AMERICAN psychiatrist Karl Menninger once remarked that if he could convince the patients in psychiatric hospitals that their sins were forgiven, 75 per cent of them could walk out the next day! Sadly, the psychiatric hospitals are still filled with people whose hearts and souls are tormented by guilt.
People plagued with guilt are not only found in hospitals; they are found everywhere, even in church. In the liturgy of the Lord’s Table, following the confession of sins, the pastor pronounces the words, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven”, which the people repeat to the pastor. These precious, life-giving words echo the words of the One who alone can forgive our sins – When Jesus met the paralytic man whose legs were tied by invisible ropes of guilt, He healed him and declared “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Mt 9:2).
But why is it that even after hearing these words, there are multitudes of guilty people still immobilised in their spiritual journeys, unable to move towards true life and its joy? To understand this, we need to reflect further on the underlying purpose of God’s forgiveness.
God forgives us so that we can be reconciled with Him. Because of our sins, we have been alienated from God, but our merciful and gracious God has opened the door for us to be reconciled with Him. This reconciliation is achieved when divine forgiveness meets with human repentance. When the risen Christ met His fearful disciples, He “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures”. Then He told them, “The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations.” (Lk. 24:45-47).
Christ died on the cross to declare that all are forgiven. And yet, not all are reconciled with God. Why? Because while all have been forgiven, not all have repented. For true reconciliation between God and human beings to take place, divine forgiveness is like a life-giving seed that must fall into the soil of human repentance. Then the fruits of reconciliation will burst forth with joyous vigour.
For this to happen, we must deal with at least two obstacles. The first is pride. The problem is not that God has not forgiven us, for His love reaches out to the worst of sinners. The problem is that people have not repented. And this is often due to pride. To repent, one must acknowledge one’s true condition. To do that, one needs humility, which is made available to us by God’s grace. Whether we use it by faith will determine whether or not we truly repent.
It is clear that even in church there are people who find it difficult to humbly accept God’s forgiveness. Instead they are busy trying to show through their good works that they are not that bad after all. Pride blinds them from realising or accepting that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags”. (Is. 64:6). They live frenzied lives, performing a religion that is rooted in pride rather than humility. In reality they have failed to repent, and
therefore have not experienced God’s forgiveness and the reconciliation with Him that follows.
NOT ALL HAVE REPENTED
‘Christ died on the cross to declare that all are forgiven. And yet, not all are reconciled with God. Why? Because while all have been forgiven, not all have repented.’
As pastoral theologian David Augsburger has wisely noted, “Since nothing we intend is ever faultless, and nothing we attempt ever without error, and nothing we achieve without some measure of finitude and fallibility we call humanness, we are saved by forgiveness.”
The second obstacle is a self-centred, non-relational view of forgiveness. It is a common mistake to think that our sins are forgiven by God simply to make us look good again. We might be like the man in court who hears the judge declare that he is not guilty. He heaves a sigh of relief, lifts his head high and walks away feeling vindicated.
When God forgives us, it is not quite like this. It is more like the story of the prodigal son told by Jesus (Lk 15: 11-32). The wayward son comes to his senses and decides to return to his father’s house. He rehearses what he would tell his father – “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.”
When he reaches his waiting father, he blurts out what he had carefully rehearsed on the road of repentance. But his father did not allow him to complete his speech, especially the part about being a hired man. Perhaps the son thought that his repentance would make him look a little better in his father’s eyes – enough to hire him as one of the servants.
But the father demonstrated what God does each time someone turns to Him with repentance. God’s forgiveness has to do not so much with making us look good, but to bring us to a deep loving relationship with Him.
When we crawl up to God’s throne with repentance, we will find Him waiting for us, having already forgiven us. When we appear bankrupt before the divine judge in our torn rags, smelling with the stench of sin, covered in the shameful grime of fully exposed inner corruptedness, and drooling helplessly with the foolishness of sin, God declares that our sins are forgiven. Then the unimaginable happens. Instead of giving us a lecture or mocking us, the Judge rises up from His throne, comes to us and embraces us. As He does so, we realise that in embracing us, He has been hurt … His blood washes us clean. We discover that forgiveness, as Mark Twain wrote, “is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it”.
More than self-focused relief that we have been forgiven, we discover the joy of being reconciled, of finding the depths of a profound love that invites us to an eternal relationship. We break free from our self-imposed prison and find ourselves in a feast.
On May 24, 1748, John Wesley found this joy. He wrote: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ … and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine …” Wesley discovered the freedom of being forgiven and the joy of being reconciled with God. How about you?