UCCF Director contradicts the Bible and the Apostles' Creed

UPDATE 4th July 2007: I am now withdrawing these charges against Cunningham with my apologies. See this post for an explanation.

I thank Hugh for his comment on my post in which I quoted Richard Cunningham, director of UCCF, as saying

God never forgives – he punishes.

This version of Cunningham’s words came from a blogger called Cat. Today Hugh has provided an alternative and very likely more accurate version of Cunningham’s words:

God doesn’t forgive sin, he punishes it.

Well, there is a small distinction here. I can see how it makes sense to say that God punishes sin but forgives sinners, especially within the framework of penal substitutionary atonement according to which God is understood as punishing Christ for the sin of others, so that the others can be forgiven.

Unfortunately for Cunningham, this version of his words is all the more clearly in flat contradiction to the Bible and the Apostles’ Creed, which clearly teach about the forgiveness of sins. (Fortunately for Cunningham, God does not condemn people eternally for false doctrine, but that’s another issue which I want to blog about separately.)

Hugh also wrote:

it’s great that RC stood up and taught some hard truths about our God.

Here is part of the comment which I made in response to Hugh:

Hugh, thanks for correcting Cunningham’s words. However, if your God is the Christian God described in the Bible, what he was teaching were not hard truths but hard lies. One of the most basic statements about God is found in Exodus 34:7: he is “forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin”, although he does so in such a way that “he does not leave the guilty unpunished”.

In fact this verse seems to say that God forgives sins but punishes sinners, the opposite of what I suggested at the beginning of this post. The verse is hard to understand, but it certainly cannot be reconciled with the teaching that God does not forgive sins.

To take this beyond the Old Testament, here is something more which I wrote in a comment at Threads from Henry’s Web, providing further evidence of how far Cunningham has gone astray:

We don’t need to add anything to the creed to condemn some of the stupid and offensive things that this crowd say. Take for example UCCF director Richard Cunningham’s words “God doesn’t forgive sin, he punishes it”. This is already in specific contradiction to the following words in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in … the forgiveness of sins”, and of course in contradiction to Jesus’ solemn words instituting the Lord’s Supper, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28, TNIV). No need to add anything to the creed to show that Cunningham is a heretic.

There, I said it: Richard Cunningham, director of UCCF, is a heretic, because he has formally denied an article of the Apostles’ Creed as well as some of the most important teachings of the Old and New Testaments. I can also list as evidence that God or Jesus forgives sins, just from the New Testament, Matthew 6:12, 9:6, Mark 1:4, 2:10, 11:25, Luke 1:77, 3:3, 5:24, 7:48, 11:4, 23:34, 24:47, John 20:23, Acts 2:38, 5:31, 8:22, 10:43, 13:38, 26:18, Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:14, Hebrews 8:12, 1 John 1:9, 2:12.

Because of this false teaching, and unless he clearly renounces it, Cunningham should be removed from his prestigious position and required to stop preaching and teaching before he does further damage to one of the central aspects of the gospel message, the forgiveness of sins.

26 thoughts on “UCCF Director contradicts the Bible and the Apostles' Creed

  1. Pingback: Threads from Henry’s Web » Blog Archive » Notes and Links on Atonement

  2. Quick response!

    I wouldn’t normally engage in this debate, however since you seem keen to attack the leader of an organisation that does great gospel work, and call yourself ‘Speaker of Truth’, one feels the need to respond 🙂

    How is the ‘forgiveness of sin’ promised in Exodus 34 administered? Through sacrifice. Leviticus 16 – the new book PFOT is great on understanding atonement in this sacrificial system.

    How is forgiveness of sin administered now? Same God, same system, fulfilled in Christ. So what did Christ do on the cross? RC was speaking from Hebrews 9 which tells us (in the context of Lev 16) what Christ did. He was the sacrifice, his blood was offered to God – only blood can secure forgiveness for sins. Jesus confirms this in the verse you cite (Matt 26:28).

    I hope you agree with what I’ve said so far, as to me this is a simple reading of Hebrews 9 in the understanding of the OT sacrificial system – sin is forgiven through the offering of blood.
    We know that God punishes sin, scripture says this clearly. We also know that God forgives sin, scripture says this too. But as I’ve said, sin is only forgiven through sacrifice.

