Forgiveness

Our pastor’s sermon yesterday was on forgiveness. Afterwards our family had a discussion about it. So here’re all the thoughts I have about forgiveness for now.

Forgiveness is odd. On the one hand, it is a kind of mercy, which means is it always strictly undeserved. If it was deserved, it wouldn’t be forgiveness but justice. On the other hand it is our obligation as Christians to forgive. So how can I be obligated to give someone something he doesn’t have a right to?

One possible solution is that my obligation to forgive other people is actually an obligation to God. He has forgiven me, and demands that I do the same. They can’t justly claim forgiveness from me, but God can justly require me to give it.

Another solution is say that certain relationships obligate us to forgive others. A father ought to have compassion and mercy toward his children, for example, according to both Scripture (Psalm 103:13) and common sense. I forgive my children quickly not because the nature of their offences obligates my forgiveness but because the nature of our relationship obligates it. Good fathers are merciful toward their children. Good marriages are built on forgiveness. Good families maintain an atmosphere of forgiveness.

Christians are obligated to forgive one another on both counts: because God commands it, and because we are spiritually brothers and sisters in Christ. (Colossians 3:12-13, 1 Peter 4:8, etc.)

On a related note, in the New Testament we tend to think of God’s forgiveness as the prerequisite for us to enter his family. We cannot become children of God until our sins are pardoned (Ephesians 1:7, for example). In the Old, forgiveness is presented as the result of being God’s children. God’s chosen people experience his mercy because they belong to him (2 Chronicles 7:14, for example). I think the gospels also look at forgiveness the same way.

Jesus often taught that if we do not forgive, God will not forgive us. I used to worry that somehow that meant that if we do not forgive, we lose our salvation; then for a while I took it as establishing a prerequisites for saving faith. Most of the verses are in the context of prayer, though, and in such cases I think there’s a simpler explanation. Jesus means simply that if we come to God with unforgiveness toward others, he won’t answer our prayers. As long as we ignore their pleas, we cannot expect God to hear ours. (Mark 11:25-26, Matthew 6:14-15, 18:19-22).

The pastor said yesterday that forgiveness does not mean forgetting what was done. Yet, Scripture also speaks of God’s forgiveness by saying He will remember our sins no more (Isaiah 43:25, Jeremiah 31:34, Hebrews 8:12,16-17). Why does it say that? My children’s answer was: it means that God will not focus on our sins. Love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). That is, we remember what was done to us, but when we evaluate others, we do not take those wrongs into account. That means that as long as the only thing we think about is the wrong someone has done us, we still aren’t fully forgiving.

One way to think about forgiveness of believers is in terms of 2 Corinthians 5:16-17. There, Paul says that when we think of other Christians, we should think of them as new creatures in Christ. All the sin of their past is erased. Even if you, as a Christian, should sin against me, I need to see that as a mere reflection of who you used to be. It is a remnant of your old life. It comes from the flesh. It isn’t who you really are anymore. It isn’t who you will be when Jesus returns. Forgiving you means, among other things, seeing you as you are created to be in Christ, and refusing to identify you with the way you act when you sin.

Our pastor suggested that forgiveness is not an emotion, but merely an act of the will. I agree that forgiveness frequently starts with an act of the will, but our emotions should eventually fall in line as well. At its fullest, forgiveness will affect our emotions. It would be a mistake to think of God’s perfect forgiveness as begrudging, for example. Nor would it be very forgiving of me to say to someone, “I have forgiven you with my will, even though I still have feelings of hatred toward you, and always expect to.”

Still, as another one of my children pointed out, when someone has hurt us, there are a lot of emotions involved. In particular, there will probably be both resentment and sorrow. Forgiving someone may release me from the resentful emotions, but leave the sadness in place. That can make it hard to feel as though I’ve fully forgiven someone.

Sometimes forgiving someone takes a while. I think it’s significant that the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) has us pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The Lord’s Prayer is full of things that we are supposed to pray daily. “Give us this day our daily bread” – as opposed to praying “Give me everything I need for the rest of my life” once, and then being done with it. “Forgive us our trespasses” today as opposed to “Forgive me all my sins for the rest of my life” and then never asking again. In the same way, we pray “as we forgive those …” each day because each day we need to be reminded that we are forgiving others.

A few years ago I had difficulty forgiving someone. I kept trying to truly forgive and then discovering the next day that I still had resentment toward them. At first I felt discouraged; I took this as a sign that my decision to forgive hadn’t been real, hadn’t “taken” in some way. Then I realized that perhaps I simply needed to reaffirm my decision to forgive every day. “Since it’s a new day, God, I once again forgive ___.” Gradually, the discipline of regularly re-forgiving changed my feelings and my stance. The forgiveness that had been at first just an act of my will became something deeper and more consistent.

