Not long before she died in 1988, in a moment of surprising candor in television, Marghanita Laski, a well-known British secular humanist and novelist, said, “What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me.” (John Stott in The Contemporary Christian.)
Forgiveness. It seems so desirable, yet sort of old-fashioned.
Isn’t it better to be “unforgiven?” Doesn’t this make us stronger?
In Walter Scott’s five fingers of salvation, the first three were “Faith,” “Repentance,” and “Baptism.”
The fourth finger for Scott was “Remission of Sins.” He was using a old English word from the KJV, “remission,” which means “release.” It was a term used in the business world to describe the release from debt or obligation. It is ironic that the word has now migrated to the medical world, and means “release” from an illness as in, “My cancer is in remission.”
A better translation for us today is “Forgiveness.”
What is Forgiveness?
Psalm 32 is sometimes called a “Penitential Psalm,” meaning a cry of repentance. This psalm was the favorite of St. Augustine, whose ideas of sin, repentance, and forgiveness have influenced the church since the fourth century:
Psalm 32:1-2 A psalm of David,
1 Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.
St. Augustine, who loved Psalm 32 so much, was always conscious of his status as one who had been forgiven by God. He was once asked why he loved the psalm so much and answered, “The beginning of knowledge is to know oneself to be a sinner.” We begin by acknowledging that before God, we are sinners. This is a move of faith (finger one). We respond to this knowledge by asking for God to forgive us. This is the move of repentance (finger two). When our hearts have repented, we are washed in the waters of baptism (finger three). Then we may truly experience God’s pardon, divine forgiveness.
David gives three ways of describing the blessing of divine forgiveness:
- “Forgiven” has the sense of released. It is like taking a bird out of a cage and tossing it into the air, allowing it to be free.
- “Covered” has the sense of being hidden. Both the sin and its effects are no longer on display. The cause for embarrassment is put away. God no longer sees us as sinners. We are freed from even the reminder of our sin.
- “Whose sin the Lord does not count against them.” This has the sense of a debt forgiven, a bill cancelled. It would be like your credit card company calling and saying that someone else had paid your bill.
- And the result is “no deceit,” NLT: a “life lived in complete honesty:” a new, clean slate, a fresh start, a record wiped clean.
Forgiveness in the Bible
Jeremiah 31 is one of the most startling prophecies concerning the New Testament, the era of the church. It speaks of this in terms of a “New Covenant,” a fresh start for God’s people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
Jeremiah foresaw that this would be a time when God’s people have knowledge of him in their hearts, each and every one of them. And here’s why: they will know they are forgiven people. The New Covenant is the Covenant of Forgiveness. The New People of God are the Forgiven Ones.
We, the church, the New Testament people of God, are transferred from the darkness of sin to the Kingdom of the Beloved Son, for we have been forgiven.
Walter Scott Revisited
On Walter Scott’s “Hand of Salvation,” all five things are essential. But none of them is more key than this one, the ring finger. Unless I am forgiven, I am not saved! Faith alone will not save me. Repentance by itself will not save me. And certainly, Baptism as a merely ritual act has no saving power. I am saved when I am forgiven. I am free from the penalty of my sins only when God releases me from that penalty. I am free because he has set me free. That is the new covenant, the promise of forgiveness.
We can be freed from the bondage of sin, the sin that separates us from God. We can we washed clean, have a new start in our relationship with God. Forgiveness means we are no longer enslaved by sin! We are free. We have been released! We have been given a new life! We are saved!
In the world without Christ, there is a huge need to experience forgiveness, not just from God, but from each other. Remember Marghanita Laski: “I have nobody to forgive me.” Oh yes, you do! This is what the church is all about! Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer that if we ask God to forgive our sins, we must be willing to forgive others.
If you are unwilling to forgive others, you will never feel completely forgiven.
Do you have remembered injustices, times when your heart was hurt?
Have people wronged you and never apologized or even hinted they were sorry? They don’t have to apologize for you to forgive!
Forgiveness is “letting go.” Let go of those things that have haunted you, that have embittered you, that have disabled you emotionally, that have even paralyzed you. Accept God’s forgiveness, freely offered to you, and give it to others. Let the church be the “Fellowship of the Forgiven.”
Prayer: Dear God, thank you for being willing to forgive us, rebellious sinners who have disobeyed and ignored you. Help us to feel released from sin, forgiven from its horrors, and then forgive others. Fill our hearts with forgiveness. We pray in the name of the one who forgave sins while among us, Jesus the Savior, Amen.
Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University