How Do We Forgive the Unforgivable? Pt. 2

Feb 04, 2020

From racial hatred and ethnic “cleansing” to gross exploitation and rampant sexual abuse, we inhabit a world filled with atrocities and punctuated by unforgivable acts. Consequently, many of us experience unimaginable suffering at the hands of others. At the same time, many of us will also recognize that no healing can take place without forgiveness. But is forgiveness even possible in such circumstances? Where can we find the strength to forgive the unforgiveable? In this 3-part series, we’ll explore this harrowing topic. Drawing from Christ’s parable of the merciless servant in Matthew 18:23-25, this episode considers how our status as “debtors” before God reframes the discussion on forgiveness.

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Transcript



Please Note: Vital Signs is produced to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you very much for tuning in today. This is part two in a three part series titled “How Do We Forgive the Unforgivable?” In part one we talked about the necessity of recognizing that we all start off as enemies of God and we also talked about the need to recognize that the problem of evil is not some abstract problem, but that all of us are implicated and that we need to recognize the evil in our own hearts if we are ever going to receive forgiveness and if we are ever going to forgive others.

We cannot forgive others until we first recognize the evil in our own hearts. And if you haven't listened to it already, I would suggest going back and listening to that first episode. It will definitely give you context for what I say today. But in this episode, we're going to consider the fact that all of us are debtors in the eyes of God. So episode one talked about the fact that we are enemies of God. We start off as enemies of God. This episode we'll talk about the fact that we are debtors and what that means.

I'm drawing that language from an unsettling and deeply humbling parable that Christ tells in Matthew chapter 18. So let's have a look at that parable. So Matthew chapter 18 starting in verse 23: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him 10000 talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold with his wife and children and all that he had and payment to be made. So that the servant fell on his knees imploring him, ‘Have patience with me and I will pay you everything.’”

And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when the same servant went out, he found that one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii and seizing him, he began to choke him saying, "Pay what you owe." So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, "Have patience with me and I will pay you." He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.

Then his master summoned him and said to him, "You wicked servant. I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me and should not you have had mercy on fellow servant as I had mercy on you?" And in anger, his master delivered him to the jailers until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brothers from your heart. So much richness there. One of the first takeaways that we see here is that it's impossible to accept Christ's forgiveness without first forgiving others. So this parable that Jesus tells, I can't possibly do full justice to it here.

One writer I like had a very good phrase for Jesus's parables, he calls them “marvels of compressed meaning.” That's a really good way to put it, isn't it? Marvels of compressed meaning. There's so much packed in to each of these parables. There's so much richness there. So all I'm going to do is draw attention to some small aspects of that richness here. But what we see here is that it's impossible to accept Christ's forgiveness without forgiving others. Notice that the servant here in this picture that Jesus offers of the kingdom of God, the king who is God, when the servant pleads with him to be forgiven the debt, the king is merciful and forgives him that debt.

So that means the debt, it's not just that he says, "I'll give you more time.” It's not just that he says, "Well, you better really be working hard because this is a pretty conditional act of forgiveness. Until I see that full sum returned, you're not in good standing." He actually forgives the debt, wipes it out. Incredible. But then this servant does what so many of us naturally do. He goes to the people who are in his debt and he demands immediate payment and he wants to punish them to the full extent of the law, the very law that was superseded by the Lord's authority to free him from his debt.

So what this amounts to on the part of the servant is a refusal of grace, a denial of the Lord's forgiveness. If you've been forgiven everything, how on earth can you go on judging others? How on earth can you go on pushing to have them punished to the full extent of the law? Something has not been understood, something has been fundamentally lost here. And yet this is where so many of us find ourselves. In order to accept Christ's forgiveness, we can't accept Christ's forgiveness without forgiving others. But there's another way to look at this.

If we haven't forgiven others, if we don't forgive others, we haven't truly accepted Christ's forgiveness. Why? This hearkens back to the first episode. We are putting ourselves in a different category from other sinners. We are taking ourselves off the hook and we are declaring ourselves righteous. Now, I want you to notice something. We didn't talk about this as much in the first episode, but when I mentioned that evil is all of our problem, we are all implicated in evil. It's not some evil other out there, it's us as well. It's not us and them, it's all of us.

When we think about that, we also need to deal with the fact that we have an amazing capacity to rationalize our wickedness. We are, each of us, very skilled and very adept at coming up with a whole laundry list of reasons and justifications for our actions. Notice that when somebody wrongs you, it's usually very clear cut. They're wrong, you're right. You've been hurt, you're the victim, they're the aggressor. That's it, case closed. But when it comes to things you've done to other people, the ways in which you've hurt them, it's always more complicated, isn't it? Yes, but there are a whole host of environmental, spiritual, biological, and physical factors that contributed.

