The traditional sacrament list includes the practice of Reconciliation through Penance. Here, I will stray the most from the traditional list, but I think it wise to keep the principle behind this item central in our focus. Forgiveness is a unique Christian doctrine and practice, unparalleled by anything in secular culture. A bold claim? Yes, for certain, but let me make the case.
Not About …
Gospel-centered forgiveness is different from its secular parodies in many ways.
Forgiveness is not about apologizing for “offending” a person, as in scuffing their polished veneer of their sensitivities. The word “offend” appears often in some translations of the New Testament, but it has almost nothing to do with its common modern usage. The Greek term (σκανδαλίζω) describes an action that ensnares a person or causes one to sin. While a Christian should certainly season his words with grace, our too easily offended culture needs to dial it down a notch.
Forgiveness is not about “getting over it” or “moving on.” These terms are of psychological use, but have little to do with our topic. In some ways they are the opposite. Getting over a wrong seems to indicate that the wrong still lingers in the world, but that you personally have managed to remove it from your concern. This might ease your mind in a helpful way, but forgiveness in the Biblical sense is more about the elimination of the wrong itself.
Forgiveness is not about “forbearance.” This financial lending term describes the act of not collecting on a debt that remains in force. It is certainly a Biblical thing to do in cases where forgiveness is not immediate possible. This is the likely the sense of “bearing with others” found in some passages, but it is not precisely the same as forgiveness (Colossians 3:12-13). Forbearance is a willingness to carry the weight of the wrong, but forgiveness is the elimination of the wrong entirely.
Only God Forgives
The reason for the precision in the above definition is made clear once we see how Scripture speaks of forgiveness. In Scripture, forgiveness is the complete pardoning of a debt. When we sin, we incur a sort of moral debt or guilt toward the person we have wronged. The wronged person has the just expectation of collecting on that moral debt through appropriate punishment or reparation, but forgiveness is the right of the wronged to completely discharge the debt and collect nothing at all.
This is made a bit more complicated when we ask the question, who is wronged by my sin? In interpersonal conflict, one party seems to be the obvious victim of another. However, God as Creator and Sustainer of all life claims a higher debt against his own moral dignity when we commit any wrong. In the same sense that a $1000 debt may claim priority over a $1 debt, God claims that all persons are first answerable to him before all others.
Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die. (Ezekiel 18:4)
As such, only God can forgive in the absolute sense, because also sin is first against God.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. (Psalm 51:2-4)
Now In Christ
Lest you think I have invented this principle, remember that it is expressly discussed in the Gospel of Mark.
And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:1-7)
It was controversial for Jesus to claim the right to forgive sins. This man’s sin were not in any sense against Jesus himself as a person. Who has the right to claim that a sin – any and all sin – was first a wrong against himself and therefore his to forgive? Claiming the right to forgive sins was claiming divine authority. Jesus does not deny this principle. Instead, he demonstrates by way of a miracle that his right to forgive sin is consistent with his working of miracles. He is claiming divinity.
And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he said to the paralytic — “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:8-12)
The personal claim of Jesus to be able to forgive sins becomes the Christian doctrine of forgiveness when he extends this privilege to his disciples.
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:20-23)
The divine power that resides in Christ is now personally available in the life of the disciple. Christian forgiveness is not a psychological exercise, but a spiritual reality. When a disciple forgives sins, it is forgiven in the authority of the Father, in the name of the Son, and in the power of the Spirit.
The Way of the World
We cannot emphasize enough how different this is from the false justice of the world. We ought to remember the story of Lamech who models a more human method of dealing with wrongs. “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23-24). Lamech’s plan was to demonstrate his power by collecting on wrongs done him with the addition of considerable moral interest. Jesus describes human debt collecting in a similarly severe way:
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:25-26)
Jesus on the other hand teaches that his extravagantly offered forgiveness is a model for his disciples.
“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-21)
The expression “seventy times seven” or “seventy-sevenfold” is the exact same term used in the Greek Old Testament in Lamech’s promise of vengeance. Jesus is quoting Lamech to teach a forgiveness as powerfully merciful as Lamech was powerfully severe. Jesus can make this demand because he holds the premise expressed above. Forgiveness is divine and therefore to be dispensed as God sees fit. His claim on our moral debts takes priority over any personal slight we may feel toward another. Paul expresses it as follows:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)
What makes forgiveness sacramental in nature? We have already noticed in John 20:20-23 that forgiveness takes place in the presence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a point repeated elsewhere, with special emphasis on the presence of Christ. “Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:10). Likewise, see the emphasis of Christ’s own presence in Matthew 18:12-22.
Furthermore, forgiveness reenacts the gospel. Truly Christ has come to save sinners. “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:12-13). To settle the matter fully, Christ makes forgiveness a means of grace – a requirement of grace! – in the Sermon on the Mount.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)
This grace offered us is free but not cheap. It comes with the demand that we extend it, like all God’s gifts, to our neighbor in His Name.