FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Forgiveness is never as easy as saying, “I forgive you.” After horrific crimes committed against us or those we love, it is even more difficult. For some people, it is a long struggle that will last the rest of their lives. But, we cannot deny that, as believers, forgiveness should be an integral part of who we are in Christ. And so without minimizing the very real struggle that we have as humans with forgiveness, let us look at biblical forgiveness and see what it is that we are called sometimes to struggle toward.
Christ and his martyrs have often forgiven the very people who are murdering them. Jesus prayed as the soldiers crucified him, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). Stephen, as the stones battered his body into lifelessness, pleaded, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Greg Jones says Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while actively resisting Hitler, set about embodying forgiveness for the German nation. Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price for an active Christian witness. Jesus-Stephen-Bonhoeffer: these are witnesses to biblical forgiveness, a forgiveness which is neither cheap nor self-generated nor singular.
Biblical forgiveness is not cheap; in other words, forgiveness is costly. After intense stress, betrayal, beatings, sleep deprivation, scourging, multiple humiliations, abandonment by both friends and family, and crucifixion, Jesus died. He died that we might be forgiven. The forgiveness Jesus offers cost him the highest price. His family also paid a price. In the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is a classic painting by Anthony van Dyck depicting the translation of Jesus’ body from the cross. Van Dyck convincingly portrays Mary’s tortured, bloodshot eyes as she weeps for her son. And what about Jesus’ heavenly Father — did it not cost him something to forsake his Son? How much pain do Wedgwood’s mothers and fathers feel? How much pain does Shawn Brown’s young bride experience? It is impossible for others to totally understand, but such pain is real. Bonhoeffer said discipleship “is costly because it costs a man his life.” Moreover, “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Such Christian discipleship, such embodied forgiveness is not cheap.
Biblical forgiveness is not self-generated, as a conversation between Christ and some Jewish theologians demonstrates. The scribes and Pharisees were scandalized by the Messiah’s claim to forgive a paralytic’s sins. Their reasoning went like this: Only God can forgive sins; Jesus is claiming to forgive sins; therefore, Jesus is claiming God’s power. Since they did not believe Jesus was both divine and human, they considered him a blasphemer. Jesus proved his authority to forgive sins by healing the paralytic’s body (Matthew 9:1-8 and parallels). Jesus did not, however, rebuke the Jews’ basic assumption about the authority to forgive. Only God may forgive sins; only God may remit the eternal punishment due for sins. The authority to forgive sins is not something that we generate in and of ourselves. True eternal forgiveness is available only from God, because sin is ultimately against God alone. As God, Jesus possessed the power to forgive sins. As man, he took all human sin upon himself and atoned for it with the shedding of his blood. Jesus generates forgiveness; our ability to forgive is based on shared authority. We may forgive only because Christ delegates this authority. As Christians, we carry the keys which retain and release from sin; we partake in the authority of forgiveness generated by the power of Christ in the cross and resurrection (John 20:23).
Finally, biblical forgiveness is not singular. Although we cannot forgive by our own power and authority, we can forgive the sins of others. We can forgive the sins they have committed against us, and we can show them the eternal forgiveness available in Jesus Christ. Moreover, we are compelled to forgive. Martyrs are not the only ones who should forgive sins. The Lord’s Prayer states, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” and Jesus follows this by correlating our ability to forgive with our true state of divine forgiveness (Matthew 6:12, 14-15). This correlation is not a crudely economic quid pro quo but an indication of our true state of spiritual redemption. As an old Baptist catechism states, we are able to pray the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer since “because of His grace we are enabled from the heart to forgive others.”
For some people, asking God to forgive sins is one matter, while forgiving another person might be much more difficult. The issue of forgiveness is so intertwined with the complexities of dealing with grief and loss that as humans it is a struggle, but it is a struggle that we know that we must undertake.
If we are Christians, we will forgive. We will forgive those who kill us. We will forgive those who hurt our loved ones. We will forgive other Christians. We will forgive the lost. We will simply, categorically, unqualifiedly forgive. It is not easy and it is not cheap. One day it will seem like everything is forgiven, and the next day all the pain and negative emotions will return. But no matter how difficult or long the road, we know that it is one that we must walk and we should know that we do not need to walk it alone.
Yarnell is assistant professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo title: PRAYING FOR PEACE.