What is Divine Forgiveness?

In the previous post I asked you to consider the question, “What is so bad about sin that we should want to be saved from it?” And the answer that forced itself upon us was that the nature of sin is “absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.” Only when we understand sin’s destructive effects on us does the gospel of Jesus Christ become good news to us. The gospel tells us that Jesus Christ came to rescue us from these ills, restore our health, and lead us to a destiny glorious beyond our imagining. What must Jesus do in order to save us?

Forgiveness

For most believers, the first idea that comes to mind in answer to this question is forgiveness. We need forgiveness for our sins, and Jesus secures divine forgiveness for us. So let’s think about forgiveness. Forgiveness makes sense only in a personal context. Sin causes damage to us and to others. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the interesting question of whether we need forgiveness from ourselves for the damage we cause to ourselves and focus on the damage we cause to other people.) Some damage we cause to other people is reparable and some is not. If you steal my cash, you could correct that harm by repaying the money. However, if you take my life or cause permanent bodily harm, you cannot repair the damage and restore the body to its original condition. But whether the physical damage is reparable or irreparable, great or small, there is another kind of damage that accompanies all sins against other people: insult or offense. Sin against others treats them as having less than human dignity. You put the disturbing thought into their minds that they are unworthy–unworthy of life, possessions, or respect. Of all the possessions a person has, a sense of their own worth is the most precious. If I do not feel that I am worthy of love and respect, I will be afraid of everyone in every situation. I will trust no one. Life becomes a burden.

The instinctive reaction to insult is anger, hatred, and desire for revenge. In revenge, people assert their dignity by attempting to balance harm with harm and insult with insult. Revenge releases anger and provides a momentary sense of relief. It is an effort to restore our damaged sense of worth, to assert and reestablish our dignity. Of course, revenge doesn’t really work to restore confidence in our dignity, because our desire for revenge shows that we never had confidence in our worth! If we had such confidence, the original insult would not have caused us to hate and desire revenge so intensely in the first place.

Now we are prepared to understand the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is refusal to take revenge for insults against us. Where do we find the power to forgive, and why should we forgive those who insult us? Forgiveness is withholding revenge, but this forbearance arises from a deeper source. The forgiving person has the spiritual power to neutralize, absorb, or be immune to insult. The insult does not shake their confidence in their own worth. Hence it does not cause fear, evoke hatred, and provoke violence. But the forgiving person is not only unshakably confident of their own value, they are also unclouded in their perception of their enemy’s dignity. Even while being insulted, they are compassionately aware of their enemy’s lack of clarity about her or his own worth. When you forgive your enemy, unlike when you take revenge on your enemy, you are witnessing to your enemy’s worth as well as your own in a dramatic way. If your enemies can receive your forgiveness, they may also come to perceive their true dignity. Only forgiveness can “balance” the books on the worth of individuals. Only forgiveness can convert an enemy.

Divine Forgiveness

Divine forgiveness follows the same logic as outlined above. When God forgives, God refrains from taking revenge. Divine forgiveness deals with the personal offense and insult sin directs at God. We cannot damage God physically as we can God’s creatures. But when we damage, insult, and withhold love from human beings, we also disbelieve, disobey, and mistrust God. We refuse his love and reject his guidance. We insult God’s dignity indirectly. (Blasphemy is direct insult of God.) God deserves our faith, obedience, and love, but when we sin against his beloved creatures, we display our ingratitude and disrespect. But God does not take revenge. God absorbs and neutralizes the insult, not returning violence for violence. God does not allow our refusal to love him to cause him to stop loving us. Our insults cannot place in God doubt of his divine dignity or lessen his love. Instead, God demonstrates his unchallenged dignity and eternal love by forgiving us. God affirms our worth by maintaining his eternal love for us unchanged

Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ action of forgiving his enemies is the expression in time of God’s eternal love and forgiveness. Let’s get clear on this: the work of Jesus Christ was not designed to change an offended and revenging God into a loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ suffering is not the cause of divine forgiveness. No. Jesus Christ is the visible, temporal enactment of divine forgiveness, of God’s eternal selfless love for us. Jesus is “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev 13:8).

