Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ordo Salutis: Forgiveness

Forgiveness is relational, it doesn't happen in a vacuum. God doesn't wear glasses and croak "oh, all you people down, I can't see you individually but I forgive youse all." The way some people present Jesus on the cross makes God sound like that. For example: Jesus in his pain allegedly forgives the pagan Roman soldiers, the rebellious disciples, including Judas, the arrogant Temple leaders and perhaps even the whole world, in one fell swoop (Luke 23:34)! That would mean that God is in a loving covenantal relationship (2 Peter 1:4 or 1 John 4:13) with every single person who ever was and will be, including the pagan Roman soldier who'd just prayed to Zeus before stabbing Jesus. This isn't to say some were forgiven at that moment, including the watching centurion who confesses Christ (Luke 23:47) and the relationship with Simon Peter is restored lated on the beach (John 21:15-22).

But back to forgiveness itself. It's completely the decision of our self-sufficient God, who gains nothing and for reasons we're don't completely understand or can imagine forgives sinners. Motivated by love and at great cost, the death of his Son, the Father forgives sinners giving providing us with hope, a way out of sin. Forgiveness therefore is a consequence of the atonement (a metaphysical result of God's action: we're no longer facing retribution) and a permanent part of our identity during sanctification.

Forgiveness is hard to translate into a broken world. It's hard enough to be forgiven. Don Carson helpfully (somewhere, maybe I'm using his name in vain) explains that forgiveness is a stance you adopt in anticipation of our post-judgement day life. I picked up some self-help advice somewhere that says that it isn't beneficial to carry hate and unforgiveness around in your head. This rings true, because after Judgement Day it won't be like this, we're on a trajectory to the whole, healed life, let go of the hate. Adopt a stance of forgiveness because God forgave you, at great cost. Forgive as you have been forgiven.

Forgiveness is also incomplete and it's not the antithesis to conflict. On this side of eternity some relationships will be fragile wispy ones, even among brothers and sisters in God's gathered community. It's not until Judgement Day that the truth of every motivation of every event will be revealed. All societies struggle with conflict and have different strategies of dealing with it. Personal survival and public reputation are very important in the West and so forgiveness is sometimes difficult to put into practice. It makes you vulnerable and takes precious energy!

  • It's vital part of our connection with God (Matthew 6:9-14)
  • We should forgive because we've been forgiven  (Col 3:13)
  • Relational, not abstract applies only to people you have a connection with (Luke 17:3-4)
  • Incomplete this side of eternity (Col 3:13 and 1 Cor 13:12)
  • Doesn't remove conflict (Gal 2:11)

['Return of the Prodigal Son' by Rembrandt]


Alex Smith said...

Interesting post :-)

I agree forgiveness is relational & doesn't happen in a vacuum. I agree God doesn't wear glasses and croak "oh, all you people down, I can't see you individually but I forgive youse all."

But when it comes to the scope of who Jesus forgives on the Cross, I think that's less clear…

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34a ESV)

I assume the them are at least those in His audience that didn’t know the true significance of their actions towards Jesus. As far as I can tell, not even His disciples understood this until He explained it to them on the road to Emmaus.

However, from my experience it’s common in Christian circles to say that we all nailed Jesus to the Cross. This is based on verses like, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; you have been healed by His wounds.” (1 Peter 2:24 HCSB, cf Isa 53:6) And if some people can “recrucify“ the Son of God in Hebrews 6:6, that seems to imply an initial crucifying. Therefore, if we indeed played a part in crucifying, that would imply we need forgiveness for doing so.

However I certainly wouldn’t want to build a dogmatic theological position based on one verse! Rather I’d want to step back and try to look at the wider witness of Scripture.

Firstly, I think you’d agree it’s clear that we all sin and that we all desperately need forgiveness (e.g. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Rom 3:23 HCSB).

I’d then follow the majority interpretation of passages like, “That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.”” (2Cor 5:19-20) and say that God has at least offered forgiveness to everyone.

Lastly, for reasons I won’t bore you with, I’d extrapolate Young's Literal Translation of Romans 2:4b, “that the goodness of God doth lead thee to [repentance &] reformation!” into each person’s individual relationship with God.

Regardless of whether my proposal is correct or not, I’d say that God’s forgiveness often doesn’t immediately result in repentance, far less a fully actualized “loving covenantal relationship” as you appear to imply.

