Saturday, December 17, 2005

WHAT IS FORGIVENESS? Jay E. Adams

THE correct answer to the question at the head of this chapter is essential. In any study, a proper understanding of basic issues is important early on as a foundation on which to build structures of truth. That is certainly the case when considering forgiveness. Until this basic question has been satisfactorily addressed, you will address other questions regarding forgiveness either unsatisfactorily or not at all.

I'm not so sure I see your point. Doesn't everyone know what forgiveness is? Why, when someone has wronged me, I expect him to come and apologize. Then I tell him, "That's OK." That's forgiveness isn't it?

No, I'm afraid it isn't. You see, many wrong ideas go about masquerading as forgiveness that are not biblical forgiveness at all. Indeed, probably most Christians have wrong ideas about forgiveness, just like those in the previous paragraph.

Well, I can't see where there's anything wrong with the ideas I just expressed. I'm baffled, I always thought forgiveness was one of those areas, unlike baptism and predestination, where there is no argument. You' re going to have to do some pretty fancy talking to convince me that I don't understand what forgiveness is.

I realize that. I also recognize that discussion of forgiveness is commonly neglected because everyone thinks he understands it when actually he doesn't. Take, for instance, your notion of apologizing. Where do you find that in the Bible? Do biblical writers, like many Christians writing today, ever equate apologizing with seeking forgiveness?

Well . . . no. I guess not. But everyone knows that apologizing is what you do when you seek forgiveness.

Frankly, I'm afraid that's what most Christians do think. But, as you will discover later on, apologizing is not only unscriptural, it is the world's unsatisfactory substitute for forgiveness. I don't want to discuss apologizing now, but I bring it up because you mentioned it. And what you said is a good example of what I have been talking about wrong assumptions that are so widespread that few ever think to question them.

Well, I guess I can't think of anything in the Bible that tells us to apologize, so perhaps there is a thing or two that I can learn about forgiveness after all. But I still can't see where apologizing is a substitute for forgiveness.

We'll come to that in good time, but first, as I said, it is important to build a proper biblical foundation for all such discussions. That's why, at this point, I want to talk about forgiveness itself. What is forgiveness anyway? There are at least two ways to answer that question.

What Forgiveness Does and Is

We can talk about what forgiveness does (i.e., what it accomplishes). To do so is to speak practically, in terms of its results. In such an answer our response would begin with words like these: Forgiveness is a process whereby . . .

That's one way to answer the question. Perhaps it is the principal way in which it has been answered by theologians and preachers over the years. As important as that answer is, it is not what I want to consider here.

The other way in which the question What is forgiveness may be answered is to discuss its nature or essence. That is to say, having boiled all else away, what is the irreducible element that is left that makes forgiveness forgiveness?

For many years I read about forgiveness, talked about forgiveness, preached forgiveness. And most of what I said was true. However, there was something missing, something that remained vague, unexplained - something intangible that dogged my steps. Then one day I began to think deeply about forgiveness. In the process I asked myself, What is forgiveness anyway? You know, I didn't have an answer. I simply couldn't state what, in its essence, forgiveness is. ?Is it a feeling? I wondered. But that didn't seem right. Doesn't God require me to forgive my brother, whether I feel like it or not? Unlike modern discussions of forgiveness, there is nothing in the Bible about feelings of forgiveness or having forgiving feelings toward another. No, that is clearly the wrong path to an answer. Well, then, what is forgiveness?

Thinking about the matter, I remembered that Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:32 to forgive one another just as God, for Christ's sake, has forgiven us. Among other things, I reasoned, that means our forgiveness is to be modeled after God's. In order to find out what forgiveness is I must study God's forgiveness. At last I have found the key to unlock the door to the meaning of forgiveness.

Obviously, when God forgives, He does not simply sit in the heavens and emote. So forgiveness isn't a feeling. If it were, we would never know that we have been forgiven. No, when God forgives, He goes on record. He says so. He declares, I will not remember your sins (Isa 43:25; see also Jer 31:34). Isn't that wonderful? When He forgives, God lets us know that He will no longer hold our sins against us. If forgiveness were merely an emotional experience, we would not know that we were forgiven. But praise God, we do, because forgiveness is a process at the end of which God declares that the matter of sin has been dealt with once and for all.

Now, what is that declaration? What does God do when He goes on record saying that our sins are forgiven? God makes a promise. Forgiveness is not a feeling; forgiveness is a promise!

Forgiveness Is a Promise

Never forget that fact. It is one of the most stupendous facts of all time. When our God forgives us, He promises that He will not remember our sins against us anymore! That is wonderful!

Yes, I recognize that is what Isaiah and Jeremiah say. But I've always had a problem with such statements. How can God, who knows all things past, present, and future ever forget anything? How can He forget our sins?

He doesn't.

But doesn't it say that He won't remember our sins?

Yes, it does, but that's not the same thing as forgetting them. Obviously, the omniscient God who created and sustains the universe does not forget, but He can not remember. You see, forgetting is passive and is something that we human beings, not being omniscient, do. Not remembering is active; it is a promise whereby one person (in this case, God) determines not to remember the sins of another against him. To not remember is simply a graphic way of saying, I will not bring up these matters to you or others in the future. I will bury them and not exhume the bones to beat you over the head with them. I will never use these sins against you.

So now I see the difference! You have answered a perplexing problem that I have never been able to resolve before. I am certainly glad to have a clear, satisfying explanation of that matter at last. Perhaps there is more to forgiveness than at first meets the eye. Probably I have a lot more to learn than I realized.

From From Forgiven to Forgiving by Jay E. Adams, Calvary Press, Amityville, NY 11701 website: www.calvarypress.com.

Jay E. Adams: Dr. Adams has pastored churches in Western Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the old United Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, E.S., and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He is now an ordained Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister. Author of numerous books including From Forgiven to Forgiving.

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