Why doesn't God just forgive us?
I'm sure you've heard that question hundreds of times before and the answer usually given has to do with God's justice. The argument is that God justice must be 'satisfied'. While looking at Hebrews 9:22 I took a look at the Greek word that is translated into 'forgiveness' and found something astounding. I found that God doesn't 'just forgive', because that doesn't help us. It was never his intention to 'just forgive' because he wanted to solve our problem, not just forgive it and leave us eternally in our bondage to sin. The word in the Greek that is translated forgive is Aphiemi and it has a much broader meaning that the word forgive conveys in English. In Greek it carries with it the idea of actually removing sin from a person, so that when Jesus tells people their sins are forgiven in scripture he is saying their sins have been taken away.
What God accomplished by the Cross:
In the most basic terms, the Christ's death and resurrection is said to take away our sins (John 1:29, Heb 9:28, 1 John 3:5), and reconcile (2 Cor 5:18-19 , Eph 2:16, Col 1:20, 1 Peter 3:18) us to God. Both sin and the law (Eph 2:14-16, Col 2:14, Rom 7:1-6) are abolished in Christ. I'm sure you've heard these said before, but don't be so quick to pass them by. Think about what scripture is teaching here and what it is not teaching. It is saying that our problem is resolved, our spiritual disease is cured, we are set free and the law that condemns us is abolished. Scripture points to God's work on the cross as being something greater, something multifaceted that we can bring our questions to and find an answer; Love for the unloved, worth for those who feel worthless, a clean conscience for those who feel the weight of their guilt, freedom for those enslaved by their addictions. Consider the additional passages:
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Col 2:15)
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. (Heb 9:15)
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:18)
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3)
Justifies - makes us right with God. (Rom 5)
Cleanse our conscience (Heb 9:14)
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work. ( 1 John 3:8 )
In all of scripture there is only one verse that comes close to calling the cross 'God's punishment'. And that is Isaiah 53:5, yet even this verse uses a Hebrew word that is distinct from the word used for punishment. This word, muwcar, means chastening, correction, or instruction. This of course differs greatly from punishing someone for a criminal act. So you still have to bring your own presuppositions about 'punishment' to the text in order to read it that way (which, unfortunately, the NIV translators did).
How does the Cross (and resurrection) work?
While we are told what Christ did on the cross for us to resolved our problem, we aren't really given much information on the technical details of how this is accomplished. Maybe this is intended to be part of our faith, or trust in God. To trust that he is telling us the truth and not worry about the technical details. Maybe asking this question is what got us the doctrine of 'Penal Atonement' in the first place. Yet I believe there are hints in scripture that give us some small clue:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him; and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being (Jn 1:1-3)
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:17, see also 1 Cor. 8:6)
And He (Christ) is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb 1:3)
For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. (2 Cor 5:14)
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor 5:21)
If the one who is sustaining all of creation dies, what happens to creation? If he bears our sin, what happens to sin when he dies? And if the one who is sustaining creation is raised from the dead what happens to creation? If he ascends to the Father, is there then any consequence for creation?
Now, what are we to make of the fact that this One became a human being? What are we to make of the fact that the eternal and beloved Son of the Father–in and through and by whom all things were created–entered into his creation and became a man? Are we to treat this Son incarnate, Jesus Christ, as a mere man, a single, solitary, individual human being, who lived and died like every other human being? Does his presence, the presence of this Son incarnate, not carry immediate and decisive implications for the whole universe? How can we not see that this Son is Lord, that his existence–his life and death and resurrection and ascension–has dramatic and stunning significance for the cosmos? How can we not see that the human race is necessarily and beautifully and wonderfully bound up in this Son incarnate, this Creator incarnate, and therefore how could we possibly be blind to the staggering and glorious fact that the human race has been gathered together in this one Man, the Son-Creator incarnate, and taken to the Father in his ascension? For good or ill, what becomes of this Son, this Son-Creator incarnate, becomes of us. If he dies, we die. If he rises again, we rise again. If he ascends to the Father and sits down at His right hand, we too are lifted up and embraced by the Father and accepted into the life of the Trinity.
-- Baxter Kruger, The light of the Cosmos