Forgiveness is at the very heart of the Gospel. It is a distinctive marker of the Christian faith. Part of our interest in the topic of forgiveness stems from the fact that ‘justice’ is now a watchword of the faithful Christian student, and justice and forgiveness are related. As we work out what forgiveness means, we must talk about justice. The God who is just is also forgiving.
It is one thing to talk about brothers fighting in the living room, and another thing altogether to apply the principles of forgiveness at the social, institutional, or theological level. Forgiveness looks different when you are talking about criminal acts, and different still when talking about nations. Wrongs can carry such weight as never to be dismissed with mere words. When a child has been abducted, abused and murdered, a statement of remorse is not enough. When one country goes to war against another, a diplomatic gesture does not bring peace. Justice is required.
It is the role of the state to require justice. The state carries the sword to keep order and peace, to serve the Lord by being a terror to those who do wrong. The state ‘is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer’ (Romans 13:4). When the state, which is supposed to be the avenger, is asked instead to apply only forgiveness, it results in confusion and pain. Our federal government has no Department of Forgiveness, but we do keep a Department of Justice! It is right for the wrongdoer to feel the terror of the avenger, an agent of the wrath of God. But when wrath has been poured out, and justice has been served…what then? Who will practice reconciliation, restoration, and rehabilitation of the criminal and the victim?
We have to seek a way of living together even after we have hurt one another deeply.
The state cannot reasonably act as the forgiver when it has already acted as the avenger. But there is a community in the world where we can locate forgiveness. It is a community of forgivers who have themselves been forgiven. Forgiveness is the Christian way of life. St. Augustine wrote, “Our righteousness … in this life is such that it consists only in the remission of sin rather than in the perfection of virtue. This is borne out by the prayer of the whole City of God during its pilgrimage on earth; for it cries out to God with the voice of all its members: ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us!’” (City of God, 19.27). Christians humbly make their confession, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” then joyfully sing praises to the forgiving God. The church bears witness to the one true message of good news in the world—that God who is just is also forgiving.
In the early 16th century, Martin Luther madly feared the justice of God. When he read about the justitia Dei, the justice of God, in his Latin version of Romans 1:17 he could see only the wrath of God on the horizon. God comes as judge, and woe to me the sinner! But as he studied the Greek, he learned that the verse actually says that God is inherently righteous and good and will make that known to those who have faith. What is more, Luther learned that God intends to bring that righteousness into our lives in loving fashion. God is indeed just, but God is also forgiving.
This just and forgiving God is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. God became man in Christ, and took the place of the sinner. It is right for the sinner to bear the wrath of the avenger—this is justice. Jesus Christ took the punishment for our wrongs when he “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24). The wrath of God is fully exercised. And even in this moment, the love of God is on display, for he himself bore our sins! The death of Christ makes forgiveness possible, and the resurrection of Christ proclaims to the world that God’s promise of forgiveness is a guarantee.
Both the wrath of divine justice and the grace of divine forgiveness are demonstrated in the same Jesus Christ. The wrath of God and the love of God. The justice of God and the forgiveness of God. They are all summed up in this same person. There is no other ultimate grounds for forgiveness than this: that in Jesus Christ, God is both wrath and love, judgment and mercy, the satisfaction of justice and the demonstration of grace. In short, when we look for forgiveness we are looking for a person. Forgiveness is Jesus.
So then, in each discussion, as justice and forgiveness are elevated, so also will the name of Jesus Christ, the crucified Savior, be lifted up.
~ My friend, Tim