    The big question is, when Christ offered his blood as a sacrifice for our sins, was he being punished for our sins? Did Christ carry our sin? Did he bear our iniquities? Was he stricken for our transgressions? Was he wounded, pierced, crushed, smitten, afflicted… for our sin… by God? Of course these questions are simply based on the answers we are already given in Isaiah 53.

    Which part of this argument do you disagree with? How far do you go in agreement with what I say?

  3. I remember UCCF doing great gospel work. It was through one of its member CUs that I became a committed Christian and gained a firm understanding of my faith. So it is with extreme sadness (which perhaps I should have made clearer in the post) that I discover that this organisation, or at least its director, has betrayed that gospel by denying what is at its very heart, the forgiveness of sins.

    We also know that God forgives sin, scripture says this too.

    Indeed. But Cunningham didn’t say this, but denied it.

    sin is only forgiven through sacrifice.

    Perhaps this is what Cunningham meant, but if so he should say it, and should correct what he said in error.

    So thus far you are with me and against Cunningham, it seems. But then you move on to the more general controversy about the atonement. I am afraid that you seem to have picked up some of Adrian Warnock’s half-baked theology and superficial analysis of complex issues.

    was he being punished for our sins?

    No, the Romans and the Jewish leaders punished him for his own supposed sins.

    Did Christ carry our sin?

    This is a Hebrew idiom meaning “forgive sin”, as in Exodus 34:7.

    Was he stricken for our transgressions?

    You allude to an extremely complex sentence in the Hebrew of Isaiah 53:8, literally “from the transgression of my people blow to him”, but the text is very uncertain (several variants in Dead Sea Scrolls and LXX). The sentence could equally mean that the transgressions caused the blow.

    Was he wounded, pierced, crushed, smitten, afflicted… for our sin… by God?

    No. This was the misunderstanding of the “we” in Isaiah 53:4, corrected by the “But” of verse 5.

  4. We’re still only dealing with one line from what was presumably a 40 minute talk… in which one assumes Cunningham made it clear that it is through Jesus being punished for our sins that we are forgiven… which is clearly the point he was making whether you like the phrasing or not. And you do know that.

    We live in an age where forgiveness has been stripped of it’s association to the cross and we need to put the two back together.

    God doesn’t just forgive, he forgives in Christ – such that sin does get punished one way or the other.

  5. sin is only forgiven through sacrifice.

    Perhaps this is what Cunningham meant, but if so he should say it, and should correct what he said in error.

    He did say this. He was giving an exposition of Hebrews 9. As Dave rightly points out this was a 40 minute talk, not just a soundbite. What RC was emphasising was the penal nature of the sacrifice found in Heb9 – a better word for sacrifice might be penal substitute…

    I think you’re over simplifying the words ‘forgive’ and ‘punish’, as Dave says “God doesn’t just forgive, he forgives in Christ – such that sin does get punished one way or the other.”

    “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him…” (Is 53:10) – I suppose this is a misunderstanding too?

  6. Peter, have you blogged on or otherwise posted online an full (as in the entire chapter, verse by verse) exegesis of Isa 53 ? I have often read the regular reformed/Adrian take on this chapter; I would like to study in depth the angle you are taking here. Are there any commentaries which venture out in your direction? Any other web pages to help study this?


  7. Alastair, thanks for the challenge. It is something I would be interested in doing. But I haven’t done it. And I am not working from specific commentaries.

    As for Cunningham’s words, if this is not what he meant he certainly should be more careful about them. For people (not me, but apparently his own supporters) are misunderstanding them and quoting them without qualification. Cat quoted this as if it was the central point of Cunningham’s talk, followed by “wow…let that digest”. She also noted that “there were some that look bewildered or looked angry” at words like this, but attributed this to the offence of the cross. Hugh called Cunningham’s words “hard truths about our God”, although he now seems to be backing off to Dave’s “God doesn’t just forgive, he forgives in Christ” – which is of course correct.

    Cunningham, if he is qualified to be a director as well as a preacher, should be aware that his words are likely to be taken and reported out of context. So he should be careful about those words. And when, as in this case, misleading reports of his words are being spread around, he should issue an explanation and apology.

    So, I would like to challenge Cunningham to issue a clarification of what he meant by his words and an apology for leaving himself open to such serious misunderstanding. I am sending an e-mail to UCCF requesting such an apology.

