If You Think . . . (7)
Ch.7: The “Christian Life” is Way Harder than It Should Be
We’ve Misunderstood Forgiveness
There are two primary reasons why our experience of living as a Christian seems way harder than it should be. Three, actually, but we’ll focus on only the first one here and the others in the next post in this series. One is what we talked a bit about last time: we continue to think of ourselves primarily as “redeemed sinners.” I want to reflect some more on that here. And the second is that we’re living in the wrong story.
Okay. We keep on thinking of ourselves as redeemed sinners. Though this seems humble and pious in truth it is a heinous disregard for what God has actually done in forgiving us. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” Did you hear that: “not counting their trespasses against them”? God’s not dealing with us on the basis of our sins! Jesus has taken care of that. No he’s the only thing standing between us and God, the only thing God does take into account. And Jesus is God’s standing invitation to come home and be restored to live and love as his children again. The great theologian Karl Barth says it well:
“[Humanity’s] legal status as a sinner is rejected in every form. Man is no longer seriously regarded by God as a sinner. Whatever he may be, whatever there is to be said of him, whatever he has to reproach himself with, God no longer takes him seriously as a sinner. He has died to sin; there on the Cross of Golgotha...We are no longer addressed and regarded by God as sinners...We are acquitted gratis, sola gratia, by God's own entering in for us. (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 120-121)
God “no longer addresses or regards us as sinners! His forgiveness wipes all that out and calls us to new life, the life of God’s restored image-bearers who are henceforth defined by that identity and the vocation that comes with it of caring for others and the creation and nurturing both to full flourishing.
Of course, we still sin. But those sins no longer define us or constrain and hinder us in living out our vocation. We confess them in the confidence of God’s cleansing (1 John 1:9). But we don’t obsess over them or accept the accusations they throw our way: that we are indeed sinners, redeemed sinners, but sinners all the same.
Instead, we should be like Edmund in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He has betrayed his siblings and Aslan to the White Witch. Aslan’s supporters rescue him from her, however. And Peter, Susan, and Lucy see him the next morning walking and talking with Aslan in the distance. Edmund is restored to the community of his siblings and Aslan’s supporters. At a parley with the witch, who still has legal claims to Edmund’s life for his betrayal, she accuses Edmund screaming “Traitor!” at him. “But Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he’d been through and after the talk he’d had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn’t seem to matter what the Witch said” (141). In the light of our forgiveness we too should toss of the accusations our sins induce us to accept, and keep our focus on Jesus. That’s the true mark of our forgiveness, that our sins no longer define or deter us from living as who we in Christ.
Forgiveness is our entryway into new life. To stop with forgiveness is to misunderstand it! God never intended it to be the endpoint of our relationship to him by a way to reclaim us to restore us to who we truly are. And that restored image-bearers not redeemed sinners. We never leave forgiveness behind, of course, but we never remain there either. Two things in particular keep us focused on ourselves as redeemed sinners.
One of the most profound yet little dealt with passages in the New Testament addresses just this issue. It’s 2 Peter 1:3-9. Perhaps we don’t deal with it because it’s way in the back of the New Testament, maybe a little too close the book of Revelation for comfort! But here it is:
“His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.”
So much here! God has given us to participate in the “divine nature.” I think the author means by this language what Paul means when he says we are “in Christ.” In short, this is our restoration to our original identity and vocation we have through him. “For this very reason,” on the basis of this restoration, we can begin to add goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love to our lives. In other words, live like we were meant to live. If we are not experiencing this kind of growth, however, the author tells us that we are “short-sighted and blind . . . forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.”
If we’re not growing, not living out of our original identity and vocation, 2 Peter says it’s because we’ve forgotten we’ve been forgiven. More specifically, this likely means we’ve forgotten our baptisms (the past moment when our sins were forgiven).
It’s that simple, that profound, and that difficult. In forgiving our sins God ushers us into a new life. He puts us in the race again. And we must run. Mindful of our new life and new freedom. When we forget this, and fail to live out this new life, taking our eyes of Jesus (remember Edmund and Aslan), it’s then we get tripped up and entrapped by sin (see Hebrews 12:1-3).
When we misunderstand forgiveness simply as a transaction, a legal declaration that our debits have been cleared by God, and not a healing of our relationship with God that brings us into a new sphere of life altogether where we not only now want to but in fact can live a new life, we can fall into “cheap forgiveness.”
Paul experienced this when he encountered people who treated God’s forgiveness as a commodity. If we wanted more of this forgiveness, and to glorify the God who gives it, why sin all the more and give God the chance to bestow more forgiveness? (Romans 6:1) Or we may meet those who claim that if God’s already forgiven us fully and unconditionally, we can go and do whatever want. BTW, Luther’s oft-quote admonition to “sin boldly” does not mean anything like this.
If we misunderstand forgiveness as merely a transaction and not a relationship which, like every relationship, creates bonds of commitment and expectations, we will find ourselves content to rest on this misunderstanding and remain with this distorted version of forgiveness rather than moving forward and running the race God has set for us.
If we think we are primarily redeemed sinners it is highly likely our life in Christ will be stunted and frustrating. If we really care about it, this will be highly frustrating and lead us to consider giving up on it altogether.
There are other reasons why life in Christ may be found difficult but these are intrinsic to the nature of the relationship we have with God through forgiveness. We’ll consider them next time.