Isaiah 1:15-18 | Luke 11:2-4
When I was a teenager, in the early days of my Christian faith, I remember hearing the final few words of the Isaiah reading repeated over and again; I’d certainly memorised them, highlighted them in my Bible, written them out on bookmarks – all the things you do to remind yourself of a great theological truth:
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be like wool.”
I remember hanging onto those words through the struggles of adolescence and young adulthood; in all those times when I was all too aware of my personal failings I would remind myself: though my sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.
They got me through a lot, those words. But with hindsight, I wonder if I might have done better if I’d read them a little bit more in context. Because I heard in them the profound theological truth of God’s forgiveness, but perhaps missed the equally profound call to justice that precedes them:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Which raises a pretty deep question within our faith:
Is God’s forgiveness conditional?
Or perhaps this is one of those cases where the Old Testament prophets had only a partial vision of the ways of God, a vision left to be completed in the person of Jesus?
But the problem there is that we find some very similar words in the teaching of Jesus – not least, here in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”.
Or, as Jesus puts it elsewhere: “As we forgive, so we are forgiven”.
Actually, when you look at the words of Jesus, or at the teachings of the Old Testament law and prophets, the answer to our question seems pretty clear.
Is God’s forgiveness of us conditional?
Yes, it is.
And it turns out that that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it turns out to be a very good thing.
I think our problem with recognising the conditionality of forgiveness is that we’ve mixed up the idea of forgiveness with the idea salvation. And that arises out of the way that we often talk about sin and forgiveness, heaven and salvation. The sort of language, logic, that starts “you need to be forgiven by God in order to get into heaven (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God)” and then goes “and that forgiveness is the free gift of God in the death of Jesus.”
Then forgiveness (unconditionally offered by grace through faith) is the key to salvation, to our eternal destiny. And if forgiveness is conditional; well then, where is our assurance? Where is our confidence in the sure and certain home of resurrection to eternal life?
But that link between forgiveness and salvation is far from obvious in the scriptures. Yes “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – but the verse does not continue “and are forgiven freely by his grace” – it continues “and are justified freely by his grace”. The apostle does not write “it is by grace you have been forgiven, through faith”, but “it is by grace you have been saved through faith”. Jesus did not tell Nicodemus “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believe in him might be forgiven”, but “whoever believes in him might be saved”.
Now I’m not arguing that you can completely separate the idea of forgiveness and salvation; of course not. But they are not the same thing. And to suggest that forgiveness (at least, forgiveness here and now in the day to day reality of our lives) might be conditional does not require us to doubt for a moment the absolute certainty of the salvation that is our by God’s grace, received through faith.
And that sets us free to think much more healthily about forgiveness.
Because then the idea that the standard by which we will be forgiven is the standard by which we forgive ceases to be a sword of Damocles hanging over our head, threatening us with eternal damnation should we fail to immediately forgive those who have hurt us. No longer do we have to entertain the notion that the abused child who cannot yet forgive their abuser is somehow denied the saving grace of God (“if you don’t forgive him, you cannot be forgiven – Jesus said so”), or that the battered wife must over and again return to their violent husband (“seventy seven times, Jesus said”).
The truth is, automatic, universal, unconditional forgiveness is not healthy. To see that, we need look no further than our relationship with our children. To forgive immediately and unconditionally sends the message that the wrong done doesn’t matter. And when that wrong has hurt others, it sends the even more damaging message that pain inflicted on another person can be lightly set aside and forgotten.
We do not forgive unconditionally. We hold out the offer of forgiveness, yes, but we ask something in return. An apology, perhaps. Restitution, maybe. At very least, a recognition of the wrong done.
Forgiveness, when offered in love, is (often, at least) conditional.
But again, let’s be sure we aren’t blurring two ideas that need to be held apart. Because what we do hold for that child, and God holds for us, unconditionally and automatically, is love.
Love without preconditions, without demands, without requirements – yes to that.
And forgiveness which is always available – yes to that.
But forgiveness which doesn’t ask for repentance, for recognition of wrongdoing and at least the hope or desire to change? Not so much.
Instead we have the deep wisdom of conditional forgiveness. That says “yes, I love you; I am prepared to see a way forwards into forgiveness, but there is a road that you need to walk to get there. Not for my good (though perhaps for my protection) but for your good.”
For once we have separated forgiveness from salvation, it can take on a new role; forgiveness is not a simple destination, it is a journey that we take together – open to new life and new possibilities, seeing the possibility of restored relationship and healthy futures, but not rushed, not simply declared or demanded.
And yes, our ability to forgive is part of our healing, and our ability to receive forgiveness; but again, once we recognise that forgiveness is not the same as salvation, we can be kinder to ourselves; we can live with the fact that we have not yet reached a place where we can forgive those who have hurt us; recognising that it would be a good and healthy place to be, a place to travel towards, but not demanding of ourselves or others a rushed forgiveness and artificial restoration of relationship.
Held in the absolute and unconditional love of God, maybe it’s ok if we are only forgiven according to the standards by which we are able to forgive.
Seeing the promise of the prophet “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow” for what it is: not an immediate reality, but a promise of a future that we are called to walk towards.