There was temporary insanity. There was the bad day. It's always more complex when it comes to you or you had very good reasons for doing what you did. So even though it looked like it was wrong, it was actually the right thing to do. The best way to look at this, I think is still, in our current situation, in our world, is to think about this through the lens of addiction. My thinking here has been deeply stimulated by the late writer David Foster Wallace, and this is what he does in his book, Infinite Jest, but he talks about how in the world of addiction you have people who have to borrow Paul's language here from Romans, people who are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.

What does that mean? Well, if somebody is addicted to a substance, let's just say this is a person suffering from substance abuse, then you'll know and if you've ever known this person or been this person, you know that one of the greatest enemies of an addict is reality. So one thing that they don't want to face, they don't want to come to terms with reality. In fact, they are actively avoiding and suppressing reality. But you'll also know that all of the various rationalizations and justifications are amazingly powerful and creative in the world of an addict. They are so good at coming up with all sorts of bizarre reasons to continue with the behavior.

There's an amazing sketch or—it's really a short film, I should say, in the movie Coffee and Cigarettes filmed by Jim Jarmusch. And in this sketch we have two musicians, we've got Tom Waits played by Tom Waits, portraying Tom Waits and Iggy Pop playing Iggy Pop. And they're meeting in some dive diner and they haven't seen each other in a while. It's a humorous sketch. And of course, because the movie is called Coffee and Cigarettes of course, the theme that's kind of running through each of these short films is right, coffee and cigarettes. So they're sitting there, they're talking about their lives and there sits a pack of cigarettes on the table.

And Tom Waits points to the back and says, "Are those yours?" And Iggy Pop says, "No, no, I quit." Yeah, me too. And they both say, "Yeah, I quit. Yeah. 20 big ones. Yeah, I've quit and it's so good to be free. I feel better, I feel healthier, I have more energy." And they go through all the benefits and then in a movie that anybody who's an addict would recognize. And full disclosure, I used to be a smoker. So this skit really was pretty funny to me. So in this scene, Tom waits goes, "The beauty of it is that now that I've quit, I could have one because I quit. It's not really a thing for me anymore. I can have one. I can indulge. I mean, I don't even really inhale anymore. I mean, do you want to join me?"

So he puts one in his mouth and Iggy Pop goes, "Well, yeah, now that we've quit." And then within a few seconds they're both smoking and they're both exhaling plumes and smoking. And then they go, "Now that we've quit." But that's an insight into the mind of an addict right there. The self-justification and when you view it from the outside, it's so misguided it's humorous. But if you view from the inside, we do this kind of thing all the time. And one of the amazingly powerful features of the book, Infinite Jest, is that David Foster Wallace situates a lot of, really the more spiritually resonant sections of the book in the world of addiction counselors and in the world of halfway houses and recovery groups.

And he points out that in recovery groups, this is an irony free zone. This is a really interesting insight that he has. He goes, "No irony free zone. An irony and a recovery group is a witch in a church service because addicts are so keenly aware of their propensity and their skill at rationalizing their habit, and irony allows you to distance yourself." Well, all of us do that over and over again. And there've been really sophisticated treatments of this, by the way, the philosopher Richard Rorty in his book, Solidarity, Irony and Contingency.

I think I'm getting that title right, boy. I guess the marketing department at that particular publisher would've said, "Rorty, you've really set us up for success here, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity." But he says in that book that the best way to consider your identity, for instance, is not to think about yourself as having some sort of stable self or some central identity or some deep identity you discover, but you need to view yourself and you need to view the world around you from an ironic standpoint. And what he means by that is you need to be able to take a distance from everything.

That ironic distance will allow you to adapt to the various different social changes that take place in a society. It'll help you to keep a critical distance from all movements and it'll help you to keep your options open. It sounds so good to many of us actually. And by the way, I should say, Rorty spells this out in quite eloquent terms. He's an extremely sophisticated thinker, but I'll tell you very honestly what he's recommending I think is pure poison for your soul. Because again, there is no ironic distance for human selves. There is certainly no ironic distance for us and society out there that we can just somehow improve and make better.

This is very much an assumption of modernism by the way, that we can take an ironic distance from society. And if we take that ironic distance, what we will see is that what Christians used to call sin is actually just ignorance. And so the answer, and I've talked about this on the Vital Signs podcast before, you get older you repeat yourself, but the answer is education. And that's how you address the ignorance spreading around you. What you're really seeing when you see racism or if you see ethnic cleansing or if you see economic disparity or if you see ecological disaster, you're not seeing sin. No, let's grow up. You're seeing irresponsibility, you're seeing ignorance.