Forgiveness is different than pardon, I think. Pardon is releasing someone from the penalty that justice requires, whereas forgiveness is related to the relationship. If I am a Christian, and have a job as a judge, I am supposed to forgive people but I am not permitted to ignore justice and stop sentencing them. In real life, I’m not a judge, but I am a teacher. If I am to have integrity as a teacher, I need to grade people’s work accurately. If you don’t turn in a paper, I’ll give you a 0. I’ll forgive you, but I’ll still give you a 0.

That makes it difficult to know to what extent we are supposed to implement mercy and forgiveness in society and government. Luther taught that there were two realms. In the spiritual realm we are supposed to live by grace and forgive each other. In the worldly realm of government we are supposed to live by law and hold people to the consequences of their sins. Similar distinctions apply to warfare. C.S. Lewis said that it is completely consistent for a Christian soldier to pray for a man’s soul while trying to kill him. I think there’s some wisdom in all this, but I think there may be something wrong in it also. I don’t think the “two realms” can be compartmentalized so easily. But I don’t have a better suggestion.

God both pardons and forgives us, by the way.

Do others have to ask for forgiveness before we can forgive them? Well, in a practical sense, we must unilaterally forgive others before they repent. If we had to wait until others repented to do that, we’d be in trouble, because some people will never repent, and some who have hurt us may have died. Forgiveness in this unilateral sense is simply a change of attitude on our part. We let go of our resentment. We release them in our heart, for our own sake. As someone said, “Forgiveness is setting a prisoner free, and discovering that the prisoner was me.”

On the other hand, I think forgiveness proper does require repentance on the part of the offender. Scripture seems to speak of God as extending forgiveness to all who will accept it, as though the forgiveness is not really put into place until they repent and are saved. Although forgiveness is offered unilaterally, it cannot really be received by someone who is unwilling to admit he was wrong. (Psalm 86:5, Luke 24:47, Acts 10:43, etc. – see also Luke 17:3-4)

What about when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing?” (Luke 23:34). What about when Stephen said, “Do not hold this sin against them?” (Acts 7:60). Isn’t that unilateral forgiveness?

Let’s start with Stephen. Does his prayer mean that all those who stoned him were forgiven all their sins? Hardly. I think it’s extremely unlikely that they all got saved. (How much did Stephen’s prayer connect to Saul’s eventual conversion? Hmm … set that aside for future consideration.) Did his prayer mean that all those who did not get saved were nonetheless forgiven by God for that particular sin apart from the blood of Christ? No, that doesn’t make sense either. In fact, if you think about it, the men who stoned Stephen were committing serious blasphemy against God. What right did Stephen have to ask that they be forgiven?

I think the best way to make sense of Stephen’s prayer is this. When those men stoned Stephen, they were ultimately sinning against God. They were also sinning against Stephen. While Stephen could not strictly speaking pardon their sins against God, he could release his own claim against them. He was saying, “God, deal with their sin as you need to, but I relinquish any claim I might have against them on the basis of what they are doing to me right now.”

I think Jesus was saying the same thing. He was speaking as a man being unjustly crucified. He was saying, “Father, I am, after all, dying that they might be forgiven. I certainly don’t want to also bring my own charge against them for killing me.”

There’s a lot here I don’t understand about the relationship between sins against us and sins against God and our “right” to bring our grievances to God for judgment. Some relevant passages might be Genesis 4:10, Revelation 6:9-11, John 20:23, Romans 12:19-20, Psalm 51:4.

In the Old Testament, there were several times when sacrifices were required for sins that people committed unknowingly. (Leviticus 4:2,13-14 for example.) Is it possible to be guilty for something that was not deliberate? Can our lives be stained by sin even when our hearts were innocent of any attempt to sin? I don’t know, but I do think that God sometimes used pictures of sin consistent with that idea. He seemed to want the Israelites to imagine sin as something we can commit without even trying. We can find ourselves unclean before God without even having intentionally done anything wrong.  Whether this reflects the idea that sin is not always deliberate, or whether it reflects that we deliberately sin even when we think we don’t, I am not sure.

I do agree with Paul Ricouer that the notion of being unclean before God is more basic than the notion of violating a moral code. We don’t start with the idea of a moral law, and only then develop the awareness that if we have violated it, we are cut off from the presence of God. Rather, we start with the sense of being wrong somehow, of being cut off from God, and then develop a sense of moral standards afterwards. Guilt is a more primitive notion than failure to follow a code, which corresponds to the fact that our sin goes deeper into us than our conscious choices.

The word conscience in Scripture does not refer primarily to a Jiminy-Cricket-like voice who tells us ahead of time what we should and shouldn’t do. It refers to the weight of guilt we experience after the fact, which tells us that we have become unclean and unfit to stand in God’s presence. Our forgiveness in Christ means first and foremost that we are objectively declared innocent before God, but it has a subjective impact on us as well. The weight of our sin is lifted, and our conscience is cleansed.

How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered!

How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit!

When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.

For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.  Selah.

I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”;
And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah. (Psalm 32:1-5)

Praise the Lord!

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