Minister Speaks: Where forgiveness is found
On an episode of NBC’s ER, there is a powerful scene of a retired police officer lying in his hospital bed, confessing to a chaplain his long-held guilt over allowing an innocent man to be framed and executed.
He asks, “How can I even hope for forgiveness?”
The chaplain replies, “I think sometimes it’s easier to feel guilty than forgiven.”
“Which means what?”
The chaplain continues, “That maybe your guilt over his death has become your reason for living. Maybe you need a new reason to go on.”
“I don’t want to ‘go on,’” says the dying man. “Can’t you see that I’m dying? The only thing that is holding me back is that I’m afraid – I’m afraid of what comes next.”
“What do you think that is?” the chaplain gently inquires.
Growing impatient, the man answers, “You tell me. Is atonement possible? What does God want from me?”
To this, the chaplain replies, “I think it’s up to each one of us to interpret for ourselves what God wants.”
The man stares at her in bewilderment. “So people can do anything? They can rape, they can murder, they can steal – all in the name of God and it’s OK?”
Growing intense, the dialogue draws to its climax.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying,” the chaplain responds.
The former officer retorts, “Then what are you saying? Because all I’m hearing is some New Age, God-is love, have-it-your-way crap!…No, I don’t have time for this now.”
“You don’t understand,” the chaplain counters.
“No, You don’t understand!…I want a real chaplain who believes in a real God and a real hell!” says the man.
Missing the point of this man’s struggle, the chaplain collects herself and says in the familiar tone of condescension disguised as understanding, “I hear that you’re frustrated, but you need to ask yourself-”
“No,” the man interrupts, “I don’t need to ask myself anything. I need answers and all of your questions and all your uncertainty are only making things worse.”
She encourages calm. “I know you’re upset,” she begins, provoking his final outburst of frustration.
“God, I need someone who will look me in the eye and tell me how to find forgiveness, because I am running out of time!”
Where can one find forgiveness?
The Bible teaches that God is both a God of love and of justice. Many people struggle with this. They believe that a loving God can’t be a judging God.
How does the Bible ground forgiveness? How can we be sure?
In a fascinating passage found in the Old Testament, God declares his character to Moses: “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 33:6-7).
God told Moses that he is both compassionate and committed to punishing evil. These are both aspects of his goodness that God declares. He says, “Here is all my goodness. I’m infinitely loving, and I’m infinitely just.”
It seems like a striking contradiction, but upon reflection it can be seen that the single word “goodness” binds these apparently contradictory traits together.
Why is it that God must punish sin? It’s because he would not be perfectly good if he overlooked evil.
Then why should God show forgiveness? God offers forgiveness because he’s infinitely loving.
So his righteousness and his love, far from being at loggerheads, are both simply functions of his goodness. He could not be perfectly good unless he was endlessly loving and perfectly just.
Nevertheless, we can still perceive an apparent contradiction. We don’t see how he can both punish sin and forgive sinners.
We reason: Either God is perfectly just, and then will only love those who are “good people;” or, he’s perfectly loving, and will overlook any and every sin. How can God be all good in being perfectly just and perfectly loving at once?
Through Jesus Christ, and only through him, we can see all the goodness of God. In Jesus, love and justice come together.
If Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, that’s how God can be infinitely just. All sin was punished there, and it’s how God can be infinitely loving. He took our sin onto himself by taking our punishment for us.
On the cross, the justice of God exacted full punishment for sin. In the same moment, it provided an undeserved and unmerited salvation to all who believe.
On the cross, both the justice and love of God come together in perfect harmony.
“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith…so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25-26).
This is where forgiveness is to be found.