And if people would wake up and they would see what they're doing, well then, they would stop. But the problem is we so often do see what we're doing and we either insist on deceiving ourselves or we continue doing it anyway and we keep trying to lie to ourselves. But all of us recognize this. We're all deeply guarded. Most of us would never want anybody to know all of the inner thoughts that go through our head on a given day because those thoughts would be terribly incriminating. Why are they incriminating? Because we recognize that we're holding others to a standard that we ourselves don't meet and can't meet.

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity argues at the beginning of that book that this is the basis for all sound moral thinking. Two assumptions, number one, there's a moral law, there's a certain order, an arrangement to the universe, there's a way things ought to be. And number two, we do not keep this law. There's a moral law, one, number two, we don't keep it, but we also expect everybody else to keep it. So there is no ironic distance. If we are going to forgive others, we need to recognize that we need to be forgiven. We have to accept forgiveness.

Instead of an “us and them mindset,” we need to think about what theologians have called the solidarity of sin. We are all united by our propensity to do wrong, to be selfish. And Christianity makes sense of this by saying that we turned away from our maker. We turned away from the living God who brought us into being in the first place, rebelled against him and chose our will over his will and his will is perfect because after all he made us, he knows how we ought to function. But we say to him in effect, "No, no, I know what I need." You know how much sin begins with the phrase, "Yeah, but I know what I truly need." You know how many lives have been destroyed by that phrase, I know what I really need?

I know what I need, nobody else knows what I need. Nobody else will look out for me. I'm my own advocate. I know what I need. If you're listening here and you're having some honest moments of introspection, don't run away from them, follow the lead there. What happens when you have gone down a path in life where you have exclusively prioritized your own needs over the needs of others? I call this mindset, me without compromise. And you're you without compromise and you're like, "Well, everybody else just needs to accept me for who I am just as I am. And if they don't, then I'm done with them."

I could use stronger language, but I got to be careful for the sake of this podcast, but “I'm done with them. I will keep going. I'm going to be me and everybody else can get out of the way.” That leads to chronic loneliness, that leads the chronic isolation, that leads to such pain. Why? It's not the way you're designed to be. We all have deep bonds and webs of connection with everybody around us. And this is why, by the way, sin is always communal. This is a very interesting and very important topic and I'm actually going to address it in a later Vital Signs series. So there's a little foreshadowing for you, the communal nature of sin.

And by the way, if you look at sin in scripture, you're going to see that it's never an isolated incident. It's always deeply connected, always affects other people, always. And that makes perfect sense. Why? We are relational creatures. We're not ironic selves at a distance from our society and in those around us, we are a part of it. We're implicated. The solidarity of sin shows us that we are all debtors in the eyes of God. We need to be forgiven. It's not just when others wrong us, we feel the wounds, we feel the pain and that pain is legitimate and that is real.

But if we stop with our wounds and just say, "I am an innocent victim," and freeze frame right there and never look beyond, never consider what we've done, then we're cutting off the perspective, we're not seeing the whole truth and we're falling into a sinful line of thinking of our own. It's interesting also, when you think about those who have been deeply wronged. So often in the absence of forgiveness, when somebody has been deeply wronged, what happens is it turns bitter, it turns corrosive, and often we see cycles of abuse, cycles of pain, cycles of aggression that just play out over and over again.

This is one of the tragedies that we see in communities wrecked by poverty and economic disparity, you see these vicious cycles. And if you've ever known a social worker, if you've ever known an inner city school teacher going into these environments, it has to be done with a fierce resolve and lots of prayer and lots of commitment because the incredible energy it takes to get through to even one person, let alone a community, is absolutely astronomical. So we need to recognize this.

And by the way, here's a very important distinction to bring in. And I'm drawing my thinking here from the theologian Miroslav Volf, and this comes from his book Exclusion and Embrace, which I highly recommend by the way, all sins are not equal. It's important to address this. All of us are sinners according to Christianity. Every one of us, I am, you are, we are all sinners. We're all victims and villains, but all sins are not equal. If my wife says to me, "Does my hair look nice today?" And I lie to her and say, "It looks great," when I actually think it looks terrible. That is not on the same footing as murdering somebody or exploiting somebody or participating in the sex trafficking industry, aiding and abetting crime. All sins are not equal.

