Gerhard Forde on the Work of Christ

One of Gerhard Forde’s distinctive contributions was his thinking on the work of Christ. His essay by that name appears in Braaten and Jenson’s Christian Dogmatics. He also discusses it in several essays in the collection A More Radical Gospel. His essay “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ” can be found here.

Forde says that the problem with the traditional theories of the atonement (Anselmian satisfaction, Abelardian moral exemplar, and Christus Victor) is that they direct our attention away from the murder of Jesus by making his death an element in a system or theory that purports to show why it was “necessary.” For instance, Jesus’ death was necessary to “satisfy” God’s justice or wrath or honor, or it was necessary to provide us with an example of perfect love, or to defeat the demonic powers that hold us in thrall. But, he says, these explanations always prompt the question why it was necessary for God’s Son to suffer and die to attain these goals. Why couldn’t God just up and forgive sins? Or why couldn’t God simply put the demons out of commission?

Furthermore, all these theories tend to exculpate us from responsibility for Jesus’ death. Satisfaction theories make it look like the problem is on God’s side and that he needs to be changed or have something done to or for him before he can forgive us. In the Christus Victor scheme human responsibility threatens to drop out of the picture altogether since it’s the demonic powers that God needs to defeat. Or in the Abelardian theory Jesus’ death is an edifying example:

How can God possibly be “justified” in sending his Son into this world to be cruelly murdered at our hands just to provide an example of what everybody already knew anyway? If the cross does not actually accomplish anything new, is not the price too great? Is not a God who would do such a thing fully as thoughtless and cruel as the God of vicarious satisfaction? Those who push the “subjective” view rarely entertain such questions. No doubt because of the terror and cruelty of the actual event as well as our implication in it, it has been quietly forgotten. Since it is “necessary” or at least understandable on moral or like grounds, we are (more or less) exonerated. We can sit back and admire the event that took place on Golgotha! It was so impressive!


In sum, each of the major types of atonement theory tends to obscure the truth of the murder of Jesus in the very attempt to convey its “meaning” and “significance” to us. As a matter of fact and not just coincidentally, the theories seem to defeat their own purpose: they tend to alienate rather than to reconcile. In attempting to explain the “necessity” for the death of Jesus by taking it up in the schemes suggested, God’s “reputation” is endangered, not enhanced. Why should a God who is by nature merciful demand satisfaction? Is a God who consigns his Son to an excruciating death just to provide an example of what everyone already knew really a “loving Father”? If God is God, could not the defeat of demonic powers have been accomplished without the painful death? In other words, “was this trip really necessary?”

So we come back to our original question: Why the murder of the innocent one? What does that accomplish for us—or for God? What is “the word” of Christ? What does he actually do for us that God could not have done with greater ease and economy in some other way? The crucial and persistent question emerging from discussion of the various views seems always to be that of the necessity for the concrete and actual work of Christ among us. It is, of course, ultimately the question of the necessity for Christology at all. Cannot God just up and forgive and/or cast out demons? Or to use another current form of the question: Is there not grace aplenty in the Old Testament? Or in nature? Or in other religions even? Why Jesus? Why the New Testament?

Forde suggests that, rather than trying to show how the Cross was “necessary” according to the dictates of a particular theory, we need to take a closer look at the events themselves to see if an understanding of what God was up to suggests itself. We should start “from below” by asking what did Jesus, concretely, do from our point of view before we ask what the events mean from God’s point of view.

For instance, many atonement theories ask why God couldn’t simply up and forgive sins. But, Forde points out, this is precisely what Jesus did!

Why could not God just up and forgive? Let us start there. If we look at the narrative about Jesus, the actual events themselves, the “brute facts” as they have come down to us, the answer is quite simple. He did! Jesus came preaching repentance and forgiveness, declaring the bounty and mercy of his “Father.” The problem, however, is that we could not buy that. And so we killed him. And just so we are caught in the act. Every mouth is stopped once and for all. All the pious talk about our yearning and desire for reconciliation and forgiveness, etc., all our complaint against God is simply shut up. He came to forgive and we killed him for it; we would not have it. It is as simple as that.

