Excerpt from “Forgiveness: The Road Home”

It Depends on What ‘As’ Means

It is the text that haunts us in all these conversations—“And forgive us our debts,” Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).  Jesus then makes it clear that this practice is fundamental to all he is saying in this prayer.  He concludes with these words: “14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).  What does “as” mean for we who follow Jesus into this life of forgiving and being forgiven?  “As” could mean “after” or “as a result of.”  Or it could mean “in like manner.”  That is the meaning we find in the New Testament.

Our call is to forgive in a manner that resembles God’s forgiving.  Why that is we will discuss presently.  First, however, let’s examine what that means.  We can read these words at the end of the first chapter of John’s first letter:

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8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Let’s examine this text in some detail.  “If we confess…[God]…will forgive,” the writer declares.  What about that “if”?  Is there any doubt that God will forgive if we confess?  Is this some sort of conditional relationship, a contract?  No, neither theology nor grammar will permit that understanding.  The “if” in this passage does not indicate doubt or uncertainty.  It does not refer to a condition that may not be fulfilled.  Rather, the grammar here indicates that God’s forgiveness is the purpose, result and/or description of the outcome when we confess.  “If” in this passage would be better translated as “When” in order to remove any of the doubt that comes with our English translation.  In fact, it is our trust that God forgives that opens the door to our confession, repentance and new life.

“Faithful [God] is, and just,” the Greek reads in this passage, “in order that (my italics) [God] might forgive us the sins and cleanse us…”  Therefore we need to see and understand God’s forgiving as the demonstration and outcome of God’s faithful promise to save and renew.  So God’s forgiving is not some grudging concession once we have fulfilled certain conditions.  Rather God’s forgiving is at the heart of who God is and what God does.  Therefore the result is sure, and we can have confidence that our confession, repentance and new life will not be rejected by God.  Thus confession and repentance cannot be the cause of God’s forgiving.  Rather our confession and repentance are offered on the basis of our trust in God’s forgiving even prior to our confession.  “Amazingly,” Volf writes in Free of Charge, “God does wait until we have confessed to offer and even enact forgiveness; God forgives before we confess.  We know from the start that whatever it might be that we confess it will not count against us.  We are loved notwithstanding our offense.  We are forgiven so we can be freed from the burden of our offense and return into the arms of the loving God” (page 154).

Verse ten makes the point clear.  “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”  This should be a puzzling statement on first reading.  If we say that we have not sinned even when we know we have, that makes us the liars, does it not?  How can our denial of our own sin make God the liar?  This can only be the case if we assume that God has already forgiven us.  Remember, to forgive is first of all to condemn.  To forgive is to name an offense in order to let go of being offended.  If God forgives us even though we are not sinners, then God is the one who is lying.  If God says by forgiving us that we are sinners, then either we are sinners or God has uttered a falsehood.  So verse ten can only make sense if we assume that God has declared sinners to be forgiven and now awaits the acknowledgement of that sin through confession.

So what does “as” mean?  It means that forgiving comes first if it is to happen at all.  God’s forgiving will not be conditioned or controlled or defined by our repentance or the lack thereof.  Rather, God forgives out of gracious love and then longs for our response.  Otherwise the Sovereign God becomes subject to our foolish whims and stubborn pride.  “Having defeated evil on the cross,” notes N. T. Wright in Evil and the Justice of God, “God has put evil in a position where it cannot forever blackmail [God]” (page 140).  When we can forgive first, we also are in a position where the offender can no longer control us through our own anger, pain and fear.  Jesus longs for us to know this freedom as often as possible.  In Mark 11:25-26, he urges his listeners this way, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.

This is then the standard for our life together in the Church as followers of Jesus Christ.  Forgiving comes first.  In Ephesians 4:31-32, for example, we read these instructions.  “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  This passage begins with the plea to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).  Forgiving first is a substantial part of how we respond to our daily call to follow Jesus in the path of cross and resurrection.  We read the same encouragement in Colossians 3:13—“Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”  This passage begins with the pregnant phrase, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved…”  Forgiving one another in the same manner that God forgives us in Christ is a non-negotiable feature of our life together as the Church.

Those who have thought long and hard about forgiving can tell us why this matters.  Jesus “is telling us, in effect, that the faculty we have for receiving forgiveness and the faculty we have for granting forgiveness are one and the same thing.  If we open the one we shall open the other.  If we slam the door on the one, we slam the door on the other” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, page158).  And again, “Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us.  Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others in ourselves and invite them in—even our enemies.  This is what we enact as we celebrate the Eucharist.  In receiving Christ’s broken body and spilled blood, we, in a sense, receive all those whom Christ received by suffering.” (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, page 129).

To forgive as we have been forgiven is one of the chief signs that the Resurrected Life lives in us and re-shapes our stories now and for eternity.  “Jesus’ followers were constituted by the fact that he was bringing about the return from exile, the forgiveness of sins.  Not to forgive one another would be a way of denying that this great, long-awaited event was taking place; in other words, it would be to cut off the branch on which they were sitting” (N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, page 70).

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