Forgiveness And Atonement


old-kettle-1-1206504-mThere’s a difference between forgiveness and atonement. The latter requires payment, the former does not. Interestingly, God gives both, but He tells us only to give forgiveness to one another.

I’m not aware of any place Jesus required His disciples to make atonement for their sins in order to make things right, either with God or with each other. But He was quite clear about forgiveness.

Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors . . . For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matt. 6:12, 14-15)

Jesus told a story about an unforgiving servant to illustrate this point.

one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made.

So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’

And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.

But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’

So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’

But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed.

So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened.

Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ (Matt. 18:24b-33).

The problem is, many have turned the act of forgiving other people into a form of atonement for our sins. That’s not it. Jesus never said we are to atone for our sins. He Himself was the atonement.

Someone who’s received atonement doesn’t need a second dose of atonement. Either Jesus “paid it all” or He didn’t. And if He paid it all, it means we owe nothing because of our sin—past, present, or future.

It’s not like Jesus paid for our sins up to the point of our entering into a relationship with Him, but from then on it’s up to us either to live perfect, sinless lives (as some believe) or to pay for our sins if we “slip.”

Atonement is the very thing that is beyond our ability to make. We can’t give to God what is required—a perfect life—because we don’t have it.

Our forgiveness, then, comes with no strings attached.

But wait a minute. Don’t the passages in Matthew say just the opposite—our forgiveness is contingent upon our willingness to forgive others?

Actually, that’s backwards:

Dangling bitterness and broken relationships are inconsistent with grace receivers. Jesus taught that we are to love and pray for our enemies because this is the appropriate response to being a recipient of God’s grace, forgiving others. (Donald Smith, The God of Grace, Chap. 10)

In other words, a lack of forgiveness is a sign that a person is not a recipient of God’s grace—not that he received grace but God took it back because his actions weren’t acceptable. Instead, God offered forgiveness, and by the act of not forgiving others, a person shows he is spurning God’s forgiveness.

In fact, in another passage in Matthew, Jesus was teaching about prayer, telling His disciples they needed to believe and not doubt and they’d receive what they ask.

Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. (11:24)

He immediately moved to this:

Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. (11:25)

Was Jesus changing the subject? I don’t think so. I think He was illustrating that real faith has legs. Faith is not saying, “I believe” and then acting as if I don’t believe. Rather, faith must be demonstrated by action, as James so clearly spelled out (See James 2:13ff).

In the same way, we demonstrate that we understand our need for forgiveness by our willingness to forgive others. We are not in a position to hold others accountable for their misdeeds against us if in truth we have understood how God no longer holds us accountable for our misdeeds against Him.

That’s like the pot calling the kettle black! We aren’t without the black stain of sin searing us, so who are we to point to others and say, You have this nasty black stain, so I can’t accept you.

But if we are indeed the recipient of God’s grace, and our black stain has been removed, we are in a position to mirror the forgiveness we have received. We want to pay forward what we’ve been given.

Paul clarifies the issue:

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Eph. 4:31-32, emphasis added).

Just as Christ did for us, so we are to do for others.

Published in: on January 6, 2015 at 6:16 pm  Comments (22)  
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