Thursday, 12 October 2006

Theology for beginners (19): Forgiveness

Summary: The freedom of the Christian life is above all the freedom of forgiveness: living in the forgiveness of God, we are set free to forgive the debts of others.

We have spoken of the freedom of the Christian community. And we must now focus on the most distinctive and most fundamental form of this freedom: the freedom of forgiveness.

Right from the start, the Christian life is constituted by the gift of forgiveness. At the beginning of the Christian life, the bath of baptism dramatically enacts the free and unconditional gift of forgiveness by which God receives human beings into the fellowship of his own triune life. In baptism, the past is washed away. All our guilt and shame is removed – it is drowned and left behind in the water. In this way, the power of the past is broken, so that a person emerges from the water into new life, into a life wholly open to the future of God’s coming kingdom.

Forgiveness is not, however, merely the start of the Christian life. Each day and at every moment, we continue to live by the power of forgiveness. Each day, the Christian community repeats the same prayer: “Forgive us our debts!” Each day, we continue to need and to ask for God’s forgiveness. Thus although we are baptised only once, throughout the whole Christian life we continue to share in the eucharistic meal – the meal of forgiveness. Just as we share together in the bread and wine, so we are reminded that God’s forgiving grace is our food and drink, our nourishment, our very life. To eat and drink forgiveness, to be sustained by forgiveness – this is the meaning of the Christian life.

And so our prayer each day is: “Forgive us our debts!” Forgiveness is the opposite of being treated as we deserve to be treated. It is the opposite of restitutive justice. It is the opposite of “karma,” of reaping what has been sowed. It is the opposite of every kind of moral legalism. So too, it is the opposite of making amends for the past. It is the opposite of conditions, negotiation, exchange.

Forgiveness is not restitution – it is unconditional pardon. It is cancellation of debt. Forgiveness therefore involves both a recognition of the debt that is owed, and an irreversible decision that the debt will be cancelled. It is thus not a matter of simply forgetting the past – it is a powerful annulment of the past, an act in which the chains of the past are broken. Through forgiveness, the past itself is thus transformed into something new, just as the future is suddenly opened in a new way. Liberated from the power of the past, I am now set in motion towards a future rich with hope and possibility. This, then, is the unique freedom of the Christian life: to stand forgiven before God, and thus truly to be free in relation to my own past and to the future of God’s kingdom.

But our daily prayer is not only “forgive us our debts.” In fact, our prayer is: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are in debt to us.” This prayer means: “Set me free from the past, just as I release others from the chains of their past. Cancel my debts today, just as today I release others from the debts they owe me. Do not demand restitution for guilt from me, just as I refuse to demand restitution from others. Set me free from the need to make amends, just as I excuse others from this need. Forgive me unconditionally, just as I forgive without negotiation or condition.”

To pray this way is to pray for something radical, something that shatters all our assumptions and expectations about the basic patterns of ordinary social life. In our world, you don’t get anything for nothing. If you want something, you must pay for it; you must make some kind of exchange. But forgiveness overturns the entire economy of exchange – in forgiveness, I give you something for nothing, without requiring payment or exchange, without demanding anything in return. In the economy of exchange, you are bound to me by various contracts and conditions – but in the economy of forgiveness, you are set free from all bondage to me, unconditionally liberated from all indebtedness to me.

Forgiveness is thus something shocking, something astonishing and unexpected. It lies outside the basic patterns and assumptions that underpin our entire culture. It is wholly undetermined and contingent. It is an event that can never be anticipated in advance. It is an irruption of the ordinary. Until we have been shocked and astonished – yes, frightened! – by the power of forgiveness, we have not yet even begun to understand what is involved here.

Forgiveness is shocking because it is a miracle. In and of myself, I lack the capacity to forgive – but as I receive the forgiving love of God in Jesus, I am empowered by the Spirit to become an agent of that same forgiveness. Because I have been forgiven, I can and must forgive. When I forgive a person who has wronged me, that person is truly forgiven – she is liberated from the chains of the past and set free to participate in the life of God’s coming kingdom. So too, when this person forgives me, I am truly forgiven – I am liberated from the past and welcomed into the life of the kingdom. Through the power of the Spirit, human society in all its forms can thus begin to glimpse and to participate in the life of the kingdom through this astounding miracle of reciprocal forgiveness.

