THE ATONEMENT

Sin is such an old fashioned word, a ‘churchy’ word, if you will. I’ve tried not to use it very much, and instead spoken of causing harm to others, or more adequately of willful behavior that runs contrary to the various alternative ways that God – who is love – would have prescribed in the situation. But that’s a very long-winded way of speaking, and to unpack its various elements is a task for another occasion. So for the sake of understanding Christ’s atonement, we’ll speak in terms of good, old-fashioned sin.

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins according to the riches of His grace…

During His earthly ministry, Jesus forgave people their sins, and as we have seen, that means he accepted the harm those sins caused God. And that must mean that through the work of His ministry and His death and resurrection – by means of divine decree that we cannot possibly hope to understand this side of heaven, if even there – He accepted the harm done to God by all people, everywhere, for all time.

This is a sobering thought, isn’t it? We do not like to think of Jesus as still suffering, but I’m afraid that is what we must think. The pain of every cruelty still reaches to heaven and adds to Christ’s unthinkable burden. And yet isn’t that exactly what He said to Paul during his apocalypse on the road to Damascus: Why do you persecute me?

I have spoken of the great privilege and responsibility Christians have to forgive, meaning that when we forgive someone for sinning against us, we not only begin the healing process of softening that person’s spirit, but we also accept the burden of the harm that person causes to God. Our forgiveness is also God’s forgiveness.

But we may also put this in terms of relieving Christ’s burden. When we, as Christians, accept the divine suffering from wrongdoing, we are, to that extent, taking the weight off Christ’s shoulders and placing it on our own. On becoming Christians, we are given a share of Christ’s own spirit for that very purpose, to extend the reach of Christ’s forgiveness into the world. Just as children, maturing within a household, are asked to relieve the burdens of their elders, so we, maturing as Christians, are asked to relieve Christ’s burden.

When Paul wrote on many occasions of sharing in Christ’s suffering, this is surely what he was communicating. Christ’s suffering is ongoing. Our privilege is to share it, and the proof of our fidelity, of our brotherhood and sisterhood with Christ, is our commitment to relieving Christ’s burden. That is the yoke He invites us to share.

This will be a difficult teaching for those who think of following Christ, of being Christians, mainly in terms of receiving benefits. There are benefits involved, to be sure. But the chief ‘benefit’ is not a benefit at all in worldly terms. It is the benefit of suffering.

Becoming a Christian is, at its very heart, not a promotion, but a recruitment, a recruitment into the sufferings of Christ.

THE LIMITATION

When Jesus forgave the paralyzed man, he was forgiving the sins of a stranger; he was forgiving the man for harm he caused to others, not to Jesus himself.

And similarly for the immoral woman in Luke’s account. It could perhaps be supposed that he was familiar with her from another occasion, but not that she had caused him harm on that occasion. Jesus was, again, forgiving her for harm she had done to others, not personally to Jesus.

In these two separate events Jesus was acting as God Incarnate. The harm these two had done had in fact also been done to Jesus, as God incarnate. That’s why Jesus could forgive them, even though he had not humanly participated in whatever their sinful behavior had been.

But it goes without saying that we Christians are not God incarnate. Our privilege does not extend to the forgiveness of strangers. How could it, since we by definition have not been harmed by them?

The magnitude of the human privilege of extending divine forgiveness is staggering, but its scope is limited. It is limited to the forgiveness of those who have done us harm.

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The Christian privilege of forgiving sins is not innate to them because of who they are – as it was innate to Christ – but rather an authority vested in them by virtue of something they have done, namely, committed their lives to the service of Christ.

A Christian’s authority may be thought of as something like the authority of a king’s ambassador. An ambassador’s authority exists within prescribed limits, prescribed applications. An ambassador may arrange treaties by the King’s vested authority, but an ambassador’s eldest child does not automatically become the next in line to the throne, should the king die. That privilege lies with the king’s oldest child, simply by virtue of who the child is.

So also, in the spiritual nature of things, a Christian does not suffer from the behavior of strangers, as Christ did. Christians, like non-Christians, suffer only from the harm done to themselves, and can forgive only that harm. To extend our image, Christians are the ambassadors of God’s forgiveness for the harms done to us, not the harms strangers do to each other.

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None of this is to deny that we can be harmed as, so to say, collateral damage by those who are not targeting us directly. The mother suffering from wrongful harm inflicted on her child is a good example. But even in cases like these, the only harm the mother can forgive is the harm done to her, not the harm done to her child.

Our language obscures this spiritual truth. The mother might readily say to her child’s assailant: “I forgive you for what you did to my child.” But that has no bearing on the child’s own grievance. The primary debt created by that grievance is owed to the child, and that debt only the child can forgive. The mother’s forgiveness cancels only the debt owed to her, not the debt owed to her child.

