Written by Doug Ponder on October 25, 2015
Surprised by Forgiveness
“It is a religion that you could not have guessed,” author C.S. Lewis wrote. “That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity.”
Lewis continues: “If Christianity offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that [bizarre] twist about it that real things have.” (Mere Christianity, ch. 2, “The Invasion,” p. 36).
There are many things in Christianity that you “could not have guessed,” aspects so counterintuitive that they are not the sort of ideas our minds would naturally invent. But nowhere do Lewis’ words seem truer than with God’s gracious forgiveness of sins. When it comes to how God forgives us in Jesus, we bump into one of those realities that isn’t the sort of thing anyone would have thought to make up.
There are many reasons for this, but the greatest is this: God’s forgiveness of us is utterly scandalous.
In the old use of the term, something “scandalous” was so shocking that it was almost too outrageous to believe, or perhaps too shameful to be caught believing. Something scandalous was stumbling block, in other words.
God’s forgiveness is scandalous in three ways: (1) it is needed by everyone, (2) it cannot be earned, and (3) it’s available to all.
We Need Forgiveness
One of the central messages of the Bible is that God is going to judge the world with fairness and righteousness. He will put a stop to sin and evil forever, and everything will be put right once and for all.
As the Scriptures say, “God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
But God promise to set everything right and bring all things to justice is not good news for unjust people like you and me. We need forgiveness, for we are the source of the injustice in the world. Without forgiveness, we would be swept away with the tidal wave of God’s justice that will fix the world.
We’re like Mr. Shiftlet, the main character in Flannery O’Conner’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” At the end of the story, after marrying a retarded girl for the money and then leaving her stranded at a diner in the middle of nowhere, Shiftlet gets into an argument with a hitchhiker he has picked up. He eventually kicks the young hitchhiker out of the vehicle, and he thinks to himself about how rotten of a person that guy was. The story closes as he half-complains, half-prays, “Oh Lord! Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” And right at that moment, the heavens open and the rains fall down upon his car. God was washing the slime from the earth.
Mr. Shiftlet is you, and he is me. He is everyone, everywhere who says, “Oh Lord! Break forth and wash the injustice from this earth!”—without realizing that we are part of the problem that God must fix.
That’s what makes God’s offer of forgiveness so scandalous. Justice points its finger at every one of us, and every one of us comes up short—way short. There is no one who does not need God’s forgiveness. Even the most humble and loving and generous person you know is still so selfish and sinful at their core, that if they were to try to stand under the weight God’s justice-bringing judgment, they would be crushed. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and the appropriate penalty for that sin is death.
Our only hope is someone to take the punishment we deserve, to die in our place, so that we could be forgiven. That is precisely what Jesus has done, and he did so without asking your permission first. Jesus knew you were guilty, and like U2’s Songs of Innocence, his offer of forgiveness was extended before you even knew you needed it. Forgiveness therefore says, “Everyone is guilty and sinful and flawed, and everyone needs forgiveness.”
Forgiveness Cannot Be Earned
We live in a world fueled by earning. If you want good grades, you have to earn them (by studying hard). If you want a good job, you have to earn it (by beating out the competition). If you want a raise or a promotion, these must be earned (through hard work and excellence). In a sense, you even “earn” the chance to go out on that first date that might lead to lifelong romance (by dressing appropriately, saying the right things, acting a certain way, and so forth). Even Christmas gifts are thought by some to be earned through good behavior (Santa’s list of naughty and nice comes to mind).
At the center of our world is earning, but at the center of God’s heart is grace. He delights to give us good things we don’t deserve. This is what sets Christianity apart from the other religions of the world, with their prescriptive steps you must take, rules you must follow, or life you must live in order to earn what you need. By contrast, God offers forgiveness to us as a gift (Eph. 2:8-9). In fact, one of the only ways you can forgo God’s gift is by trying to earn it (the other way is to refuse it altogether, claiming not to need it).
The gracious nature of God’s forgiveness as a sheer gift makes it so scandalous, and the cost of Jesus throws gas on the fire, enhancing the scandalous nature of forgiveness one hundredfold. For to create the world cost God nothing, but to forgive sinners like us cost him the life of his Son. Forgiveness may be free to us, but it was very costly to God. It was a costly grace.
And that means the sweet old lady down the block, and the little baby who can’t speak yet, and the kind cashier in the grocery store, and you and me—we all needed the death of Jesus to make us right with God. There was no other way. We need God’s forgiveness, but we cannot earn God’s forgiveness it. It must be given even to people such as them as a gift of grace. It’s humbling to have to accept what you cannot repay, and that make forgiveness scandalous.
Forgiveness Is Available to All
Because forgiveness is not something that can be earned, that means it is a gift that God makes available to everyone without exception. No one is ever good enough to not need God’s forgiveness, and no one is ever bad enough that they cannot receive his forgiveness. It is needed by all and offered to all because Jesus died for all (2 Cor. 5:15).
It’s the “all” part that is so scandalous here, for that means God’s forgiveness is available to pedophiles, racists, murderers, rapists, liars, thieves, drunkards, porn-addicts, sluggards, and self-righteous hypocrites. And they all receive forgiveness in the same way: as a gift to be received by faith (Eph. 2:8-9).
You haven’t understood how scandalous this offer of forgiveness is until you see that Adolf Hitler could have had one moment of grace-infused sanity in his final minutes on this earth in which he cried out sincerely to God, saying, “Have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:12)—and he would have been forgiven. For everything. Such is the breadth and the height and the depth of the power of the death of Jesus Christ!
But grace gets more scandalous still. For while Hitler could have been forgiven of everything, a kind Methodist minister who “helped lots of people” over his entire lifetime can die without asking for God’s forgiveness—and he will be forgiven for nothing (and thus punished for everything).
Just imagine a heaven full of remorseful Hitlers and a hell full of moral Methodist ministers. It’s scandalously possible.
God sees us as we truly are, and the the verdict he hands down is “Guilty!” We need forgiveness. But God also knows that we could never earn what we need, and so he graciously takes it upon himself to die in our place. Jesus came to make forgiveness possible, and he offers it to us at the cost of us own life. And, as we have just said, Jesus offers this to everyone without exception.
And this is why Jesus says, “To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without cost” (Rev. 21:6). When it’s comes to God’s forgiveness, the greatest scandal of all is that all you need is need. You cannot “do” anything. You must simply see your guilt before God, see his provision for your forgiveness in Jesus, and believe that Jesus “paid it all,” even for you. (And when I think about myself, perhaps the fact that I have been forgiven is the greatest scandal of all.)
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder