THE FORGIVING GOD
The ritual of Communion is the ultimate expression of forgiveness and reconciliation, so when I was going through the ideas you submitted for sermon topics, I picked one about forgiveness for this week. We've talked about forgiveness before in relation to how we can learn to forgive each other and what that means and doesn't mean. This question, however didn't really ask about human forgiveness. The issue was with God's forgiveness of us and was quite practical in nature.
The question read like this: "God will forgive us at the last minute if we ask. Sometimes we die unexpectedly and quickly. Does the Bible say anything about a chance to be forgiven after our soul leaves the body? Some say we only need to ask for forgiveness once and we are automatically forgiven. Is this correct?"
So I want to address the specifics of the question first and then say just a few more general things about God and forgiveness. As to what the Bible says about the possibility for forgiveness after death, it doesn't address that directly. About the closest we can get is the passage in 1 Peter 3:19, which indicates that between Jesus' death and resurrection he descended to the dead and preached to them. But I've run across nothing in the Bible to indicate that is regular practice on God's part.
Having said that, however, I have run across a ton of Biblical passages about the loving, patient, and forgiving nature of God that make me think that all is not lost, even for those whose earthly bodies have very literally given up the ghost. There is no Bible passage I am aware of that supports that theory outright. But I have a difficult time believing that the God who would go so far as to become one of us and live and die among us would close the door on any truly repentant spirit...even if they had already shed their earthly body. My fallback position for this is always to say that I have a hard time imagining that I would do that to someone, and by all accounts God is a whole lot more patient and forgiving than I am. I might well be wrong, but my faith is placed in the God whose love is revealed in Jesus, and barring the door over a technicality...in this case the loss of physical life...doesn't seem to me like something Jesus would do.
The second part of the question was about how often we needed to ask for forgiveness...was it only once? The answer to that is that we need to ask for forgiveness as often as we sin. It is true that we don't need to keep repenting over and over for the same sin....if we're doing that, we need to realize that in God's book it is already erased, and it may be our own difficulty in forgiving ourselves that is holding us back. But it is not true that God's forgiveness is an eternal Get Out Of Jail Free card that you can just whip out when you're in trouble. And that leads me to a more general point. Which is...
Don't hedge your bets. If you are trying to find the legal loopholes for obtaining God's forgiveness, you've missed the point. God is not an ATM machine where you put in your church membership card, punch in a request for forgiveness, and get a receipt for absolution. Forgiveness is about relationship. It is about recognizing that you owe a debt to someone that you can't ever pay and being truly devastated that you can't meet the obligation. The line in the Lord's Prayer where we say "forgive us our tresspasses" is really best translated in the version that we sing, which says "forgive us our debts." In the Greek, it is a financial term...it is talking about a debt that can't be paid.
I would guess that at least half the time we go to God asking for forgiveness for a debt that we could pay but would rather not, because the repayment is to hard or painful. That's not real repentance. Let's say I break into your house and steal $600. If I feel bad about it later and ask you to forgive me, but don't either give you the money back or offer some way to work it off, you would be right to question whether I had really repented.
Now in relation to God's forgiveness, it works the same way. You can't have forgiveness and keep the sin, too. God grants forgiveness in each and every case of true repentance...whether it is in the last minute of life, during any part of life, and maybe even after death. But God is not listening for words...God is looking at your heart to see if your repentance is real. What repentance means is "turning around." It means to change direction and to go a different way than you were going before, and that is why it's so hard.
We might have to swallow our pride to say, "I'm sorry." But to really repent we have to actually change our behavior. We have to be willing not to benefit from the sin we committed and to honestly try to keep from doing it again. We may or may not be successful in our resolve to be better, but if we are not fully committed to trying, nobody...including God....is under any obligation to forgive us.
Now even in the face of real repentance, people we have wronged may or may not forgive us. They should forgive us, because at some point they are going to be in need of forgiveness themselves. They may not choose to have the same relationship with us as they had prior to the offense, but they should at least stop demanding the payment of the debt...they should forgive it and move on because that's the Golden Rule. They should do for you what they will want done for them when they sin against someone else.
