Jesus Christ the Forgiven: Christology, Atonement and Forgiveness

Paper given at at SST, April 2000.

Published in Forgiveness and Truth ed Alistair McFadyen and Marcel Saroty T & T Clark, 2001, pp 15-29. You can also download the paper as a pdf at the link here.

All three at once

Not all christologies are shaped by concern for atonement, and not all ideas of atonement have forgiveness as their indispensable centre. And not all forgiveness seeks a foundation or exemplification in christology and atonement. This paper discusses possibilities and issues which only arise where the three overlap and are important to each other.

Christ’s being forgiven is theoretically imaginable as part of the way in which these three work together. Historically, however, wherever they have actually been in conjunction, Christ has been seen either as the Forgiver, or as the cause, agent, medium or justification of God’s forgiveness. Christ thus stands on the active, forgiving side of the distinction between forgiver and forgiven. 

At least two great traditions of thought about atonement, christology and forgiveness have prevented Christ’s being seen as forgiven. First, there are theories of atonement (like Anselm’s) for which it is essential that Christ has no sin of his own requiring forgiveness; hence his death for sin can earn merit for sinners, and forgiveness can be seen as a generous undeserved gift to sinners. Christ bears the punishment of sin, the wrath of God, in death and dereliction, experiencing not merely the absence of God, but real desertion by God who turns his face away. Yet because this occurs within the obedience of Christ to the will of the Father, in giving his life perfectly as a ransom for many, the profound picturing of sin under the wrath of God, in the Cross, never gives rise to the thought that the Crucified himself might somehow need to be forgiven.1The most recent and notable example is J. Moltmann, The Crucified God (London, 1974). Repeatedly, Moltmann seems to me to argue in ways which would make it possible to speak of Christ as forgiven. He never does, nor does he see any need to explain why this possibility should be skirted, and yet consistently left unrealised. That is testimony not only to the strong traditional aversion to seeing Christ as forgiven, but also to Moltmann’s specific positive purposes. In penal theories of atonement, especially, there is a graphic demonstration through the sufferings of Christ of the power and perversity of sin because sin blocks the recognition of God and goodness, and works itself out in deadly hostility to them. Yet this demonstration of sin in the cross does not impugn the sinless perfection of Christ. Rather, sin hates and fears the purity of Christ and so sets about to destroy him. Its destructive enmity is revealed in its enormity, in the death of Christ, for there is nothing in him to justify it. For sin to be revealed in the crisis of atonement as purely unalloyed evil, Christ must be hated for nothing but his goodness. Thus the sin he bears is never his own, although his incarnation is said to realise a genuine identification with sinners, so that he is ‘numbered with transgressors’ (Isaiah 53.12; Mark 15.28; Luke 22.37). He suffers with and for sinners, and because of their sin, but sin does not affect his own being before God in his human sinlessness. 

It may be a general rule that if a purported identification in interpersonal or collective relationships works through representation and vicariousness, it is bound to involve elements of non-identification. The imperfection of identification does not itself undermine a christology or theory of atonement, since imperfect identification is intrinsic to representation. The question here is more specific: in what ways and for what reasons is the Christ, who is one with humanity for its salvation, different from human being generally? Is the difference (that is, the limit of identification) between Christ and humanity indicated by the sinlessness of Christ or does it have some other marker? What precisely is the sinlessness of Christ and what are its implications?

A christology of identification with sinners, which may be thought to be implied in the full humanity of Christ, thus competes with a requirement that atonement be achieved through the sacrifice of a sinless person. 

Another way of linking christology and forgiveness, in which Christ is placed on the active forgiving side, derives from the synoptic gospels’ presentation of Jesus the Lord. He taught that forgiveness was central to the way he was modeling for the people of God: forgiveness was socially signed by his eating with sinners. Thereby forgiveness was enacted in the accepting fellowship surprisingly opened to the excluded, breaking free from the pressures of socio-religious correctness and thus anticipating, in ordinary eating and drinking, the heavenly feast of the Kingdom of God. We may note, in passing, that forgiveness has to work in both directions: it reaches out invitingly to include (embrace) the wrongdoer, the despised and the enemy;2Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville, 1996) and it acts to sign and make a different, better future for those involved in the present mess. In this double action, enacted reconciliation between persons does not always have to precede change in the arrangements for living. Often people are forgiven through being offered, seduced and even forced into, a better order; only when this stage has been achieved, do they discover that they are reconciled, accepted despite demerit and are called, in turn, to accept others. Forgiving in life is a never ending leapfrogging of these two kinds of action; it is not helpful to make one temporally or logically subsequent to the other. It is certainly wrong to see ‘forgiveness as reconciliation with God’ isolated from change to a better, shareable future from here to eternity. 