Moving on to your 2nd paragraph, I agree forgiveness is completely the decision of our self-sufficient God. Because I find forgiveness a great challenge (& often costly), I think the more I comprehend the scope & depth of God’s forgiveness, the more I will joyfully thank & praise Him – in that sense, He gains my respect & adoration, which He wouldn’t get if He was as harsh as say a pagan god.

I agree we can’t completely understand why He forgives but think you’re on the right track seeing it as “motivated by love”.

I like your dot points.

I agree with your 3rd paragraph, although it raises three interconnected questions:
1) If God hasn’t already forgiven unbelievers, will God do so?

2) Will believers forgive unbelievers on, or after, Judgement Day?

3) If God hasn’t forgiven (& won’t) and believers also don’t, how can they possibly become “whole”, have a “healed life” and “let go of the hate”??

4) If believers have forgiven unbelievers in this life & on Judgement Day discover that God hasn’t/won’t, what do they do? Do they un-forgive unbelievers in order to become more Christlike?

5) If it’s possible to un-forgive, doesn’t that raise significant questions about the point & integrity of forgiveness, and whether we can trust any forgiveness to last?

I agree with your 4th paragraph and last dot points.

Luke Isham said...

Hey Alex,

Thanks for commenting. I'm not sure that the ambiguity of how we experience judgement and glorification pushes us towards universal forgiveness.

I notice you worked fairly closely through my post and raise some great questions but didn't fully engage with my observation that for Jesus to be universally forgiving on the cross requires him to be a loving/covenantal relationship with every single person?

You did say about half way down that God's forgiveness doesn't mean the sinner automatically responds, that's true but the sinner is already predestined, on a trajectory, before they repent, they couldn't repent under their own steam unless the Holy Spirit was already at work in them. (Remember CS Lewis' example of ordinary people on the train who will ultimately be devils or angels in eternity?)

This isn't something that proves things one way or the other, but just makes me uncomfortable. You said: "[God] gains my respect & adoration, which He wouldn’t get if He was as harsh as say a pagan god." At the end of the Man Called Thursday by GK Chesterton, the character discovers who he has been pursuing and realises it's God, so much larger and more dangerous than we assume. In the quote above it seems you've become the measure of God! Surely God doesn't need to "gain" our respect?!


Alex Smith said...

I’m glad you appreciated me engaging with your post as it took me several hours – LOL ☺

I’m unsure where I talk about “ambiguity of how we experience judgement and glorification”?

I’m not an expert on covenantal theology but one of the reasons I’m fairly sure God really, deeply loves each individual is Jesus. For example, Matt 5:44-48, when He says, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” I think He’s implying this is part of being Christlike. Christ being the perfect Son who loved & prayed for those who persecuted Him - ultimately so on the cross. Likewise the Father’s sustaining of all life in this age is a sign of love (which I think is replicated in the next), “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” It would appear hypocritical for Jesus to criticise only loving those who love you, if He did that Himself, “For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?” Instead ends His speech by again reinforcing the link between loving enemies and being like God, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Now just because God loves each person individually doesn’t mean they immediately love Him back & want a relationship with Him. Like the poor prophet Hosea whose wife was an unfaithful prostitute, even though God covenants Himself to us, we often ignore or insult Him.

I don’t think God forgives us because He knows we will one day repent. I think His forgiveness is part of the reason we one day repent. I agree with you that it also requires the Spirit’s help.

I tried wording it carefully so that it wouldn’t make you uncomfortable but seems I didn’t succeed. God doesn’t need anything, including our respect, however, because He deserves our loving praise & respect, it’s right that He gets it. Respect isn’t something we can pretend or conjure up, it’s something that has to come from within. I don’t know about you or anyone else, but I can’t help but respect the amazing, infinitely expensive & expansive, forgiveness of God. I also know if it only was due to our works or appeasement I’d be far less impressed, likewise if I discovered it was only to a few I’d be genuinely disappointed. And again God certainly doesn’t have to try please me, however He deserves to get my uttermost adoration.

I’m sure like everyone else who came near God, or even angels, I will be very frightened & in awe when I meet God. However I think God wants & deserves more than that. I think He wants & deserves our love (as I’m sure was the case with Hosea too).