Note 3 on Gerhard Forde’s 1984 “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ”
In Forde, Christ came and simply forgave. God is unconditional love and as far as God is concerned, He did not require the death of Christ in order to be able to forgive. He simply forgave and showed mercy. But this should make us happy! So how does Forde deal with the reason for Christ’s death?
“But why did we kill him? It was, I expect we must say, a matter of ‘self-defense.’ Jesus came not just to teach about the mercy and forgiveness of God but actually to do it, to have mercy and to forgive unconditionally. … How can this world survive, how can we survive if mercy and forgiveness are just givenunconditionally? … Actually doing it, giving it unconditionally just seems to us terribly reckless and dangerous. It shatters the ‘order’ by which we must run things here.” (92, italics original)
“One who comes actually to have mercy and to forgive in God’s name is just an absolute and total threat to the way we have decided we must run thing here. So either Jesus must go or we must.” (92-93)
“Those who advocated the ‘subjective’ view of the atonement were at least right in that, I expect. God is, indeed, sheer unconditional love.” (93)
In a human relationship Forde’s argument might be illustrated in this way:
A woman unconditionally loves her adulterous, drunken, abusive husband who refuses to work for a living. She provides for him: he spends the money on alcohol and prostitutes. She forgives him and shows mercy to him, going out to bring him home. She tells him she loves him and forgives him. But her declarations of love just do not break through. The man just does not even sense that he needs forgiveness. So the wife decides to be where her husband is in his sin. She is at the bar while he drinks to oblivion. She tells him she forgives him and loves him. She is there when he finds a prostitute, and while he violates their marriage she tells him she forgives him and loves him. She is there in his face with forgiveness and unconditional love and mercy wherever and whenever he rejects her and rebels against her. And he beats her. She realizes the only way she can get through to him — to demonstrate how truly unconditional her love is for him — is that she must let him beat her to death. This, at last, should shock him into realizing that she really does forgive him and loves him unconditionally.
The above illustration is my attempt to capture the main argument in Forde’s interpretation of the purpose for Christ’s death. In Forde’s description of Christ’s work Christ does not condemn sin or sinners or call them to repentance for their sin. He only shows mercy. The purpose of the Cross is simply a version of Scared Straight therapy.
For Forde, the divine purpose of the Cross, the purpose of the suffering and death of Christ was to provide a vivid and brutal demonstration of God’s unconditional love in order to shock us out of our self-justifying denials that God is unconditional love.
“The persistent question through theological history has been whether God could not have done it [convinced the world that He had already forgiven them unconditionally and without sacrifice or rendering of payment or satisfaction] in some other way. … Neither the persuasiveness of the example [of Christ’s love and service] nor the defeat of demons — nothing exterior to God himself — provides sufficient reasoning for abandoning Jesus to his cruel fate. Yet to say that the cross was necessary to satisfy the divine honor or wrath or justice is also clearly suspect. The event of Jesus tells us that God’s intent is simply to have mercy, that God is love.” (94)
“God’s problem is how actually to have mercy on a world that will not have it.” (94)
“He knows that to have mercy on whom he will have mercy can only appear as frightening, as wrath, to such a world. … So he refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism. … Thus, precisely so as not to be the wrathful God we seem bent on having he dies for us, ‘gets out of the way’ for us.”(95)
For Forde, Christ did not need to make satisfaction for sins in the sense of suffering the punishment we deserve in our place. Vicarious satisfaction, to Forde, is a self-justifying scheme to avoid having to admit that God is simply unconditional love and mercy.
“We are under his wrath not because of something so abstract as his ‘honor’ or his ‘justice’ to which ‘payment’ must be made, but because we will not let him be who he will be for us: unconditional love and mercy.” (94)
So our main offense to God, the thing that separates us from Him is that we refuse to accept his love for us. Which seems a bit shallow if, as Forde states, the whole purpose of this brutal death is to demonstrate how unconditional God’s love is for us. Why then would anyone have to bother with Christianity over any other religion? (This is a question Forde addressed in the same year as this article within his locus on Christ in Braaten and Jenson’s Dogmatics) While Forde does not quite go into a universalism in this article, his basic position on the unconditional love of God certainly points in a universalist direction.
For Forde, the idea of Christ bearing our sins on his body refers only to our abuse of Christ’s body. Forde rejects Christ as a substitute.
“Thus he must ‘bear our sins in his body’ — not theoretically in some fashion, but actually. He is beaten, spit upon, mocked, wasted. That is, perhaps we can say, the only way for him to ‘catch us in the act.’ (96)
“Christ’s work is to realize [make real in this world] the will of God to have mercy unconditionally, and thus to make new beings and bring in the new age.” (96)
“[W]e can also suggest a somewhat different and, it is to be hoped, more acceptable sense in which Christ’s work, as tradition has insisted, ‘satisfies’ the wrath (justice, honor) of God. When faith is created, when we actually believe God’s unconditional forgiveness; then God can say, ‘Now I am satisfied!” God’s wrath ends actually when we believe him, not abstractly because of a payment to God ‘once upon a time.’ “(97, italics original)
Thus, when we can see how badly we have treated Christ and that he has maintained his unconditional love for us through it all, then we can finally be confronted with our own brutality — be scared straight. And when we arrive at this appreciation of how much God loved us in this way we can finally believe God is satisfied.
There can be no “Justification through Christ by faith” in Forde’s theology. Each term has been re-defined differently than Scripture and deliberately distanced from the definitions of the Lutheran Confessions.
1] Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.
At the center of Forde’s theology is a denial that Christ is God taking on Human flesh for the purpose of giving His life to make satisfaction for our sins. In place of this Forde presents a Jesus who allows himself to be brutalized so that he can finally convince us that God is love even without Christ’s death.
Where Forde writes of the Cross, it is not of the Cross upon which the Divine-Human Christ paid the debt for the sins of the children of Adam. The cross is, instead, only an example of our brutality against God’s love. An example which is supposed to wake us up to realize how loving God is.
Where Forde writes of Mercy, it is not of the mercy shown by Christ’s willingness and choice to come into this world to be under the law to redeem those who were under the law by paying their debt in their place. For Forde, God is merciful without Christ. Christ is merely the example of mercy.
Where Forde writes of Faith, it is not of the faith given by God through Word and Sacrament that clings to the person and work of Christ alone as our salvation. For Forde faith is a rejection of the substitutionary atonement in favor of the simple acknowledgment that God is Love.
Where Forde writes of Justification, it is not of the Verdict of God rendered upon sinners as innocent through faith in the substitutionary work of Christ. He has deliberately distanced himself from the Scriptural understanding expressed in the Lutheran Confessions.