From this point of view it seems that Jesus was not killed because of God’s wrath but because of our wrath! The offer of unconditional forgiveness and grace is a threat to us. Why? Because, says Forde, it upsets the order by which we have learned to run things in this world. Our life is run according to certain rules, what you might call a law of karma, you get what’s coming to you. You play by the rules and you succeed, but if not you’re a loser, a bad apple. By offering unconditional mercy Jesus threatens the foundation of that order.

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. It is an act, not an idea. That is his “work.” That is the New Testament. He came to do “what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). Now we are, no doubt, quite open, generally, to the idea of mercy and forgiveness in God and his “heaven,” but actually doing it here for God is quite another matter—especially if it is the absolutely free and unconditional having mercy and forgiving of the sovereign God who ups and has mercy on whom he will have mercy! How can one actually do that here? How can this world survive, how can we survive if mercy and forgiveness are just given unconditionally? The idea is nice, but what shall we do with one who actually eats with traitors, whores, outcasts, and riff-raff of every sort and just blows away our protests by saying, “They that are whole need not a physician. but they that are sick”? 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.

This shows why it is we who are the obstacle to reconciliation, not God. Our way of doing things is threatened by Christ coming and having mercy on sinnners in his rather reckless fashion. Forde doesn’t make the connection, but this reminds me of Simone Weil’s meditations on gravity and grace. For Weil, “gravity” names the forces that operate in this fallen world – everything that exists operates by a kind of compulsion to expand and dominate other things. “Grace” on the other hand, is the power of self-restraint, of allowing other beings to be themselves, respecting their freedom. According to Weil, the cross is where the forces of gravity come together to crush an agent of grace.

Diogenes Allen explains Weil’s view of the Cross:

With this conception of gravity and grace, we can now present Weil’s conception of the Cross. Creation is an act of love because it involves God’s voluntary renunciation as the only existent. The Cross is the great act of Jesus’ renunciation of himself. He is the victim of the forces of gravity-the forces of self-expansion, the forces of self- aggrandizement which moved the empire of the Romans and moved the various aspirations of the Jewish people. These forces, of gravity, which make a complex pattern of interlocking, conflicting systems, catch him up within their workings and crush him. He does not know why he must feel the presence of his Father leave him as he is crushed by them. Although feeling forsaken, he remains obedient to the order of grace. He lays his life down humbly instead of following the route of selfassertion.

That his death was understood by his disciples to have been humbly accepted by him is indicated by the verse, “No one takes it [my life] from me. I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn. 10: 18). It was caused by the actions of gravity, but in the grip of gravity’s vise, he yields himself up voluntarily. He accepts his vulnerability to the forces of gravity and to this event in particular which is brought on by their action, because he believes they are under the power, wisdom, and love of his Father. He therefore dies as a member of the order of grace, not as a slave to gravity. The love of the Creator- the love which restrained itself for the sake of the world’s existence-is answered from the Cross by the Son. The Son restrains his own will by yielding it to the forces of a created universe that operates by gravity. In that crushing vise, he yields himself in faith that all this came from the Father for our sakes.

Weil’s “gravity,” it seems to me, is very similar to Forde’s “the ‘order’ by which we must run things here.” For someone to come into that order offering grace is to surrender any levers he might have for manipulating or controlling others. This, according to Forde, gives us a clue as to why God couldn’t have had mercy on us any other way:

If what we have been saying about the murder of Jesus by us is at all the case, then God’s “problem” comes more immediately into view. God’s “problem” is not that he can’t be merciful until he has been satisfied but rather that he won’t be satisfied until he succeeds in actually having mercy on whom he will have mercy. God, that is, won’t be satisfied until he succeeds in actually giving the concrete, unconditional forgiving he intends. As we can see from Jesus, God’s problem is how actually to have mercy on a world which will not have it. The question for God is whether he can really succeed in getting through to a people which likes the idea of forgiveness but doesn’t want an actual forgiver, a world which turns everything God purposes to do into a theory with which to protect itself from him. God’s problem is just how actually to have mercy, how to get through to us.


if this is the problem, God can do nothing about it in the abstract. Here is at least the beginning of the answer, it would seem, to why God could not do it in any other way. He cannot have mercy on us in the abstract. As abstraction he is always a terror to us, hidden, wrathful. The idea that he has mercy on whom he will have mercy is, as idea, the most frightening thing of all. We may twist and turn to change the idea, but all we will come up with then is that he has mercy on those who fulfill the necessary requirements. We just go out of the frying pan into the fire. The problem is simply that as abstraction God is absent from us and we are inexorably “under wrath.” Even God can do nothing about that—except to come to us. If the problem is absence, the only solution is presence. The only solution to the terror of the idea of one who has mercy on whom he will have mercy is actually to come and have mercy. The act must actually be done. The only solution to the problem of the absolute, we might say, is actual absolution!

