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The Problem with Forgiveness

Jesse Birkey's picture

I have an extra special guest post today.  It’s from my dear old dad.  He doesn’t shy away from opportunities to confront difficult subjects and wrestle with God for answers.  He is one of the greatest deep thinkers I’ve ever been around and I believe God has rewarded his tenacity with revelation that stretches far beyond pat answers to difficult questions.  He was a pastor for 20 years and is now getting to do what he loved most about being a pastor, counsel people through crisis.


Enjoy this look at the problem of forgiveness that may challenge some of your traditional understanding but I think will liberate many.

The Problem of Forgiveness

The good news of God's forgiveness has me a bit befuddled these days.  Not because I have lost sight of the joy of being forgiven.  On the contrary, gaining a clearer perspective of my own sinfulness has given me a renewed appreciation and sense of gratitude for God's gracious choice to forgive and cleanse.  My befuddlement is due to the mixed message that the Bible seems to give about the nature of forgiveness.


The Gospel message has most often connected forgiveness with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  The reasoning goes like this.  All have sinned and fallen short of God's glory; thus all are separated from God by sin.  God has provided a way for us to be reconciled to himself through the shed blood of Jesus.  God has accepted the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as payment for the sins of all humanity.  Forgiveness of sin is extended to all who will accept the sacrifice that Jesus made on their behalf, and enter into a relationship of faith and trust in God.  In the words of 1 John 2:2, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world.”


What causes me to wrinkle my eyebrows, however, is the announcement by Jesus to the paralyzed man in Mark 2:5, “Son, your sins are forgiven,” followed in v.10 by his declaration to the religious leaders, “I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”  On what basis did Jesus announce this forgiveness?  The text makes no mention of a temple sacrifice on the paralyzed man’s behalf that allowed his forgiveness, nor had Jesus yet gone to the cross to provide an atoning sacrifice.  This announced forgiveness seems to have no basis at all.  Forgiving the man’s sins seems like something Jesus just decided to do, claiming divine authority for his decision.


We have our ways of explaining this away.  Since we know that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22), some would say that Jesus announced forgiveness on the basis of the sacrifice that would soon be coming, that the cleansing power of Jesus’ shed blood would extend both backward and forward.  This explanation may, or may not, be satisfactory.  But what if the man were forgiven without any payment for his sins?  Would that be possible?  And in fact, wouldn’t that be closer to the true meaning of forgiveness?


What does it really mean to forgive?  Doesn’t it mean to release from the obligation to pay?  Jesus told the story of a man who owed his creditor a debt that couldn’t possibly be paid in his lifetime.  Upon his plea for mercy, the creditor forgave the debt, meaning that he did not demand payment.  The debtor was unequivocally released from the need to pay.  It’s not that anyone else paid on his behalf.  The creditor simply wiped the debt from his records.


How can we say that God has forgiven our sins when we assert that Jesus has paid for our sins?  If our debt has been paid, then it hasn’t been forgiven.  Moving it to the account of another may constitute a gracious choice that is to our benefit, and for which we can be grateful, but it does not constitute forgiveness. 


What if God were free to announce forgiveness based only on a repentant heart?  Even this requires a bit of juggling in relation to the story of the paralyzed man because the text makes no mention of him being repentant.  The trigger seems to be the faith of the friends who brought him to Jesus.  But what if Jesus’ announcement of forgiveness was simply an expression of divine compassion, a full and complete recognition of the paralyzed man’s inability to pay?


“No!” we say.  God is a just God.  Justice demands that sin be paid for.  To remit a sin without payment would be contrary to God's justice; God simply would not allow that.  But is God enslaved by his own justice?  James 2:13 comments that “mercy triumphs over judgment.”  Since judgment is based on what is just or unjust, it says to me that mercy triumphs even over justice, that God is free to act only on the basis of his compassion. 


Is there an answer to my dilemma?  I’m not quite ready to dismiss the notion of sacrificial atonement from my theological understanding of forgiveness.  But neither am I willing to limit the scope and depth of God's freedom to announce forgiveness because it doesn’t fit my theological system. 


If only the Bible were a little more clear!


Marlin Birkey


January 25, 2007




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Jesse and Kara Birkey



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Jesse and Kara Birkey are committed lovers of Jesus who seek to show others the extraordinary life of Jesus is available for everyone.  They have authored two books, been featured in films and seek to serve the Lord in whatever ways they can.  Follow their blog here.    


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Life Resurrected, Extraordinary Miracles through Ordinary People has been endorsed by Sid Roth and Mark Virkler and is a collection of inspiring stories making it clear that the extraordinary life of Jesus is available to all who love Him.  It’s also the testimony of Jesse’s life, the road he travelled bringing him into the arms of Jesus. Get the paperback hereGet the Kindle Version Here. View the trailer here.    


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Jesse is also featured in the film DeadRaiser, a movie shining the spotlight on resurrection testimonies across the nation.  Find more information here.






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Anonymous's picture

Sometimes it seems as adults as we try to understand God's words we may think "it can't be that simple". The caution here is to not over complicate or paralyze ourselves through analysis.

The word states "But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them, and that from "a child" thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:14-15). [Emphasis mine]

Once saved everything we are is now "In Christ" or "though Christ". For Galatians 2:20 "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me."

If I'm Crucified with Christ, that means I died with Him. We have that spiritual Holy exchange, our sin and debt for Christ's righteousness and life more abundant. That was the sacrifice that also brings forgiveness. We carry Christ in us who was forgiven thus we are forgiven.

As mentioned from the parable the wealthy ruler forgave the servent without sacrifice, how could God ever be "limited" from showing mercy and forgiveness without sacrifice from anyone. God could never have less authority or ability. From the parable you reference from Matthew 18 also known as the unforgiving servent it seems to boil down to forgivenss being a heart issue.

The servent that was forgiven so great a debt, turned around and was unable to forgive another for something much smaller. Then the ruler was "moved with anger and turned the same servent over to torturers". Amazingly enough as Jesus exaplained to the disciples vs 35 "My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart." Wow.

However, let's kick it up another notch and rather than focusing on whether justice limits God or us with forgivenss. What about thinking a new way about forgiveness?

If as Galations states "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" and as Philippians 2:13 states "For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.". Could we not, just allow the Christ In us to flow through us and forgive for us, since it would be His good pleasure to do so? Wouldn't that allow us to walk in the spirit - allowing God to do good "through and in us"?

Whether it is forgiving those, who we may think "in and of ourselves" would seem impossible; but now is possibly "though Christ". The same with Loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbor as ourselves. If it is no longer I but Christ; and I am dead to myself. Resting then in Him, it is "His Love", going forth without limits. So Christ is the forgiver and Christ is the lover we need to rest in and yield to Christ in us for these things.

For He takes us as deep as we want to go: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28 NKJV.

So now we are one in Christ shouldn't we be doing the sames things He did while on earth? Matthew 10: 7 And as you go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' 8"Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give. Doesn't sound like a choice to me, does it you?

Matthew 16:17 These signs will accompany those who have believed...

Isn't it time we act on the word as it is written and see what signs follow those who believe? Not just tying it once or twice, but if it takes 20 times before we phsycally see it - go back to the beginning first one or two and let them be 21 and 22 etc. Love in Him. Be it unto me according to your word Lord.

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