Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Faithful and just to forgive

In this season of Lent the opening sentences of Evening Prayer include words from the First Epistle of St. John (1:8,9):

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful (πιστός  pistos) and just (δίκαιος dikaios) to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

We might think that it would have made better sense to say something like “He is merciful and compassionate to forgive…” Of course, such would be quite true. But, the Apostle John, the Beloved Disciple, chose to say “faithful and just to forgive.” This leads us to two very important questions that require an answer.

The first question is, “faithful” to what or to whom?” The answer might truly astonish us, if we have never considered before the full implications of words by Saint Paul, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”1 God is faithful to God, God is faithful to Man, and God is faithful to His own promise.

That God is faithful to God means that God the Father is faithful to God the Son, which is ultimately the true meaning of God being faithful to Man and to His own promise. For the Man Christ Jesus is God the Son, the only Mediator between God and man; and he is the Mediator of the New Covenant.

Comparing the ministry of Jesus Christ to that of Moses, the writer to the Hebrews says, “But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.”2 The people of the Covenant God made with Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai, were promised possession of the Land and peace therein, as long as they lived by the words of the Law. But, about the better promises of the better covenant, the writer to the Hebrews goes on to quote the words of the Prophet Jeremiah.

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”3

Those last words of that long list of promises, that God will forgive the iniquity of His people and remember their sin no more, belong to all who have been justified by the faith of Abraham, that is all who believe in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.4 This promise is made by the hand of the One Mediator between God and men. It is a promise to us through the Son, and therefore a transaction between God the Father and God the Son, enacted within the people of the Church by the Holy Spirit. It is not the result of a human idea, and not the result of our own pleading. God has promised God, and God is therefore faithful to God, to Man and to His word.
We need not fear that God will not be in a mood to forgive. We need not fear that He will forget or change His mind. We need only fear unbelief and the resulting failure to repent at the preaching of His holy word. Many people insist that no one, not even a saint, should have confidence in his own salvation. That has become conventional wisdom for many. But, to those who come with hearty repentance and true faith, even faith as small as a grain of mustard seed, the Gospel declares the very opposite of the conventional wisdom. To doubt this is to think that God may prove unfaithful. To doubt this is to deny His revelation, and to call Him a liar.
The second question is how can God be just to forgive? Does not the mention of justice suggest the very opposite? If God is perfectly just, how can any of us expect Him to forgive rather than to punish? We have earned the sentence of eternal death by our sin. But, God is, as St. John teaches us, “just to forgive us our sins.” This brings us to those powerful words that John would go on to write.

“If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”5

The word “propitiation” and the word “atonement” have fallen into disfavor among many. Some people insist that we paint an ugly picture of God if we so much as dare to associate the cross of Jesus Christ with the subject of justice. If Christ is the victim (though also quite clearly the Priest as well as the willing victim) then God becomes too concerned with “forensic” guilt and righteousness, they think.
Never mind the obvious expression of love, that the Lawgiver pays the penalty Himself, that the High priest offers up His own blood, that God Himself becomes the one Brother who can pay to God a ransom to redeem our souls, and that He did so.6 Never mind the fact that Jesus tells us that this is because “God so loved the world.”7 Never mind that Saint Paul called this death of Christ for our sins the one great act by which God commends his love for us.8 Never mind the love of God that is revealed in the cross of Christ; see the whole idea of sacrifice, despite its necessary place in Biblical revelation, as ugly. Turn beauty into horror and make love itself appear to be total severity. But, how sad for everyone who falls for the lie, and who thereby rejects a necessary part of the Gospel.
Like it or not, God cannot be holy if he is not righteous, and He cannot be righteous if He is not just. Like it or not, the sacrificial system revealed in the Law is the one great type and shadow of the true offering by Christ of His own blood on the altar of the cross. Like it or not, the language of that sacrificial system is the language of the Suffering Servant passage9 upon which the New Testament revelation of Christ’s once for all death is based

When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

The Law was not only the religious and liturgical Law. It was the whole Law given to the nation of Israel. By that Law all things were decided and judged between a man and his neighbor, and so were all things we call today “forensic.” The Laws against murder and theft are contained in the first ten commandments of that Law, as are the regulations about temple worship. Justice, as well as prayer, is very much a part of the whole Torah revealed by God and mediated by Moses. And, forgiveness of sin is very much a part of the better covenant mediated by the One Mediator, the One Who said, “This cup is the New Covenant in My blood.”  