For Jesus to come as the agent who does God’s mercy (rather than just to teach about it) makes him vulnerable to the sinful human beings who rebel at such a thing. This suggest why God allows Jesus to be killed by us:

Why does God abandon Jesus to be murdered by us? The answer, it would seem, must lie in that very unconditional love and mercy he intends to carry out in act. God, I would think we can assume, knows full well that he is a problem for us. He knows that unconditional love and mercy is “the end” of us, our conditional world. He knows that to have mercy on whom he will have mercy can only appear as frightening, as wrath, to such a world. He knows we would have to die to all we are before we could accept it. But he also knows that that is our only hope, our only salvation. So he refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism. He can indeed be that, and is that apart from the work of Christ. But he refuses ultimately to be that. 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. Unconditional love has no levers in a conditional world. He is obedient unto death, the last barrier, the last condition we cannot avoid, “that the scriptures might be fulfilled”—that God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. As “God of wrath” he submits to death for us; he knows he must die for us. That is the only way he can be for us absolutely, unconditionally. But then, of course, there must be resurrection to defeat that death, lest our conditionalism have the last word.

Or we can put it another way. Jesus came to forgive sin unconditionally for God. Our sin, our unbelief, consists precisely in the fact that we cannot and will not tolerate such forgiveness. So we move to kill him. There is nothing for him to do then but to die “for our sins,” “on our behalf,” “give his life a ransom for many.” For him to stop and ask us to “shape up” would be to deny the forgiveness he came to give, to put conditions on the unconditional. 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.” The resurrection is, therefore, the vindication of Jesus’ life and proclamation of forgiveness, God’s insistence that unconditional forgiveness be actually given “in Jesus’ name.” To accept such forgiveness is to die to the old and be made new in him. His death is, therefore, our death. As Paul put it, Christ “has died for all; therefore, all have died” (2 Cor 5:14). One should not mistake this for a “subjective” view of the atonement. We are speaking of the death of the old, not a mere alteration of the continuously existing subject. Christ’s work is to realize the will of God to have mercy unconditionally, and thus to make new beings and bring in the new age. The “New Testament” is that since Jesus has been raised, this will is now to be proclaimed to all, actually done, delivered, given, to the end that faith be created, new beings created. Christ has died “once for all,” all people, all time. To be sure, it is a dangerous message in this age. Either we kill it by our endless qualifications and conditionalisms (and thus crucify Christ again) or it kills us and makes us new in faith and hope and love. But having died once to sin, he dies no more! The deed is done!

For Forde, then, the “why” of the Cross is rooted firmly in God’s determination to have mercy on us, to forgive our sins, and to re-create us anew. As he says, Christ “actualizes” God’s will to come to us and to concretely have mercy unconditionally. This work is carried on by the Church where it offers pardon and healing to sinners by Christ’s authority in its proclamation of the Gospel and administration of the Sacraments. This understanding of the atonement is consistent with Forde’s conviction that the Gospel is a radical message, one that is scandalous to a world build on “conditionalism.”

4 thoughts on “Gerhard Forde on the Work of Christ

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel

    Reblogged this on Eclectic Orthodoxy and commented:
    Ever since I read Gerhard Forde’s locus on the atonement in Braaten’s and Jenson’s Christian Dogmatics in the mid-80s, I have not been able to subscribe to any of the popular Western theories that seek to explain the atoning work of Christ on the cross.

  2. Pingback: Gerhard Forde on the Work of Christ | Faith in Practice

  3. Pingback: Gerhard Forde and Justin Popovic on Salvation – Just Another Jim

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