Forgiveness without atonement would be a contravention of logic, law, and order more serious and vast “than the suspension of the laws of nature.” How is forgiveness possible, then, if “punishment is the expression of the divine law and order, of the inviolability of the divine order of the world”? Since law is “the expression of the will of the Lawgiver, of the personal God” then if it is broken, it cannot and does not heal by itself. Sin has caused a “break in the world order,” a disorder so deep-seated that reparation or restitution is necessary, that is “Atonement.”
– John Stott, The Cross of Christ
As complex as that quote seems to be, the reality is as simple as a child’s mistake. If your precious little baby accidentally goes Derrick Jeter on a neighbor’s car window there is a literal fracture in the world of your neighbor. Something has to be done to make it right. If your neighbor graciously says, “don’t worry about it, it was an accident, no sweat, we’ll get it replaced” (which is really code for “we’re considering insurance fraud to get a new window”), then there is no debt that the child has to pay. However, we make a tragic mistake if we believe that forgiveness then means that problems, or debts, just go away. Forgiveness means that the one who has the right and power to demand payment absorbs the debt themselves, it costs them something. Debt ALWAYS costs someone.
So Stott’s point here (as he heavily quotes Emil Brunner) is simply this: our debt of sin couldn’t be paid by us, and couldn’t merely be overlooked, it had to be reconciled, so Jesus absorbed that debt in our place. This is why forgetting how heinous sin is always leads to seeing salvation as optional, or worse than that, as a “part of the process” of getting our lives back together. Christ’s spilled blood at Calvary, His willing exchange of His death for our life, is not a “step” along the pathway leading to “the good life” anymore than giving a corpse a shot of Tylenol is part of the process to get him back into the office.
Our forgiveness was not God merely saying, “everything’s okay now, thanks”. To the contrary, it was God saying, “everything is NOT okay…”. And as the Father’s heart longed for there to be a mending in the fracture of our lives, the Great Physician, Jesus, not only fixed our fracture, but He did it by giving us His wholeness while becoming fractured Himself.
May we not flippantly offer a casual “thanks” to God for our salvation this morning. But may we deeply realize just what our rebellion and failure necessitated.