Monday, February 13, 2006

Judgment Versus Forgiveness

At Adult Sunday School, an interesting question came up.  On the one hand, there are lots of passages in scripture that talk about how our sins are forgiven – like Jer. 31:34: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.  And then there are other passages that tell us that everything we have done will be judged, like Romans 14:11-12: for it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God." So each of us shall give account of himself to God.   Those are just examples – there are loads of both kinds.

So the question was, which is it?  If we are forgiven our sins as Christians, why do we have to sit there at the judgment and give account for them?  My first thought was that it was a silly question; my second thought was that it wasn’t silly at all.  It’s not just a matter of excessively literal interpretation.  Whatever “the judgment” and “giving account” actually mean, they certainly mean something.  And if we are no longer condemned for our sins, why do we have to be judged?  Nor is it a manner of “biblical self-contradiction” that atheists love to look for.   After all, the concepts of forgiveness and judgment are often separated by only a few sentences in the same text written by or for the same guy.  Inspiration aside for the moment, the authors of scripture were not ninnies.  Nor did the early Church find any problems with the juxtaposition of forgiveness and judgment.

I can’t help but think that the resolution lies in the nature of forgiveness itself.  Forgiveness is an act on the part of the forgiver, but in order to be complete it requires a response from the forgiven.  It is given, but it also has to be accepted.  And to be accepted fully, there has to be an understanding on the part of the forgiven about what it is that they are being forgiven for.

I’ve committed plenty of sins in my life.  I’m glad I was not born an ancient Israelite – they would have run out of goats to sacrifice.  In a few cases, I have a fairly good idea of what consequences I have caused through particular sins.  In most cases, however, I don’t.  I know it was wrong, or at least disallowed, but I really don’t have much of a feel for what sin actually means – what the real cost has been to myself and others, and what it says about me as a person to God and to the world.  And I can’t really be forgiven if I don’t really understand what I’m being forgiven of.

I’m in the same situation as the killer in prison when his victim’s family comes to see him and forgives him.  I may think it’s great they forgive me, but do I really have any concept of what it costs for them to do that?

I expect the Capital-J Judgment to be a revelation of the real effects of my sins in my life and in the lives of others, an uncovering of the real ugliness that I can’t or won’t really see right now.  And there are only two possible reactions to that naked truth.  I can throw myself at the cross and cry “Lord, forgive me,” or I can turn away and scream “Leave me alone.”  The forgiveness itself is free; being forgiven is likely to hurt.  And on the basis of my reaction, on my acceptance or rejection of that forgiveness rests my eternity.  Either I get my harp and go through the door on the right, or I get my accordion and go through the door on the left.  And my choices now will determine how I react then.

Most merciful God, who art of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and hast promised forgiveness to all those who confess and forsake their sins; We come before thee in an humble sense of our own unworthiness, acknowledging our manifold transgressions of thy righteous laws. But, O gracious Father, who desirest not the death of a sinner, look upon us, we beseech thee, in mercy, and forgive us all our transgressions. Make us deeply sensible of the great evil of them; and work in us an hearty contrition; that we may obtain forgiveness at thy hands, who art ever ready to receive humble and penitent sinners; for the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ, our only Saviour and Redeemer. Amen.