But, reality is that they often don't, which can make us all the more fearful of taking the next step...asking forgiveness from God. When we harm God, as we do every time we harm another person made in God's image, there is absolutely no reason that God should have to forgive us. God is perfect. God is not going to be needing our forgiveness down the road. God is the Creator, we are the created. If we can't manage to live by God's rules, God has every right simply to bring a giant foot out of heaven and squash us. It is the wonder of the Christian message, however, that no giant foot comes. How do we know that? Look at the eighth chapter of John.
Remember that Jesus is the revelation of God. Jesus is God's way of saying, "Look, you've gotten tangled up in a lot of words and laws and you're missing the point. I will come to earth myself and show you what I meant...watch Jesus and you'll see what I have been trying to tell you...this is who I am...I am like Jesus and I want you to learn to be like Jesus, too." We look to Jesus to show us what God is like.
And we find that the Scribes and the Pharisees, who were the judicial arm of the Jewish faith, brought a woman to trial and called on the Rabbi Jesus to be the judge. They had a really strong case...she had been caught in the act of adultery. They confront Jesus with the law...they tell him what the Bible says must be done with someone caught in adultery...she must be stoned to death. (Of course how they managed to catch her in the act and not catch the man also is another question.) Israel accepted the Bible as their law, and the direction was plain...surely Jesus would not go against the Law...against the Bible...and still claim to be faithful to God? The woman stands there in her shame...the men stand around her, stones in hand...and they wait for Jesus to give his judgment.
Jesus, in case you have never noticed, is brilliant. He makes his judgment...let the person here who has never sinned throw the first rock. Well, you've got a group of people in a close-knit society. They know they have sinned and they know that other people watching know it. They walk away, one by one. Soon, all that are left are the one who truly has no sin and the one whose sin is the most obvious. Jesus could fulfill the law and throw the first rock. He meets his own criterion of being without sin. He engages the woman in conversation. "Has no one condemned you?" She looks around. "No one, sir."
"Then I don't condemn you either," says Jesus. "Go home...and don't do it again."
That story blows my socks off. Not just because Jesus was so good to that woman, but because Jesus is the revelation of who God is...that story is telling me what I can expect from God when I sin. The law says I should get death, but God goes beyond the law to the Spirit that created it in the first place...the Spirit of Love. The sin is not ignored....in asking those without sin to cast the first stone, Jesus acknowledges both the woman's sin and the justice of the law. And when finally all others have left, Jesus doesn't say, "Well, you know, adultery isn't really so bad...I can see how much you really love each other." He still calls it sin and tells her not to do it anymore. But neither does he condemn her. He gives her back the gift of her life so that she may live it differently and bring glory to God.
That is what God's forgiveness is like. When we are confronted with our sin, we stand in shame before a condemning mob of people and before God. God first dismisses the crowd by saying "Vengeance is mine." And then, when we are alone with God...preparing ourselves for the lightning bolt to hit, for the trapdoor to hell to open up and swallow us whole, we hear the incredible words, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more." In the church we call that "grace."
It is not about the technicalities of whether you can grab it at the last minute on your way out of life's door or whether you have to say certain words once or many times. It's about learning in the here and now to face up to your sins, to make amends to those you have hurt, and to determine with everything in you to act differently in the future. Whatever opportunities there might be for repentance after death will require the same hard, humbling process.
But when we do it...God forgives. Each and every time. If we are truly trying to be better, if we do all we humanly can to undo damage we have caused and sincerely want to change...God forgives...even if we don't do it well, even if we keep falling along the road. God will pick us up, dust us off, encourage us to do better, and help us on our way again. It is the heart that matters to God.
Do you need to repent of something? Is there a way you can make amends? Do you need to let go of some hurt and forgive someone else who has repented? Then come to the table...accept the tokens of God's forgiving love for you and let that remembrance move you to offer that forgiveness to someone else. Lord, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
© 2002, Anne Robertson
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