In Jesus Christ, God absorbs and negates human offense and insult. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s sheer, gracious, unexpected, and incomprehensible forgiveness of insult to his divine dignity! In the humanity of Jesus Christ, God became able to suffer and die for us. Jesus’ human love for his Father in time corresponds to his divine love for the Father in eternity and his human suffering and death for us in time corresponds to God’s love and forgiveness for us in eternity. In the suffering and dying of Jesus Christ, divine forgiveness becomes effective for the conversion and salvation of humanity. In Jesus, God’s refusal to take revenge (forgiveness) becomes the negative side of a positive act of rescue from the power of sin and death.

Next Time: Forgiveness is not enough. We need healing, purification, transformation and glorification.

 

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23 thoughts on “What is Divine Forgiveness?

  1. Sara Hope

    I think my atonement theology up until this point has been: humanity sinned against/offended God –> humanity earns divine wrath –> Jesus comes to take divine wrath upon Himself –> humanity is now capable of being forgiven and restored to right relationship with God. I do think I have had more of a “cause of divine forgiveness” rather than “enactment of divine forgiveness” conception of the suffering of Christ. In allowing Himself to be crucified for doing no wrong, in accepting the sinfulness of humanity waged against Him even to the point of death, Jesus vividly and tangibly expresses the forgiving love of God that always was. The fullest expression of forgiveness. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

    Very illuminating a post indeed, Dr. Highfield!

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  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    Thank you! I hope to continue to think about the distinction between causing and enacting divine forgiveness. Though it may not answer all our questions or serve as a complete replacement for other concepts, I do think it is an important and needed distinction that we should explore further.

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  3. nokareon

    When the families of victims of the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting publicly forgave the shooter who killed their loved ones, I heard several secular humanist voices decry that act of forgiveness. According to these voices (who spoke prominently and volubly), the tragic racial justice done could only be brought to justice one way—retribution for the crime committed and ensuring that such an act never occurs again. They did not want a pardon for such an atrocious act—they wanted justice.

    It reminds me of an individual “ghost” character in the Great Divorce. When the chosen exalted spirit comes to bring him to the heavenly mountains, this ghost refuses to go upon learning that people who were murderers, thieves, extortionists, etc. on earth have been forgiven and brought into the heavenly mountains. He can’t bear the thought of having to share a plane of existence with those that have gotten off “scot-free” of the admittedly horrible wrongs they committed in their previous existence.

    Forgiveness is a gritty, controversial affair. The world of capitalist economy and the way that such attitudes permeate our everyday social interactions don’t facilitate forgiveness between people either. Yet, if the God of infinite justice has forgiven us, may we forgive our debtors as He forgives our debts.

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  4. ifaqtheology Post author

    Well said. Again, C.S. Lewis nailed it! Your comments show what a dramatic difference faith in Jesus as the revelation of God makes in theology and ethics. When I listen to representatives of the other two religions that trace themselves to Abraham, I hear the same view of forgiveness you heard from the secular humanists.

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  5. falonopsahl

    The day last semester when we had this exact discussion remains one of my favorite, if not my favorite, session from our class. It flipped my whole understanding of God upside down, and to reread it is just as beautiful. I love this so much, and I hope this understanding of divine forgiveness and atonement is eventually taught in churches and becomes part of basic Christian knowledge and understanding.

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  6. ifaqtheology Post author

    It is interesting that these reflections on divine forgiveness do not contradict other traditional views of divine forgiveness. But they place the emphasis in a different place and reorient the whole message. And they coordinate the economy of salvation with the eternal relationships among the Trinity and the eternal divine character. These are all biblical and orthodox ideas. As I have lamented in class many times, we often miss the great depths of our faith because we simply repeat words without understanding. When we miss the depths we also miss the joy. We should always expect that there are greater depths to be explored and deeper joys to be experienced!

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  7. Sammantha Lund

    Very thought provoking read. Definitely molded my thoughts on truly forgiving in the aftermath of sin. Thank you Dr. Highfield!

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      We often get “trapped” inside language and we cannot see the reality to which the language is supposed to point us. Statements such as “Jesus died for our sins” and “We are saved by grace through faith” become little more than triggers of memories. And the memories are that we’ve heard these statements before and we are supposed to say them under certain conditions. But what do they mean? Into what reality are they meant to take us? To what experience do they refer? The task of theology is to break out of the prison of language with the tools of language into the experience of the real things. Sadly, Christians are often attracted to exotic language and unorthodox thought simply because they have not realized that they are skimming along the surface of Christian language without understanding it. They are bored. The newness of the language of other religions or unorthodox systems fools them into thinking they have now found true wisdom…when in actuality they are merely fascinated by the newness of the expressions.