Jesus proclaimed and practised the forgiveness of God and encouraged his followers to forgive even their enemies, as some accounts of his death show, thereby giving us an example (I Peter 2.21-25). It is this example which has inspired the kind of christianity found in peace churches. They are committed to forgive: it is not an optional part of following Jesus. Often, in their traditions, atonement theory, as shaped by Paul and Anselm, has been brushed aside; with Boso and Socinus, they tend to think that God needs no persuading to forgive and forgiving needs no justification apart from its intrinsic goodness, which is its harmony both with God as revealed in Jesus and with a respect for all persons, simply as persons.3Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood be Shed (New York, 1994), 34. God forgives, so we should forgive; in this tradition, God’s forgiveness is communally ethicised rather than metaphysically theorised. This view of Christ the forgiver has had considerable influence in modern Christianity, because a way of life centrally symbolised by forgiving is both distinctive and useful, rare and necessary in the world as we make and suffer it. In this way of thinking, both Christ and his followers are seen almost entirely as forgivers, not as forgiven. 


Against the weight of these traditions of Christ the Forgiver, and with respect for their truth, let us give a moment to explore the notion of Christ the Forgiven. 

In a passage of great significance for christology and atonement, Paul says that Christ ‘who knew no sin, was made sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him’ (II Cor.5.21). I have found this text encouraging to my quest, though I do not rest solely on its authority. It stimulates the imagination, rather than proves a theory. That is why I label it a ‘pro-text’. It gives place to the sinlessness of Christ, but not in a way that prevents saying that Christ was made sin. If Christ was made sin, but was not left in sin, may we interpret what happened to him after his being made sin as forgiveness? That would make sense; it corresponds to common usage. But Paul does not use the word, perhaps because he was relatively chary with the language of forgiveness, or perhaps because he did not want to say the Lord was forgiven – that did not fit his sense and image of Christ. I admit, then, that I am probably saying more than Paul ever would or could. Certainly, to answer my question was not Paul’s aim: so I will let his words help me without claiming that he is here in spirit to endorse my judgment. 

My argument so far indicates that some major theological traditions tend to prevent our seeing Christ as forgiven and that even an early, influential text which suggests the idea does not achieve it. My experiment to make Christ the Forgiven plausible and to assess its consequences for theology cannot be carried through unless common ideas of sin and forgiveness are, to some extent, revised and developed. That kind of change is, however, something we should expect in any theological work, certainly in christian theology. Theology is bound to use ordinary language, because it is the initial intellectual equipment available to all of us – and because theology is obliged to speak intelligibly to ordinary people. But it has to work so that ordinary language serves the Gospel, the truth of God, rather than ordinary language, with its everyday limits and even laziness, cutting the cloth of the Gospel to suit another design. In dealing with sin and forgiveness, many kinds of revision and development are required, since ordinary language is shaped by many different concerns. For example, the exigencies of the socialising and moral education of children has led to their being taught about sin through discussions of naughtiness (‘Christian children all must be, Mild, obedient, good as he’ – ‘our childhood’s pattern’; I accept that nowadays only the grey beards are of an age to have been brought up singing ‘He died that we might be forgiven, He died to make us good’). Another example of our being trained in the language of sin and (un)forgiveness is found in newspaper reporting and popular discussion of a handful of criminals, who serve as monstrous icons, alleged to be essentially evil and therefore unforgivable. Theology in the service of the Gospel has continually to struggle to redeem and reform words like sin and forgiveness as they are shaped in everyday converse in our mixed-up worlds. The ordinary language of the churches requires similar discriminating pastoral care. 

Made sin 

My ‘pro-text’ is clear that Christ knew no sin. This is in contrast to other human beings who sin: the informing law causes them to know sin (Rom 7.7). Law makes sin ‘live’, so that it is a power driving people and burdening the conscience. Knowing sin is brought about by law, but the sin we know through the law is not the primary form of sin. Paul recognises that sin was in the world, and death with it before the law (Rom 5.12). What the law brought was the imputing of sin, whereby God puts it on our account and calls us to account – the true account, so that we cannot in conscience refuse to own it. Thus the counterpart to God’s imputing sin is our knowing sin. Apart from, and prior to, this imputation and knowing, sin and death operate, defining the human condition. So, in pauline thought, there is an invitation to see sin through its relation with death, as well as through law. Law is insufficient for human salvation and atonement with God, not only because, as Paul interprets it, law is contrary to faith and grace, but because it encourages a limited moralistic account of sin, in which death as a component and symbol of sin is played down. 

