How Does God Forgive Us?

I would like to write one more post drawing from Miroslav Volf’s beautiful book, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. The question of forgiveness is not an easy one, and we might find ourselves evading it. But we must not. We simply cannot change what we have done. “Our life isn’t a motion picture in which we can, like a discerning editor, run a bad scene backward, cut it out, and keep replacing it with better ones until we are pleased with the result and are ready to show it to a critical audience.” We are left bearing an ineradicable responsibility for our wrongdoing. And so we must seek divine forgiveness, which involves a condemnation of our sin, but God’s refusal to count that sin against us.

How does God forgive us? It certainly isn’t because we negotiate with God, like the deceived Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus: “I was a sober sixteen, filled with a desperate sense of right. I knelt before the God of Bargains.” God does not need anything that we could possibly give him. Furthermore, God’s single “condition” would be this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27). We cannot live up to this law, and the “God of Bargains” soon inevitably turns into the Implacable Judge. If God forgives us, then, we can be sure that it is not be the result of anything that we have accomplished – Christ had to be destined to be God’s Lamb “before the foundation of the world” (1 Pt 1:20). But God does not forgive us by casting aside the moral law either, because God is just, and, as Dr Volf says, “the moral law is an expression of God’s very being.” This is a dilemma.

But God does forgive us. He does not “reckon sin” (Rom 4:8; Ps 32:1-2), he “covers” it (Ps 32:1; Rom 4:7), placing our wrongdoing “behind his back” (Is 38:17), removing our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12), “blotting” it out (Is 43:25), “sweeping it away … like mist” (Is 44:22), and refusing to even remember our faults (Is 43:25; Jer 31:34; Heb 8:12, 10:17). God’s forgiveness is God’s own initiative, but, as we have seen, it cannot be some sort of divine insouciance towards the harm that we do. How does God forgive us, then? “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10).

This might immediately sound distasteful. Does God only forgive after appeasing his anger through the abuse of his only son? Have we escaped the penalty for sin much like someone who, faced with conscription, paid a poorer man to fight and die in his place? These accusatory questions miss the point.

When God places all the horrific effects of our sin upon Christ – “the end of those things is death” (Rom 6:21) – he is not victimizing someone other than himself, as though Christ was independent of the Father, a lesser god brought forth only to be sacrificed for the Father’s implacable wrath. Volf writes, “The God Who is One beyond numbering and yet mysteriously Three reconciled us by shouldering our sin in the person of Christ who is one of the Three. That’s the mystery of human redemption made possible by the mystery of God’s Trinity: The One who was offended bears the burden of the offense.” Thus, as the Pope recently wrote, the “mystery of the cross” is that “so great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love.” Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, one in being with the Father,” and God, as Benedict says, “turns against himself” for us in love, for the sake of justice.

And Christ is also one with humanity, not a substitute for us. “One has died for all, therefore all have died” (2 Cor 5:14). We ourselves die and rise up with in baptism in union with Christ (Rom 6:3-4; cf. Col 2:12). To consider the implications, I’ll borrow a sentence from a recent Orthodox-Catholic Agreed Statement:

Baptism is the beginning of each believer’s life in the Spirit, the implanting within each of the seed of the fullness of Christ “who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23): a life on earth which is at once the present reality and the continuing vocation of each Christian, as the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Co 6:19) and the dwelling place of divine glory (Jn 17:22-24). Christian initiation is the ground of our transfiguration “from glory to glory” (2 Co 3:18).

God no longer counts our sins against us when we enter into the reconciliation of Jesus Christ, taking hold of this gift through faith, really becoming “the dwelling place of divine glory.” Baptism, after all, is the “sacrament of faith.” Volf draws once more on Luther, who memorably said, “Faith takes hold of Christ and has Him present, enclosing him as the ring encloses the gem.” This means, though, that we gratefully accept both the condemnation of our sin and our release from the debt, death and resurrection, and repentance as a prelude to healing.

We know that we have welcomed God’s “gem” if we pass on this gift by forgiving others, because it will then be clear that Christ truly does live within us. Luther also wrote, “The outward forgiveness that I show in my deeds is a sure sign that I have the forgiveness of sin in the sight of God. On the other hand, if I do not show this in my relations with my neighbor, I have a sure sign that I do not have the forgiveness of sin in the sight of God and am still stuck in my unbelief.” Forgiveness might then sound like a form of masochism. But it is really our restoration into communion. We pray daily, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Last year, I posted on the Lord’s Prayer, drawing on the Orthodox theologian Oliver Clément’s book, Three Prayers:

St Symeon the New Theologian said, “A saint is a poor man who loves his brother.” A saint realizes that he is poor before the God who has nevertheless freed him from “debts”; the saint then does not expect any sort of payment from others, and is able to be a neighbor to all. This refusal to take from others, which lets us really enter into the mystery of their otherness, in Evagrius’ words, is a state of being “separated from all and united to all.”

Finally, as we contemplate forgiveness today, I’d like to remind you once again about the fast for peace in Iraq, which should help bring us further towards accepting the forgiveness of our merciful God and extending that forgiveness to others, so that a true human community can be realized. “We have estranged ourselves from God by our deeds,” wrote the Chaldean Patriarch, “we do not obey his will, and we have moved away from piety and virtue, from forgiveness, and because of this the blood of so many brothers has been shed and so many children have remained orphans.”

Comments are always welcome.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to How Does God Forgive Us?

  1. Peni says:

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  2. Ionxbko says:

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