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Victor Shepherd is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Canada.

July 2008

Volume 1

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Often it’s assumed that forgiveness is easy – little more difficult than pronouncing the word. But in fact there are few things more difficult. Blows wound. Wounds pain. Lacerations fester. Of itself time doesn’t heal. Then what will heal? What can reduce torment and relieve numbness. Forgiveness alone can. But where do we begin?”

The Starting Point

Begin with the cross. To begin anywhere else means that we have begun with calculating: “Should we forgive – and how much? Under what circumstances should we forgive?” Calculation in matters that concern us fosters self-interest. We go to the bank to purchase our annual RSP. We estimate how the interest rate is going to fluctuate in the next few years, and we calculate which combination of locked-in RSP rate and time period is best – for the bank? Of course not. Best for us. Calculation feeds self-interest.

In the second place calculation is frequently a conscious cover-up for unconscious rationalization. Calculation is a smokescreen behind which there is, in our unconscious, a heart set on vindictiveness.

The Cost of Our Forgiveness

Scripture insists that God’s forgiveness of us necessitated the death of God’s own Son. In trying to fathom this from the Father’s perspective I ponder the anguish of our foreparent in faith, Abraham. Abraham, trudging with leaden foot and leaden heart up the side of Mount Moriah; he and Sarah had waited years for a child, had had none, had given up expecting any. Now they have to give up their child to death.

At the last minute the ram was provided. His son didn’t have to die. But when the Father walked Jesus to Calvary “he spared not his own Son.” Here the Father bore in his heart the full weight of a devastation that is inconceivable.

Next we try to fathom what the cross means from the perspective of the Son. What is it to be forsaken when the sum and substance of your life is unbroken intimacy with your Father? Before our Lord’s Good Friday dereliction we can only fall silent in incomprehension.

When we begin with the cross we have to be stunned at the price God has paid – Father and Son together – for our forgiveness. In the same instant we are sobered at the depravity in us that necessitated so great a price. When we have trotted out all my bookish, theological definitions of sin we still haven’t grasped – will never grasp – what sin means to God.

The Implicates of Forgiveness

If we begin with the cross then the light that the cross sheds will ever be the illumination by which we see everything else concerning forgiveness. For instance, Jesus insists that our forgiving our enemies measures our intimacy with God. How can we say we crave being recreated in the image of the God for whom forgiving costs him everything while we make sure that our non-forgiving costs us nothing?

Two hundred and fifty years ago John Wesley wrote in his diary, “Resentment at an affront is sin, and I have been guilty of this a thousand times.” Because resentment at a real affront, at a real offence, comes naturally to fallen people we think it isn’t sin. However, the most serious consequence of our sinnership is our blindness to the fact and nature and scope of it all. Then do we continue to clutch our resentment because its smouldering heat will fuel our self-pity and our self-justification? Or do we deplore it and drop it at the foot of the cross, knowing that only the purblind do anything else?

Unquestionably the offences we sustain open up gaping wounds within us. We shall be able to forgive them only as we place them alongside what God has already forgiven in us. In our Lord’s parable of the unforgiving servant the king forgives his servant a huge debt; the servant, newly forgiven a huge debt, turns around and refuses to forgive a fellow whatever this fellow owes him. The king is livid that the pardon the servant has received he doesn’t extend to others. The king orders the servant shaken up until some sense is shaken into him. If the servant had refused to forgive his fellow a paltry sum, the servant would merely have looked silly. But the amount the servant is owed isn’t paltry; 100 denarii is six months’ pay. The forgiveness required of the servant is huge. But the point of the parable is this: while the 100 denarii which the servant is owed is no trifling sum, it is nothing compared to the 10,000 talents ($50 million) that the king has already forgiven the servant.

What Forgiveness Does Not Mean

We must be sure we understand what forgiveness does not mean. It does not mean that the offence we are called to forgive is slight. Were it anything but grievous we’d be smiling at it instead of sweating over it.

It does not mean that the offence is excused. We excuse what is excusable. What is not excusable, will never be excusable, can only be forgiven.

Forgiveness does not mean that we are helpless suckers inviting the world to victimize us again. Forgiveness, rather, is a display of ego-strength. Jesus can forgive those who slay him just because he has already insisted, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord.”

Forgiveness does not mean that the person we forgive we regard as a diamond in the rough, good-at-heart. Forgiveness means that the person we forgive we regard as depraved in heart – as God’s forgiveness means as much about us.

Forgiveness does not mean that the person we must forgive we must also trust. Many whom we forgive will never be trustworthy. Forgiveness does mean, however, that the person we cannot trust we shall nonetheless not despise.

Any discussion of forgiveness includes forgiving ourselves. If we say, “I can forgive anyone at all except myself,” then surely we have puffed up ourselves most arrogantly. There is terrible arrogance in saying to ourselves, “I’m the greatest sinner in the world; the major-league champion. I can forgive others because they are only minor-league sinners compared to me.”

There is no little blasphemy here as well. “The blood-bought pardon of God, wrought at what cost to him we can’t fathom – it isn’t effective enough for me. Where I’m concerned, God’s mercy is deficient, defective, and finally worthless.” This is blasphemy.

If we say we can’t forgive ourselves then plainly we want to flagellate ourselves in order to atone for our sin. But the heart of the gospel is this: atonement has already been made for us. All we need do is own it in faith.

Then we must end where we began: at the cross. For it is here that God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven us. And here, therefore, we must forgive others, and forgive ourselves as well.

Texts for Reflection

  • Micah 7:18-20
  • Psalm 32
  • Colossians 3:12-17
  • Matthew 18:21-35

Exploring Further

  • Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).
  • Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006).
  • H. R. Mackintosh, The Christian Experience of Forgiveness (New York: Harper, 1927).
  • C.S. Lewis, “Fern Seed and Elephants,” in Fern Seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianity (London: Fount, 1975), pp. 39-43.

2 Comments

  1. Diane Naduriak
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    I really enjoyed reading this article Dr. Shepherd. In my opinion you covered all the bases on forgiveness. However,I would like to have read something on reconciliation which many people confuse with forgiveness. In what circumstances is reconciliation possible after forgiveness?

  2. Emma Skeete
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    Powerful Dr. Shepherd! A good word indeed!

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