Along this way, we have a chance to see how being ‘made sin’ can be a viable and useful concept. 

Paul offers a specific explanation of Christ’s being made sin: everyone who hangs on a tree is cursed, (Gal.3.13). Though Christ did not break the law, he was hanged on a tree. That was the way by which he redeemed us from the more general curse that is upon all who are under the law but do not obey it perfectly (Gal 3. 10ff). We may not like Paul’s style of argument. His point here depends on his contrast between works of the Law and faith and therefore may require our consent to a whole theology which is alien to us, to be disliked and feared as dangerous. Nevertheless, even for determined anti-paulinists, it provides a powerfully coloured imaginative background for our investigation. 

A similar point is made by Rom 3.23, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. The text is usually read as though falling short of the glory of God is the consequence of sinning. But falling short of the glory of God may be another name for sin in itself. For human beings are created in the image of God, and so reflect, and are to reflect, the glory of God.4D J Hall, Imaging God (the simple change from the noun Image to the verbal Imaging builds a revolutionary theological hinge) When they fall short of the glory, they fail in their duty to God, which is intrinsic to human being, not realising their essential purpose and not realising the fullness of their created being, as the representatives of God. Duty is almost certainly a misleading word: human beings are created, gifted and called to live for the glory of God, and to flourish within it. Sin is dehumanization, which is met wherever Irenaeus’ formula, ‘vivens homo gloria Dei’ is discredited by human reality. 

Sin is not restricted to disobedience, failing to keep the Law, or to the attempt to be saved by works rather than faith, but is evidenced in a human condition in which the glory of God is neither mirrored nor shared nor enjoyed. Sin is then not merely a matter of what we do or fail to do, but rather of what we are. Human misery, mediocrity, manifold failures, confusions, weaknesses compound into sin, for they make up and describe a humanity that falls short of the imaging of God which is the calling of creation. All aspects of our misery make up this sin. But many aspects are not of our choosing; we seem to be made so somewhere along the course of our journey from God to God. The sign of sin in its fullness is death: the disintegration of being, order and community, the destroyer of dignity. Here the mirror which is to reflect the glory of God is turned away and shattered.5D Cairns This unmaking makes us sin. In death, even if nowhere else, sin is shown to be a way of being human which no one who is good could wish or take delight in. Death takes us to the place or condition where God’s praises cannot be sung (Psalm 6.5; 30.9). The disfigured, derelict Jesus on the Cross falls short of the glory of God, though he knew and chose no sin. He was made sin. 

The misery in which human beings find themselves, the misery imposed on them by the experience of life is a better clue to the reality of sin, than the breaking the law of God on one or many points. For it is the lived reality of our failure to realise the primary command under which human being lives: to image God and to reflect the glory of God. Instead we fall short of it. Even the good do this. 

Being made sin happens to human beings, even when they do not choose it. Some may live all their lives in happy security and virtue, but do not wholly escape this misery. They preserve their immunity only by munitions, by security barriers and social distances, and by looking the other way, defining their humanity inhumanly, radicalising its difference from those they despise. They pay for education to train them to look the other way and for chaplains to give them religion which assures them they are good even when they look the other way. But those perversions are all indices of their misery, their falling short: they cannot bear to be honestly human, sharing with others who have flesh and blood and they are in fear all their lives of the death that comes from being involved with the miserable.

I am mindful of the danger in this argument. That human beings fall short of the glory of God is not to be taken as evidence that all human goodness is a sham or flawed in itself. Bonhoeffer rightly warned us against ‘the clerical sniffing-around-after-people’s-sins in order to catch them out’ as though ‘a man can be addressed as a sinner only after his weaknesses and meannesses have been spied out.’6D Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York, 1972), 345f. (8 July 1944) In the same letter, Bonhoeffer insisted that we should not let thinking in terms of a merely inward ‘good disposition’ block and displace ‘total goodness’ as our theological and ethical measure. What people are in their obvious strong worldliness counts theologically. It is people who are genuinely good who are made sin through their involvement in the world, through the frustration and perversion of their good which comes from ‘living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities’.7Bonhoeffer, Letters, 370 (21 July 1944) Some may never be ‘made sin’ while they live, but death evaporates the glory of God – there is no beauty there that it should be desired (Isaiah 53.2). 

