Summary: What is forgiveness and who is forgiven?
On September 8, 1974, President Gerald R. Ford granted a full pardon to former President Richard Nixon. From that point on Nixon was legally forgiven. All investigations and indictments were ended. Eight days later Ford granted amnesty to all those who had avoided the draft illegally, as well as those who deserted to other countries during the Viet Nam war period. Ford’s acts of forgiveness were the most controversial of all his presidential acts. We all want forgiveness for ourselves, we are just not sure if others should have it.
Sometimes we are confused about forgiveness. Should we forgive everyone regardless of what they have done? The media is quick to show the other side of criminals and tries to convince us that the reason people commit brutal, violent crimes is that they came from dysfunctional or abusive home situations. Recently, a young woman who smothered her child to death got off because of her lawyer’s pleas concerning her “chaotic life.” Sometimes you get the feeling that no one is to blame for anything they have done. And most of us have well formed defense mechanisms that provide us with excuses and shield us with from the truth and guilt of what we have done. Who should be forgiven, and who should not? Do we have to do something to deserve it? Is it automatic, or conditional? It bothers us, as it should, when we see our courts continually allow known criminals escape justice and walk away, perhaps due to some obscure technicality, as if they were perfectly innocent. That kind of forgiveness angers us because it perpetuates the problem rather than curing it. We render the concept of forgiveness meaningless when no one has to accept any of the consequences of their behavior. And that is true whether we are talking about the criminals in our jails, the church members in our pews, or the children in our homes
There are many who feel that this is the kind of dismissive forgiveness we are talking about when we talk about God’s forgiveness. It is a concept called Universalism. It is the theory that says everyone will be forgiven in the end, no matter what they have done and no matter whether they have done about it. The thinking is that God is a God of love, and it is impossible for him to really punish someone. He may make them wait to get into heaven, but eventually everyone will definitely get there. The drug pushers, the rapists, murderers, abusers and gossips will all finally get in because God can do nothing else but forgive.
A French philosopher laying on his death bed was asked whether he was ready to meet God. His reply was: “God will forgive, that is his job.” We think God is like a parent who does not have the heart to discipline his child. He will never do the things he has threatened. We are like the man who said, “God likes to forgive sin, and I like to commit sin, so it all works out very well.”
In the book of Jeremiah we read the story of King Jehoiakim. Jeremiah the prophet had written words of judgment from the Lord warning what God would do if Jehoiakim, and the people of Israel, did not turn away from the great evil that they practiced and loved in their hearts. Included in the writing was God’s call to return to him and discover his love once more. The scroll, with the words of the Lord as they came from Jeremiah, was brought to the king. But as it was read the king was offended. It was treason to say that the country was no longer favored by God and that judgment was coming. They believed that God would never do those things and so, as you remember, Jehoiakim cut off pieces of the scroll as it was being read and dropped them into the fire until the entire scroll was burned. He believed God would simply overlook any wrongdoing and keep the nation from any consequences of its behavior. But we know from history that was a serious mistake on the part of King Jehoiakim. The scriptural warnings are not to be taken lightly. If we want to know how seriously God takes sin all we have to do is look at the cross.
There are conditions of the heart that must be met before forgiveness is granted. If this were not true, it would mean that God did not take his own laws and commandments seriously. It would mean that the rules he has made are not truly important. It would be saying that God is, after all, indifferent to moral evil. But we know that God is not indifferent at all. The Bible says that he hates sin and loves righteousness (Isaiah 61:8). He is not indifferent to sin and evil anymore than he is indifferent to righteousness. I believe in the forgiveness of sins — not the excusing of sins.