And similarly for all other cases – many much more subtle that this one – of personal harm suffered from the maltreatment of others.

THE SCOPE

The realm in which forgiveness has application is the realm in which human activity inflicts harm. Unless you have done something to harm me – understanding harm in the very broadest sense – there is nothing for me to forgive: forgiveness doesn’t have any object for application. If I walk up to a total stranger and say, “I forgive you,” she would be completely correct to hurry by me with eyes averted.

The varieties of human harm are, of course, endless. Some are as gross as physical assault, others are so subtle that only novelists can do them justice. But what they all have in common, no matter how gross or subtle, no matter how large or small, is that each offers an opportunity for forgiveness.

But remember what forgiveness is, as we’ve already seen. If someone hurts you or wrongs you, full forgiveness consists in you accepting all the pain of that mistreatment, and not retaliating, not demanding that the person who wronged you ‘balance the books.’ It means you balance them yourself, you write it off. Just as my neighbor did not require that I compensate her for her loss, in exactly the same way, full forgiveness of mistreatment means that you don’t require compensation of any kind for the harm you have suffered. 

And just as my neighbor’s forgiveness, although it cancels my debt, doesn’t cancel the cost of repairing her car, just so your forgiveness of the one who harmed you does not erase the harm: it means you absorb it yourself.

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And now we begin to get a sense of the true enormity of what it is that Jesus was asking of us when He placed the necessity of forgiveness at the very heart of His teaching, when He made it the foundation of what it means to follow Him.

…love your enemies…

…turn the other cheek…

…be reconciled to your brother…

…forgive your debtors…

…love one another, as I have loved you…

Because the basic illustrations – and indeed the very words we use for forgiveness in the ancient languages – are found in financial transactions, there is a tendency to think of it in legalistic terms, as something akin to uttering a verbal formula, or perhaps signing a contractual release.

But in the life of Christ, it is much, much more than that. It is the willful acceptance of suffering on behalf of another.

It is the Way of the Cross, reenacted in our everyday life.

That’s why it’s the key to the kingdom.

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The scope of forgiveness is as wide and deep and broad as the world of human activity, because every crevasse and corner of that world contains the possibility of causing harm to someone else.

We are, of course, enjoined by Christianity as well as most other religions and most other serious moral systems not to cause harm to others, unless there is some countervailing necessity. Harming others is posited as a fundamental negative, a factor that must be taken into account in any calculation of how to behave in a given situation. Spanking a child must be justified by other considerations, or it’s simply wrong. Embarrassing someone must have some counterbalancing moral benefit, or it’s simply wrong. Depriving someone of a possible good, unless creating a greater harm elsewhere, is simply wrong. All moral systems, in their various ways, are in this regard in agreement.

But Christianity is unique in that it gives an even deeper foundational primacy to the forgiveness of harm done to oneself than to avoidance of harm done to others. Failure to forgive others, in Christian thinking, is an even deeper failure to follow Christ than the horrendous failure of causing them harm.

And why? Because forgiveness is the conduit, the only conduit, for spreading God’s nature, God’s own spirit, into the world of flesh and blood.

Because forgiveness finds opportunity wherever there is harm, its field is everywhere. Because it is difficult and painful, many decline its requirement. Because it is urgent, it was Christ’s central concern:

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.

SPIRITUAL PRIORITY

In the natural world, the world in which we are all born and raised, the human world that apportions rewards and punishments according to its own human sensibilities, forgiveness is a fairly minor player.  The virtues of fairness and justice, for example, outweigh it by a large margin.  Tit for tat is perhaps the most important moral rule we adhere to, and the rule we think it is fundamentally right to adhere to.  Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.

And in the world in which most of us spend our days, that is the sensible rule to live by.  It provides a gratifying moral foundation for the systems of governance we applaud.  That’s why everyone feels morally satisfied when the bad guy gets his comeuppance.  That’s why retaliation, whether personal or national, feels not only good but right, provided we believe ourselves to have been wronged.

But in the life of Christ, the landmarks have shifted from where they are in the natural life.  The rules have changed.  What applies here does not apply there, and vice versa.  That’s why we need a guide.  And the very first thing our guide teaches us about the new life is this: forgiveness is the foundation for everything else.

In the materials that comprise the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers an extended discourse on the landmarks of the new life, on its rules and regulations, on what works and doesn’t work there.  And over and over again, he makes his point by contrasting the natural life, the human life of the world, to the new life.