He was ‘made sin’: this is especially outrageous for one such as Jesus who so signally knew no sin, but it is not strange for one who was truly human, ‘come in the flesh’. For we all are made sin, in the end, and often before it. Hebrews asserts that Jesus was without sin, but also indicates that he struggled against the fear and pains of looming death. His humanity was not sunnily immune from that threat. To be in a position to destroy him who had the power of death, the devil, he shared flesh and blood, thereby freeing those who were all their lives gripped by the fear of death (Heb 2.14, 15). If sin always involves deliberate choice, death and the fear of death cannot be sin, for death is imposed on us, without our choice. But in the fear that death infuses into our being and living, we fall short of the glory of God, so that instead of living the freedom of the children of God, we are all our lives held in bondage. 


From Abelard and Kant, and in everyday wisdom, ‘made sin’ is not merely an odd expression, but offensive. The word ‘made’ is problematic, since intention is held to be essential to sin. Within law, ‘made sin’ is impossible, because it is unfair: fairness requires that people are free, ‘made’ means they are not. But life is not fair; yet we think well of, and are often grateful for, those who get on with life positively despite its unfairness. To live well, we have to carry on living, ‘for better, for worse’. Being a stickler for law can block life. 

The concept of responsibility, it is conventional to say, is required to preserve sin from being confused with mere limitation. If anyone’s condition is described as being ‘made sin’, they are not responsible, so it cannot be ‘sin’. They are victims and victims are conventionally, and often in reality, innocent. 

I do not want to meet this objection by belittling responsibility, but rather by relocating it. Responsibility is commonly located in causation. We are only responsible for what we cause. And we can only be held accountable for causing wrong when we were competent enough to know what we were doing, knowing that it was wrong and being able to assess its likely consequences as well as free enough to make choices. That is why children who do terrible things, unlike General Pinochet, should not be tried in the adult way. 

Anyone who is said to be ‘made sin’ is not thereby described as a cause of sin. Yet if he is made sin, he is called to take responsibility for sin, partly because it is in the nature of sin to require responsibility, and partly because our humanity depends always on our taking responsibility for who we find ourselves to be, even though we did not cause what we are. The child who has done terrible wrong ought not to be tried in an adult way, not because he is permitted to be irresponsible, but because the child, in his future living and development, will have to come to take responsibility for what he has been made through his action as a child. The objection to an adult trial is that it will obscure the call to take responsibility, which is essential to maturing personhood, even where the offender cannot be treated as a fully competent sovereign cause. (By taking the example of child offenders, I do not imply that the penal system is highly efficient in helping adults to come to appropriate responsibility. It may also fail many adults by its narrow causative definition of responsibility. Nor do I suggest that the courts should work with any broader notion of responsibility, for that would make their effects even worse. In this age when litigation is expanding in profits and popularity, we need to be reminded that law is ill equipped to do true justice to human beings and should not be allowed to define humanity for us.) More generally, none of us chose to be born and we were already largely shaped before we could begin to understand choice between ways of life which might be feasible to people made as we are. We do not become real, good, mature human beings, unless we take responsibility for much that is not our own work, that is, for our ‘selves’. Because we are not our own cause, we can always plausibly blame someone or something else (parents, our times, teachers, ancestors now known as genes, culture) for who and what we are, but that refusal of responsibility is dehumanising. Shuffling off responsibility takes away dignity; like death, it blocks life. 

Acting in ignorance, and only finding out afterwards what we have done, is part of being human, with or without the owl of Minerva and her prophet Hegel. In short, we are vulnerable to being made, for good and ill. It happens for good in many relationships. To fall in love is precisely to find that we have been ‘made’ more and differently from what we imagined or planned until that moment. But when lovers stay together, their life involves taking responsibility for what has come upon and been done to them. Older people tut-tut about the irresponsibility of the young, who do not control their life, but are carried about by whims and fancies, hormones and winds of doctrine. The wisdom of the aged is cautious, constantly asking: Do you know what you are doing, what you are causing, what you are making of yourself? In their view, being responsible means taking care not to cause anything which later we shall have to regret or be ashamed of: ‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure’. There is no doubting their wisdom or its folly; human being always needs strong elders, though their attempts to prevent the young getting into trouble are doomed to failure and end up being nothing but a sad background murmur of complaint about human folly . The elders cannot stop life, nor can they supplant the young who have to live through their ignorance and vulnerability, being made something before they can manage life. Eventually, people may come to take responsibility for earlier irresponsibility. 

