The Problem of Forgiveness May 30, 2011
Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity. The Scriptures ring with the joy and blessing of sins forgiven and conscience cleansed. “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” (Ps 32:11) “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9)
But I wonder if you’ve ever thought about forgiveness as a problem. The true blessing–and the problem–of forgiveness didn’t hit me with full force until I began to investigate Islam several years ago. In reading the Koran, I noticed that Allah is often called “the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,” but he is also described as a just and righteous god who punishes the guilty. My Christian worldview imposed itself on my reading for weeks, and I didn’t sense any problem until one day it hit me: How can Allah be both just and merciful? Is he sometimes just, sometimes merciful? How is this not a conflict in his nature? My Muslim friends had no answer.
But it’s a question for Christians, too, not just Muslims. The problem presents itself when we consider God’s perfection and our rebellion–God as he is and us as we are.
The obstacle isn’t simply our sin–God enjoins other people to forgive our sin when we request it, so why can’t He do it the same way? The answer is, God is not like other people, and our sins against Him are not merely personal injuries. He is the just Lawmaker, and sin is rebellion against His very nature. It is cosmic treason, an affront to the God who created us and owns us. John Stott puts it like this:
The crucial question we should ask, therefore, is a different one. It is not why God finds it difficult to forgive, but how he finds it possible to do so at all. As Emil Brunner put it, “Forgiveness is the very opposite of anything which can be taken for granted. Nothing is less obvious than forgiveness.” Or, in the words of Carnegie Simpson, “forgiveness is to man the plainest of duties; to God is is the profoundest of problems.” (The Cross of Christ, p 88)
So what is the answer to the problem of forgiveness? Stay tuned…….