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  8. Douglas Throop

    Couching the theological implications of divine forgiveness within an understanding of justice. Is particularly illuminating to the state of divine grace. Albeit in a round about way! We recognize that God is refusing to exercise the revenge we deserve while also sending his Son to secure our debt by eliminating the harm done to us. A follow up question and one relevant to evangelizing may be: What does forgiveness heal?

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      I hope to address your last question next week. Forgiveness can end the cycle of insult and revenge and much of the pain, alienation, sadness and loneliness associated with this cycle. But forgiveness does not undo all the damage of sinful actions; nor does forgiveness free the sinner from the power of sin that plagues us and issues forth in sinful actions. These aspects, too, need to be dealt with. And Jesus’ resurrection and the sending of the Spirit are the first fruits of the liberation and victory to come! And their power is already at work!

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  9. Matthew McCay

    “Forgiveness is refusal to take revenge for insults against us.”

    There are a few times in my life when I sought to forgive, but despite applied and reapplied effort I found that I could not. I was only able to forgive after coming to a different, and I believe more healthy understanding of forgiveness. I believe the definition above is excellent.

    I grew up believing that forgiveness included three parts. First was the decision to lay down my right to vengeance. This is the definition above. I also believed that I had to forget that it had happened, as in the saying “forgive and forget.” Finally, I believed that I had to validate the offense in some sort of way. In “forgiving” we sometimes hear the phrase “that’s okay, I forgive you.” Not truly an admission that the offense was perfectly okay, but rather it was a downplaying of the offense at least in the relative context of the relationship.

    When something terrible happens in your life, and you are grievously wronged, I believe the Christian ideal is a forgiveness of laying down your personal vengeance of reciprocity. This ideal is exemplified when Jesus asks the Father to forgive his murderers, even at the scene of his crucifixion in Luke 23.

    I have found great self-harm in believing that forgiveness also includes forgetting something terrible, or being forced to validate that behavior by downgrading its offense in the act of forgiving. I believe that evil is evil, and that forcing someone to forget evil done to them, or downplay the offense is different from setting down a right to vengeance.

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  10. Christopher Chong

    A very insightful read. However is there no sin that God cannot forgive? I thought those who reject God will not be forgiven or rather those who blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. I also wonder if in some cases freedom needs to be defended especially in America where the military needs to be in place because of an evil world. Otherwise we could forgive the enemy, but what if the enemy does not appear to lay down their weapons or their hatred?

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  11. Katrina

    Thank you for this post, Dr. Highfield!

    While reading this, I wondered how you would tackle the question that you set aside at the beginning, as to whether we need forgiveness form ourselves. I found that question even more pressing (and challenging) once you highlighted the fact that sin treats others as being unworthy. That certainly struck a chord with me! How many times in my life have I treated myself as though I were unworthy – of love, of breath, of life – sometimes even to the point of apologizing for when merely my presence appears to be an inconvenience. I believe that self-forgiveness is one of the most important, and most difficult, things we can do – though to do so we must first understand and receive the divine forgiveness you expounded upon above. For if God has forgiven, and thereby conveyed value and worth upon us, to not forgive ourselves is to either call Him a liar or reject the full weight of His forgiveness.

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  12. mac

    I could not help but think about the biblical trait of meekness when you stated “Forgiveness is refusal to take revenge for insults against us.” My perception of meekness is a slightly different than the dictionary.com definition of the word (I am not entirely sure the way I define it is accurate at all-haha); in my mind, meekness is a person who thinks so highly of the Kingdom of God in their daily life that they are unconcerned with insults against them. They are so submissive to the Kingdom of heaven and the needs of others that they are un-offendable when it comes to someone attacking their own dignity–they focus on what is truly at stake, they see themselves as vessel to be used and take insults in an impersonal way. Meekness is not an attribute of a person with no dignity, but rather a dignity that is unshakably grounded in their God given task and identity on Earth. Meekness is a quality that I rarely see among my peers; in our contemporary age of entitlement everybody has an ego that declares “other people do not deserve what they have,” and “I want more recognition and respect.”
    I do not hope to negate the need for forgiveness through a wide spread practice of meekness because there are certain transgressions that certainly violate human dignity universally; but I wonder what a world would look like where Christians assumed meekness on a day to day basis over the little things, and how that might have an enormous social impact on the modern age. I know that it is hard to stand alone day in and day out patiently shrugging away insults, but it can be done with encouragement from our community. We must encourage each other to silence our ego’s in order to look past insults to see what is truly at stake– suddenly we realize the magnitude of what is at stake and the insignificance of what we were insulted by.
    Sorry I did not really respond to divine forgiveness but beginning words struck such a chord I had to respond in this way.

