If You Think . . . (4)
Ch.4: Forgiveness of Sins is the Point of the Biblical Story
Reclaim and Restore
In the last chapter I already answered this concern in terms of the reason why Jesus became human in the first place. We saw that it doesn’t make much sense to claim that he came only to die so that our sins may be forgiven. That commits us to the claim that sin is then necessary to create a reason for Jesus to come. I think most who hold this view have never seen this implication it carries and I hope that once seeing it they would look for a better understanding of Jesus and why he became human for us.
That better understanding, I argued, is found in God’s eternal purpose in creation: to have a world full of creatures with whom to share his life in joyful communication, communion, and community on this globe though all the ages. To share life fully with us God was always going to send Jesus to become one of us because . . . how can God share his life with us more fully and intimately than by becoming one with us and thus enabling us to become one with him?
So, Jesus was coming to earth anyway before sin entered into the picture. Our refusal of God’s gift of life and base ingratitude in seizing control of it for ourselves posed the great threat to realizing God’s dream. Sin had to be dealt with before we could get where God wanted to take us. So now, Jesus’ coming includes having to incorporate taking care of sin into his mission as a prelude or way to the endgame God desires.
Remember, sin is primarily breaking our relationship with God. It is also a breaking of God’s law, but that law was given to nurture our relationship with God. So breaking the law is the formal aspect of sin but at its heart sin is this broken relationship. So we’re back to God’s endgame.
To take care of the problem sin creates, then, is to restore that broken relationship. Forgiveness is the means but not the goal of Jesus’ work. Forgiving us is the way God reclaims us as his own, but having reclaimed us God then restores us to be and live and serve as the people he created us to be.
Yes, reclamation and restoration – that’s the rhythm of God’s redeeming work. God wants us back, in relationship and taking our place as the royal priests in creation as he purposed us to be.
There is more to say about this but I’ll postpone them until the 7th installment in this series on Christian growth.
More on Forgiveness
I want now to redress any concern that I may be slighting forgiveness by making it a prelude or instrumental to God’s “BigHairyAudaciousGoal” (BHAG).
Forgiveness, as we noted above, is an exercise in divine relationship mending. It’s more than a juridical declaration and squaring of accounts over our legal misdeeds (though it is not less than that). To use the imagery of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Father in Luke 15, forgiveness is God the Father, throwing caution and social respectability to the wind, running down the lane, lifting the hem of his robe as he runs, to embrace the prodigal before he even makes it home! Forgiveness is God’s idea, God’s initiative, and God’s passion toward us who have done him nothing but despite, like the younger son in Jesus’ parable. No mere dispassionate, judicial pronouncement, this forgiveness. It is a reordering of life and the announcement that God’s new age has begun and the forces and powers which held the old world in its destructive thrall have more than met their match. As L. Gregory Jones writes,
“Forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with the Triune God and others. As such, a Christian account of forgiveness ought not simply or even primarily be focused on the absolution of guilt; rather, it ought to be focused on the reconciliation of brokenness, the restoration of communion – with God, with one another, and with the whole of Creation.” (Embodying Forgiveness)
Further, forgiveness is far more than an event between the individual and God (though it is that too). We’ll explore that more in the next post. N. T. Wright explains:
“. . . ‘forgiveness of sins’ was never simply a random individualistic concept. For any first-century Jew, it was much bigger: it involved the whole notion of a people in exile because of their sins, so that when God forgave them at last this would mean the restoration of national fortune. And when the early church announced ‘forgiveness of sins’ in the name of Jesus Christ, this didn’t just mean that individual sinners could get right with God, though of course it did mean that: forgiveness was a whole programme, a whole way of life, the new covenant way of life in which the restoration which God offered to all who believed in Jesus was to characterize families and communities, worldviews and life-paths, a Jubilee movement that, whenever it came upon anything amiss in human relations or society, would move heaven and earth to put it right, to restore things to the way they should be.”
And thus it is that forgiveness reclaims us for a life and a vocation God has had in mind for us from before creation and set us at the threshold of our restoration to all that.
I hope you see now that forgiveness of sins is not the point of God’s becoming incarnate in Jesus and should not be mistaken as such. But for all that, forgiveness is a wonderfully gracious and life-giving gift from our prodigal Creator.