Why can't God simply forgive, without sacrifice? Why is sacrifice necessary?

We are so used to forgiveness being granted that we take it for granted. We have come to think that forgiveness is easy, to be dispensed the way we hand out compliments. But forgiveness is tough, even for God. True forgiveness is not automatic, and it has a cost. To forgive means to give up something.

We should have a forgiving attitude, as Jesus did when He prayed on the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34). If we do not forgive others, we cannot expect to receive forgiveness from God. The Lord's Prayer includes the words: "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matt 6:12). But in carrying out our duty of forgiving, we should not overlook the cost of forgiveness and regard it as an unthinking "knee-jerk" reaction.

Michael Carneal, age 14, shot and killed three girls who were his classmates at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky. Almost immediately, surviving classmates put up a sign saying "We forgive you, Mike!" Dennis Prager reacted to this example of what he regards as a "feel-good doctrine of automatic forgiveness":

Even by God, forgiveness is contingent on the sinner repenting, and it can be given only by the one sinned against.

"And if your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him," reads Luke 17:3-4. "And if seven times of the day he sins against you, and seven times of the day turns to you saying, I repent, you shall forgive him." ("When Forgiveness Is a Sin," Reader's Digest [March, 1998], p. 38; reprinted from The Wall Street Journal, December 15, 1997).

Perhaps Prager has underestimated the cost of emotional pain borne by the students who put up the sign. Perhaps the forgiveness that they offered to Mike was not as automatic and meaningless as Prager supposes. But Prager's caution is worth considering. True forgiveness is not automatic, and it does have a cost.

A Christian should offer forgiveness the way God does: as a deliberate, conscious, and meaningful choice, whether or not the person who has committed the wrong repents and accepts the forgiveness, or even asks for it.

Forgiveness is not only something that is offered, it is a transaction between two parties, the one wronged and the one who has committed the wrong. Until the one who has committed the wrong repents and accepts forgiveness, forgiveness is not complete in the sense that the offender does not receive the benefit of forgiveness. At the Israelite sanctuary, God continually made forgiveness available. But a sinner was only said to be "forgiven" when he/she accepted God's forgiveness by bringing a sacrifice (Lev 4:31, 35).

If you want to see how agonizing true forgiveness can be, look at the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. When Joseph was second in command to Pharaoh and his brothers showed up in Egypt to buy grain, Joseph did not immediately reveal his identity. Before he forgave his brothers, he tested them in all kinds of ways, to find out whether they were the same sort of individuals who had stripped him, thrown him in a pit, callously sat down to eat, and then sold him to a living death of slavery (Gen 37:23-28).

Forgiveness was tough for Joseph. Because his brothers passed the character tests he set up, thereby showing their change of heart and repentance for what they had done to Joseph, he became willing to reveal himself in order to forgive them.

We know that the story has a good ending. So we tend to take too much for granted. What if Joseph's brothers had failed his test by abandoning Simeon in Egypt (Gen 42:18-24)? What if they had consented to Benjamin remaining as Joseph's slave because he had allegedly stolen Joseph's silver cup (44:1-17)? Would Joseph have forgiven them? Perhaps not.

Judah's speech, imploring Joseph to let Benjamin go, put the capstone on Joseph's realization that his brothers were repentant, reformed men. Judah ended his speech:

Now therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy; and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father (Gen 44:33-34).

These words melted Joseph's heart.

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" (Gen 45:1-3).

Philip Yancey comments:

When grace finally broke through to Joseph, the sound of his grief and love echoed throughout the palace. What is that wail? Is the king's minister sick? No, Joseph's health was fine. It was the sound of a man forgiving.

Behind every act of forgiveness lies a wound of betrayal, and the pain of being betrayed does not easily fade away. (What's So Amazing About Grace? [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997], p. 85).

Joseph revealed himself, and then he expressed his forgiveness in words and by kissing his brothers and weeping upon them (Gen 45:4-15). He did not reveal himself until he was ready to forgive.

Unlike Joseph, God pursued Adam and Eve to reveal Himself as soon as they sinned (Gen 3:8-9). God continued to reveal Himself to patriarchs, to the Israelites at the sanctuary, to prophets, and ultimately to all of us when Christ emigrated to our Planet.

God's willingness to reveal Himself has consistently shown His willingness to offer forgiveness. Had He not wanted to forgive us, He would not have bothered to reveal Himself.

If God did not reveal Himself in order to help us, we could not take the first step toward repentance. Repentance is a gift of God (Acts 5:31). If God waited for us to repent before He revealed Himself, we would all be lost.

Think about this. If it was hard for Joseph to forgive after his brothers showed repentance, how much harder must it be for God to offer forgiveness before we even realize our need for repentance?

Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:7-8).

We have wounded the great, sensitive heart of God by rebelling against Him. If anything, He must suffer the pain of betrayal more than we do when people wrong us. But through His tears He reaches out because love overcomes pain.

If God was already in pain because of human sin, why did He immeasurably add to His own pain by having Christ die on the cross? Couldn't He avoid the pain? Only if He protected His heart by covering it with rejection, steeling Himself against forgiving us, abandoning His desire for a relationship with us. If He did this He would not be a God of ultimate love as He claims to be (1 Jn 4:8).