  8. Dave, while I can accept “God doesn’t just forgive, he forgives in Christ”, I cannot accept “it is through Jesus being punished for our sins that we are forgiven”. This latter statement is not forgiveness of sins. A sin which is punished is a sin which is not forgiven – even if in some sense the person is forgiven. If this is what Cunningham believes, then he does believe that “God doesn’t forgive sin, he punishes it” without qualification, and my charge of contradicting the Bible and the Creed stands. And if this is considered to be the standard presentation of PSA, then PSA contradicts the Bible and the Creed.

  9. Can I suggest, respectfully, that no more discussion happens on this quote until we all go away, buy the CD of the talk and listen to it.

    If we’re really concerned that Richard might be a heretic then we owe him this much, no-one likes being taken out of context – all of us included. Furthermore, we should also notice that the quote isn’t just in the context of one talk on Hebrews but a full series in the book at a conference, which is also valid context.

    That’s not going to take away the fact that we all know Richard believes in Penal Substitution.

    We could argue about whether the Bible and the creeds of the church affirm PSA or not but that is a slightly different question. And indeed the question that PFOT was written to answer.

  10. Dave, I see your point. And if UCCF, or yourself, chooses to defuse this issue of their own making by sending me a CD of this talk at their expense, I will listen to it. But the problem is not with the context, which I am sure is very clear. The problem is with the words themselves which have been taken out of context. It is simply not acceptable for a preacher to say something outrageously wrong and heretical and expect it to be corrected by the context. In the past people have been burned for less – but not if they have explained themselves satisfactorily, which is what I expect from Cunningham.

  11. If you care enough to brand him a heretic from a soundbite you should listen to the whole thing youself – its very strong language to call someone a heretic based on six words you’ve heard secondhand.

  12. Can I suggest, respectfully, that no more discussion happens on this quote until we all go away, buy the CD of the talk and listen to it.

    dave: I’m not really sure that we (those of us who don’t know Richard Cunningham) owe him anything at all. I certainly don’t feel that I am morally obliged to buy a CD to check out what was said. However I think that if Richard Cunningham feels that he has been misrepresented by his supporters he should take responsibility for correcting that misrepresentation, either by issuing a statement which would be widely available for people to read, or making the text of his talk available for people to read.

  13. I just think we ought to be careful about calling someone a heretic on the basis of six words without considering the context carefully. You can screw the Bible in about the same number of words “there is no God” comes straight out of the Bible… but according to Peter “it is simply not acceptable for a [psalmist] to say something outrageously wrong and heretical and expect it to be corrected by the context”.

    Because this is said in the wider breadth of speaking about other things, and actually because it’s true that all sin gets punished by God as far as I know Richard stands by what he said. Misrepresentation is inevitable especially when someone, like Peter, is prepared to pursue an issue for two months on the basis of one sentence… I suspect Richard is not surprised and dispute over this issue is hardly a new one. I don’t expect it to go away anytime soon either.

  14. Charity, thank you for your support, for saying more clearly just what I was thinking.

    Dave, if what Richard said was in fact something like “The fool says in his heart, ‘God doesn’t forgive sins'”, then of course you are right that I would be quoting out of context. But if these were Richard’s words expressing his own beliefs (and no one has suggested anything else), even if perhaps lacking some explanation which he gave elsewhere in the talk, then he needs to provide that explanation – and not expect others to pay for it!

    However, if your own views in the last part of what you wrote are indeed the same as Cunningham’s, I don’t think I have misrepresented him at all. You wrote “it’s true that all sin gets punished by God”. If all sin gets punished, that logically implies that there is no forgiveness of sins. But the Bible and the Creed talk about forgiveness of sins. You have clearly condemned yourself as a heretic, or else you need to explain yourself very carefully. I note that, if I remember correctly, you are a UCCF staff member. And if Cunningham has the same view as you, he is also a heretic.

    UPDATE 14th June: I have retracted with apologies my charge that Dave is a heretic, see a later comment.

  15. So ironically Peter, Adrian’s curse has not fallen on you but on Cunningham, a PSA only supporter ? 😉

    But seriously, shouldn’t we give Cunningham a little more grace? Heresy seems a little extreme. Perhaps he is just guilty of some clumsy phrasing, in an attempt to pin down the importance of penal substitution.

