Forgiveness versus Payment (Part 1 of 2)

“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both.” — Luke 7.42, 43This week, I would love to pose a question to you that was revolutionary when I confronted it years ago. I was just finishing up a presentation to a very large group of people, and on the way out of the meeting, someone in the audience reached out and grabbed my hand. Looking me in the eyes, with the utmost sincerity, he asked one of the most profound questions I have been asked in all my years of speaking. “Did God punish me for my sins in Christ or did God forgive me for my sins in Christ?”

Punishment is defined as inflicting a penalty or sanction on someone as retribution for an offense or a transgression of a legal or moral code. Forgiveness is defined as refraining from imposing punishment on an offender or demanding satisfaction for an offense, to release from the liability for or penalty entailed by an offense, to not demand punishment or redress.

Many of the theological quandaries we get into over the cross stem from looking at Calvary as an act of punishment rather than forgiveness. But what if the lens we should be looking at the cross through is not how God found a way to punish our sin and still let us live but, rather, how God found a way to forgive our sin without immortalizing it?

In the passage quoted above, Jesus doesn’t say that the creditor went out and found a slick way to have someone else pay for the debts instead of the debtors themselves. Jesus said that the creditor forgave the debt.

Pay close attention to the wording of the following passages:

That God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.19, emphasis added).

Did you catch it? God was not in Christ counting our sins against us in such a way that we could still live; rather, God was in Christ NOT counting our sins against us.

Again:

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Ephesians 4.32, emphasis added).

Paul is too clear to be mistaken here, but even if he were, he gets even clearer in the next text:

He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2.13-16, emphasis added).

The Greek word for canceled here is “exaleipho”. It means to obliterate, wipe out, or do away with. It’s as if God on the cross was saying to the world, “The charges have been dropped.” Calvary, rather than revealing a God who punishes sin in Christ, reveals a God who who, having been wronged, refused to press charges.

Was your sin punished or was your sin forgiven?

“What about subsitution?” some may ask. Substitution is extremely problematic when we look at it through the lens of punishment. How can someone pay for the crimes of someone else? But when we look at substitution through the lens of forgiveness, we realize that every act of forgiveness is an act of substitution. Substitution becomes liberated from its legal entanglements when we see what the nature of forgiveness actually is. Every time I forgive someone, I choose to bear what he has done to me, to suffer in his stead, and to set him free from his offense. Only one person has the right to set him free from it, for he is the one who will have to bear the loss. It must be done voluntarily, of his own volition. This is what I see God doing at the Cross. Read thoughtfully the following words of Deitriech Bonhoffer: “Everyone who forgives someone bears the other’s sin.” When God decided to forgive us rather than punish us for all the ways we have wronged him and one another, he went to the cross in the person of Jesus Christ and died there.

What does this mean for us? First, it means that God is radically more forgiving and embracing than perhaps we have yet realized. Second, it means that we stand not in a state of condemnation but in one of full and free forgiveness. If any are lost at last, it will not be because we did not do enough to convince God to forgive us but that we never truly believed how forgiven we really were. And third, it’s a call for those who have believed this to take up God’s forgiveness not simply as a “message” to those around us but as a way of life. We are called to be living conduits of this forgiveness to those around us as well. We are called to imitate God and life a life of this kind of love.

What does this look like? Forgiveness means refusing to make others pay for what they’ve done to us. And it is true that refraining from lashing out at someone when you want to do so with all your being is agony. It is a form of suffering. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out on the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say that it feels like a kind of death, a Cross. But it is a death that leads to resurrection. Not only are those we forgive set free but we too are ushered into the healing freedom that forgiving someone brings instead of lifelong bitterness and cynicism.

We cannot forgive others by trying to forgive them. Only by being forgiven is forgiveness awakened. Only those who are forgiven much forgive much. This week, take some time to meditate on how deeply you are in the heart of God. Take some time to ponder how forgiving He has been of you. Picture yourself emulating that kind of forgiveness with those in your life and then take your first step. Dedicate the next seven days to simply praying for those in the world you like the least. Just pray for them.

In the light of God’s indescriminate love this week, go love like that and thereby, keep building the Kingdom.

I love you guys,

We’ll see you next week.

Herb