Friday, March 23, 2007

Seventy times seven

Last week, I talked about the Price of Sorrow and how a man who had committed a rape had asked apologized as a 12 step program and was subsequently being sent to jail for the crime, even though the victim said that she had forgiven him.

That got me thinking about the nature of forgiveness, and while it's something that I've pondered before, where it got me thinking this time is the nature of God and forgiveness.

Now, I warning before I get into this: I'm snorkeling through pretty deep waters here. I'm no practiced and studied theologian, so I just offer that for perspective.

In Matthew 18, Jesus is talking a lot about people's relationships with each other, when in the context of Jesus talking about how to deal with a brother or sister who sins against you, Peter comes up and asks, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" The meaning, as I've seen it understood, is that Peter is being a good Jew here. He's coming up and showing how willing he is to forgive the seven times necessary.

However, Jesus responds, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." And the intent here is to not show a hard number, but symbolic. It's to say that you can't quantify forgiveness. That forgiveness must always be extended. And this is what got me thinking about God and forgiveness.

In some ways, I feel like Christians have treated forgiveness like a cause and effect cycle. God forgives me after I repent. I have to make the first step towards Him before He extends His grace to me, and I think that's really missing the mark. Because here's the idea that's messing with me.... If we are asked to never stop extending forgiveness to those who need it, is that same principle not applicable to God? Does God only extend forgiveness for a certain amount of time and then pull it back and say, "Nope, sorry, just a limited time offer." That would really play into the Jonathan Edwards' sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God mindset which strikes me as really dangerous.

If forgiveness is real and it's from God, then forgiveness is forever. So the question is, what does that mean? Is forgiveness always there and we just have to access it? If so, is that any different from the previous mindset of having to ask before we get it? Is God's forgiveness accessible without having to ask it? Is it then a matter of choosing to act like we are forgiven and participants in the Kingdom of God? How quickly does this slide down the slippery slope to universalism?

I'm really interested in hearing people's ideas. These are some ideas that are giving me pause to think these days.

11 comments:

Scott said...

Phil, these questions do invite a lot of follow-up questions about our traditional view of God, Hell, and forgiveness.
It's long past time that we begin to readdress these issues in light of the nature and character of God. You know most of my thoughts and I plan on blogging on it in the near future.
Maybe, it's not a slippery slope to universalism. Maybe it is a call to understand how a universal understanding of salvation can still incorporate the notion of hell and punishment and, at the same time, maintain a high view of scripture.

jeffrey said...

great post Phil.

I say forget about what is at the bottom of whatever slope we're sliding down. -Ism's and their accompanying preconceived notions often deter us from change or from action...do they not?

With specific regards to your post, I think you hit on a very pertinent topic. Allow me to ask one question further?

If forgiveness cannot be quantified and it exists not as a result of a cause, but as a sort of state of existence, is this so for everyone (not just Christians)?

sorry for the length of the comment...

Brent said...

I like where you are going with this, Phil. I fear that most Christians will require that this conversation will have to have a line drawn somewhere because the end point would be universalism as you have pointed out.

It may be, however, that universalism is the best answer to your question.

Jeff said...

Phil, I have thoughts, but I'm afraid I'm going to sound ignorant without further education. Can you define universalism for me? It's been a long time since my Intro to Philosphy class.

Phil said...

Jeff, my understanding of universalism is basically that God's Grace has covered everyone whether you actually "accept" Jesus or not. So it's basically universal salvation.

Justin said...

Well, just because everyone will be forgiven doesn't mean everyone is experiencing salvation. Which is why Jesus warns to repent. If I live my life in rebellion to God, I will still be reunited in the end when the kingdom is manifested completely, but by not living in the kingdom, I am missing out on full life, on salvation.

Jeff said...

Got it. Thanks, Phil. That's pretty much what I thought, but couldn't verbalize it.

So, what do you do with Jesus' dialogue with the sheep and the goats? He didn't sound very forgiving there.

I say that in all humility because I struggle with that and not to downplay other comments. Although I do have your comment running through my head, Justin. I just don't know what my thoughts are. I'll need to think more when I'm not at work. Based on my upbringing, this whole thinking thing is hard for me. There were no pamphlets or articles in the Gospel Advocate that covered this topic when I was growing up.

Phil said...

That's true, Jeff. But if you're thinking about the Matthew 25 sheep and goats passage, notice there that the rejection is NOT based on whether the sheep or goats chose to "accept Jesus as their personal savior" (whatever the heck that really means), but because they did not visit the prisoner and feed the hungry and care for the sick.

In fact, it seems to be in SPITE of the fact that they claimed Jesus as Lord.

Jeff said...

I am right on with you, Phil. The reason I brought it up is I think what Jesus is describing in Matt 25 is the full kingdom kind of life Justin mentioned. One that picks up a cross and denies self, etc. THAT is what I think it means to proclaim Jesus as Lord. I don't think he was saying they were rewarded in SPITE of calling him Lord, they were rewarded because they didn't just call him "Lord" (like I call you "Phil"), they actually claimed him as Lord through dying to self, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, etc. I think the point of Matt 25 is that there's a difference between calling him Lord, and truly proclaiming and living it. Anyway, my point was not why there was rejection, but that there was rejection (back to my question on what universalism is). And you're right, the rejection was not pointed at prostitutes, homosexuals, etc., but at the self-righteous.

Well, I'm all over the place and I think I've hit my quota of three comments in a day, so I'll stop.

JMG said...

2 Corinthians 5.18 (and other passages) discuss the idea of reconciliation. This particular passage says that God used Christ to reconcile the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.

If he's already not holding people's trespasses, or sins, against them, then that seems to mean that those trespasses are already forgiven whether people ask forgiveness or not.

I have a sort of universalist view. I think that we're all forgiven already and that it's possible that mercy is going to be extended to all at some point. But I also look at the sheep and goats passage and see that Jesus is talking about the Kingdom--the physical, earthly kingdom that is to come; the kingdom that is the reward for those who live in the manner that Jesus prescribed and who believe in him as Messiah. Those people believed the gospel message, so they get to reign with Christ. If they get to reign, then they must reign over something or someone, so those someones must be the ones who didn't believe but who are reconciled nonetheless even though they didn't believe in it.

I hope I made sense.

Matt said...

One of the most touching stories of forgiveness that I think teaches us a lot of how it is practiced when the rubber meets the road

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/voices/boom.html

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