As we have seen, Forde holds that one cannot start from a pre-existent scheme or an abstract theory about God’s nature in order to attain correct theological knowledge. Therefore, invoking Karl Rahner’s famous distinction between Christology from “below and above,” he begins his atonement essay “Caught in the Act,” (1984) by stating that a proper understanding of the work of Christ must necessarily begin “from below.” What this means in practice is that the starting point of all theological reflection must involve what Forde refers to as the “actual narrative” found in the Gospels. According to Forde’s reading of this “actual narrative,” Jesus did not come teaching a particular atonement theology or an abstract theory of about the nature of God. Rather, Jesus simply traveled around Palestine spontaneously and unilaterally forgiving sinners. Regarding this, Forde writes:
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 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.
For Forde this “actual narrative” therefore provides a more correct rationale for the crucifixion than either traditional theology or even the New Testament authors themselves ever could. Jesus died because of the legalistic opposition of sinful humanity ran headlong into the gracious and forgiving will of God. In point of fact, humanity enthralled under the power of legalism actually prefers not to be forgiven so that it can maintain its illusory control over God with its good works. In this regard, Forde writes: “But why did we kill him? It was, I expect we must say, as a matter of “self-defense.” Jesus came not just to teach about the mercy and forgiveness of God but actually came to do it, to have mercy and to forgive unconditionally . . . [this] shatters the “order” by which we must run things here.” Another analogy Forde uses to describe the crucifixion is that of an “Accident.” Jesus’ death is not unlike a man who throws himself in front of a moving truck and is killed while attempting to save a child playing in the road. In this analogy, sinful humanity is driving the truck and the man killed is Christ. Humanity drives the truck insofar as they participates the legalistic order of the present evil age.
In spite of Forde’s analogy of a car accident, Jesus’ death is not in a literal sense to be thought of as accidental. It was in point of fact a quite integral part of God’s own plan of redemption. Forde asserts that Jesus’ goal was to be “. . . crucified by the [sinful and legalistic] order itself, so to bring a new order.” By killing Jesus, sinful humanity comes to recognize its bondage. In rejecting Jesus and his mercy, humanity is truly made conscious of its root-sin of opposition to God’s grace. God allows himself to be killed by us, states Forde, in order to “. . .makes it plain that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).” Jesus therefore did not die to fulfill the law or suffer the punishment for our sins. Rather, he died in order to reveal fallen humanity’s sin of self-justification and opposition to God’s grace.
Ultimately Jesus is victorious over the old sinful order by the power of his resurrection. In the resurrection, God not only negated the present evil age, but has also vindicated Jesus and his practice of unconditional forgiveness of sinners. Therefore, writes Forde: “The resurrection is his vindication against us. Therefore, it is vindication against death, the power of death resident in our legalism (see 2 Cor. 3). It is the proof that he was right and we are wrong. God has made him Lord. God has now said what he has to say.”
For this reason, the death and resurrection of Jesus is an utterly disruptive eschatological event. It is the breaking point between the old age and the new, the death of the old being of sin and the re-creation of the new person of faith. In that we are made conscious of our sin by the death of Jesus, we quite literally die. Nevertheless, by the power of the resurrection God validates Jesus’ forgiveness and therefore creates new beings of faith. Having succeeded in inculcating trust in his grace, God is “satisfied” not by Jesus’ death and righteousness, but by our own righteousness actualized by faith. In this regard, Forde comments:
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.” Christ’s work, therefore, “satisfies” the wrath of God because it alone creates believers, new beings who are no longer “under” wrath. Christ actualizes the will of God to have mercy unconditionally in the concrete and thereby “placates” God.
For this reason, Forde’s view of justification is not in accordance with the Formula of Concord’s definition of justification as the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of righteousness. As is clear from what was said above, Forde’s rejection the confessional Lutheran understanding of atonement also causes a significant deviation from the historic Lutheran teaching regarding justification. In traditional Lutheran doctrine, Christ’s positive act of obedience and his negative act of suffering the judgment of sin are imputed to the believer and received by faith. For Forde, the role of the imputation of passive righteousness is taken over by the divine act of forgiveness by fiat (i.e., forgiveness without a payment for sin), whereas the role of active righteousness is taken over by the positive righteousness of the new being of faith. Hence, faith saves not because it receives Christ’s imputed righteousness, but rather partially because it receives God’s act of forgiveness in Christ and partially because it recreates the believer as righteous in themselves through faith. Because of this, justification ceases to be wholly extra nos and is only in the most tenuous sense propter Christum.