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The Myths and Marvel of Forgiveness

October 2000
By: David O'Leary
Forgiveness is an issue for each person. We struggle to forgive others, and we think we need to forgive ourselves. Primarily, we need to know God's forgiveness and the basis for forgiveness in the grace of God through Christ Jesus.

One of my favorite parables is about forgiveness. Matthew 18:21-35 tells us of the man who owed millions of dollars to a certain king. Knowing that he couldn't repay the huge sum, he begged for patience in order to repay the debt. He received more than patience. He received mercy when the king canceled the debt.

That same debtor went out and found a man who owed him only a few dollars. The man begged for patience, but he received neither patience nor mercy from the forgiven debtor. The poor man was grabbed, choked, and thrown into prison!

When the king heard of this mistreatment, he had the first man thrown into prison until he paid back the entire debt -- an impossible feat.

The point is simple: When we know how great the mercy and forgiveness which we have received is, we ought to forgive others. Just as "we love because he first loved us," we ought to "forgive because God has first forgiven us."

Why do we struggle to know and enjoy God's forgiveness? Why do we have such trouble forgiving others? It is because we secretly believe one or more myths about forgiveness.

The payment myth. In our hearts, we are committed to saving ourselves. In one form or another, all the other "myths" of forgiveness are attempts to pay for our sin or make others pay for theirs. Many of us believe that the depth and quality of God's forgiveness for us depends on what we do to pay for our sin. We cannot. Paul says, "[God] saved us and called us to a holy life -- not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace" (II Timothy 1:9). Many of us are familiar with the concept of an "Atonement Baby," that child which is often born to make up for an earlier abortion. All of us have been tempted to try to make up for our sins by doing good deeds. (Acts of restitution are a separate matter.) But Hebrews 10:18 tells us that "where [sins] have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin." When we try to offer our own sacrifices for sin, we continue to carry the burden.

The erased pain myth. This appears when we are called on to forgive others. As long as we feel the pain or the hurt, we think that we don't have to forgive. We tell ourselves, "I'd like to forgive, but the pain is too much." We tell ourselves there will be time for forgiveness when the pain is erased. But that time may never come.

The same thing happens when we deal with our own sin. Pain and shame overwhelm us, and we take up the burden of sin again. Instead, we should use this pain to recall the goodness and grace of God Who forgives. A woman or man who has participated in the death of a child may know the forgiveness of God even when he recalls the pain and the shame. The pain is evidence of the greatness of the sin and the need for Jesus to die. But the pain should not be allowed to stop the grace of forgiveness. It should point to the greatness of the cross.

The myth of sorrow and remorse. Of course we should feel sorrow and remorse for our sin! The Apostle Paul says "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret" (II Corinthians 7:10). But notice this: repentance "leads to salvation and leaves no regret." When we continue to carry our sorrow and remorse we are secretly trying to feel bad enough to make up for our sin. The Gospel frees us from our sins and the burden of sorrow and regret. Is it still possible to regret our sin? Certainly. But each memory should lead us to praise God again for his grace, love, and forgiveness.

The distance myth. God places our sins as far from us as the "east is from the west." How tragic it is when we are the ones who try to put distance between us and our sin. We think that as long as we have avoided a certain sin for a day, a week, a month, or a year, then we are closer to being forgiven. Obviously, keeping from sin for a long period is a great triumph, but we are forgiven freely in Christ even before we demonstrate our repentance by our holy life.

The myth of no impact. Some people respond to the simple and free grace of God by thinking it doesn't matter how we live from this point on, as if the Gospel has no impact on the way we live! This comes from misunderstanding the work of the Holy Spirit and repentance. When we repent and believe and, therefore, receive forgiveness, it is the work of the Holy Spirit, Who renews us and works in us. While we do continue to sin in many ways and at many times, we should look to see the power of God's forgiveness having an impact in our lives.

So, we might ask: "Why does God forgive us? How does God forgive us?" Consider two things: The first is that the punishment for our sins was placed on Christ Jesus. He was punished in our place. The second side is that Jesus offers His perfect life of obedience in our place so that His holiness or righteousness is counted as ours. We are pardoned and accepted at the same time. Ephesians 1:4-7 shows both sides: "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will -- to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace." We are adopted as God's sons and daughters, and we have forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus. But there is one more consideration. Verse 4 says that we are chosen to be "holy and blameless." What an amazing thing this is in our battle against sin! Many of us think that God loves and accepts us because of what we do. The marvelous truth of the Gospel is that we begin to live holy lives because God has loved and accepted us already.

The people we talk to in our centers are sinners just as we are. But many of them continue to be burdened and frozen in their sin because they do not know the marvelous grace of forgiveness. Let's tell them!

David O'Leary is married and has four children. He lives in Reading, PA where he is the pastor of Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He holds degrees from Tufts University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary (M.A.R., M.Div.), and Covenant Seminary (D.Min.).

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