What is forgiveness and what does it mean in the life of a Christian? It’s one of the most vital parts of Christian love, yet far too many of us abandon it or see it as something it’s not.
To those who share the Christian faith, the topic of forgiveness is one that should concern us all. How to forgive, and what forgiveness entails, are questions many of us have undoubtedly wrestled with. Does forgiveness free one from punishment? Does it mean we have to love the offender even if there is no repentance in them?
It’s important to note that the modern definition of forgiveness doesn’t quite line up with the notion the ancients held. Modern definitions of forgiveness often concern an emotional attachment or a release of punishment by the hands of the offended, whilst forgiveness in antiquity was more along the lines of restoration. Sin was/is an honor offense towards both God and the person who was wronged. Sin hurt the relational status of the offender and in turn incurred a debt that needed to be paid. This is why Jesus mentioned “debts” in the Lord’s prayer rather than “sins” (Matthew 6:9-13). Forgiveness was the act of erasing those debts and restoring the communal bond. Jesus erased our debts with His shed blood, thus restoring our relationship with Him if we accept His gift of grace.
A final note of importance is that this form of forgiveness was typical of collectivist cultures where a person’s identity was found in his/her family or social group. For Christians, our identity is no longer rooted in our individual selves but in “The Body of Christ.” Since forgiveness meant restoration, it never applied to those outside the group. If one was never a part of the Body of Christ, how could they be “restored”?
With this in mind, what does forgiveness mean for us today? It means letting go of personal grudges or ill feelings. It means seeing the offender as an equal part of the Body of Christ. It means seeing nothing but Jesus in the brother/sister who wronged us.
It’s also vitally important to note what forgiveness does not mean for us today. It does not mean withholding punishment by society. In other words, if a friend in your church group treated you wrongly, forgiveness does not mean you cannot report it to the one in authority. Forgiveness is personal, but that doesn’t mean the offender gets off ham free.
Forgiveness does not mean you can never be angry at evil. I get angry when a fellow believer condemns another for an unbiblical reason (for being adorned with tattoos, not paying tithes each week, holding a different doctrine, etc.). I also get angry when my God is mocked. Righteous anger is a Biblical principle, after all. Anger by itself is not wrong until you create a debt or impose an obligation the offender needs to pay.
When it comes to those who aren’t in the Body of Christ, the same principle applies. As an apologist, I can never allow mockery or personal attacks to effect my personal view of these people. We need to see them as nothing less but a person adored in God’s eyes. But at the same time, nothing more than someone outside the Body of Christ. Although they are loved, they are also stained by sin. Forgiveness does not mean we should see no sin in them.
The urgency for evangelism has all but vanished in the church, and I fear it may have been corrupted by a forgiveness that sees and hears no sin. Evangelism and apologetics have become abandoned disciplines in the church, and people are worse off for it.
What forgiveness comes down to in the end is a greater love for those in the Body of Christ and a greater urgency to provide the truth of Christianity to those outside the body. Both missions find their focus on love and love alone. Yet, I fear even that has been forsaken.