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  13. Sacha

    “The forgiving person has the spiritual power to neutralize, absorb, or be immune to insult.”
    I’m not sure if I can agree with the notion that in order to forgive we must be immune to the destructive nature of other’s actions. I don’t think you need to necessarily be unwavering in total confidence to be able to not seek revenge. I’ve just found that forgiveness should be something that takes place in spite of pain, not instead of it.

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  14. Lauren

    I really appreciated this post and the way it gave me a new perspective on the act of forgiveness in both a personal and divine context. After reading through some of these comments as well, I realized that the ideas present us with a unqiue challenge. As you touch on in this post, and as Katrina later mentioned, we as Christians need to know ourselves as worthy because we are loved by the creator and savior of the world. But, as you also discussed, part of forgiveness, and as Mac mentioned, part of encompassing the value of meekness, involves us refraining from a sense of entitlement and being able to brush off insults. I don’t find these to be contradicting ideas, but I do find that they have the possibility to cause a challenge in practical use. Often times we might use our sense of worth, and the fact that we are supposed to know our worth as Christians, as an excuse to feel like we are entitled. And maybe a sense of entitlement is easy to take on as Christians, as it is sometimes too easy to assume that our faith in Jesus does something for us or takes us ahead in some way. It is here that I think it’s important to remember that our worth is simply innate because of the work of Christ.

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  15. Matt Stinson

    “The forgiving person has the spiritual power to neutralize, absorb, or be immune to insult. The insult does not shake their confidence in their own worth. Hence it does not cause fear, evoke hatred, and provoke violence.”

    “God does not allow our refusal to love him to cause him to stop loving us. Our insults cannot place in God doubt of his divine dignity or lessen his love. Instead, God demonstrates his unchallenged dignity and eternal love by forgiving us.”

    If the reason that one seeks retribution for a wrong committed against them is because it causes them to doubt their dignity, and God never doubts his dignity, then it would seem to extend that God always forgives. Does God ever punish wrongdoing? If so, is it because he can operate on an objective standard of justice outside of revenge?

    I really appreciate your description of God’s merciful forgiveness and how we ought to forgive, I’m just curious about potential conclusions that can be drawn from your description of offense.

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  16. ifaqtheology Post author

    Astute observation. Next I will discuss how and whether or not God can heal the damage sin causes to the sinner and others. Even if God does not take revenge, does he prevent sin from having its natural consequence?

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  17. Joel Foster

    Love the idea that Jesus is the embodiment of Gods forgiveness, and the idea that God’s forgiveness is him not taking revenge on us, and not following through with that is the ultimate grace. God deserves our everything, thinking of the Shamah, and we so often fall short of that and do not deserve His grace and forgiveness. Very thought provoking.

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  18. singingmarie

    I do not understand what you are saying. Do you believe that the crucifixion was God’s expression of grief for our offences against him, or a traditional absorption of the divine consequences -which we would have suffered- of our offences into (himself?) his Son.

    Also, that last line I wrote raises the question of whether God the Father was sacrificed on the cross. I think he was not, since there is no indication of that in the Bible and since that would render incoherent the notion that there is “one mediator between God and man: Jesus Christ the Just.”

    I think you’re raising a whole lot of Trinitarian questions in your theory, implicitly. When you say God is “absorbing” our sins into himself, you are ignoring the distinction between two members of the Trinity, unless I am misunderstanding the matter, which I very well could be. Surely that question has been worked through a thousand times over by theologians, which you would know better than I.

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  19. ifaqtheology Post author

    Singingmarie: thank you for reading this essay. I don’t know quite how to respond. Did you read the previous essays in the series. I think starting at the beginning of the “miniseries” would make this essay more understandable. Perhaps I can respond more fully later.

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  20. McKayla Rosen

    Love this: “Of all the possessions a person has, a sense of their own worth is the most precious.”
    Never thought of it this way: “When you forgive your enemy, unlike when you take revenge on your enemy, you are witnessing to your enemy’s worth as well as your own in a dramatic way.”
    So thankful for divine forgiveness!

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