To forgive, therefore, is not only a personal act – it is also a social and political act, an act pregnant with the promise of a new future for our world. In international relations and in domestic penal policy, it overturns the politics of vengeance. In social relationships, it overturns the demand for retribution and compensation – the violent demand to be “given one’s due” at any cost. Indeed, in the first century the early Christians interpreted Jesus’ entire ministry as a liberating act of debt-cancellation: in Jesus, the Year of Jubilee had arrived, a time in which all debts were written off, so that the poor could be released from their financial servitude. This, too, is what forgiveness means today. This is what we are asking for when we pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors!” The prayer for forgiveness is thus a revolutionary act, a radical contradiction of the whole economy that underlies the accepted patterns of thought and behaviour which drive our culture.

Indeed, the petition for forgiveness is identical with the petition for the coming of God’s kingdom: “Your kingdom come, your will be done; … and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors!” To live by forgiveness is already to participate in the life of God’s coming kingdom. To practise forgiveness in all our day-to-day social interactions is already to show the power and the life of God’s kingdom.

For the kingdom of God – the kingdom that Jesus announced, the kingdom that is now approaching all history like a fast train from the future – is a kingdom of forgiveness, a kingdom whose fundamental economy is one of unconditional, liberating love. To live in the power of this liberating love is the meaning of Christian freedom.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), pp. 430-50.
  • Govier, Trudy. Forgiveness and Revenge (London: Routledge, 2002).
  • McFadyen, Alistair and Marcel Sarot (eds.). Forgiveness and Truth (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001).
  • Milbank, John. Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 44-60.
  • Müller-Fahrenholz, Geiko. God’s Spirit: Transforming a World in Crisis (New York: Continuum, 1995), pp. 124-41.
  • Shults, F. LeRon and Steven J. Sandage. The Faces of Forgiveness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).
  • Tanner, Kathryn. The Economy of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
  • Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).

10 Comments:

kim fabricius said...

A gold star! Thanks, Ben.

PS: I shall be forwarding a copy to my bank manager.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

To your bibliography, I'd add the following:
Donald W. Shriver, Jr., An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics Oxford Univ. Press, 1995.

Desmond Tutu,No Future Without Forgiveness(Image Books, 2000).

Rob said...

Hey Ben,

As I ponder this excellent post, I think: What is the difference between vengeance and justice? Is it that in personal relationships, I should not seek vengeance, but when crimes are committed, do we seek justice from the authorities God has placed over us?

I mean, what does pardon mean? Imagine the situation, since we love to argue ad hitlerum, that Hitler was actually caught before he committed suicide. Should the courts, supposing they consisted of biblical, Spirit-filled Christians, have given justice or pardon if Hitler was repentant? (this is another question, I know, of whether pardon is given regardless of repentance).

This question isn't new, I bet, but just something I'm wondering. If you'd rather make a book recommendation(s), I'm cool with that too.

Keep up the fantastic blogging!

byron said...

Thanks for this great post. I was about to ask a similar question to Rob - how does forgiveness affect the way we think about present justice? Oliver O'Donovan says that it is this insight about forgiveness that has led to the distinction between criminal law and tort in Western societies - to remove the burden from the individual (who might forgive!) to seek justice. This is why it is the state/crown who prosecutes criminal cases. Thoughts?

Forgiveness is the opposite of being treated as we deserve to be treated. It is the opposite of restitutive justice. It is the opposite of “karma,” of reaping what has been sowed. It is the opposite of every kind of moral legalism. So too, it is the opposite of making amends for the past. It is the opposite of conditions, negotiation, exchange
I really appreciated this paragraph, and thought you could add that it is the opposite of being excused. The extent to which there are reasons that excuse one's behaviour is the extent to which the need for forgiveness is minimised. C. S. Lewis has an excellent little piece of this (On Forgiveness).

andrewE said...