We are made not only for good, but also for ill. Most of us are made sin to a far greater extent than we cause sin. We are involved in the life of societies, local and global, moral (to some degree) persons shaped by the necessities and obligations of immoral society. Many who are friendly in spirit and kind to their wives and children, nevertheless run businesses and the world with a restrained or rampant machiavellian mixture of force and fraud, because they can find no other way to effective action.8R Niebuhr Moral Man and Immoral Society etc As Augustine said, even if a war is just, nothing stops it being misery – or hell, as someone else said; indeed the misery of being human is deeper when we find that misery comes not only when we do what is wrong, but also when we try to do the right. In such contexts, our virtues, whether we are pagans or christians, are splendid vices, for we are heroic in trying to do well in an ill world. To see that misery imposed on us is sin, the falling short of the glory of God, illumines what goes on in much of life, where people are made sin against their intention and have to take responsibility for living what they do not approve of. Ethics does not save us from this plight. Ethical instruction may help us to see, for example, that letting die is not the same as killing, but that does not save us from involvement in a world whose structures mean some live while millions are ‘let die’ all the time. And to be involved in that world, sometimes as beneficiary, sometimes as factotum, sometimes as mere by-stander, is to be made sin, through what we have not chosen or caused. An ethical appraisal thus gives us a more precise analysis of our living, but it does not allow us to excuse ourselves: it serves to explain more precisely how we are made sin. 

So we are made sin socially; and we sin when we refuse to take responsibility for what we are made, claiming to be mere victims. Being made sin can corrupt moral judgment, in at least two ways. We may refuse responsibility for what we are. And we may concede the right of the powerful sin making us to define what is right for us. That is when evil becomes our good: when sin, because it shapes life, ceases to be sin for us.9D.Bonhoeffer, Ethics (London, 1964), 75-78 (‘The successful man’) To be made sin is to be overcome by an enemy, to have an alien burden imposed, contrary to one’s true nature and calling. If we can recognise the burden as alien, as what God has not willed, we do well.10K.Barth How I changed my Mind (Edinburgh, 1969), 86 But sometimes the burdens are so powerful, they break in upon the spirit. The Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages form an emotional attachment to their captors, is well documented: a violence that was initially resented and opposed produces a dependence, even a willing cooperation, in which the hostage comes to see and even favour the captor’s point of view. It has also been noted that where young women are groomed by a pimp, often in a long process mixing charm and violence, the victim has great difficulty in recognising that she has been ill-treated and deprived of her freedom and identity, and so is unable to resist or even wish to get free of the destroyer she euphemises as the ‘boy-friend’. 

However, while these examples show how the extraneous can become part of inner identity, they may be inadequate as explanations of ‘being made sin’. The victims in these examples suffer psychological distortion, so that they cannot see that their acceptance of the extraneous burden is wrong. What has happened is that people are so determined by wrong or sin done to them, that they no longer see what they suffer and accept as sin and cannot take responsibility for it as such. Instead of seeing that they have been made sin, they work with another reading of the whole experience, in which what has been done is accepted by them as the norm. 

An example where being made sin is lived and thought with clearsighted responsibility within and for the situation is given by Desmond Tutu, describing the effects of apartheid first on his father and then on himself as a father. When Desmond took his children to play on the beach in East London, they went to the less attractive part reserved for blacks. His youngest child looked at the swings in the white section and said she wanted to go to play on them. ‘and I would have to reply in a hollow voice, a dead weight in the pit of my stomach, ‘No, darling, you can’t go’. What was I to say when my baby insisted….. how could I tell her she could not go because she was not the right kind of child? I died inside many times and was not able to look my child in the eyes because I felt so dehumanised, so humiliated, so diminished. Now I probably felt as my father must have felt when he was humiliated in the presence of his young son.’11Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness ( London, 1999) 19, cf. 14.  This is clearly an account of oppression and injustice, of being sinned against. But that is not all. The deepest pain was not the suffering of the black adult, Desmond’s father, at the hands of white shop girls who called him ‘boy’, but the failure of these fathers to be father to their children, in the way they wished, and to be seen as truly father, by the children. In order to do the best thing in the circumstances for the child, the father had to deprive the child, not of a relatively trivial consumer good (a swing on the swings) but of an effective parent, of one in and through whom the child could see and so learn directly what human dignity and caring and loyalty are. What the child sees here is the father who is forced to give a stone instead of bread. The child may well have an intelligent affection for, and trust in, the parent, so that she knows that the parent is not being true to himself in this behaviour; she may be sure, as Tutu says he was of his father, that the parent is a genuinely good parent (knows no sin, in the language of this paper) but the child sees this parent being made sin, tailoring the parenting to accommodate the power of sin in the situation. And it is a being made sin because the parent knows what is happening and does not pretend that it is other than it is: he ‘dies inside’. Living in the body of this death (Romans 7.24), he does what he does not want to do, not because he has an evil will or perverted taste, but because the duties, goods and responsibilities of life require him to struggle through conditions where doing unalloyed good, without being shaped by the evil and sin in the situation, is impossible. He cannot get out of living in the real situation and thus within its terms. To live is to act and then to know what one is doing. And sometimes this is to be made sin. 