  16. Before labelling someone else a heretic you should examine your own (mis)interpretations of certain parts of scripture.
    By your own yardstick you are a greater heretic than RC is (supposedly)
    I say supposedly because I have not heard the relevant talk and therefore am unable to actually give an informed comment.
    Strangely enough you have also not heard the relevant talk yourself and on that basis you are relying on second hand information (unchecked) to label another as a heretic.
    If someone was to label you a heretic on such a basis you would be up in arms, but as usual you feel able to try and construct a mountain out of less than a molehills worth of material.

  17. Glenn, if you are going to accuse me of heresy on my own blog, please do me the justice of explaining my heresy. In what way have I rejected the explicit teaching of the historic church? That is what I understand “heretic” to mean. Or if in fact you mean my teaching fundamentally contradicts that of the Bible, in what way?

    Yes, I am relying on second hand information. But it is not unchecked. Cunningham’s words have been reported to me (similarly but not identically) by two bloggers whom I have identified here, who both seem to be supporters of Cunningham’s teaching. I have been in conversation with representatives of UCCF, not just Dave Bish who is one of their staff workers. No one has attempted to deny that Cunningham actually said these words. And the charge of heresy I made against Dave is based on his own words on this blog.

  18. I once heard a youth leader preach at an evening service which was typically frequented by lots of youth and students. The central theme of his sermon was that premarital sex was the unforgiveable sin and that anyone who had premarital sex would go to hell.

    I almost walked out of that service and a friend literally held on to my wrist (not by force) to try to keep me in my seat (I stayed).

    I believe that what this man wanted to say was that premarital sex was a sin. He over-egged the pudding by a lot. And I think the sermon should have been vetted by the vicar who would, I’m sure, have helped the youth leader say what he wanted to say in more genuinely Christian terms.

    Is the youth leader ‘a heretic’? I don’t know, but I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Did he say something ‘heretical’? I think so. And, were that my congregation now, I think I’d somehow want to set the ideas right.

    Certainly much of the Christian church has historically believed that ‘God doesn’t forgive sin, he punishes it.’ Certainly much of the Christian church as historically believed that God’s forgiveness happens in a context of mercy and that he does not always punish sin. Which view is ‘heretical’? I don’t know. I do know which view I disagree with.

  19. Alastair, I don’t seem to want to be without grace – although, in a slightly different sense, Cunningham seems to be without grace, or at least his God is without grace because he does not forgive.

    So, and also in response to Pam, I can give grace and forgiveness, as God does, to someone who teaches something wrong and heretical. It would be wrong to label someone as a heretic for a single instance of wrong teaching perhaps by accident or clumsy wording. But, in the case of a well known public figure whose wrong teaching was publicised (initially not by me, but by Cat and then by Dave Bish), I would think it necessary for that public figure to issue some kind of retraction or explanation. I asked UCCF (both publicly and privately) for something, but received nothing from Cunningham, although Dave who works for him has effectively stood by the heretical teaching in a comment here. If I now receive a convincing retraction, I will withdraw my charge and edit these two posts in such a way that this is immediately clear.

    As for me calling Dave Bish a heretic, that was perhaps premature as I didn’t give him a chance to explain himself first. Well, he has his chance here to explain why it is not heretical to deny that God forgives sins.

  20. I’m not even sure you want to give me the chance to explain myself, nor to take the time to understand what i’m saying.

    It seems that the issue is what does FORGIVE mean. If forgive means that sin is just overlooked then i do not believe that God ‘forgives’. Sadly that’s the common usage of the word forgiveness today. And I think that’s what Richard was refuting.

    But – if we’re able to say ‘forgive’ is tied to what happens at the cross – such that my sin is punished as Christ bears the penalty, guilt and power of sin through his sacrificial substitionary death… and thus pardons believers freely counting us righteous in Christ. Then I absolutely believe God forgives. My life depends upon it.

  21. Dave, I do want to understand what you are saying and give you a chance to explain yourself.

    Thank you for clarifying that you believe that God forgives. I hereby retract my charge that you are a heretic, with my apologies for being too hasty with this. Would you in fact be prepared to extend your statement and say that “God forgives sins”, not just “God forgives sinners”? Or would your position be that God forgives sinners but not sins?

    I need to think more carefully about the concept you are putting forward that a sin can be both punished and forgiven. I consider this to be a logical contradiction, but it does depend on the precise definitions you use. My own position would be that God does not just overlook sins, but nor does he punish them, at least for Christian believers.

    I would like to receive a similar statement from Richard Cunningham.

  22. Norman, I don’t know why your comments are being moderated. Perhaps your ISP has been used as a spam source. I hope it’s not because a blogger has reported you as a spammer for unwanted comments. They are certainly not unwanted here.

