Moral absolutes: Forgiveness

Also culled from the 1999 archive.  So far as I can recall, this one is previously unpublished.

People talk sometimes about the need for moral absolutes, often lamenting the state of our world because of the decline in such absolutes in people’s lives.

I agree that there are certain things that are absolutes from a Christian point of view. Here I just want to talk about two things that, according to the gospel, must never be compromised.

One of these is the way God has chosen to deal with sin. This absolute was introduced by John the Baptist, according to the Fourth Gospel, on the day that Jesus was baptized:

“Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” — John 1:29

Similarly, in Matthew’s birth narrative, the angel told Joseph in a dream:

“You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” — Matthew 1:21

Likewise John:  1 John 2:2 

And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

And Paul:     Romans 5:18

Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.

1 Timothy 2:1-6:

1 ¶ I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men;
2 For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour;
4 Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
5 For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;
6 Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.

1 Timothy 4:10

For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.

Titus 2:11

For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,

Note that God’s way of dealing with sin is, in Jesus to take it away. This is attested in the Old Testament:  Psalm 122:12

“As far as the East is from the West, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.”

So I think it is very important that we not compromise the word of God on this matter. God has taken away, removed, separated, the sins of the whole world. That is the work accomplished by Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. So far as God is concerned, all sins, every sin, of all people, are and have been forgiven, removed, sent away. The word “forgive” in our NT is a word that means to send away, or to release. So as far as the sins of the world are concerned, God has released them, has let go of them, has separated them from himself and from us, the guilty ones. He will remember them against us no more forever.

Christ’s apostles were sent out into the world to proclaim this good news to all nations, so that people could enter into a new way of thinking about themselves and God and also about their neighbor, their families, their friends, and their enemies — anyone against whom they had sinned, or who had ever sinned against them. This new way of thinking is a way that makes it possible to fulfill the great commandment

Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39; Matthew 19:19; Galatians 5:14; Mark 12:31; Mark 12:33, Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; James 2:8; Leviticus 19:18)

Only the forgiven and the forgiving can love as God intends.  The process of changing our way of thinking and entering into God’s new way of thinking about sin, about ourselves, about God, and about our fellow humans, is called repentance.

Therefore the content of the preaching assigned to the apostles was these two things: repentance and the forgiveness of sin.

Forgiveness is absolute. It must never be compromised by the cheap, easy road of moral legalism.

Forgiveness is the result of God’s initiative, of God’s action in Christ, and its object is the sin of the whole world. To make forgiveness conditional on human action, and to reduce its object to the sins of individuals who meet certain conditions, is to relativize the absolute  declared judgment of God, and contradicts the revealed will of God.  Such a view narrows and cheapens the gospel.

Repentance is often also cheapened and narrowed in meaning by purveyors of a gospel of moralism. To them, repentance is a one-time action of turning away from one set of behaviors and adopting another.  But a change in behavior is not repentance; however it can be seen as evidence, or fruit, of repentance.   Real repentance is a complete change of mind; a new way of thinking, not just about a few behaviors which come to be regarded as regrettable (the moralist view), but about ourselves and our place in the world, about God and his attitude toward the world, and about the people around us.  It is the good news of God’s forgiveness of sin that makes this new way of thinking possible for those who hear it; thus,

Romans 10:17

faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

It is this word of Christ which we are discussing: God’s way of dealing with sin, in view of his love for, not just the elect, but for the whole world.

2 Corinthians 5:19

To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.

Some, however, would effectively change the word of God to say that it is the not the world that has been reconciled, but only a few chosen from out of the world:  the church.  But the witness of Scripture is consistent.

