What is forgiveness and what does it mean in the life of a believer?
Forgiveness is something all of us have wrestled with at one point. How to forgive, and what forgiveness entails, can be difficult questions. Does forgiveness cancel the need for justice? Does forgiveness mean loving the offender even if there is no goodness in them?
It’s first important to note that modern definitions of forgiveness often concerns an emotional attachment or a release of punishment at the hands of the offended. Forgiveness in antiquity, however, was more along the lines of restoration. Sin was an honour offence towards God and the person who was wronged. Sin hurt the relational status of the offender and in turn incurred a debt that needed to be paid. This is why Jesus mentioned “debts” in the Lord’s prayer rather than “sins” (Matthew 6:9-13). Forgiveness was the act of erasing or cancelling those debts and restoring the communal bond.
In relation to the Gospel (the message of unmerited grace), Jesus erased our debts with His shed blood in the absence of any deserving act of our own, thus restoring our relationship with Him and making certain humanity’s everlasting salvation. Some will grab hold of this truth now, others later, but it is a truth that stands independent of our belief in it, for if it were not it could not be called truth. Truth, by definition, does not depend on the mind believing it. It is objective.
With this in mind, what does forgiveness mean for us today? Forgiveness is the loosening of the tie that binds. It is the removal of the hand that lusts for revenge. Paul’s exhortation to us is simple,
….become kind to one another, tenderly compassionate, dealing graciously among yourselves, according as God also, in Christ, deals graciously with you. (Ephesians 4:32 CLNT)
He makes it sound so easy, doesn’t he? But I know that it has been true in my own life that forgiveness is not a walk in the park, especially towards unremorseful or repeat offenders. Where does this forgiveness come from, then? Earlier in his writing to the ecclesia in Ephesus Paul, heralding the accomplishment of the cross, notes,
In Whom we are having the deliverance through His blood, the forgiveness of offenses in accord with the riches of His grace, which He lavishes on us; in all wisdom and prudence. (Ephesians 1:7-8 CLNT bold mine)
Lavishes. It’s such a lovely word. Forgiveness is an outpouring of the same grace that God lavishes upon us. Rest assured that it does not come from us, just as our own deliverance did not originate in us. An act of salvation and restoration cannot be independent of God’s gracious and powerful hand.
Onwards, if forgiveness is a reflection of grace, does that negate the need for justice or retribution? In the Mosaic law justice was a matter of an “eye for an eye” or a “tooth for a tooth.” Yet when we move to the writings of Paul, and most specifically the unravelling of the Gospel of the Uncircumcision, we see yet another radical departure.
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.” (Romans 12:19 ESV)
Justice is a fundamental part of God’s character, thus the necessity of the upcoming years of tribulation when the remnant that is heralding the grace of God is snatched away and the next part of God’s plan of reconciliation begins. This eon is the actualization of justice, where evil is brought to its bitter end and buried and creation is restored.
God’s justice is never fruitless. It does not punish in the mere hope that a person will be brought to repentance on their own accord. God’s justice is restoration. It takes the clay of the old creation and throws it into the fiery furnace, burning away all that was and fashioning something entirely new. He is a complete and perfect potter, so excellent in all of His ways that even the most ruthless of the wicked are never deprived of the infinite goodness and salvation of God. The doctrine of eternal torment and annihilation is the complete antithesis to this, yet it is what the church calls orthodox.
The wonderful conclusion then is this: the whole living world is positionally saved and justified. This is because the whole world, once corrupt in their trespasses, died subsequently with Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14), thus the accomplishment of the cross is for all (Romans 6:7) if now it is only practically on those who are believing in it. If Scripture is true and everyone is a sinner without distinction, then the cross has justified all positionally and all will walk in it practically when everything is said and done. I like to put it this way: If God has saved you, then the rest of creation is coming through.
Yet now, apart from law, a righteousness of God is manifest (being attested by the law and the prophets), yet a righteousness of God through Jesus Christ’s faith, for all, and on all who are believing, for there is no distinction, for all sinned and are wanting of the glory of God. Being justified gratuitously in His grace, through the deliverance which is in Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:21-24 CLNT bold mine)