The Freedom of Forgiveness
I’ve been struck lately by the lack of forgiveness that has become the hallmark of our society. We seem to be living in a culture devoid of the virtues of redemption or reconciliation. A look at the publicly disgraced politicians and celebrities smeared all over the news each day would prove my point. So would the bipartisan rancor in Washington. We see it in the violent disputes between neighbors on the nightly news. We seem to have come to a point that whenever someone offends another, the swift and austere gavel of judgement falls, issuing a permanent condemnation of the offender. There are no appeals. The sentence is irrevocable. Retaliation is justifiable.
This really isn’t surprising. Humans get the need for justice. Though sin has skewed our understanding of it, God has written his law on each of our hearts. This law informs us what ought to be. When what is falls short of what ought to be, the law condemns. It can do nothing else. It reveals a debt that is owed by the offender to the offended.
In Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Miserables, the police inspector, Javert, personifies the law. He relentlessly pursues the novel’s main character, Jean Valjean, due to a minor, decades-old offense. Although Valjean had changed his life for the better, and by all other accounts justice had been served, Javert could not stop pursuing justice to the letter of the law. In the end mercy triumphed for Valjean, but not for Javert. Unable to reconcile mercy with justice, eventually Javert took his own life.
In our sinful condition we are all Javerts. Mercy is foreign to us. So how do we try to mend the bridge between what ought to be and what is? Those seeking to answer this question, either from a religious or secular worldview, have blazed two faulty paths.
The first is the path of excuse. On this path, the offended excuses the offender saying, “It’s okay. It’s no big deal. You didn’t mean to do it.” Religions holding this view teach that God merely overlooks offense. They teach that all people go to heaven regardless of behavior or faith. The Universalists are a prime example of this. In society we see the same thing when individuals choose not to address the wrongs done to them so as not to upset the status quo. But this isn’t justice. All true offense leaves a debt to be paid, and excusing it does nothing to alleviate that debt. It simply ignores it.
The second is the path of repayment. This path sounds better, but it also has its problems. Religions on the repayment path teach that with enough effort and good works God can be repaid. But the problem with most moral offenses, especially against God, is that people drastically undervalue the cost of repayment. They fail to take into account the full disparity of what ought to be and what is when they contrast their sin with a holy God.
In debts owed to others, repayment seems more promising. If you dent my car there is a clear cost to repair it. Pay that and we’re good. But what about deeper offenses where the repayment value is unclear? The ire of the offended often causes them to overvalue the cost of repayment leaving the offender indebted indefinitely. This leads to bitterness. Again, justice fails and mercy is nowhere to be found.
Christianity stands alone in escaping these two unjust paths. Christianity refuses to overlook the tremendous debt sinners owe God. But it also teaches that a complete and sufficient repayment has been issued on their behalf by Christ at the cross. In this transaction, sin was not in any way excused, and every debt of every person was paid by Christ. To all who trust in him, complete forgiveness of sin is given.
This is an immensely freeing truth for the believer. As they grow to understand the magnitude of the debt that was forgiven them, they begin to see the debts others owe them as minuscule in comparison (see Matthew 18:21-35). Because of Jesus, they forgive others as they have been forgiven (see Matthew 6:14-15). They even realize that they can forgive the debts of their unrepentant debtors. This is because they understand as God’s child, any debt owed to them is really a debt owed to their Father in heaven. They know that those debts were paid for at the cross. Whether the debtor comes to receive this forgiveness through faith in Christ, or refuses to trust Christ, tragically choosing to pay for their own debts at the final Judgement, justice will ultimately be served. The believer knows this and forgives them, refusing to ask for a double repayment of that debt. This kind of life frees the believer in Christ from the bitterness and hatred that characterizes so much of our world today.
As Christians this is a powerful opportunity to proclaim both justice and mercy to a bitter world. We have something no other path offers—a just and merciful way. By resting in the forgiveness of Christ and forgiving others, we shine Christ’s light to a world in darkness.