Therefore, God is just to forgive, as Paul tells us:

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”10

Because of Christ’s offering of Himself as the Atonement and Propitiation for our sins, God is just to forgive; He can be the justifier of repentant sinners and yet remain just. This means that we can be forgiven without losing sight of God’s own integrity, His own justice, righteousness and holiness. If we could be forgiven without the cross, we would lose sight of the Holy God altogether, and we could never be moved toward sanctification. We would not be taught by God’s mercy to grow in charity, and we would not care about acquiring virtues. But, God has forgiven us in such a way that knowing His perfect goodness remains the true goal of our faith. Therefore, we may be forgiven and also changed within to become holy as He is holy.11
Therefore, John has taught us more than a mouthful by declaring that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.


1.     I Tim. 2: 5
2.     Heb. 8:6
3.     Jer. 31:31-34
4.     Rom. 4, Gal. 3:6-9
5.     I John 1:10-2:2
6.     Psalm 49:6-8
7.     John 3:16
8.     Rom. 5:8
9.     Isaiah 52:13-53:12
10.            Rom. 3:26
11.            Lev. 19:2


.

6 comments:

RC Cola said...

I've thought that the binary opposition many people insist as positing God's mercy versus God's justice is bunk. His mercy and justice are not opposed to each other, but in perfect harmony such that our concepts of both mercy and justice are deeply flawed.
This essay expressed so well what I have felt in my gut and known somewhere in the recesses of my mind but been unable to articulate.
What a great Lenten read! Really, what a great read. Period.

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful.

Doubting Thomas

Fr. Wells said...

Very accurately stated. At - one - ment
through our dear Lord's propitiatory death is the very heart of the NT message. There is no good news, no hope, apart from it.

Caedmon said...

Thanks for this thoughtful and lucid post, Fr. Hart. As I continue my "reoccidentalization" from Eastern Orthodoxy to Continuing Anglicanism, I've seen a couple of instances where Anglican Catholic priests haven't been as clear as they need to be on this point. I've been told, for instance, that justification notwithstanding, one is NOT assured of salvation, and verses such as Hebrews 12:14 are cited in connection with that: "Pursue. . .holiness without which no one will see the Lord."

Now, I believe that we MUST pursue the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. I believe St. Paul is CLEAR in Romans and his other epistles that, once justified, we are obligated to live according to the laws of the Spirit, "putting to death the deeds of the flesh" (Rom. 8:13). But here's where the danger arises, in my thinking. If there is no assurance of salvation apart form the holiness we seek, how do we know we're holy enough? What if we are in the process of mortifying the flesh but are one or more acts of mortification short? Some people seem to suggest that salvation is such dangerous business that you'd better be about it, or else. You certainly don't want to end up before the judgment seat with works left undone. You have "heaven to obtain and hell to avoid" as the popular little Anglican Catholic instruction book says.

I believe, on the other hand (and I think this is consistent with what you've written here), that as long as we are "putting" to death the deeds of the flesh (and the Greek at Romans 8:13 would suggest this rendering, which we see in the NASB), we will be live, as the verse says. That is, if God finds in in the process of snactification, that is a sign that we have received our justification well. An Orthodox bishop I know put it this way: "In Christ, the effort is as good as the accomplishment." That statement is weak on justification and atonement (as one would expect to be from an Orthodox Christian), but I think it captures the essence of what the New Testament says about pursuing the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Would be interested in your thoughts and the thoughts of others. Thanks.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

If an individual cannot be sure that his sins have been forgiven, and that God's promises therefore apply to him personally, what sort of faith does he have? Only the willfully unrepentant have cause to tremble.

Anonymous said...

Caedmon wrote...

I believe, on the other hand (and I think this is consistent with what you've written here), that as long as we are "putting" to death the deeds of the flesh (and the Greek at Romans 8:13 would suggest this rendering, which we see in the NASB), we will be live, as the verse says. That is, if God finds in in the process of sanctification, that is a sign that we have received our justification well.

Well said--particularly that last statement.

A similar way of putting it: If one is not ULTIMATELY being sanctified then one is not ULTIMATELY justified. However, (thankfully!) one does not have to be PERFECTLY sanctified to be PRESENTLY justified.

The key is that both our ONGOING justification and our PROGRESSIVE sanctification are dependent on our union with Christ. Think about the Vine and the branches: The Vine's righteousness is imputed to the branches that are abiding in the Vine (justification), and the fruit of the branch is the proof that it is truly abiding in the Vine (sanctification) (John 15).

This also calls to mind the twin truths of Articles XI and XII, and the complimentary concerns of Paul and James--that the merits of Christ (apprehended by faith) alone that are the grounds of our justification and that good works (fruits) which follow our faith demonstrate our faith is 'lively' rather than 'dead'.

Doubting Thomas

PS: Also, a hearty "Amen" to Fr Hart's quote:

If an individual cannot be sure that his sins have been forgiven, and that God's promises therefore apply to him personally, what sort of faith does he have? Only the willfully unrepentant have cause to tremble.