Within our Christian subculture, forgiveness appears in a wide variety of slogans and mantras so often repeated that we seldom think about its use and meaning. We “hope that God will forgive us” when we do wrong, and pray that he will “forgive us of our many sins,” not really considering what we mean. I think one of the reasons forgiveness pops up in our theological discussion so often is our sometimes extreme emphasis on sin – which is not to say we should place no emphasis at all on sin, but rather to say that we often read the story of the Bible as one primarily about our sin and God’s righteousness, and God somehow having to solve that problem through the redemptive work of Jesus. In doing so, the key plot obstacle becomes God’s forgiveness of his people’s sins, as we can only be “saved” if we are without sin.
Rather than being a story primarily about God’s perfection and our depravity, an alternative reading is that the Bible is a story primarily about God’s desire to have a relationship with his creation, and what he has done since the beginning of time in order to realize that. In a relational mindset, forgiveness isn’t the most important thing – reconciliation is.
Consider these words –
- John writes: “He himself [Jesus] is the sacrifice that atones for our sins – and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.”
- Paul: “When he [Christ] died, he died once to break the power of sin.”
- Peter: “Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God.”
- The Hebrew writer says: “For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. … [W]hen sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices.”
There are two main things I read across these passages that seem to conflict with the nature of forgiveness I’ve grown up with. First, the forgiveness of God seems to be, as the writers note, once, for all time. The notion of sin and forgiveness I think many of us grew up with says that if we haven’t asked forgiveness for every specific sin we’ve committed, we’re probably on shaky ground. I think as a result most of us spend our lives either living underneath the sword of Damocles or in suspended apathy, either way hoping that when the time comes, we don’t have too many black marks on our record. Instead, Christ died once, for all sin. The sins in our past and future have all been forgiven by the blood of Christ, shed once, for all sin, two thousand years ago.
Second, I think John’s passage indicates that not only was Christ’s sacrifice once for all time, it was once for all people as well. Christ didn’t just die for our sins, he died for the sins of the whole world. Paul also speaks to this – “Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves.” In Paul’s words, it isn’t simply the sacrifice of Christ for a person that makes them “right before God” – rather a reception of a new life, no longer lived for ourselves. I don’t think Paul would say that forgiveness is what really matters, but rather reconciliation.
“[A]ll of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ”, Paul writes. “And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them.” When viewed in a relational context, there is a definite difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is a one sided thing, but reconciliation involves both parties. One of the pictures Jesus paints of the Kingdom of God is that of a father whose son leaves with the inheritance. The father’s love and forgiveness extends to the son even when he is a long way off, but their relationship is only restored when the son returns to the father. In the same way, I think God’s forgiveness extends to all people, but God’s forgiveness is not what we need. Paul speaks of reconciliation, not forgiveness, when talking about God “not counting men’s sins against them”.
The hope, then, is that as Paul says, “we could be made right with God” – that each of us could be brought into the story and the work God; not simply because we are forgiven, but because we have entered into a reconciled relationship with the perfect and atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.