Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.
– 1 Peter 4:8, NRSV
Love…keeps no record of being wronged.
– 1 Corinthians 13:5, NLT
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This is not meant as a formal theological analysis of the meaning of the atonement. It’s more like street-level questioning of the way people often talk about sin and grace and God, especially when we place too much or exclusive emphasis on the common evangelical metaphor of penal, substitutionary atonement.
Are we more gracious than God?
The following is what I often hear about God and his stance toward our sins. Some of these are direct quotes from sermons or theological writings or evangelistic articles. The sentiments are so common that I will not cite sources or name names. Just Google “sin must be punished,” and you’ll get lots and lots of statements like these.
Justice requires that sin be punished, because sin deserves punishment. The justice of God obliges him to punish sin.
God, in his holiness, is infinitely opposed to sin. He cannot overlook it but must act with righteous judgment, exacting vengeance against it.
Since God has given us his Law and commanded us to live by it, he must punish those who break his law. Not to do so would be unjust.
In Scripture, sin is spoken of not merely as a terrible evil; but, much more than this, as legal guilt, which the righteous Judge must punish; as something so abhorrent to his holy nature that he cannot allow himself to be approached by any one on whom that guilt still rests; that he cannot meet with anyone from whom that guilt has not been removed by sacrifice.
In order to avoid defying a part of His character, God must judge sin. God cannot ignore sin no matter how loving and kind He is for to do so would deny one of His attributes, i.e., His righteousness.
God is love, but He is also just and righteous. If so, he must punish wickedness in the same way that a judge in a court must punish for crimes.
God is love, but genuine love cannot mean leaving sin unpunished either. Rather, because he loves us, God took the punishment for our sins on himself in Jesus.
If God could just overlook sin, there would be no need for Christ to have taken our punishment on the cross.
Sin must be punished. God provided a punishment for our sins – Jesus bore our punishment. We can choose to accept the punishment that Jesus made on our behalf, or take the punishment ourselves. Either way, sin must be punished.
I have heard and taught this for decades, and still agree with Scot McKnight, who wrote, “I don’t know how to read elements of (especially) Paul without explaining his soteriology as penal…” (A Community Called Atonement). The Bible’s portrait of God as a righteous judge who punishes evil as part of putting his fallen creation to rights is an undeniable part of the biblical witness.
But, as McKnight also reminds us, “Atonement language includes several evocative metaphors…Each is designed to carry us, like the pole, to the thing. But the metaphor is not the thing.” We need all the metaphors (such as sacrifice, reconciliation, redemption, and ransom) and, even then, must humbly confess that we understand only the the outlines of who God is, how he loves us, and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.
As I was driving today, the verse heading this post came to my mind. It immediately struck me as yet another clue to the unfathomable love and grace of God toward you and me:
“…love covers a multitude of sins.”
These words were written to suffering followers of Jesus Christ, encouraging them to show deep love for one another. The author reminds them what love does — it covers sins. That is, it overlooks them, it regards them as of no account. Love is generous with others and releases them from expectations of sinless perfection. If you love me, you will not hold my sins against me. You will accept me in spite of my weaknesses, failures, and offenses.
As the complementary citation from 1 Corinthians 13 says, “Love…keeps no record of being wronged.” I don’t keep a running tally of your sins. In considering your actions or words, I assume your best intentions. I place the value of remaining on good terms with you above holding you accountable for any grievances I might have against you. Insofar as it depends on me, I try to be at peace with you.
So there are times we choose to ignore each other’s sins and shortcomings. We forget them. We overlook them. We don’t consider them worthy of damaging our relationship. We give each other grace, and space. Freedom to fail. The okay to be imperfect. We are committed to each other in a covenant of love. Sin cannot break that.
If this is what love is, and if God is love, why then can’t we factor in this same attitude in our thinking about how God views us and deals with us in our sins?
Are humans, who show this kind of love to each other, more gracious and loving than God?
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Christian preacher or teacher say,
“God loves you, and he overlooks your sins.”
“God won’t let your sins stand between you and him.”
“God values you too much to hold your weaknesses and failures against you.”
“God loves you so much that not even sin can separate you from him.”
Perhaps he is like the father of the Prodigal Son, and not just like a righteous judge upholding the law.
Love covers a multitude of sins.
However, this is obviously not the whole story either.
This idea of “love covering sins” is simply one metaphor among many — a metaphor of relationship that grows out of the stuff of everyday life: family, friends, neighbors, fellow congregation members, coworkers, teammates, partners, fellow citizens. It grows out of living descriptions (not definitions) of love in action and the gracious forbearance, patience, and kindness human beings often show each other in commonplace daily interactions. It doesn’t indicate that we fail to take sin seriously. It just means we think other aspects of relating to each other are more important. It means putting sin in its place and not allowing it to win by pitting us against each other.
But there are times when other metaphors must take precedence. Sin can and does break relationships, and reconciliation is required. Sin, from one perspective, is a crime, and justice must be served through the payment of a penalty. Sin takes us captive, and we need to be set free (redemption) by some sort of payment (ransom) or atoning sacrifice.
All these metaphors become real in the person of Jesus Christ. We are perhaps most familiar and conversant with the concept of Jesus paying the just penalty for our sins by dying on the cross in our place.
But even on the cross, Jesus uttered the words, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). That is not the language of penal substitution. Those are words of generosity — Jesus is asking God to overlook the ignorance of his executioners.
Maybe sometimes Jesus just looks us in the eye, touches us, and says, “Go in peace.” Maybe sometimes he just runs down the road, throws his arms around us, and welcomes us home.
Maybe sometimes he just lets us off the hook.
His love covers a multitude of sins.