Sunday, April 26, 2009

How Could God Forgive Me?

Sometimes a person can feel the weight of his or her sins and wonder How could God forgive me? I have been selfish all my life. I have been arrogant. I have hurt other innocent people with my actions, my attitudes, and my words. I have divorced the only one who ever loved me. I have alienated my children. I have ignored God all my life. I have always hated the church and the Bible and anyone associated with them. I have destroyed my life and my reputation. Nobody would ever trust me--and with good reason. I have______(fill in the blank with other reasons that God should never forgive or accept me).

This could surprise someone who is struggling with such feelings, but I do not know a Christian who has not felt the same way. I have felt it myself. I know that I deserve God's anger and judgment...and that's what makes his forgiveness seem so strange, but so appealing.

On the cross, Jesus Christ prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Even as he was dying, Christ wanted to forgive those people who were killing him. He understood their sins. He was suffering because of their sins. But he also understood their needs. More than anything else, they needed forgiveness.

As the apostle Paul would explain later, "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly...God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:6, 8). Jesus was paying the price for our ungodly sins. He was suffering for our selfishness, pride, and careless attitudes toward God and those around us. He was satisfying the demands of sin so that we could be forgiven and free from those sins.

After Christ's resurrection and return to his Father, the people for whom he had prayed--the people directly responsible for his death--received the opportunity to be forgiven. The apostle Peter confronted them with these words: "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).

"When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?'

"Peter replied, 'Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 2:27-38).

"Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day" (Acts 2:41).

Thousands of people who had sought the death of Jesus were given forgiveness. If God can forgive the people who murdered Christ, he can forgive me...and you. They did not deserve God's forgiveness, but he offered it to them anyway. We do not deserve God's forgiveness, but he offers it to us anyway. Their sins were horrible, but God forgave them. Our sins are horrible, but God is willing to forgive them, too. They accepted God's forgiveness. He asks that we accept it, too.



One thing I notice from the passage in Acts you quote is that repentance and baptism accompany forgiveness. This makes me think that the question might be put:

"How Could God Forgive Us?"

Certainly, there is an individual response to forgiveness, but the communal element of forgiveness is so amazing that it's worth drawing attention to.

The same emphasis on personal repentance and community baptism is present when Jesus began his ministry: he also preached "repent", and declared the advent of the kingdom. The whole deal with a kingdom is that it is a communal enterprise. God is everyone's king.

"When you pray," Jesus taught, "say 'OUR Father which art in heaven'" and "'Give US this day OUR daily bread'". That's not a prayer a man can pray if his brother is hungry and he has too much to eat. Similarly, "Forgive US OUR debts as WE forgive OUR debtors" isn't about being alone in a community of hurt.

In John's gospel we get a record of the metaphor of the new birth and entry into this kingdom:

"I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit."

In other words, this is a package deal - and part of the package is restoration: repentance involves a turning around and a heading in the opposite direction, and baptism being the incorporation into a new family. After all, you can't baptize yourself. It is the church family who baptize a person.

If the work of propitiation was completed on the cross, when the offense to God was removed, it was so that this new birth - about which Jesus spoke - could involve growth. God's children are born again into God's family.

That is, in Jesus, Christians can *together* become who God calls them to be.

Accepting God's forgiveness, therefore, is not only possible, but necessary to create community. After all, if God is not the most offended party when we sin, then the horizontal guilt also remains, and community is impossible. The hard part is knowing that community is where the people who hurt you live. It doesn't make it any easier to know that community is also the place where the people you've hurt live too. If there weren't some great leveler, how could community happen?

If we can accept that before God we are all equally bad, and that nobody has any right to think of themselves as being any better than anyone else, then Christ's cross is a starting point for God's covenant designs to ravel themselves out.

Sin, though we each sin in our own ways, is communal degradation, and forgiveness, though we each accept it individually, is our communal hope.

Through the cross, God's covenant promises and blessings knit themselves together in us (his church), through the Spirit, for Him, to the praise of His glory.

Terry said...

Those are excellent points, Ed. Thanks for the input!