    The anti-spam words are random names from the Bible. If there is any special significance in them, it comes from God’s providential control over the randomising procedure! (And this is in fact a very profound observation, lying behind my incomplete series on Kingdom Thermodynamics.)

    As you know, there are already ongoing threads here on the theological meaning of forgiveness. I don’t intend to pursue this one any further unless there is anything significant to say, as I have already made my point. However, I would like to hear any further clarification from Dave, or of course from Richard Cunningham.

  23. I notice that the anti-spam word that I am to type is NIMROD – whom, I recall, is supposed to have built the Tower of Babel.

    Forgiveness is a great topic, but I would prefer to keep discussions focused on the interpretation of Scripture. Getting personal just adds confusion.

    Perhaps we could leave off building this thread and start again, without personal accusations or charges about who said what and when and why, etc. I would appreciate this. Are we still talking the same language?


    Norman McIlwain

  24. Methinks the Speaker of Truth protests too much – far too much! – indicating a restlessness about the reality of the the basis of God’s forgiveness only in and through the willing death of his only Son for our sins.

    I refer to your own 39 Articles:

    ARTICLE XXXI. Of the one oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross.

    “The offering of Christ once made is the perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual, and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone.”

    NB: “there is NONE other satisfaction for sin but THAT ALONE.”

    So God’s forgiveness is inextricably linked to the death of his only Son.

    Richard Cunningham is under no obligation to reply to your accusation that he is a “heretic.” You initiated that line of comment – not him.

    In fact charges of heresy addressed to the Speaker of Truth’s brothers and sisters seem to be flowing far too easily and simply reinforce the idea that the Speaker of Truth is being unnecessarily provocative – but why?

    I find these heresy charges utterly distasteful and out of order. Why try and divide the Christian house like this?

    Paul writes (we do well to pay attention):

    “Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32, NET Bible)

    NB: “just as God in Christ also forgave you.” Paul doesn’t say: “just as God also forgave you” but “just as God IN CHRIST also forgave you.”

    God doesn’t “just forgive” he only “forgives in Christ” and for Paul we know that “in Christ” includes his life, death and resurrection.

    I can’t see where Richard Cunningham differs one word from what Paul teaches. Creating an extended blog with comments on a second-hand out of context short quote is bizarre.

    The responsibility is firmly on the Speaker of Truth’s shoulders to obtain the UCCF CD of RC’s talk and listen to it before floating charges of “heresy” around the internet.

    What’s up with you, Peter? You come across as very aggrieved and aggressive. So much so that I’m tempted to stop reading this blog.

    How the devil must sit back, arms folded, legs crossed and laughing as he watches us at work.

    You say: “And if UCCF … chooses to defuse this issue of their own making by sending me a CD of this talk at their expense, I will listen to it.”

    I’m sure that UCCF’s silence to your request (above) and your title: “UCCF Director contradicts the Bible and the Apostles’ Creed” is by far the best and most gracious and most Christian approach.

    “Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
    in my place condemned he stood.
    Sealed my pardon with his blood,
    Hallelujah! what a Saviour.”

  25. God’s forgiveness is inextricably linked to the death of his only Son.

    Indeed. I have never doubted it. But Cunningham has by denying that God has any forgiveness at all.

    Why try and divide the Christian house like this?

    Good question. I don’t want to be divisive. But statements like Cunningham’s are coming from the same camp that is trying to anathematize people like myself and Steve Chalke for not agreeing with them that PSA is the sole definitive description of the atonement. So they are the divisive ones, not me. It is them, not people like myself, who are stepping away from the biblical and church traditional understandings of these matters. By anathematizing others, they are cutting themselves off from the church and setting themselves up as a sect which places its own sectarian teaching above that of the Bible.

    Yes, I am aggrieved, and what has aggrieved me is the attitude of Adrian and others who are promoting “Pierced for our Transgressions” and claiming that those of us who don’t agree that this is more authoritative than the Bible, no, the only acceptable way of interpreting the Bible, are cursed eternally for preaching a false gospel. Even if there is a speck in our eyes for not having a perfect understanding of the atonement, they need to look at the logs in their eyes of rejecting the heart of the gospel, which is that in Christ God forgives our sins.

  26. Pingback: The Ramblings of Hugh Bourne » Blog Archive » Does God forgive sin?

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