Enjoy this look at the problem of forgiveness that may challenge some of your traditional understanding but I think will liberate many.
The good news of God’s forgiveness has me a bit befuddled these days. Not because I have lost sight of the joy of being forgiven. On the contrary, gaining a clearer perspective of my own sinfulness has given me a renewed appreciation and sense of gratitude for God’s gracious choice to forgive and cleanse. My befuddlement is due to the mixed message that the Bible seems to give about the nature of forgiveness.
The Gospel message has most often connected forgiveness with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The reasoning goes like this. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory; thus all are separated from God by sin. God has provided a way for us to be reconciled to himself through the shed blood of Jesus. God has accepted the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as payment for the sins of all humanity. Forgiveness of sin is extended to all who will accept the sacrifice that Jesus made on their behalf, and enter into a relationship of faith and trust in God. In the words of 1 John 2:2, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
What causes me to wrinkle my eyebrows, however, is the announcement by Jesus to the paralyzed man in Mark 2:5, “Son, your sins are forgiven,” followed in v.10 by his declaration to the religious leaders, “I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” On what basis did Jesus announce this forgiveness? The text makes no mention of a temple sacrifice on the paralyzed man’s behalf that allowed his forgiveness, nor had Jesus yet gone to the cross to provide an atoning sacrifice. This announced forgiveness seems to have no basis at all. Forgiving the man’s sins seems like something Jesus just decided to do, claiming divine authority for his decision.
We have our ways of explaining this away. Since we know that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22), some would say that Jesus announced forgiveness on the basis of the sacrifice that would soon be coming, that the cleansing power of Jesus’ shed blood would extend both backward and forward. This explanation may, or may not, be satisfactory. But what if the man were forgiven without any payment for his sins? Would that be possible? And in fact, wouldn’t that be closer to the true meaning of forgiveness?
What does it really mean to forgive? Doesn’t it mean to release from the obligation to pay? Jesus told the story of a man who owed his creditor a debt that couldn’t possibly be paid in his lifetime. Upon his plea for mercy, the creditor forgave the debt, meaning that he did not demand payment. The debtor was unequivocally released from the need to pay. It’s not that anyone else paid on his behalf. The creditor simply wiped the debt from his records.
How can we say that God has forgiven our sins when we assert that Jesus has paid for our sins? If our debt has been paid, then it hasn’t been forgiven. Moving it to the account of another may constitute a gracious choice that is to our benefit, and for which we can be grateful, but it does not constitute forgiveness.
What if God were free to announce forgiveness based only on a repentant heart? Even this requires a bit of juggling in relation to the story of the paralyzed man because the text makes no mention of him being repentant. The trigger seems to be the faith of the friends who brought him to Jesus. But what if Jesus’ announcement of forgiveness was simply an expression of divine compassion, a full and complete recognition of the paralyzed man’s inability to pay?
“No!” we say. God is a just God. Justice demands that sin be paid for. To remit a sin without payment would be contrary to God’s justice; God simply would not allow that. But is God enslaved by his own justice? James 2:13 comments that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Since judgment is based on what is just or unjust, it says to me that mercy triumphs even over justice, that God is free to act only on the basis of his compassion.
Is there an answer to my dilemma? I’m not quite ready to dismiss the notion of sacrificial atonement from my theological understanding of forgiveness. But neither am I willing to limit the scope and depth of God’s freedom to announce forgiveness because it doesn’t fit my theological system.
If only the Bible were a little more clear!
January 25, 2007
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Jesse and Kara Birkey
Jesse and Kara Birkey are committed lovers of Jesus who seek to show others the extraordinary life of Jesus is available for everyone. They have authored two books, been featured in films and seek to serve the Lord in whatever ways they can. Follow their blog here.
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