Spiritual Disciplines … for a Church 5

One of the more persistent criticisms I have heard of traditional atonement theology is that we are asked to do something God does not do. Namely, we are asked to forgive in grace but God, who forgives only after the punishment of sin in Christ, does not simply forgive in grace. I contend the idea misunderstands atonement and how we forgive.

We do not have the resources to forgive. “The only way we can forgive is by letting God renarrate our lives in the context of the metanarrative of Jesus, who forgave his enemies and even died for them” (110).

My own way of saying this: We simply extend the forgiveness we have experienced; we don’t forgive by choice (simply) but by absorbing the Story of Jesus as the Story that Forgives. So, in effect, we only can forgive because God has taken care of sin, extended grace to us, and we then extend that grace of forgiveness.

What is your church doing about forgiveness as a discipline in the church itself? Are you a forgiving and reconciling community?

James Bryan Smith’s newest book addresses corporate, or “church spiritual disciplines”: The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love (The Apprentice Series). His 5th characteristic is forgiveness and reconciliation.

This chp begins with a beautiful story of a young man who was abused, who attempted suicide, and who found God’s healing graces, and who uses the image of emerging from a caterpillar to a butterfly. The story is powerful and worth your time to get a copy to read this story.

The core of the possibility of healing and learning to forgive is to embrace the Story of Forgiveness. Smith believes we are not to forgive in order to feel better but to learn to live out the Story of Forgiveness.

Jesus calls us to extend the forgiveness we have received (Matt 18:23-35) but we do not earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others.

Two caveats from Smith about forgiveness: we need to keep appropriate boundaries. Keep private things private. He has good illustrations of each.

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  • RP

    How does the idea that we do not have the resources to forgive, or we only forgive by absorbing Jesus’ story, fit with non-believers who live generous lives and do indeed forgive (sometimes forgiving the most heinous crimes)?

  • angusj

    there’s a concept of ‘common grace’, where everyone, not just believers, benefits from God’s loving kindness. Therefore everyone can reflect God’s character (love, patience, forgiveness, kindness etc) to some degree in their lives. Christians however have the benefit of embracing our adoption into God’s family, and this helps us put life traumas into some cosmic perspective.

  • Mick

    How do you understand our own forgiveness seemingly being tied to forgiving others in light of Matthew 6:14-15?
    Like Matthew 18, if we do not forgive or show mercy to others, it would seem to indicate if we do not forgive others, we have neither understood or entered into God’s mercy and forgiveness given to us. Are these two passages speaking to the same thing? Is there a difference between “earning” God’s forgiveness vs. experiencing the fruit of obedience (or disobedience) to a command to forgive as we have been forgiven?

    I sometimes wonder if, like parents with smaller children who lack maturity, we are called to trust God by obeying a command (including forgiveness), even though it is very difficult. We may initially do this for selfish reasons like, I want to be forgiven so I must learn to forgive others. But as we grow in our relationship with God we learn to love, forgive, etc, because we want to be like him, because we want to participate in living in and out the gospel story, and because we begin to understand that the very nature and experience of being forgiven opens me up and draws me into being one who shows mercy, forgives, etc.

  • Jim

    Just this past Sunday I preached on Romans 12:2. (The week before I just managed to get al the way through Romans 12:1! 🙂 ) I had not noticed before that the word Paul uses for transformed (be ye ‘transformed’) is the word from which we get our word “metamorphosis” and that it’s only other appearance in the NT is to describe Jesus’ transfiguration.

    As people who have been and are being transformed we are empowered and enabled to forgive as God forgives. For me, forgiveness is not only a spiritual discipline, it is also a missional act that points beyond myself to the character of God.

  • T

    Scot, I think the comment you typically get really does misunderstand what God has done and seeks to do. God bore the punishment/cost for sin himself, the only truly innocent party. As you say, God forgives us (our large debt) and requires us to forgive the small debt that people may owe us.

    Another way I think we need to look at it is that Jesus stands as mediator not only b/n us and God, but also b/n each other; he insists that the punishment he bore on the cross is enough to satisfy not only God’s wrath, but our wrath against our brother, too. Like Paul with Philemon, he asks us to charge whatever someone owes us to his account (and “won’t” mention we owe him our very lives): Forgive as we’ve been forgiven; love as he’s loved us.

    For churches, we need to be more explicit about this horizontal dimension of the atonement, and use some practical resources for walking it out. We use some inner-healing approaches and the 12 steps as helpful tools.

  • Ephesians pops into my mom on this discussion, “Forgive, just as God in Christ forgave you.” This is also a common theme of some of the parables, our willingness to forgive is directly tied to the unthinkable amount of forgiveness we have received.

    My question though is do we forgive without the person asking and repenting?


  • Dana Ames

    Wesley, yes.

    God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the good and wicked alike. While not ignoring or minimizing offenses, we forgive because of what Mick said above. God forgives; therefore, if we are like God, we will forgive.

    If the other person is “unrepentant” and never asks for it, my forgiveness may not make any difference to *him* but it certainly will to the health of my own soul.