5 / 06
Image of birds flying. Image of birds flying.

#618 God’s Pardon:  Who Needs It?

February 17, 2019

I'm reading your Cambridge Elements "The Atonement" and have a question regarding divine pardon.

In section, you explain that to be "guilty" means "liable for punishment". You then end that section with ". . . a person who was once guilty may, in virtue of a divine pardon, be no longer guilty, despite the ineradicable fact that he did commit the sin for which he was justly condemned. Like punishment, a pardon expiates a person's legal guilt so that he is no longer condemned and liable to punishment."

(Henceforth, I will put the word "guilty" in quotes when I wish it to be understood with that definition of "liable for punishment")

Then in section you reconcile divine mercy and justice. On page 95 you state, ". . . Christ as our substitute and representative bears the punishment due for every sin, so that the demands of divine retributive justice are fully met."

If Christ took on the punishment due us as our substitute and representative, and that punishment fully met the demands of divine retributive justice, then that means we are no longer "liable for punishment" and thus no longer "guilty". But, again back to that section, you say "a person who was once guilty may, in virtue of a divine pardon, be no longer guilty, despite the ineradicable fact that he did commit the sin." But we aren't "guilty", as I just pointed out! If Christian believers are already no longer "guilty" by virtue of Christ's substitutionary and representative punishment, we do not need divine pardon to be no longer "guilty". So what does divine pardon do that Christ's substitutionary and representative punishment does not?

I do not think we want to re-define the word guilty and say something like "divine pardon removes our sins as if we never did them" because that seems to rely on a definition of guilty that you fought against in section and .3 when you argued against those challenging Garland (Garland challengers define guilt as "simply the property or fact of having committed the crime" (p.85)).

This is why I became confused when I read a followup sentence on page 95 that said, "The demands of divine justice thus satisfied, God can in turn pardon us of our sins." If divine justice is satisfied and we are thus no longer "liable for punishment" ("guilty"), then getting a divine pardon seems superfluous and unnecessary since we have no "guilt" to be pardoned.

What am I missing?


Flag of United States. United States

Photo of Dr. Craig.

Dr. craig’s response


What’s missing, John, is my fuller treatment of these issues in my unpublished, longer book Atonement and the Death of Christ, which had to be omitted from the very abbreviated book in the Elements series.

Faustus Socinus, whom you know from the Elements book, similarly argued against the Reformers that forgiveness and satisfaction are logically incompatible. If God has been satisfied, then there is nothing to forgive. In her new book on the atonement, Eleonore Stump repeats this same Socinian objection in opposition to theories which require satisfaction of divine justice as a basis for God’s forgiveness.

I think the 17th century international jurist Hugo Grotius correctly responded to Socinus on this score. The following is how I describe Grotius’ reply to Socinus in chapter VI of his A Defense of the Catholic Faith concerning the Satisfaction of Christ, against Faustus Socinus (1617).

Here Grotius treats Socinus’ allegation that satisfaction for sins and remission of those same sins are logically incompatible. Grotius distinguishes between the strict performance of a debt or punishment and satisfaction for the same. If a debt or punishment is discharged by the performance of the very thing required, then there is no remission granted by the creditor or ruler. But when anything other than what one is obligated to perform is done instead, then “it is necessary that some act of the creditor or the ruler be added, which act is properly and usually called remission” (VI.11). This substitution for strict performance, when accepted by the creditor or ruler, has “a special name in law, viz. satisfaction, which is sometimes contrasted with performance in the stricter sense of the word” (Ibid.). In civil law the discharge of a debt without any sort of performance is called “acceptilation.”  “But with regard to punishment it has no proper name. . . but is commonly called grace, pardon, indulgence or abolition” (VI.13).

In the case of the remission of sins, it is remission with antecedent satisfaction.  Socinus errs in thinking that these two notions are in conflict, for all satisfaction is allowed on the condition that there is opportunity for remission by the creditor or ruler. The creditor or ruler may accept or reject the substitute for strict performance, and if he does accept it, it is deemed satisfactory. Socinus’s claim that “by satisfaction a debt is altogether and immediately extinguished. . . is not true, unless satisfaction, contrary to legal usage, is taken to refer to the performance by the debtor of the very thing which was due. . .” (VI. 16). But when someone else performs instead of the debtor and something else is performed instead of what was due, then the creditor or ruler must act to accept the substitute.

Grotius makes the interesting observation that the virtue God exhibits in remitting sins is not liberality but clemency (VI.25).  God pardons sins, as rulers pardon crimes (VI.3). God’s beneficence was shown to us in that “when God was moved with great hatred against sin, and could refuse to spare us altogether. . . , yet, in order to spare us, he accepted a performance such as he was not bound to accept, but, he also devised it himself, of his own accord. . . . So, the clemency of God is not overthrown by the performance of the punishment, since the acceptance of such a performance, and much rather the devising of it, sprang from clemency alone” (VI.26).

The genius of a penal substitutionary theory is that it enables the demands of divine retributive justice to be fully met, not simply swept under the rug, while giving full expression to God’s love for condemned sinners. What God in His mercy forgoes is punishing sinners in their proper persons; instead, out of His love for them He bears their punishment Himself. As Grotius rightly saw, the acceptance of a substitute for what is owed does require a special dispensation on the part of the creditor or judge. That special dispensation, as Grotius observes, is called a pardon. It is precisely on the basis of Christ’s vicariously meeting the demands of divine justice that a perfectly just God can in His mercy offer us a pardon, which we may, in turn, either accept or reject. 

It’s worth noting as well that in the American justice system pardons granted on grounds of innocence and wrongful conviction themselves show that a pardon is wholly compatible with justice’s demands’ being satisfied.  Pardons to achieve remedial justice do not imply the guilt of the person involved or his failure to satisfy the demands of justice.  Indeed, quite the opposite is the case.  Moreover, the vast majority of pardons are granted after the criminal’s sentence has been fully served.  The U.S. Office of Pardon Attorney will not even permit applications for a presidential pardon until at least five years have elapsed since the sentence of the criminal has been fully satisfied. A pardon in such a case does not imply that the pardonee has failed to satisfy justice’s demands. Moreover, even though the convicted person is no longer liable to punishment, a pardon serves to restore to him all his civil rights voided by his conviction. Similarly, a divine pardon serves to bestow upon us the full rights and privileges of a child of God, such as adoption into God’s family (Ephesians 1.5), an inheritance in heaven (I Peter 1.4), citizenship in God’s Kingdom (Philippians 3.20), access to the Father (Romans 5.2), and so on (all, interestingly, legal notions).

Because Christ has borne the punishment for our sins, God can be both just and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3.26). Because God’s justice has been fully satisfied, God can pardon us on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice without prejudice to His justice.  Paul says, “when you were dead in trespasses. . . , God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2.13-14).  Forgiveness in this legal sense is based on the fact that the penalty has been vicariously and fully paid and therefore we may be pardoned.

- William Lane Craig