Amen and Amen.

D.W. Congdon said...

Simply beautiful, Ben. I would heartily replace my 10 theses on forgiveness with the statement: read Ben's post!

Thomisticguy said...

Dear Ben:

Hmm…everyone is so self-congratulatory here on FAT. However, after reading your post I am wondering if anyone bothers to think through some of their assertions. Allow me to start with a couple of your assertions that illustrate what I am saying and move on.

You wrote: “Through forgiveness, the past itself is thus transformed into something new, just as the future is suddenly opened in a new way.”
● Are you aware that it is a logical impossibility for even God to change the past? The second that God determined that there should be a temporal universe in which time moves from the past to the present on to the future, He limited Himself from the option to change the past. Changing the past is equivalent to making a square circle—both are logical impossibilities. If this was not true than there could be no order to the universe, effects would not necessarily follow causes and it would deny the witness of Scripture that God is the God of order.

You wrote: “Forgiveness is thus something shocking, something astonishing and unexpected. It lies outside the basic patterns and assumptions that underpin our entire culture. It is wholly undetermined and contingent.”
● If something is “wholly undetermined” it means that it is not contingent on any causation whatsoever. It would be completely random and unrelated to anything. However, you then say that forgiveness is also “wholly…contingent.” Are you aware that when you say forgiveness is “wholly undetermined” and at the same time “contingent” that you are denying your own terms? Something cannot be both wholly undetermined and contingent at the same time. Again, this is like having a square circle, which is a logical impossibility or a non-thing. Your statement is literally nonsense (non-sense).

You wrote: “Forgiveness is not restitution – it is unconditional pardon. It is cancellation of debt. Forgiveness therefore involves both a recognition of the debt that is owed, and an irreversible decision that the debt will be cancelled.”
● While it is true that forgiveness is not restitution; it is not true that forgiveness is “unconditional pardon.” If this is true then the Bible must teach universalism and all of Christ’s teaching about repentance, faith and proving one’s repentance through good deeds was wrong. Additionally, if what you say is true, then all people—no matter how evil, heinous, unrepentant or atheistic—will be in heaven.

You wrote: “And so our prayer each day is: “Forgive us our debts!” Forgiveness is the opposite of being treated as we deserve to be treated. It is the opposite of restitutive justice. It is the opposite of “karma,” of reaping what has been sowed. It is the opposite of every kind of moral legalism. So too, it is the opposite of making amends for the past. It is the opposite of conditions, negotiation, exchange.”
● By the way, if forgiveness is an “irreversible decision” of a cancelled debt on God’s part, why pray and ask God to forgive our sins? Has He not already irreversibly cancelled our sin debt unconditionally? Isn’t praying in order to ask God for our forgiveness a condition of forgiveness?
● God’s forgiveness is not the “opposite of every kind of moral legalism.” God’s forgiveness is informed by the divine law of the OT. Remember Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice” for our sins. It is in light of the incredible (infinite) efficacy of Christ’s sinless death that humans can receive forgiveness—conditioned upon their repentance and faith in Christ.
● Contrary to your statement, the Bible (2 Cor. 5:21) puts our salvation and forgiveness squarely in the middle of the “exchange” of Christ’s sinless-ness for our sinfulness. He became sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.
● You have a number of other unsupported assertions but let me get right to the one I think you were really working toward—the political agenda.