John 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

God has already forgiven the sins of the whole world. This is easy to say, but it was not easy for God to do. That work, God’s work of love on behalf of sinful humanity, is accomplished in Jesus, in his costly work, his agony and suffering, his blood shed on the cross. The precious blood of Christ was shed for Saddam Hussein, for Adolf Hitler, for Jeffrey Dahmer, for Ted Kascynski, for Charles Manson, for Mahatma Gandhi, for every drug user and drug dealer on the streets or in the prisons, for Mother Teresa, for every mother who aborted her child, for George Bush, for Bill Clinton, for every politician who ever lied his way to the top, for every father who ever abused his child, for every employer who ever underpaid his workers and every worker who ever cheated his employer; every Serb and Kosovar, every Russian, every Chechnyan, every Muslim, every pagan and every Christian, for all who have heard the name of Christ and for all who have never heard. So far as God is concerned, their sins have been dealt with — and so have yours and mine — in the same way:  carried by Jesus to the Cross, and left behind forever in an empty tomb.  Sin is not a problem to God anymore. He has dealt with it.

God has let go of sin. Every person who claims to believe in the historical saving act of Jesus on the Cross knows this to be true, in at least some theoretical sense. And repentance calls us to thoroughly rethink our views on this most vital subject. But when we hear some good Christian folk talk, it doesn’t sound like they believe it to be true in a practical sense. What I want to explore here is the practical effect of what God has done.

The earliest believers, following the resurrection, experienced a transformation in their lives. Knowing that their own sins were forgiven, they experienced a power that overflowed into acts of generosity and love that shaped that first Christian community.  They bore witness to the risen Christ, and proclaimed free forgiveness and the power of the Holy Spirit to all who would believe.

Now that God had forgiven their sins, they were free to let go of them also. The power to let go of what God has already released is the work of the Holy Spirit acting in accordance with the word of God.

The same is true for us today. God has released us from our sins; when we truly and rightly hear the Good News, we release ourselves as well. As Paul says in Romans 6:2,

“How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer in it?”

There remains just one more piece to this puzzle.  Now that God has released me from my sins, and I am free from them, God requires of me just one other thing:  that I also release my neighbor, my friend, my spouse, my enemy, from their sins. He requires that I imitate him and freely forgive, for Christ’s sake and as a witness to Christ, those who have done nothing to earn or deserve or even ask for forgiveness.

I worry about the moralizing Christians of our day who would forsake this absolute that God has laid down in the words of Jesus himself:

Matthew 6:14-15

14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Thus forgiveness is a Christian responsibility and an absolute. For the finished work of Christ to be effective in our lives, we must extend that work to others. Period. It is a gospel necessity, required of us  because of what Christ has done on the cross — unless we are going to deny what he has done, and thus, in effect, deny Christ.

Here is the absolute for the Christian:  If we acknowledge Christ as Savior, we dare not withhold forgiveness from anyone for whom He has died.

If we for our part are dead to sin, then we  are dead not only to our own sins, but also to the sins of others. By faith we know what God has done, and our only task is to make this good news known.  If other people’s sins affect us, upset our equilibrium, make us angry, or afraid — we are still alive to this world and to sin, and are not yet full of the Spirit of Christ, who told us to rejoice and leap for joy on the day we are treated badly, lied about, because we follow the Way of Jesus — the same Jesus who scandalized his religious contemporaries because he sat down and ate with sinners.

Without the full recognition of the scope of God’s forgiveness, evangelism is impossible.  Unable to bring people the real good news, moralists substitute another gospel, which, as Paul told the Galatians, is no gospel — not good news — at all.  Christian friend, if there is someone you have not forgiven — a friend, a family member, a public figure, a nation, a political party, a person or group who holds to views or behaviors that threaten the values you hold dear, that disgust you, that you are convinced are absolutely harmful — I am here to tell you what Jesus said you must — absolutely must — do.

Luke 6:27-38

27 ¶ But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,
28 Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.
29 And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy  coat also.
30 Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them  not again.  31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.  32 For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them.
33 And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same.   34 And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
35 But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.
36 Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.
37 ¶ Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven:38 Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.

It is by putting such instructions into practice that we can win the world. Any other way, however religious and  moral, will  fall short of God’s absolute standard, and show that we ourselves do not truly believe the Good News, and have not yet been set free from sin.

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