Here is an example of taking responsibility for and within what is imposed on victims and so discovering that one is made sin, involved in doing ill, in letting others down. 

It would be foolish to suppose that this occurs only rarely, in special places like Golgotha and apartheid South Africa. 

Being ‘made sin’ is not then a misnomer for conditions which are really nothing but innocent victimhood. It is being placed in a situation by reality, and by the goodness which does not deny incarnation and involvement, for which one must take responsibility, and in which one finds that one is, in some form, doing or sharing in sin, falling short of the glory of God, being dead rather than alive. ‘Being made sin’ reflects an aspect of human being, in the negative, which falls out of sight when our vision is merely binocular, seeing only causative evildoers and innocent victims. 

I know hardly any theological texts which speak for me here. More than thirty years ago, R.H.Moberly’s presentation of Christ as the perfect vicarious penitent gave me a push on the road I have been travelling since.12R.H.Moberly Atonement and Personality (London, 1901), 109ff. But on re-reading him now, I see how far I have strayed from his way. For Moberly, to be the true penitent is an achievement of supreme virtue; it is the work of a good and sensitive person. And he makes it pretty clear that his model for Christ the vicarious penitent is the Victorian mother, interceding for her wayward child while submitting to the doubtless righteous anger of the punitive Victorian Father. Over against the naughty child, both parents in that world were unquestionably righteous. Though he quotes II Cor.5.21 as one of his texts in the crucial chapter VI, he is unable to give any serious meaning to ‘made sin’. 

Bonhoeffer’s Ethics offers more. That is not surprising, since he did his theology in a world, beyond Moberly’s, where ‘reality lays itself bare’ and there are ‘once more villains and saints’. The remarkable Ecce Homo sequence describes the Man ‘in whom the world was reconciled with God’. Bonhoeffer works through three moments of an outline theological narrative of the life of Jesus: incarnate (against the despising of humanity), condemned (against the pretensions of successful humanity), risen (against the idolization of death). This sequence not only offers a christological sketch which does not shy away from the ‘made sin’, though it does not discuss it explicitly; it also gives a penetrating moral and spiritual analysis of the evil and sins of Nazism, which is unmistakable, though no names are mentioned. 

The second section, on the Successful Man, begins:

Behold the man sentenced by God, the figure of grief and pain. That is how the Reconciler of the world appears. The guilt of humankind has fallen upon Him. It casts Him into shame and death before God’s judgment seat. This is the great price which God pays for reconciliation with the world. Only by God’s executing judgment upon Himself can there be peace between Him and the world and between man and man. But the secret of this judgment, of this passion and death, is the love of God for the world and for man. What befell Christ befalls every man in Him. It is only as one who is sentenced by God that man can live before God. Only the crucified man is at peace with God. It is in the figure of the Crucified that man recognizes and discovers himself. To be taken up by God, to be executed on the cross and reconciled, that is the reality of manhood.13D. Bonhoeffer Ethics, 75  


Forgiveness is a change in the relations, circumstances and possibilities of sinners, including those ‘made sin’, such that while the sin is truthfully recognised for what it is, it does not have the power to determine the future or final worth and being of the sinner. 

This change does not consist in overlooking the wrong or treating it as trivial or tolerable. To be forgiven is not to be freed of responsibility but is a way of taking responsibility with hope for good rather than despair. 

If ‘being made sin’ calls those who live within that ‘making’ to take responsibility for sin, they are eligible for forgiveness. It is not an inappropriate category, even for Jesus Christ. 

Forgiveness is a response to sinners which does not abandon or disown them, so that they have no other possibility but to live with their sin and its consequences. The forgiven are given friendship and other practical help in finding a new and different future from the one marked out by the sin. Christ was not disowned by God, nor was he left in hades, the place of death. His story is thus of one who is forgiven. This reading requires giving resurrection a significant role, and not trying to find the forgiveness of sins solely in the cross, through the full perfect sacrifice there offered. 

