Fourfold Forgiveness

While the word seems to bear an obvious meaning, a right understanding of the idea of forgiveness should not be assumed. Indeed, confusion over what is and is not included in the work of forgiveness is altogether common among even otherwise mature Christians especially when it comes to applying forgiveness in actual practical circumstances. The situation is complicated in that many dictionary definitions altogether obscure the Christian understanding of the word, focusing often as they do on feelings: “to cease to feel resentment against (an offender).”[1]

In the context of Christian truth, forgiveness should be understood in four distinct ways. The first and most significant is forgiveness as the grace, or favor of God, given freely on account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to the sinful human creature who has failed to do God’s will. Faith grasps this gift, and the individual who trusts the promise of Christ is accounted by God as righteous or not guilty of his sin. This forgiveness is the foundation and heart of the Christian confession and results in the justification of the sinner—indeed in this sense, forgiveness is almost synonymous with justification (Augsburg Confession, 4).

The second aspect of forgiveness stems from interactions and relationships between humans but is focused again on the relationship between the person and his Creator. If person A sins against person B, God’s command is clear: person B must forgive person A “from his heart” (Matthew 18:35). The Greek word, afihmi, usually translated as “forgive” means first, “to let go”, then “to cancel, remit, or pardon”. Our common experience affirms that such “letting go” is sometimes exceedingly difficult—often, but not always, correlating to the significance of the wrong done and the harm caused. For the Christian, however, this is not a matter of feelings, nor is it optional. This is a command to cultivate an attitude toward others that reflects the grace with which God deals with us. Whether or not person A who committed the sin is repentant is irrelevant. One forgives the person who sins against him simply because he knows the size of his own debt that has been forgiven. It is critical to recognize that this forgiveness occurs purely in the thoughts, attitudes, and prayers of the person sinned against. It is his deliberate decision to “let go” of the wrong, and to refuse to keep score of the debt, or hold the other accountable for the infraction. This forgiveness is an issue of faith—the one sinned against trusts God enough to allow God to handle the wrong that has been done to him and to administer whatever justice is necessary to the wrongdoer. Essentially, the one sinned against, person B, determines that he will not make it his task to hold person A accountable or to execute the demands of justice against person A. This forgiveness is an issue between the one wronged and God to whom the one sinned against commits the injustice, his hurt, and his yearning for reconciliation with the one who wronged him. It should be noted that it is not necessary that this aspect of forgiveness be communicated to the wrongdoer. Indeed, in a very real sense, the one who committed the sin has nothing to do with this matter; this second level of forgiveness is an issue purely between the person B and God. It is important to recognize that both the first and second aspects of forgiveness are played out entirely in the vertical relationship between the creature and God.

The third form taken by forgiveness centers on the relationship between the two individual creatures who have become sadly linked through some sin of one or the other. This is the forgiveness that is communicated by person B to person A when person A comes to him and seeks forgiveness for the sin he committed against person B. Clearly, if person B has already fully embraced the second sort of forgiveness and has chosen an attitude and posture that trusts God and so lets go of the wrong done to him by person A, actually communicating that forgiveness to his repentant fellow creature will not be difficult. Indeed, it will be a joyful proclamation and delight that person A has come to see his own sin and even has sought forgiveness that may then eventuate in reconciliation—though within human relationships such reconciliation rarely means a simple return to the status quo before the sin, as if the wrong was never done. Seeking to work through the hurts experienced and the damage done to the relationship in appropriate ways is not indicative of a failure to forgive, but a reality of healthy and growing relationships founded on trust and reliance in God’s grace. This third kind of forgiveness occurs only after the one who committed the sin has arrived at the point of repentance and actually seeks forgiveness from the one he hurt with his sin. This aspect of forgiveness plays out within the horizontal plane of relationships between creatures. (See the repentance of Jacob and the forgiveness of Esau in Genesis 33.)

Finally, the fourth aspect of forgiveness is practiced in the context of the Office of the Keys (Small Catechism, 5) when person B or C delivers the grace and forgiveness of God to person A who repents of some sin and yearns for the assurance of God’s forgiveness. In this sense, it does not matter if the one giving the forgiveness was personally sinned against by the one being forgiven. The forgiveness or absolution is being announced and actually delivered when person C acts as the spokesperson of God and assures penitent person A that he is forgiven by God. Indeed, in this sense, how person C might feel about person A or his sin is altogether irrelevant—person C is acting in a peculiar role, having taken on the task of the one who is there to absolve. He acts in the stead of God and speaks with God’s authority as one sent by God to declare this grace (John 20:22-23). Obviously, like the third form just considered, this final form of forgiveness is conveyed only when the one who committed the sin has repented and seeks the forgiveness of God. The one who absolves assures the penitent sinner that God has indeed forgiven him for the sake of Christ. This is forgiveness that takes place in the horizontal plane between two creatures but conveys realities that are true in the vertical realm between the creature and the Creator.

Followers of Christ know the centrality of forgiveness for their lives. By teaching and exercising care and precision in what is understood and practiced in doing the work of forgiveness, Christians can even more effectively know and share the transforming power and joy that come with all four forms of forgiveness.

[1] Apple Dictionary, Version 2.3.0 (239.5)

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