You wrote: “To forgive, therefore, is not only a personal act – it is also a social and political act, an act pregnant with the promise of a new future for our world. In international relations and in domestic penal policy, it overturns the politics of vengeance. In social relationships, it overturns the demand for retribution and compensation – the violent demand to be “given one’s due” at any cost.”
● First, your assertion that forgiveness is not only a personal act, but, also a social and political act is completely unsupported.
● Please direct me to one social group of people in the New Testament that were forgiven in which the individuals did not repent and seek God’s forgiveness. Actually, I can show you a number of occasions in the NT when a group of people were forgiven (the Samaritans in Acts 8) but individuals in the group were not. In other words, forgiveness is not granted to groups but to individuals who may make up groups. This is one of Paul’s main theses of Romans in regard to the Jews.
● As usual for people writing on FAT, you consistently mix one’s individual Christian ethic with the God-given responsibilities that God delegates to the government and the governing magistrates. How hard is this to understand? The government is not God’s instrument of forgiveness upon the wrongdoer. The Bible states clearly and repeatedly that the government is God’s instrument of “punishment” upon the wrongdoer. The magistrate is the instrument of God’s “wrath.” You must deny the clear meaning of these scripture in order to maintain your position.
●Here is a thought question. To show that you are intellectually honest and not being disingenuous about your assertions; if you had 2-3 children in your home, would you be willing to have all of the murderers, serial killers, rapists, and child molesters in prison within your area immediately forgiven and released in your neighborhood? Better yet, would you be willing to have them released in your best friend’s neighborhood (postulating that your friend has small children)? How about near an Amish school?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Thomisticguy: thanks, I appreciate your thoughtful criticisms and suggestions, and I can see where you're coming from.

Best wishes,
Ben

Anonymous said...

Hitler cancelled all debts, such as mortgage debts, or debts the country owed to the WWI vitors. Should we call for the cancellation of all debts?

Brian said...

First I agree with Benn 100%. Secondly, I see where Thomistic Guy is coming from as well. It is a concept harder to wrap our brains around than we think. It is easy to break apart any argument and find dirt in the crevises. Why would we be looking to break apart the argument of forgiveness? Why find dirt in this concept of debt cancellation rather than punishment. I believe the two different perspectives are based in part on the diferent ideas of who God really is and what God is about? I feel as though there is a battle of wits such as the one in The princess Bride where all of the divining of scripture and gleening of wisdom and exposing of illogic ends in God trumping us all and doing it His way despite what we think or believe. On one hand is God the wrath giver of punishments for our sin? Many scriptures can be used to support that idea. Is God a forgiver of out debts? Many scriptures can be used to support that idea as well. So the battle of wits begins and ends when you decide which goblet the poison is in and we both drink. Forgiveness is opposed to much of our logical concepts and structures of legal justice so I can clearly not choose the goblet in front of me. Yet it is clear that we should not expect that forgiveness from the State or governements so I can not choose the goblet in front of you. Forgiveness is at the core of the mission of christ and crucial to His purpose so I cannot choose the goblet in front of me. Yet if God were so forgiving there would be no reason for Christ to be sarificed and I cannot choose the goblet in front of you. As a Christian I must forgive my neighbor for the sins he has done to me in order to maintain the forgiveness my Lord has shown unto me so I cannot choose the goblet in front of me. As a member of society and user of common sense to forgive criminals and release the captives to sin again is insane and I cannot choose the goblet in front of me. As we battle with our wits it is clear that uor human wisdom is not of the same stuff that is God's wisdom. God does not expect us to discern His wisdom, but merely to shut up and have faith in His. As a human I cannot choose the goblet in front of either side because they are both filled with poison that can be used to destroy or faith and our enthusiasms for following Christ. If we try hard enough I am sure we can logically find many reasons ans cripturally based facts why God should not save any of us, and we may well come down on the side that says if that guy is able to be saved after committing such atrocities then send me to hell because I do not wish to be in the same room with that guy, much less heaven. It is musch better and easiser to use scipture to find discriminating reasons and logical order to say we are saved and you are not. We are the chosen because of this, that and the other, and you are condemned because you did, did not, and won't. The third idea is that somehow we are all saved despite logic that claims differently. We are all saved despite our sins, because if he goes to hell because of his sins then I surely go as well for my own sins are enough to build a stairway to heaven I could never climb. What to do? How are we saved? We could battle our wits to their ends and never know for sure.

Post a Comment

New book

Archive

Contact

Although I'm not always able to reply to all emails, please feel free to contact me.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.

TOPO