Paul, and all christian theologians after him, did not present the vindication and exaltation of Jesus (designated to be the Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Rom.1.4) as being forgiven. The links between resurrection and Paul’s preferred language of justification are suggestive, but were never developed in the direction of a christology of the forgiven. Paul might be seen as going in another direction in presenting the death of Christ as the death of sin and the ‘old humanity’, so that resurrection signifies a quite new and different humanity. The discontinuity between the two humanities, achieved radically by the break between death and resurrection, prepared the way for moralising interpretations of Christianity, like Kant’s, in which forgiveness is, at best, belittled, out of fear of its moral generosity.14Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (New York, 1960, translated by T.M.Greene and H.H.Hudson) 66ff.; cxxxi-cxxxiv It is perverse, however, to read Paul as though he were suspicious of the grace which abounds much more than sin, coming from the love by which Christ died for his enemies. There is reason to look for other explanations of Paul’s language, to understand why he never got near seeing Christ as forgiven, without implying that it would have been impossible in his theological imagination. 

To see the one made sin as forgiven depends on understanding that forgiveness is not a dropping of charges; it is not an empty freedom from the wrong done and from guilt as the ground of accusation and punishment. An empty freedom, a mere letting off, waits for seven devils worse. The substance and manifestation of forgiveness is the fullness and power of new and better life. Paul the persecutor was not forgiven through an act of absolution – no one said to him: ‘you are free from guilt’. His being forgiven was not a discrete act in which his past was washed away, or written off. He was forgiven in the positive, future-constituting event of his being made an apostle to the Gentiles, being set apart to suffer for the Lord he had persecuted (Acts 9. 13-17; Gal. 1.13-16). His being forgiven was a meaning of his being the apostle, part of its content and power. The word forgiven may not be used, because the concrete form of forgiveness is a new way of being, to be named and celebrated by its own qualities, not by its achievement of freedom from the past. To grasp this point about the language of forgiveness and how it works in practice would save us from much sterile pedantry. 

That Christ, who was made sin, is forgiven, may be understood on similar lines. Christ’s own forgiveness is realised in his saving work, which is enabled and endorsed by God. The forgiven one forgives and in forgiving his being forgiven is actualised. Christ was made sin to reconcile the world to himself in new creation; he was made sin ‘for us’, in order that we might be made the righteousness of God (justified, forgiven). Christ’s whole story is for and with others. If he is forgiven, it is not as though he were an individual sinner, responsible simply for himself, who is raised to renewed individual life, freed from personal guilt. He was raised for our justification (Rom.4.5). The first Adam was made a living soul (with life in himself); the second Adam a life-giving spirit (I Cor.15.45), being what God gives him to be in giving life to others and having it in them. The suffering Servant is forgiven in that the one who bore the sin of many and was cut off from the land of the living, (Who could have imagined his future? as the New RSV has it) justified many (Isaiah 53. 8,11). If the one made sin were to ask: ‘Am I forgiven?’ the answer would be: ‘Look at all these who are forgiven and renewed because of you.’ To be forgiven is not an individual possession or benefit; it is given to persons through participating in some way in a movement which gathers many people together and opens the way to a better shared future. 

Forgiveness as christological narrative and ontology of new creation 

The idea of Christ the forgiven one might in itself be defensible, without its having a significant effect on the overlapping of christology and atonement at the core of the christian understanding of salvation. I am unable, not merely for reasons of space, to deal with the issues arising here. I can only indicate further speculative possibilities which might be worth at least an hour’s discussion – an easy burden, when compared with the centuries of polemic which some theories on these topics have generated. 

Christ as forgiven invites us to read God’s forgiveness in a fully christological two-natured way. God’s forgiveness is not only God’s active work in Christ, but it is also what is definitively received in Christ. God in Christ is God for and towards human being, and also, equally, God in and as human being, so that Christ is and represents truly human being before God and humanity. If that is so, God’s story in Christ shows how God forgives, not from a world-transcending throne, but through the suffering of flesh. And further, it shows how forgiveness affects and transforms human being from within, giving life in the glory of God instead of, and despite, sin-death. If the story of Jesus, crucified and raised, is the exemplary or paradigmatic case of forgiveness, forgiveness cannot be a subjective indifference to wrong, or a mere change of attitude on the part of an offended party who gives up resentment. 

It also follows that forgiveness is defined by God in Christ as well as dispensed by God in Christ. If God only actively forgives in Christ, the nature of being forgiven is to be found by looking at human beings other than Christ. And that presents us with a vast range of more or less satisfactory ideas of what it is to be forgiven, and so of what God – or any forgiver – is doing in forgiving. If Christ is also the forgiven, it can be taken as a normative picture of what forgiveness is – if we want such a picture. Christology thus gives us a normative narrative of being forgiven. This is in addition to an account of the way in which God actively forgives through a complex process, adequate to human need and to the divine purpose. 

