UCCF Director: "God never forgives"

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

I interrupt my normal programme to bring you this shocking quote. Yes, the news is going round that Richard Cunningham, director of UCCF, said

God never forgives – he punishes.

Apparently he said this during a talk at the recent Word Alive conference, the same one which is separating from Spring Harvest.

These words were originally reported by Cat, with the astonishing comment (for someone who calls herself “a bible reading, disciple of Christ”) “wow…let that digest”. The quote was picked up The Bluefish and then by Dave Warnock.

Now I might have hoped that this quote was either inaccurate or was taken seriously out of context. But apparently not, for in a comment on Cat’s post étrangère, alias UCCF staff worker Rosemary, seems to affirm the statement. But she tries to explain it as really meaning

“It’s because sin is either punished on Christ or on us in hell, isn’t it?” God offers forgiveness for sin – but only through trusting in the death of his Son because that’s where sin was punished. This contrasts with the idea that God is “in a permanent attitude of forgiveness” whereby we just need to recognise that.

Well, I have to accept that this modified form of the statement is not as bad as the original form, and makes sense within the framework of theology which these people have built up around themselves. Cunningham has it seems simply brought out the implication of this theology, that sins are never actually forgiven, but someone is always punished for them.

But by bringing out this implication he has also demonstrated clearly how anti-Christian this theology actually is. For it flies directly in the face of the teaching of Jesus – Jesus who taught that he himself had authority from God to forgive sins (Mark 2:10) and that

people will be forgiven all their sins (Mark 3:28, TNIV),

Jesus who taught his disciples to pray for their sins to be forgiven (Matthew 6:12) and that

if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (Matthew 6:14, TNIV)

As Christians we are expected to forgive others unconditionally, without demanding any kind of satisfaction. And we are taught to ask God to forgive us in the same way (hōs “as”, Matthew 6:12).

This is not just Jesus’ teaching, but also Paul’s. He taught the Ephesians:

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32, TNIV)

If the way God forgave us was by making his Son endure the punishment we deserved, and we are to forgive in the same way (kathōs “just as”), does that mean that we are to forgive others by punishing our own children for the wrongs which others do to us? Surely not! That would be not “cosmic child abuse” but real child abuse! No, what this means is that God forgave unconditionally and we are to do the same.

Yes, the Bible does teach that

without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22, TNIV)

But Cunningham’s teaching seems to imply that even the shedding of Jesus’ blood does not bring forgiveness, but is simply the execution of deserved punishment.

For more on this, see my post on Maltese theology.

I am sad that UCCF, for which I used to have great respect, has been led astray into teaching what looks like an anti-Christian false gospel. I am glad that Spring Harvest has at last been able to break its partnership with people who are propagating false teaching which can only do more harm than good.

23 thoughts on “UCCF Director: "God never forgives"

  1. The quote is clearly cited without it’s context by Cat. It seems Rosemary provides the explanation (not “modification”..) of it. That said I wasn’t at Word Alive this year and can’t justify the £6.49 cost of getting the CD to listen too. Maybe you could… It is the shedding of blood (to punish sin) that brings forgiveness. The question is what’s the definition of forgiveness I suppose… just letting us off… or being just and loving. Right at the heart of this debate I suppose.

  2. Pingback: Threads from Henry’s Web » Blog Archive » God Doesn’t Forgive?

  3. Well, Bluefish, it seems that Rosemary confirms that people were bewildered and angry at this quote even when heard in context. So this can hardly be a case of a quote wrenched out of context. And the words I quoted from Rosemary are quite explicitly the interpretation of herself and her Impact group; also they are formally a modification because she says “God offers forgiveness for sin – but only …”, which contradicts “God never forgives” unless the context of the latter has been violated.

    It would indeed be for the best if someone can provide more context.

  4. Astounding! But then again, that’s what you get when you make a theological system, rather than the person of Jesus, the grid through which you interpret the scriptures. Anything that disagrees with that theological system is just ignored, or relatived, or rationalised away.

  5. Quote from Peter Kirk: “I am sad that UCCF, for which I used to have great respect, has been led astray into teaching what looks like an anti-Christian false gospel.”

    That is a big claim to make against a Christian organisation – on the basis of second hand out of context quotes taken from other blogs. If your respect can be lost so easily it is probably not worth having!

  6. Pete, I accept that I have not had complete confirmation that this quote is genuine and not taken completely out of context. I made that clear in the post. And I deliberately wrote “what looks like” in the sentence you quote above. If appearances are in fact deceptive, that is, if someone can tell me that the quote is incorrect or show how it has been taken out of context, I will be very pleased, and my respect will be partly restored – although not completely because the Steve Chalke issue also remains open.

  7. I’m willing to put the best light on the statement that “God never forgives – he punishes”. I’m willing to think “Well, this means God punished Jesus and now, post-Jesus, he forgives”.


    I think that this still prove my point that PSA revolves around a definition of “justice” that equates it with retributive violence. I’m willing to listen to anyone who wants to tell me that this conclusion is unfair.

    I think that it also shows the emphasis that this tradition-within-a-tradition puts on punishment. I think it shows an eagerness for punishment rather than an eagerness for forgiveness. I’m willing to listen if anyone wants to tell me why I’m being unfair.

    People are going around saying that all of us who heard “The Father needed to kill the son before he would forgive” are grossly blowing the theology out of proportion. And then people say stuff like this. Sorry, if you want your young people to think that God forgives them, TELL them that God forgives them.

