We Are Already Forgiven
Last Sunday ‘s Gospel was Luke’s rendition of the prodigal son among other illustrations of forgiveness. Bishop Tony Howard of St. Clement of Alexandria in his homily reminded us that we are already forgiven. You may get a different view down the street at XYZ church, he said. But as for here the emphasis is on repentance. Let me tell you what that means…..
And he proceeded to quote from the book Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored by Marcus J. Borg
Below you will find excerpts from a chapter of this book.
Forgiveness In Relation To God
Do we need to be forgiven by God? Well it all depends upon what you mean by that. Do we imagine forgiveness as something God decides to do – that God decides to forgive some people, but not others? If so, what is the basis for being forgiven by God – are some among the elect (chosen by God) and others not?
But is being forgiven by God dependent on something we do? Some believe we can be forgiven only if we earnestly confess our sins, believe in Jesus, and resolve to live differently. But what do we do if we fail again? Seek forgiveness again? If so – and this is a very common way of thinking – then forgiveness is conditional. We can forgive only if…(fill in the rest of the sentence).
Or are we already forgiven – that is, accepted by God, loved by God – whether we know that or not? This has been the radical meaning of forgiveness and grace in the Bible and influential theological voices within the Christian tradition. For Luther , this discovery was the experience that led to his understanding of radical grace and his deliverance from what was for him an agonizing search for God’s approval.
A very powerful expression of this in modern times is in a book of sermons by Paul Tillich, one of the most influential mainline Protestant theologians of the twentieth century. The sermon’s title is “You Are Accepted.” It’s theme, sounded again and again, is we are forgiven, accepted by God, in spite of all that we think separates us from God. God’s love, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s acceptance of us is unconditional. Grace means that God’s love is a given.
This is forgiveness “in spite of” – that is, a sense of being accepted by God in spite of our imperfections and worse. Have I been less than I could be? Less loyal, less committed, less attentive, less generous, less willing than I should be to spend and be spent for the sake of what it means to follow Jesus? Yes. And God’s forgiveness, God’s mercy, means that I am loved by God in spite of that? Yes.
Of course it is vital that we see that, realize that, make it real by internalizing it, or else nothing will change in our lives. If we don’t see that, we will continue to feel guilty and alienated from God. We will continue to focus on what we must do to be saved.
But if we do see that forgiveness is unconditional and realize it by making it real, then the Christian life no longer consists of believing or doing what we must in order to be forgiven. God already accepts us and wills our well-being. See this, believe this, realize this, and your life will change. You will no longer be preoccupied with becoming secure by measuring up.
Some Christians believe that forgiveness doesn’t happen apart from sincere repentance. Without repentance, there is no forgiveness.
Within this framework, repentance means being thoroughly sorry for our sins and earnestly resolving not to continue the behaviors and thoughts understood to be sins. And if our repentance doesn’t contain enough of that remorse and resolve, can we be forgiven?
The biblical meanings of repentance are quite different and much richer. It has two primary meanings. The first flows from the Hebrew word in the Old Testament commonly translated into English as repent or repentance. It means “to turn, to return.” The word directly relates to ancient Israel’s experience of exile in Babylon. To repent meant “to return” – to embark on a journey of return to the “homeland,” the Holy Land, where God is. That is the metaphorical meaning of the Holy Land, Jerusalem, Zion, the Temple – all are symbols for the presence of God. To repent is to embark on a journey of return to God – a journey that is also with God.
It also has a second resonance that flows from the roots of the Greek word in the New Testament commonly translated into English as repent or repentance. Its Greek roots mean “to go beyond the mind we have.” The phrase is both provocative and evocative. This is what repentance means?
And what does it mean to “to go beyond the mind that we have”? This is the evocative part. The mind that we have is the mind acquired by being socialized in our particular place and time. The natural result of growing up is to have an enculturated mind, a way of seeing shaped by what we have learned. Few if any of us escape this. So to go beyond the mind that we have means seeing in a new way – a way shaped by God as known decisively in Jesus. This is repentance.
The Bible does speak of repenting for our sins. But the emphasis is not so much on contrition and sorrow and guilt, but about turning from them and returning to God. Repentance is about change, not primarily a prerequisite for forgiveness. To repent means to turn, return to God and to go beyond the mind that we have and see things in a new way. That’s pretty exciting.
Forgiveness is not dependent upon repentance. We are forgiven already, loved and accepted by God. We don’t need to do anything to warrant God’s love. But repentance – turning and returning to God, going beyond the mind that we have – is the path that leads to transformation.