Furthermore, if Christ was made sin and is forgiven as the risen one, in whom there is new creation, we are given a perspective in which to read all reality. In this perspective, there is no reason to pretend we have no sin, or even that sin is less grievous than it is. Seeing what sin is in Christ who was made sin will help even the most pious to consider the weight of sin, and to see it through what happens in the public, organised and disorganised world of humanity, not in the precious inwardness of religion. It is forgiveness which enables us to be honest and realistic about our own sin and the sin of the world. If there is no forgiveness, we will make our working arrangements, even our peace, with the dominant evil – and end in being unable to name it as sin. The forgiven Christ (seen, for example, in Bonhoeffer’s way) keeps us faithful to the human calling which has been realised in Christ, since we can never, for ourselves or for others or for the world, accept that the story of humanity ends with sin, dominant or even condemned. That is not the full story of how God has lived for us in Christ. 

In Christ there is new creation. Paul says that. I have argued for the extension: In Christ the forgiven there is new creation. The new creation is good and secure, thus reflecting the glory of God. This secure, because constantly renewed, goodness is the outcome of forgiveness; it is goodness made from sinful humanity. Commonly, we deal with humanity without giving a central place to forgiving, as a significant kind of change. Good is good, bad is bad, so they should be distinguished and kept apart. Some words of Jesus encourage this way of thinking: the good tree brings forth good fruit, the bad, bad. From this may be derived a simple ontology where things are what they are; and they produce only after their own kind. But if the whole new creation holds together in Christ the forgiven, its goodness or righteousness is the outcome of continuous ontological transformation. Forgiveness means that good comes from what is wrong and bad, through change within the continuity of the living of persons. Everything is what it is in the moment of transformation, it is the old made new, the sin forgiven, the memory of wrong present as the disempowered foil to the good which itself is the substance of forgiveness. Part of the good is precisely the forgiving power which achieves such a transformation, the amazing grace perceived and received in the transformation, the justice which validates the transformation. Goodness is not a perfect quality, unforgiving because it is beyond the reach of what needs forgiving; goodness is rather the sufficiency of forgiveness to realise the promise of goodness. Forgiveness does not forget or deny the sin. Creation is not new because it has no history, but because the history of sin is forgiven. Forgiveness is simultaneity, but not equality between the sin and the good given beyond sin: simul peccator, simul iustus

So forgiveness is the clue to the ontology of new creation. And the new creation is signed sporadically in the old creation. Wherever human living is good, it is simultaneously truthful about, and hopeful for, human being – that is, it is forgiving. But it is only so by living, engineering, suffering and sharing the transformation linking the truth of sin and the hope of the glory of God (whatever name it goes by). 

One last debt I must mention: I cannot say how much I owe to Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.1. In some respects, this paper is little more than a faint, distorted, clumsy echo of it. Barth of course is careful to guard Christ-who-was-made-sin, from being treated as a sinner eligible for forgiveness. The Son’s way into the Far Country is traced, without discovering Christ the Forgiven and its implications. In transgressing at that point, I seem to be on my own, a sign that I am probably making a serious mistake somewhere. 

March 2000


  • 1
    The most recent and notable example is J. Moltmann, The Crucified God (London, 1974). Repeatedly, Moltmann seems to me to argue in ways which would make it possible to speak of Christ as forgiven. He never does, nor does he see any need to explain why this possibility should be skirted, and yet consistently left unrealised. That is testimony not only to the strong traditional aversion to seeing Christ as forgiven, but also to Moltmann’s specific positive purposes.
  • 2
    Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville, 1996)
  • 3
    Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood be Shed (New York, 1994), 34.
  • 4
    D J Hall, Imaging God (the simple change from the noun Image to the verbal Imaging builds a revolutionary theological hinge)
  • 5
    D Cairns
  • 6
    D Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York, 1972), 345f. (8 July 1944)
  • 7
    Bonhoeffer, Letters, 370 (21 July 1944)
  • 8
    R Niebuhr Moral Man and Immoral Society etc
  • 9
    D.Bonhoeffer, Ethics (London, 1964), 75-78 (‘The successful man’)
  • 10
    K.Barth How I changed my Mind (Edinburgh, 1969), 86
  • 11
    Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness ( London, 1999) 19, cf. 14. 
  • 12
    R.H.Moberly Atonement and Personality (London, 1901), 109ff.
  • 13
    D. Bonhoeffer Ethics, 75
  • 14
    Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (New York, 1960, translated by T.M.Greene and H.H.Hudson) 66ff.; cxxxi-cxxxiv

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