At one point, having told us how hatred  and vengefulness – various forms of unforgiveness – are the rule in the natural world, he pauses, and then tells his followers: But you, if you have a problem with someone, get it straightened out, and then come to God for whatever God can do for you.

The point Jesus is making is that forgiveness comes first.  It’s like the key to your car: unless you use it, the car, no matter how wonderful it is otherwise, is worthless to you.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes for us the fruits of the spirit, and he offers as examples, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  Those are certainly wonderful qualities and great spiritual gifts, among the gifts we can confidently expect to cherish and develop in ever greater measure as we grow and mature in the life of Christ.

But the tragedy and frustration for many Christians, I believe, is that they pursue those gifts without realizing that there is something that comes before them, something that they all rest on.

That something is the deliberate, gritty activity of forgiveness.  Without that initial acquiescence to the divine authority of suffering love, the soul remains so hardened that the other gifts can’t even take root; with it, they can, and will, and will begin to yield kingdom harvest, thirty-fold, sixty, and a hundred-fold, which is the life of Christ.

THE REED

There is no mystery about God’s purpose or objective. That objective is to be alone no longer, to bring into existence others with whom God can be in meaningful relationship.

The mystery lies in the way God has determined to accomplish that purpose: by spreading God’s own essence – love – throughout creation, using only the instrument of forgiveness.

And the heart of the mystery is why God has chosen such a frail reed  to accomplish that purpose.

THE WILL

Forgiveness is not the name of an emotion or a feeling or a condition of the person. It is the name of an activity, and it consists of the willful assumption of the harm done to one by another, and the willful refusal to require reparation for that harm.

This is important to note, because many if not most discussions of forgiveness focus on the potential benefits to the one who forgives in terms of a sense of peace, or a wash of well-being that follows in the wake of the departure of resentment, or the experienced liberation of no longer sitting in a judgment seat, or other emotional and spiritual rewards. Forgiveness in this way of thinking is regarded as a sort of therapeutic technique, engaged in to accomplish personal evolution of one sort or another.

But while it is certainly true that the act of forgiveness may result in experiences of that sort, just as they may result from acts of kindness or acts of patriotic self-sacrifice or acts of loyalty, it is also true that they may not. Forgiveness is available to – and in Christian thinking, required of – the hardhearted as well as the softhearted. It is an objective of one’s will, and the only certain result – for a Christian – of its full accomplishment is to relieve someone else of his burden of spiritual responsibility, both to oneself and to God.

And if we understand it as such, perhaps it begins to become clear why forgiveness lies at the very foundation of the Christian life. The human will, free to choose and utterly responsible for its own activity, is God’s fundamental gift to each of us. It is the gift represented by the image of God breathing His own life into us. It is the bedrock upon which the Christian life must be constructed, the seed out of which divine maturity must grow.

True forgiveness, with its sacrifice of pride, of self-concern, with nothing mattering more than it – not even “seventy times seven” – is the appropriate first step of the will on the Way of Christ, the first step that must be taken if there is to be any journey at all.

LOVE’S DOMINION

So far we’ve learned two things: that harm done to others is equally harm done to God, and that forgiveness comes at a cost to the one who forgives. A straight-forward implication of those two realities is that God’s forgiveness of us comes at a cost to God.

When Jesus, during His earthly ministry, forgave sins, it was not simply a matter of saying the words I forgive you or Your sins are forgiven. He was not simply, so to say, waving a heavenly wand and making the cost disappear. Acting with the authority of God, He was assuming the cost of the harm done, not to the human victim, but to God Himself.

Although we will return to this later, we can say now that Jesus, in forgiving sins for individuals during His earthly ministry, was doing what later He would do on the cross for all humankind, for all eternity.  But before we venture into the regions of that great revelation and mystery, we’ll look first at the ways in which forgiveness lies at the very heart of what it is follow the way of Christ, to lead a Christian life.

There are two such ways. One is connected with the responsibilities of the Christians life, and the second with the blessings of the Christian life.

We begin with the responsibilities of  Christian living.

It’s very important to realize that being a Christian in the full bodied-sense means assuming responsibility as well as receiving benefits.  In one way, this seems noncontroversial, doesn’t it? It would be hard to find professing Christians who won’t at least give lip service to the responsibilities we have of being merciful, generous, helpful and kind, to refrain from certain kinds of activities, to contribute to the promulgation of the faith, to represent Christ as faithfully as we can among those who constitute our neighbors.

And that’s all well and good. But lying much deeper than these, lying in fact at the root of our faith, is the responsibility to forgive.

And why is that? Why does it lie at the root, at the foundation of our faith?

Because it is God’s chosen, and only, means of spreading the dominion of His love.