Part XIII of the Forgiving and Reconciling Series
Let’s be honest: forgiveness sounds good as it relates to God forgiving us. But what about us, and our forgiveness of those who sin against us? And what about Jesus’ words in Luke 17:3, ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them?”
Let’s start with the obvious: You only need to recite the Lord’s Prayer to be reminded that God calls us to forgive others in the same way he forgives us. That’s the vocation of human beings: mirror into the world God’s Works of Mercy. That’s what we messed up right around Genesis 3, when we started mirroring into the world Satan’s works.
Now, here’s the key thing to understand when it comes to forgiveness:
A person can only be forgiven and set free from bondage by Christ’s bearing of their sin.
So to effectively bear sin away from our relationships, our forgiveness of others must be an extension of Christ’s forgiveness, not an imitation of it.
That is, we literally forgive others by passing on to them the forgiveness we receive from Christ. When we say, “I forgive you in Jesus’ name,” we are saying with Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (emphasis mine).
Human forgiveness, unlike God’s forgiveness, has no neutralizing effect on sin. It can only move sin around or slow its progress. Sooner or later, though, like acid, sin burns through even the best of us. Our forgiveness is incapable of setting the world right…only Christ’s forgiveness can do that.
Which is exactly why he breathed his Holy Spirit on the disciples when he appeared to them in the Upper Room after his resurrection from the dead. Check out John 20:19-23:
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
So not only are we to forgive sins; we are to forgive sins by the agency of the Holy Spirit—that is, with Christ’s own forgiveness, the only forgiveness capable of bearing sin not only out of our relationships but out of creation altogether. As far as the east is from the west.
And when we forgive the sins of others in his name, that’s what opens up the power for them to change. That’s when they come face to face with God. That’s the good news of the gospel: “While we were yet sinners…” Christ came to us, his enemies—he burst into our lives with his forgiving grace and power and set us free. He didn’t send a postcard and offer to come if we would first repent. Until his light shines, we don’t even know the darkness we should repent of!
Sadly, many Christians don’t understand this. They think it’s our repentance that has the power to move God’s heart, rather than God’s forgiveness that has the power to move ours.
One of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of the power of forgiveness to promote repentance comes from a non-Christian, Hannah Arendt. In a book called The Human Condition she wrote:
Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover.
Victor Hugo was the author who wrote the book, Les Miserables. Perhaps better than any writer outside of the Scripture he understands the space forgiveness creates for repentance. In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is sent to prison for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children. When he is released from prison, no one will hire him because he always has to show his parole card, which shows that he is a thief. A church bishop, Monsieur Bienvenu (interesting name, by the way—it means “welcome”) opens the rectory to Valjean. Gives him a place to stay and food to eat. But Valjean ends up turning on him out of greed—he sees an opportunity to secure his future by stealing the silverware after the bishop goes to bed. He escapes—literally a thief in the night. He gets caught by the police, who drag him back to Monsieur Bienvenu.
But then something interesting happens.
In the words of Hannah Arendt, Valjean has been confined to a single deed from which he can never recover—stealing the bread. But then Monsier Bienvenu releases him from the consequences of what he has done. In Jesus’ name he bears the penalty in himself as Christ’s servant. He transfers Valjean’s sin to Christ and sets Valjean free for something new. Here’s how Victor Hugo wrote it in the book, starting with the visit of the police to his house so that he can be a witness against Valjean. It says:
In the meantime Monsieur Bienvenu had approached as quickly as his great age permitted:
“Ah, there you are!” said he, looking towards Jean Valjean, “I am glad to see you. But! I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?”
Jean Valjean opened his eyes and looked at the Bishop with an expression which no human tongue could describe.
“Monseigneur,” said the Brigadier, “then what this man said was true? We met him. He was going like a man who was running away, and we arrested him in order to see. He had this silver.”
“And he told you,” interrupted the Bishop with a smile, “that it had been given him by a good old priest with whom he had passed the night. I see it all. And you brought him back here? It is all a mistake.”
“If that is so,” said the Brigadier, “we can let him go.”
“Certainly,” replied the Bishop.
The gendarmes released Jean Valjean, who shrank back—
“Is it true that they let me go?” he said in a voice almost inarticulate, as if he were speaking in his sleep.
“Yes! You can go. Do you not understand?” said a gendarme.
‘My friend,” said the Bishop, “before you go away, here are your candlesticks; take them.”
He went to the mantelpiece, took the two candlesticks, and brought them to Jean Valjean. The two women beheld the action without a word, or gesture, or look, that might disturb the Bishop.
Jean Valjean was trembling in every limb. He took the two candlesticks mechanically, and with a wild appearance.
“Now,” said the Bishop, “go in peace. By the way, my friend, when you come again, you need not come through the garden. You can always come in and go out by the front door. It is closed only with a latch, day or night.”
Then turning to the gendarmes, he said:
“Messieurs, you can retire.” The gendarmes withdrew.
Jean Valjean felt like a man who is just about to faint.
The Bishop approached him, and said, in a low voice:
“Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.”
Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of this promise, stood confounded. The Bishop had laid much stress upon these words as he uttered them. He continued, solemnly:
“Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”
This is an amazing story. But is it anything more than just a story? In real life, if forgiveness precedes repentance, isn’t it likely that our enemies will just take advantage of us?
But here we must remember that the work of the Christian is to mirror the character of God, not to change the character of others.
W. H. Auden was one of the great poets of the 20th Century. He makes a fascinating point about the difference between the law and forgiveness. He says:
The law cannot forgive, for the law has not been wronged, only broken; only persons can be wronged… The decision to grant or refuse pardon must be governed by prudent calculation… But charity is forbidden to calculate in this way: I am required to forgive my enemy whatever the effect on him may be.
Auden is exactly right. He shares exactly what the Scripture shows: forgiveness is calculated not in relation to the range of possible responses on the part of the offender but in relation to the range of possible responses on the part of the offended. In other words, if someone sins against you, you can respond in many different ways. You can become bitter. You can try to forget. You can even try to revenge yourself.
But if you are a Christian, God calls you—whenever you encounter sin—to transfer it to Christ. To apply Christ’s forgiveness to it. Because Christ is setting right the world, and only Christ can remove sin from the world.
The rest of us can just transfer it around.