Many are the times that in asking for forgiveness from others I have confirmed for them that I really had very little idea–or a very mistaken idea–of how I had wronged them in the first place.
No one is on the receiving end of that experience more than God, to whom our requests for forgiveness reveal a considerable amount about how we think about sin and about him and, by extension, about our own identities.
And what do our requests for God’s forgiveness reveal? That we have much room for improvement in the careful study of the Scriptures in order to better understand what God is offering forgiveness for, in the first place.
“Admit that you are a sinner” is the “A” in the A-B-C of the Sinner’s Prayer, which, as regular readers of this blog know, is not my favorite plan of approaching the Father. The reason why is that it leans so heavily on the law court imagery which we evangelical Christians have been known to favor when describing God’s work of forgiveness in Christ. I would never argue that such imagery is absent from Scripture–it certainly is quite present, in both the Old and the New Testament–but I would contend that there is a deeper imagery of repentance which, regrettably, we touch all too rarely, whether we are coming to Christ for the first time or the fiftieth.
That deeper imagery of repentance is captured in the story Jesus tells about the Prodigal Son. Upon coming to his senses after his absolute embrace of sin in a faraway land, the son winds his way back home. When he sees his father (who, remarkably, runs to him), this is what he says:
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Not “Dear God, I am a sinner.” But Father. As in:
Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.
In our work with North Koreans I have long been fascinated by their comparatively greater fascination with the book of Genesis than with the book of John. Dig a little bit into why and they will tell you that it has to do with finding an unexpected answer to their question of identity–of who they are in the universe and, more importantly, of who they are in relation to God.
And that’s what Genesis establishes: We are his offspring. Created in his image. Gone badly, boldly astray. Something more than criminals hauled before the divine court.
It is to this deepest truth that Paul points in his Aereopagus sermon to the Gentiles, in Acts 17:
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
Yes, we are of course sinners. But worse, we are his disobedient children. That makes us culpable of something far more treacherous than a lifelong crime spree. As the Father grieves in Malachi 1:6,
“A son honors his father, and a slave his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the Lord Almighty.
And again in Jeremiah (3:19),
“I myself said, “‘How gladly would I treat you like my children and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation.’ I thought you would call me ‘Father’ and not turn away from following me.
Christopher J.H. Wright fills this out contextually in his masterful Knowing Jesus Through The Old Testament:
At the sociological level the Israelite father in Israel was the head of the household (‘head of a father’s house’ was his technical title in Hebrew). That is, he had domestic, judicial, educational, spiritual, and even military authority over a quite sizeable community of people, including his adult sons and their families and all dependent persons–i.e. the extended family. He was, in short, a figure of considerable power, social importance, and protective responsibility…
The fatherhood of Yahweh was not, then, primarily an emotional metaphor. Rather it was a matter of authority on the one hand and obedience on the other, within the framework of a trusting, providing and protective relationship (p. 121).
For what is God forgiving us, then? Something more and deeper than sin. He is forgiving us for rejecting his fatherhood and, along with it, our identity, responsibilities, privileges, and inheritance as his offspring.
This is so much more than confessing “And bad mistakes/I’ve made a few.” Nearly everyone who has ever walked the planet is willing to confess that, even to a generic deity called “Dear God.” Instead, what this God’s offer of forgiveness invites is a fundamental reckoning with our grievously squandered identity, coupled with a recognition of how through that squandering we have publicly and privately (and even to ourselves, personally) painted God as a liar when through his word he claims to be our Father. And not just our Father, but our trustworthy Father who has always–always–kept his promises and has always kept us well.
The sign that we understand that is that our repentance is no longer for a laundry list of sins but for the nearly incomprehensible rupture of relationship we have perpetrated against him; our laundry list of sins are but the smallest bit of proof. In fact, you could confess every sin to him and, failing to confess to him and to all that he is your father, you’d be a sinner still.
That is why the bit of proof that we are sincerely and earnestly repenting is that in our prayers of repentance we address him using the title from which role he has never deviated: