We receive power to forgive those who injure and insult us from our confidence that God will restore our dignity, dry our tears and heal our wounds. And by exercising this power, we invite God to work through us to begin the work of restoring, comforting and healing the world even in this life. But what gives us confidence that God can and will forgive and make all things right?
There are two distinct issues in this question: how do we know God will make all things right? And how can God do this without neglecting justice? The first issue is a bit easier to address. In the Old Testament, God’s people were given means by which to restore themselves to God’s favor after they sinned. Through sacrifice, repentance and prayer, the people were able to find forgiveness and renewed confidence in God’s favor. The assumption underlying these means of grace and forgiveness is that God is willing and able to forgive, though not condone, sin. God’s forgiveness serves his ultimate purpose of creating a faithful people. God is willing to forgive in view of a future where sin is overcome completely.
In the New Testament, God’s willingness to forgive takes surprising and dramatic form. God sends his eternal Son to live as a human being should live and die as a sinner. In the tradition of Old Testament sacrifice, Jesus Christ bore the sin of the world in his death. Jesus takes the injury and insult of sin into himself and overcomes it. And God raised him from the dead. The gospel is the good news that God has unambiguously demonstrated his willingness to forgive and his desire to free us from the power of sin and death. As the Apostles Creed emphasizes, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” God’s revelation in the life and work of Jesus Christ is blessed assurance that God will make all things right.
The second issue is concerns how God can forgive without condoning sin and injustice. And this is not an easy thing to understand. With reference to the injustice human beings do to each other, perhaps we can gain some insight. Unlike us, God possesses the power and the know how to work things out in his providence in history and in the future resurrection of the dead so that injustice is overturned and made to serve the good. Paul says this clearly, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:18-37). Injury and insult will be eclipsed by glory. And we will be more than conquerors, that is, the victory will be so triumphant that it makes the enemy look insignificant and battle effortless. Hence God can forgive injustice in the present in view of his plan to overcome it in the future. [And, in case you are wondering about it, Paul tells us that plan is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph 1:10)]
But what about the insult and injury that injustice directs toward God? How can God forgive that? Where else could we turn for an answer to this question other than to Jesus Christ! How did Jesus deal with the insult and injury toward himself? He endured it and neutralized it. Since Jesus reveals the heart of God toward sinners we must conclude that God forgives sin by enduring it, suffering it and overcoming it through love. Jesus’ sacrifice is the historical event of God’s eternal love toward sinners. Jesus revealed and made effective in human life God’s eternal willingness to endure the hostility of sinners in view of his future plans for their salvation.
And when we forgive our enemies we also participate in a historical event of God’s eternal love toward sinners in hope for their ultimate repentance and salvation.