Love includes justice as well as mercy. To give mercy at the expense of justice would be to compromise love. Christ's sacrifice makes it possible for God to maintain His justice when He gives us mercy by forgiving us for breaking God's law. Justice demands that we die. Christ has died in our place to fulfill that demand: "...he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed" (Isa 53:5).

The law we have broken is love (Matt 22:36-40). But love is also the powerful force that impels God to try to save us at any cost. We see this divine obsession in Judges 10:16. When the Israelites put away their idols and turned back to worshiping the Lord, "he could no longer bear to see Israel suffer." He couldn't stand it! He just had to deliver Israel. And deliver Israel He did.

God chooses to save us. John 3:16 says: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son..." (NASB). He chose to give. He wasn't paying taxes. He chose to give because of who He chooses to be: the God of love. His giving is the outflow of His chosen nature.

When He was on earth, Christ showed how God wants to forgive and restore faulty human beings. The story goes like this:

Disarranged locks of long, dark hair frame a tear-streaked face. Lowered eyes, wild with terror, glance about furtively. She is wearing, well, whatever she could grab to hastily cover herself before going before the king for judgment. King? Yes, but he's not on a throne and few people recognize that He is king. Instead of guards around Him He has a few fishermen.

This woman doesn't choose to go before the king. She is dragged there by a group of men, men of honorable demeanor who express horror at her crime. But they also seem to be delighted to have the opportunity to bring her to the king, as if they are glad that she sinned so they could catch her.

"We caught her, we did, in the act, yes, the very act of adultery. Adultery, no less, yes it was adultery all right. What do you say, teacher, what do you say we should do with this wretched woman? Moses made it clear, yes, very clear, what we should do: He commanded us to stone such a woman. But what do you say, teacher, what do you say we should do with her?"

Jesus knows that He is on trial with the woman. Whatever He says, they will get Him. If He says to stone her according to the law of Moses, they will turn Him over to the Roman authorities for illegally taking the law into His own hands by condemning someone to death. If He says not to stone her, He will be speaking against the law of Moses and therefore lose all credibility with the Jews who follow Him.

There are only two answers to the question of what to do with the woman: stone her or don't stone her. They have Him either way. Brilliant.

They might expect Jesus to question the details of the case. Had she really committed adultery? Was she presently married? Where was her lover? It takes two to commit adultery and the law of Moses condemns both together, not just the woman (Deut 22:22). Apparently they have the answers to these questions and Jesus knows that she is really an adulteress. Her lover must have mysteriously been allowed to escape.

Whatever He might say, Jesus is trapped. So He doesn't say anything. Instead, He bends down and starts writing with His finger in the limestone dust that covers the ground in Jerusalem.

"Teacher, don't ignore us. This is a serious case. What should we do with this woman?" He straightens up and replies: "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (Jn 8:7).

So Jesus does not say that the woman should die according to the law of Moses; He assumes that she is worthy of death and simply addresses the way in which the execution is to be carried out. He doesn't directly say to stone her. He says in effect, if you want to stone her, go ahead, but remember that only a righteous person has the right to begin the execution. Then He bends down and keeps on writing in the dust.

"What's He writing? I'd better take a look. Oh, no! He's writing my sin–here in public where everyone can see! How does He know about that? If anyone else finds out I'm going to be dead meat, a mere grease spot on the pages of history! I'd better get out of here before they catch me and stone me with that adulterous woman!"

They have condemned her loudly, but they depart quietly. And quickly too, as fast as their long Pharisaic robes will let them go.

The next time Jesus straightens up, they are all gone and He is left with only the woman standing before Him. She is still there cowering, waiting for the first stone to strike her.

He says to her: "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

She manages to squeak out the words, "No one, sir."

Jesus replies, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again" (Jn 8:11).

"Neither do I condemn you." Jesus doesn't say she isn't guilty and worthy of death. His finger, which wrote the sins of the Pharisees in the dust, had written the seventh commandment in stone over a thousand years earlier: "You shall not commit adultery" (Exod 20:14). His law is eternal, immutable, irrevocable. He has written it in stone.

But sins are not written in stone. Thank God, Jesus writes even the sins of Pharisees in dust, not stone! Our sins are not eternal because Jesus can wipe them out.

When Jesus says to the woman, "Neither do I condemn you," what He means is: I forgive you as an act of mercy. He doesn't dispute her guilt, but He prevents her execution from being carried out.

Jesus also says: "Go your way, and from now on do not sin again." His forgiveness is redemptive. He forgives people so that they might have a chance to begin a new, better kind of life. He accepts us just as we are, but He doesn't leave us just as we were! "Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me" (Mic 7:8).

God is eager to restore us. No, that's not strong enough. He is obsessed with restoring us! This is in spite of the fact that forgiveness is tough for Him, as proven by the sacrifice of Christ. When God grants us forgiveness freely, as a gift, let us never, never, never take it for granted. Look at the cross again and remember the cost of forgiveness.


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