THE CONCEPT OF FORGIVENESS
1. I was trying to think through a piece written in defense of faith–an article pointing out the value the book of Ecclesiastes has in evidences–when this statement caught my attention:
“It seems to me we have done a great disservice in our Christian communication by sometimes offering answers when the audiences have no sense of the questions and consequently little enthusiasm for the solutions, which seem unrelated to anything in life they actually care about.” (Stuart McAllister, “An Aplogetic from Ecclesiastes: Does Anything Make Sense? Knowing and Doing: C. S. Lewis Institute, p. 3)
2. It may be that there is no case where that observation is more often true than in what we have to say about forgiveness.
a. On the one hand, we read words like these in our text as if there is no blessing comparable to the gift of forgiveness, but in a setting where folks think they are perfectly fine just as they are.
b. On the other hand, we pray for forgiveness, sometimes several times in the same service, as if preoccupation with the stain of our sins is thing that really stays with us, not gratitude that they have been carried away from us.
c. In other words, both false guilt and false innocence are present in the environment where the gospel of forgiveness must be spoken, and either can make a person deaf to it.
3. That is why some reflection on the biblical concept of forgiveness may benefit us like nothing else can.
1. Two illustrations from God.
a. The main two New Testament words for “forgive” mean “to deal graciously with” and “to send away.” (New Bible Dictionary, 391)
i. The concept of “forgiveness,” then, has to do with being released, or having sins dismissed so that they are seen no more, by an act of grace.
ii. But the concept does not just spring onto the stage in the New Testament; God had long worked to provide an education in forgiveness through two vivid illustrations that were enacted again and again in the ceremonies he gave to Israel.
iii. They effectively deal with both the problems we confront when we try to communicate about the concept: thinking there is no need, and thinking there is no use.
b. One illustration required man to see himself before God: it is the ritual that was observed every year on the Day of Atonement, as described in Leviticus 16.
i. The whole thing was calculated to demonstrate that the people were unable to enter the Most Holy Place, but that their need would be answered from within it.
ii. The high priest was to “take two male goats for a sin offering” for the people (v. 5).
iii. After making purification for himself, he was to offer one of the goats for the sin offering and to bring the blood inside the veil and sprinkle it on the mercy seat to make atonement for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting because of the sins of the people (v. 15-16).
iv. Then he was to present the live goat, lay both his hands on its head, and confess all the sins, transgressions, and iniquities of the people, thus putting them on the head of the goat (v. 20-21).
v. That goat was then to be sent away into the wilderness bearing all their iniquities on itself, and afterward the other was carried outside the camp and burned (v. 21-22, 27).
vi. Surely no one could have missed either the seriousness of sin or the wonder of forgiveness!
c. The other illustration required man to see himself as he is: it is the ritual that was observed in connection with the cleansing of a leper, as we have it in Leviticus 14.
i. The various skin diseases that fell under the category of leprosy were so obvious and dreaded and, in the worst forms, hopeless that it is easy to see how it could become a symbol of uncleanness and alienation.
ii. To protect the people, a person who had the disease had to wear torn clothes, let his hair hang loose, cover his lip and cry out “Unclean, unclean,” and live alone outside the camp (13:45-46).
iii. The day of cleansing from something like that would have been almost too wonderful to hope for, but God provided for such a day!
iv. When a leper was cleansed, a priest took two sparrows, a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread of yarn, and a branch of hyssop (14:4).
v. One of the birds was killed and its blood was collected in an earthen vessel with fresh water. The cedar, scarlet, hyssop and the live bird were immersed in the blood of the bird that had been slain. Then the live bird was taken out into an open field and set free (14:5-7; B. Dockery, More Strength for the Journey, 63).
vi. After that, the person who had been cleansed could come back into the camp (14:8). What a meaningful and beautiful moment!
2. Three applications for humanity.
a. Forgiveness is the unearned sending away of the burden of sin, but it is not the easy ignoring of the wrong done.
i. God’s illustrations drive the truth home: it take a sacrifice and a sin-bearer.
ii. The Hebrew writer says that Jesus is both: he is the sacrificed goat whose blood was taken into the real Most Holy Place to secure eternal redemption (9:7, 12), and he is the scapegoat who carries our sins (9:28).
iii. He is the scarlet thread that runs through Scripture: by his blood, he cleanses (1 Jn. 1:7); by his life, he saves (Rom. 5:10).
b. Forgiveness is about life and relationship, not only the removal of guilt. The latter must take place, but it takes place so that the former can be a reality.
i. A live goat and a living bird with blood on it are crucial to God’s illustrations.
ii. Peter saw this truth: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).
iii. In his book The Cross of Christ, John Stott tells about a man who said that when he looked at the cross with its suffering victim, its only message to him was, “You did this–and there is no health in you!” Stott then asks of all of us, “How could anyone imagine that Christianity is about sin rather than about the forgiveness of sin? How could anyone [think of] the cross and see only the shame of what we did to Christ, rather than the glory of what he did for us?” Finally he makes this important point, “A guilty conscience is a great blessing, but only if it drives us to come home.” ( 98)
c. Forgiveness is not just living, it is living with a tone of gratitude and awe and wonder. (New Bible Dictionary, 390)
i. How else would people who have actually seen the reality of God’s justice and the depth of his grace and the completeness of his forgiveness live?
ii. When Paul had described forgiveness to the Ephesians, he continued, “I therefore...urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1).
iii. What kind of life would that be? It would have to be characterized by genuine humility, a sense of peace, a merciful and kind consideration toward others, and glad, trusting obedience to the Forgiver.
1. One of the Psalms puts it this way: “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (130:3-4).
2. We cannot think of what God has done to forgive, and of his illustrations that prepared the way for it, without thinking or our response on this side of the death and life of his Son.
a. What Christ has done is also illustrated in the response God requires of us.
b. Romans 6:3-4 makes the point in a wonderful way.