit. But we have become lovers of self, of pleasure, of security, and who knows what else. 

So the talk was not about God’s expensive love, a love that cost the life of his Son on the cross. Instead it was a celebration of our freedom and independence. The key insight was that we can still sin and not worry about it! It was an ungodly point in every sense of the phrase. If this is what free grace represents, I refuse to accept it. But the lordship option is just as misguided. 

Here’s the problem I see on both sides of the free-grace and the lordship debate. The discussion was focused on the human will. But the Bible—and here I return to my mantra—elevates the heart and not the will. The will is treated in the Bible as a mere instrument of the heart: our choices always follow what our hearts love. Thus our conversion must be a heart transplant! 

With a new heart, a heart that now has the presence of the Spirit who is united with us in a marital—Spirit-to-spirit—bond (as affirmed in 1 Corinthians 6) our hearts are profoundly changed. Forgiveness frees us from our past bondage, and the presence of Christ’s love instills in us a new set of desires. 

So to the lordship people I say, “Yes, of course, salvation will change us!” But I still agree with the free grace folks that we are not required to change. Change happens because the fruit of the Spirit within us moves us to change, so that change is certain to come, but never required. 

Let me wrap up this entry by pointing to the obvious: If someone claims to have had a spiritual heart transplant, but he or she shows no sign of the Spirit’s presence, then we have every reason to disregard their claim. Love is always obvious. 

And, on the other hand, the lordship people are brewing hypocrisy by telling us what love should look like. How? By insisting that “love is a choice”—when real love is actually our heart responding to God’s prior love—and then they prescribe our duties-of-love in order for us to make the ‘right’ choices. That’s about as silly as telling a new bride and bridegroom that their love is a choice. Yes, it certainly makes choices, but it is based on mutual delight and devotion that has no need for “will-power”. 

So, finally, what is the point of God’s forgiveness? Does he want us to be free to use our new “once and for all” freedom to continue in our sins? No! No one with a changed heart finds sin to be a core ambition any longer. The prodigal son had already tried independence; he knew what it represented, and now his joy was in his father’s embrace. Forgiveness clears the way for our new ambition to prosper: to love God with every dimension of our being. We are prodigals forgiven and now restored to our Father. It changes everything.



  1. Charles E. WHisnant

    Depends upon who you listen to in these issues. Its clear what they are saying from their point of view. Reading into what one is saying from our point of view is what we do.

    Those on the Lordship side, are clear about their position in salvation and the result of salvation, its God who from start to finish is the author. And they generally look from God’s side rather than the human side of the process.

  2. Sharon

    Thanks for making that clear. I first heard the “Love is Choice” idea a few years ago and it really bothered me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it troubled me so much. I’m not sure that I agree that we are not required to change. Jesus’ constant admonitions “bless those who curse you” would seem to indicate otherwise. I don’t think they were mere suggestions. This is an important point I believe. I’m not always comfortable about doing what I know the Holy Spirit is prompting me to do, but it is true that my response, to do what He asks me to, is out of the love He is growing inside of me through His revealed presence in my life. But I also believe that just as it is with children, since I became His, He has used force at times to get me in the place He wanted me to be so that I could know and understand His love for me better and to teach me how to love others better. He holds my hand as walk through this life. I learn to walk by stepping out in faith in response to His prompting and knowing from experience that He is there.

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