I have my wife to thank for the inspiration for this post, as it was basically her insight.
In the course of our church’s monthly Communion service, our pastor likes to quote from I John.
There’s lots of good stuff in I John, but one of the things he quoted yesterday was from chapter 1 verse 9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”.
Note the language used here. Not “He is faithful and merciful to forgive”, but “He is faithful and just”.
This verse ties God’s forgiveness, not to His mercy and grace, but to His justice.
I’ve said before that justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin, so this probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. However, I can be slow on the uptake sometimes, and perhaps I hadn’t traced out the implications of that as far as I had thought.
What makes this interesting, of course, is that we so often want to set justice and mercy in opposition to one another. Either you get justice or you get mercy, and we’d much rather get mercy.
Here, however, God’s justice is on display in His forgiveness of sins. Why should this be, and how?
Partly, this is a reflection of Hebrew thought. As I understand it, in Hebrew, the words for justice and righteousness are the same word. I’m no Hebrew scholar, but certainly there seems a lot of overlap, with some of our English translations going one way and others the other in translating the same Hebrew word (see, for example, “the righteous/just shall live by faith” Habakkuk 2:4 and Romans 1:17).
As the Righteous One, God alone is truly entitled to do something about sins. It is, after all, His Law that has been transgressed. Sins have an effect on us and on other people, but they are first and foremost against God, and as grievous as their effects on human beings may be, they pale beside their affront to the One who is Righteous. The Pharisees’ question of “who can forgive sins but God alone?” wasn’t so far afield; it’s just that they didn’t like the implications of Jesus claiming that prerogative. You don’t get to decide that this or that harmful act had negligible effects on me and can be forgiven by an outside third party, nor do I get that privilege for you. It’s the one sinned against that has the right to forgive. God is the One whose righteous law has been transgressed; God is the One to whom we owe the debt of sin. He is the One with the right to forgive. Similarly, we don’t get to hold other people accountable for their sins against God or against others when He has forgiven them. (This may be part of why showing forgiveness to others is a necessary part of being forgiven; I’ll have to think on that some more).
God is righteous to forgive.
But the idea of righteousness includes the idea of justice as we understand it. The legal acquittal of the innocent and punishment of the guilty. Punishment being neither too unreasonably harsh nor too unrighteously lax. Getting what you deserve. How is that on display in the forgiveness of sins? How can God be just to forgive?
Sin is often described in the Bible as a debt. Indeed, the church we go to even uses the language of debt in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”.
It’s a useful metaphor, but like all metaphors, it has its limits.
It can be easy to slip into a legalistic mindset, in which it’s all a numbers game. How can I pay off my debt to God? What righteous act can I do to balance the scales?
In this mindset, the fact that Jesus paid our debt of sin just means that now we owe God for that. If we fail to measure up to God’s exacting standards, He’s standing by with a hammer, just waiting to bring it down on us.
This is not God the Just. Real justice isn’t a numbers game. It’s not a balancing act of righteous deeds and unrighteous ones. Justice is an outworking of compassion as surely as mercy; shorn of this, it becomes the automatic, fatalistic idea of Karma.
It’s not just to forgive a debt and continue to hold it against someone. It’s not just to place a burden of repayment on someone that they can never repay. We call that “debt slavery” and it’s a great evil. Let us not in our thinking attribute this travesty to God.
God is just in forgiveness. When He forgives, He forgives. The fact that Jesus paid the price does not mean that we owe God for doing so. Jesus gave His life to show God and His Law as righteous, not to create a debt for us before God.
What does the Lord require from us for forgiveness? Repentance and faith.
These are two aspects of the same thing: metanoia, changing your mind and direction to agree and align with God, agreeing with both His jugdement that you have missed the mark and broken His law, and with His remedy, the atonement provided by Jesus. You can’t repent without exercising faith, because when you repent you change your mind to say that God is right and you aren’t, and you change your direction from going your own way to going God’s. This is faith: trusting God rather than your own understanding. Nor can you exercise faith without repentance, because when you trust in God you must agree that He knows better than you. Trusting necessarily involves turning away from your own understanding.
This is important stuff, because we can even make repentance into a sort of work we do in order to get forgiven, but the main point here is that this is not something beyond us. His grace is sufficient for the most hardened and self-willed anti-God sinner to exercise faith and repentance. And it’s not just for the hardened anti-God sinner, either. Or rather, that state describes each one of us, sooner or later. We’ve all decided we know better than God, decided that what He really wants is this or that righteous act, this or that quantity of faith (like faith is something we can measure and compare).
It’s simple, and just. Not a burden beyond the strength of any to carry; not an unreasonable requirement. Confess and be forgiven. Turn from your own way and align yourself with your Creator. You don’t have to continue in your self-centred, self-pleasing way any more.
He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. Not only that, but also to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In repentance and faith we align ourselves with God. We become motivated and directed by His Spirit. This necessarily includes the probability, as John goes on to say in chapter 2 verse 1 a few verses later, that we will not commit sins any more. How can we continue in sin, now that we are aligned with a righteous God?
We aren’t always that perfectly aligned, nor do we always stay that perfectly aligned. But if we do sin, we have an Advocate with the Father. Getting back in line is as simple as confessing and being forgiven, because He is faithful and just. He forgives. It’s part of His justice.