We have trouble with forgiveness, which I suppose, is something of an understatement. It seems like a good idea in principle but getting around to it, well, can be another matter.
At times forgiveness gets in the way of how good it feels to feel bad, to hold on to grudges, to want to settle old scores, especially when I feel I have been unjustly wronged. My righteous indignation demands compensation. In this way of thinking there is no room for forgiveness. I refuse to let go of bitterness, resentment, hatred.
Or sometimes I may wonder if I really need forgiveness? Sometimes this is also a problem. Maybe I do, but not as much as the other guy! In comparison with others, I’m not that bad. Save forgiveness for those who really need it.
Sometimes our difficulty with forgiveness stems from reflection upon the world as it is. Forgiving reflects just the sort of weakness that has no place in the world. The philosopher Frederich Nietzche thought this way and said Christians practice the morality of slaves. Forgiveness just doesn’t seem to work. If you forgive people they will walk all over you.
These problems with forgiveness are certainly out there and in us but they point us to a more basic question,’What is the meaning of forgiveness?’ Is forgiveness merely ignoring or winking at sin? Surely not. Is forgiveness a principle (e.g. God is love. or God will forgive; that’s His business.)
If so, then clearly forgiveness is not for anything that really matters.
And if we press on a bit further we must also ask; Can a nation be run on forgiveness? Can children be raised on forgiveness? Can forgiveness make us whole and complete persons? Is forgiveness enough to create justice, peace and freedom on earth? To end hunger and homelessness? To replace jail sentences? To bring about God’s kingdom on earth? The answer to these questions, of course, is, perhaps surprisingly, no.
As Lutheran Christians we emphasize an important Biblical distinction upon which Martin Luther and the early reformers based a critical insight; that forgiveness needs to be understood within the framework of both the present age and the age to come. Within this understanding, Jesus, and the forgiveness that is His Gospel, are seen to be part of the new age to come, but already present in this old age. He is, as the New Testament proclaims, the first fruits of the kingdom which is in the future, yet to be revealed. For now, Christ can only be known in faith and hope, through promise – or as Paul has written, “through a glass darkly” sealed with the Holy Spirit.
For forgiveness to take it’s proper place in the Christian life, in this world, what is necessary is the proper distinction between the use of the Gospel of forgiveness and the use of God’s law. To distinguish between law and gospel enables us to grasp a proper understanding of their use.
The distinction looks like this: St. Paul reminds us that Christ is the end of the law to for everyone who has faith. The law has ended for Christians as far as our ultimate well-being before God is concerned; trust in God’s forgiveness sets us free from fear of death and the eternal judgment that the law rightly reveals to sinners. But, since we are always also sinful in this old age, we continue to need the law as much as anyone else. This distinction between the law and gospel helps us live in the tension between the present and the age to come, as we live simultaneously in the old and the new.
But how does this work in our actual lives? The late Prof. Marc Kolden, one of my favorite professors at the seminary, laid it out this way.
“One way is through the way the Gospel motivates the believer to acts of love. “We love because He first loved us.” Since we are creatures created for love, the Gospel motivates us to take up our created purpose and get busy loving. Imperfectly, to be sure, but since we were created for love and that is purpose here.
Another way forgiveness can impact our daily lives is the way the Gospel encourages us to focus our energies and resources on the needs of others or the common good, since the self’s good is secure in Christ. To put it simply, generosity bears witness to the age to come.
Yet another role forgiveness plays is to clarify actions and situations where concrete forms of law may be distorted or misleading and in need of correction from the perspective of faith. Christians may engage in political action in order to assist in maintaining and orderly and just world, in so far as they are possible.
Finally, forgiveness can have a freeing influence from the fear of failure and enable us to take risks for the sake of love precisely because of our confidence in God’s forgiveness in Christ Jesus. It was in this spirit that Luther made his famous remark to his friend and colleague Philip Melancthon, ‘Sin boldly but believe more boldly still.” When God says to You, ‘Your sins are forgiven for Jesus sake’, you no longer have worry about what God thinks of you. Nothing will be held against you. You don’t have to prove yourself, become more spiritual or demonstrate your worthiness in any other way.”
Because God so freely forgives you can do the same with others. God isn’t bargaining with us here. God strikes no bargains with sinners. God forgives us our failures to forgive, too. But as God forgives us, He intends for that forgiveness to go through us to our neighbors.
To practice forgiveness in this age, therefore, is not to ignore the law and it’s just demands. The world cannot be run on forgiveness. But when we forgive as we have been forgiven, we bear witness to those caught in the absolute demand of law. For what the forgiveness of sins does is actually create a new future. When Jesus prayed, ‘Father forgive them’ from the cross, our Lord Himself was bearing witness to those around Him of another reality at work within this old age of sin and death, the reality of the new age – of whom the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the first fruits – an age that is received in faith and hope, ready to be revealed at the end of the age.
“MAY THE PEACE OF GOD THAT PASSES ALL UNDERSTANDING KEEP YOUR HEARTS AND MINDS IN
CHRIST JESUS OUR LORD.”