A few years ago, Roy Gane wrote a book entitled, Who’s Afraid of the Judgment? in which he addressed – and tried to alleviate – the fears that many have when it comes to facing the judgment. I wonder, however, if an appropriate sequel to that title might be Who’s Afraid of Forgiveness? This is because, ironically, I find that there are equally as many people who are afraid of forgiveness as there are who are afraid of judgment.
It almost seems funny to write this – and yet I’ve found it to be frustratingly true time and again.
The reasons, I’m sure, are legion – and stem from diverse thought-processes. You know what is perhaps the most common refrain, of course: that if a person gets settled into the idea that Christ freely forgives him or her, this will somehow lead to willful, deliberate, presumptuous sinning. But even if this was a frequent response to Christ’s free forgiveness (which I don’t find to necessarily be the case), this in no way means that the problem is in the forgiveness but with the person who has been forgiven.
There are others, no doubt, who fear forgiveness for psychological and emotional reasons: they feel a certain level of comfort and safety in holding on to shame and guilt or they feel pride in somehow being able to demonstrate to God that they can atone for their past sins and make good on the wrongs they’ve committed.
Whatever the reasons are for our fear of forgiveness, however, we need to get over them. Recognizing Christ’s unilateral, unconditional forgiveness is actually the mechanism by which we become liberated from fear, shame, guilt and, believe it or not, even the power of sin in our lives. In fact, that which allegedly produces laxity in the Christian’s life has the complete opposite effect (when properly understood): it produces victory.
It would thus be well for us to frequently reflect upon this powerful prayer from the lips of Christ: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This prayer, we are told “embraced the world . . . [taking] in every sinner that had lived or should live, from the beginning of the world to the end of time” (The Desire of Ages, p. 745).
But such an idea doesn’t sit well with some people. “We need to first do something before we are forgiven,” some will insist. Why does it have to be so? Why, again, does it have to be about us? If Christ wants to unilaterally forgive us, refusing to hold our sins against us and to cancel our debt, who are we to say He can’t?
The most frequently-used Hebrew word that is translated “forgive” is nasa‘, which also means to “bear” or “carry” or “lift.” That’s what forgiveness is: it’s the act of bearing or carrying or lifting someone else’s wrong and placing it upon one’s self. It means that one refuses to cause another to reap the penalty for the wrong he or she has committed but instead chooses to take the loss on himself or herself.
It’s what Christ did at the cross, when He “bore [nasa’] the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12 – which, interestingly, stands in parallel with v. 11 where it says that “My righteous Servant shall justify many.” See also Hebrews 9:28, where it says that He did this “once”). He bore our guilt, shame, and sin Himself – indeed, He experienced the “wages of sin” so that we wouldn’t have to. We live now because Christ paid these wages.
Such a thought, when fully understood and embraced, produces incredible gratitude in the heart of the recipient, which produces obedience in the life. It is, in fact, the key to victory.
Notice these two thoughts from Ellen White, demonstrating the reality of this: “When, as erring, sinful beings, we come to Christ and become partakers of His pardoning grace, love springs up in the heart. Every burden is light . . . Duty becomes a delight, and sacrifice a pleasure” (Steps to Christ, p. 57).
Elsewhere, reflecting on the message of justification by faith that Jones and Waggoner introduced in 1888, she noted, “The thought that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, not because of any merit on our part, but as a free gift of God, is a precious thought. The enemy of God and man is not willing that this truth should be clearly presented; for he knows that if the people receive it fully, his power will be broken” (Review and Herald, September 3, 1889).
It is abundantly clear: recognizing and embracing Christ’s forgiveness (what she called “pardoning grace” and “imputed” righteousness in the above quotes) is that which changes the heart, making obedience a delight, and breaking Satan’s power in our lives. Indeed, in 1889, when Ellen White, along with A.T. Jones, presented this powerful message in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, in what was their first post-Minneapolis meetings that were aimed at the laypeople (meetings at which Ellen White said they seemed to “breathe in the very atmosphere of heaven”), one of the most common refrains from all who attended was that they “testified their joy that Christ had forgiven their sins” (Review and Herald, March 5, 1889). This led to incredible confession of sin – and the righting of wrongs.
So I ask the question again: who’s afraid of forgiveness?