I have been wrestling with the title question over the past few weeks. As a preacher, I find that it is very easy to present the gospel as if it is more basically about forgiveness, my forgiveness or your forgiveness, rather than justice. The problem that I keep running into when I fall into this trap is that I am making the gospel primarily about me or you but not God. So, I often come back to this question, “Which is more basic to the gospel, justice or forgiveness?”
Of course, from a technical stand point forgiveness involves justice; the problem is that we usually don’t think in technical terms. Typically, we think of forgiveness as just overlooking some injustice, or acting like it didn’t happen, or trying to forget that it actually did. Forgive and forget, that’s how we think about it. It seems our common notion of forgiveness has very little to do with justice at all.
Here is an illustration I have read somewhere (though I can’t remember where). When a kid hits his brother, we tell him to apologize and ask for forgiveness. Then we tell the brother to forgive him and move on as if nothing happened (and we often get frustrated when he doesn’t or can’t). When a bank forgives a loan it doesn’t just move on as if nothing happened. A bank can’t do this, there is a lot of money that is no longer there. Rather, a bank says I will take your deficiencies on myself and bear the cost for you (I am not saying banks do this joyfully or without insurance, I am just saying that’s how it actually works). Our common notion of forgiveness seems to teach that the money somehow just magically shows back up in the bank’s pocket when they forgive our debt, but it doesn’t. This is what we begin to see when we inject the notion of justice into our notion of forgiveness. When we ask a kid to forgive his brother for hitting him, we are asking him to take his brother’s deficiencies and bear the cost while continuing to love him.
God’s notion of forgiveness has everything to do with justice. 1 John 1.9 states, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (ESV). Paul tells us in Romans 3 that God put Christ Jesus forward as a propitiation by Jesus’ blood “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3.26, ESV). God is just, so he can only forgive his people for their sin because he punished Jesus for their sin. Our forgiveness is founded on God’s justice. When God forgives us, he is not just overlooking our sin. When God forgives us, he is taking our sin and all its consequences and bearing the cost for us. This is what Jesus did when he died.
This changes how I think about the gospel. If the gospel is more basically about my forgiveness, then the gospel is more basically about me. If the gospel is more basically about God’s justice on which my forgiveness is founded, then the gospel is more basically about God. If the gospel is more basically about my forgiveness, then God is more basically in this for my benefit, for my glory. If the gospel is more basically about God’s justice, then God is more basically in this for his glory. If God is in this for my glory, then he serves me. If God is in this for his glory, then I serve him.