When we first read reports of the Good Friday sermon by controversial [Anglican] Dean of Perth, Dr John Shepherd, we hoped they were wildly inaccurate.
In his sermon, Dr Shepherd was reported to have said:
The idea of God suffering and dying to pay off some fictional debt makes a travesty of God …[Good Friday] is the day of suffering and death. Not suffering and death undergone by Jesus to square off some Shylockian deal.
Our God isn’t a God who needs satisfying … atonement of ourselves and God is not a settling of accounts, not a secret deal that is supposed to restore our relationships with God to what it was at the beginning.
Whether we are repentant, unrepentant—whether we ask for forgiveness, or not—God couldn’t care less.” (The West Australian, 26/3/05)
Having now seen the full text of Dr Shepherd’s address, we can report that these quotes are sadly accurate. The newspaper has undoubtedly picked out the juiciest and most potentially offensive quotes, but not in a way that distorts their meaning. Dr Shepherd does indeed deny in the sermon that the death of Christ was a payment or satisfaction to God for humanity’s sin. In his view, God “is not an angry God, either before Jesus’ crucifixion or after”, and even speaking about the cross in the language of sin is wrongheaded because it assumes “that we know unerringly, and for all time, what sin ‘is’ anyway”.
It hardly seems possible to misrepresent the Christian message more completely than this. The debt we owe God is not fictitious, nor is sin an unknown quantity. Denying its existence may temporarily ease the conscience, but it will count for little on the day when God calls all of us to account.
Reprinted by permission from The Briefing (No. 320)