    Why is conservative evangelicalism so afraid of a God who forgives? I ask this in all seriousness as someone who was subjected to all this for 17 years and didn’t even have an inkling that Christians believed in a God who loves and forgives us until I went to university. I am not posing a rhetorical question. If we make God sound punishing and unloving, that’s what young people are going to think about God.

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  10. Cat, thank you for your comment and the reference to your post. But there is no real explanation here of the quote, which cannot mean the same as “In order for God to forgive, sin needs to be punished first.

    I didn’t mean to doubt that you are a Bible reading disciple of Christ. I hope your Bible reading includes the four gospels and your discipleship is centred on seeking to obey the teaching Christ gave to his first disciples.

    Let me examine what you wrote, what Cunningham was teaching as you understood it:

    In order for God to forgive, sin needs to be punished first. … God doesn’t just forgive, the wages of sin is death – the price must be paid for our sin.

    This presupposes that sin has to be punished, that God cannot simply choose to forgive. But God is sovereign, so why can’t he just forgive? See my Maltese Cross post.

    that has way too much human logic involved … as soon as we start putting our human framework around God … then we are no longer talking about the God of the bible

    This may be true of the point you make, but it is surely far more true of the whole theological framework of penal substitutionary atonement, which overhangs far beyond its biblical foundation and now seems to be encroaching on thoroughly unbiblical territory.

    I can only suppose that you want Isaiah 53 not to be removed from the Old Testament, or teaching based on it not to be removed from the New Testament. But, as I have argued in several places, this chapter does not teach that God punished Jesus, only that Jesus was disciplined (53:5 third line, not a penal but a pedagogical word) and that some people thought that God was punishing him (53:4).

    By the way, I do not claim that “God is all loving and never punishes sin”. But when he punishes people for sin, he punishes the guilty parties. Nor do I believe that God “puts His son on the cross to simply “sympathise” with our pain”.

    If you don’t believe your sin has been punished and that punishment placed on Christ – then where is your assurance that you are forgiven?

    I don’t see any threat here to my assurance, which is based on God’s promises, not on human speculation about the need to satisfy a principle of justice separate from God. But I would certainly see a huge dent in my assurance from the teaching “God never forgives”, if I were to accept it. There is an urgent need for a proper explanation and retraction of this quote before people lose their assurance and end up in despair or in trying to establish their own righteousness by works or by punishing themselves.

  11. I’ve explained Richard’s quote in context – so you can now understand what Richard meant.

    And yeh…I am a bible reading disciple of Christ thanks ;o)

  12. I am very suprised Adrian hasn’t linked to this. It seems that theological thinking here is very sloppy. A good book on this is H. R. Mackintosh’s classic “the christian experience of forgiveness”. Here he states forgiveness is always costly. And that the Cross is God taking upon himself the cost of forgiveness.

  13. Richard, I am happy to agree that forgiveness is always costly. And Jesus paid that cost for our forgiveness (which does not necessarily imply that he was punished). That may be what Cunningham really meant, but if so he needs to issue a clarification.

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  15. I was at this talk – was great!

    What RC said was “God doesn’t forgive sin, he punishes it” – which has a more specific meaning than the way it’s quoted in your original post.

    RC was pretty blunt, didn’t mince his words, but when in the same week Jeffrey John is on Radio4 denying the gospel and the conference we’re at is breaking up because Steve Chalke has lost the plot when it comes to the cross, it’s great that RC stood up and taught some hard truths about our God.

  16. 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”. As for the New Testament, since Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who were crucifying him (Luke 23:34), are you implying that you and Cunningham know the Father better than Jesus did? Yes, it is bad that Jeffrey John was denying the gospel, but that is no reason for Cunningham also to deny it in an even more serious way.

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  18. Pingback: Speaker of Truth » Cunningham: God does forgive

  19. When Pope John Paul II was recovering from his gunshot wounds, reporters asked him how he felt about his assassin. He replied that he forgave him. He forgave a man who not only didn’t seek his forgiveness, but didn’t even want it.
    You might say that’s the Christian thing to do. But since when does Christianity teach unconditional forgiveness? It seems to me that 99% of what Christianity is about is how we must spend our lives groveling before God, praising him to the Heavens, begging his forgiveness while professing not to deserve it. We have to do so, to meet his conditions for forgiveness.
    If a mere mortal human being like John Paul can forgive unconditionally, why can’t God? They say that to forgive is divine, but it seems there is at least one kind of forgiveness that is so human as to be beyond divine.

  20. Tom, you make a good point – but maybe the problem is not with the real God but with human misconceptions about God. But please note my correction of Cunningham’s words in the post linked to above.

  21. Peter Kirk’s argument is one I’ve heard all my life, in many variations. We criticize God because, in our ignorance and arrogance, we don’t understand him. That just raises the question: why is the Christian God so reluctant to be understood? At least the God of the Old Testament put his cards on the table now and then. Ever since then, people have been killing each other over whose conception of God is the right one, while the “real God” (if there is one) keeps his cards close to his vest. At least in a relatively open society like 21st-century America (unlike, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran), people are free to interpret God as they wish. Unfortunately, that just leads to people choosing the God they are most comfortable with — or, to put it in less diplomatic terms, creating God in their own image.

  22. Tom, I think God has more than adequately revealed himself through the Bible, Old and New Testaments, so that we humans can understand what we need to understand about him, all that is necessary for our life and salvation – although not enough to satisfy all our speculative abilities. The problem is that this clear biblical revelation has become confused by all the accretions of human doctrine and tradition so that it is often seriously misunderstood.

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