You know why it's dangerous to go into that, “well, all sins are equal,” territory? It helps us so often to avoid dealing with specific sins. Miroslav Volf quickly points out that all of the prophets and Christ, they don't point to general sins, they point to specific sins. And if you look at the Bible, it's amazing how many strong words, some of the harshest, most condemning, most frightening words are reserved for those who are in positions of power, who exploit the vulnerable and the weak. You look at the prophets, shot through with that kind of language. You look at Christ's language to the Pharisees, shot through with this kind of condemnation. You look at the book of Revelation, it is really, really intense there.

Specific sins demand specific courses of action and specific pursuits. It's very important to point out that if we want to pursue true forgiveness and reconciliation, we've got to deal with specific sins. We have to name them. It is not right to say, "Well, yes, I mean racism is very bad and systemic racism is serious and the specific instances are serious, but really it's all just sin." We never do this when it comes to our own lives. Pick whatever issue you want. If we discover infidelity, we never say, "Well, the real issue here is not that somebody was unfaithful, the real issue here is sin." So you can move away from the specifics to the padding of the general. No, no, no, no.

When we're talking about sin, we're dealing with specifics here and when we're talking about forgiveness, specifics are of the utmost importance. If we're avoiding specifics, we're not interested in forgiveness. If we are avoiding specifics, we are not interested in moving past our sin. We've got to deal with specifics and the biggest specific in your life is you, yourself, to begin with. Look at yourself in the mirror, you are implicated. Yes you are. I am implicated. You need to be forgiven. This is a hard point to get across sometimes, but I think it's less and less difficult these days.

In our current cultural moment, one of the healthy trends that I see despite the viciousness of the culture warring that so often accompanies it, one of the healthy trends I see is our growing reckoning with deep, systemic evil that just shoots through all the strait of our society, but all of our institutions and that implicates all of us, every single one of us. That's a healthy recognition. And many of us fiercely resist it because we know it means we're going to have to change. If the gospel's true it means you have to change your life. And in this culture, that's a really offensive slogan, change your life, but I think we're finally beginning to realize we really need to change our lives.

In many ways, in terms of world events cultural commentators pointed out that the age of irony, which is really strong in the 90s when deconstruction kind of took root here in North American literary theory departments and all that, when we were really ironic and when we were comfortable and affluent, a lot of cultural commentators pointed out, I didn't understand this at the time, but now I think it's very incisive, that irony died on September 11th with the fall of the towers. Why? Because now suddenly we're recognizing as people have down the ages and as we always do in times of crisis, times of crisis by the way are so brainy, they wake us up.

We recognize how deep our points of division are, how deep our points of conflict and how shot through our own society is. It's now on our own shores, it's not some distant evil empire, it's all of us, we're all implicated. And if you find this amazingly offensive, bear with me. I ask you in all humility again, speaking as a fellow Pilgrim, not as some sage on a mountaintop speaking down to you. I ask you, think about, really wrestle with that us and them mindset, but so often creeps in and think about the us and them mindset and the ways in which it's played out in the stage of history.

Has it ever ended in a healthy manner? Has it ever been justified or rather has the us and them mindset not been used to justify all sorts of heinous forms of oppression from chattel slavery to colonialism, to systemic forms of subtle racism, to oppression and all of its various forms, exploitation, hatred, just in our own communities, the ways in which we marginalized and hurt each other, the ways in which we ostracize others? That us and them mindset is such a convenient way to take ourselves off the hook. All sins are not equal. We have to take them specifically, but all of us are sinners. We're all implicated.

All of us have to be forgiven. This is why the gospel that Jesus Christ came to this world to die for our sins and rise again so that we might live is good news. It's not good news if we don't recognize that there's anything wrong with us. So I said in the first episode, we talk more about the lethal mindset that we are righteous in our own eyes. So let's talk about that. Jesus offended many of the respectable religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but one of the ways in which he offended them was he had this habit of hanging out with people who were sinners.

That is people who are known as sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, those who are considered unclean, those who are outsiders, those who were sort of the dregs of society, and he would eat with them. Not only would he hang out with them, he would actually break bread with them. In terms of symbolic gestures, there are a few acts that are as intimate as sitting down and eating with somebody, and that's what he was doing. And Jesus's response to the Pharisees when they accused them of that, when they say essentially, "Why are you eating with sinners and tax collectors? Why are you associating with these people? Don't you know who they are?" His response is, "I didn't come to heal the righteous. I came to heal the sick."

That word, “righteous” there should cause us to shutter. A chill should go down your spine when you hear the sense in which he's using righteous here, he's using it in kind of an ironic sense. He means those who see themselves as righteous. If you see yourself as righteous and that mindset solidifies and hardens, then you're truly beyond help. If you're righteous in your own eyes, then nobody is ever going to get through to you, morally speaking. If you're righteous in your own eyes, you can hurt people and you can commit evil and your conscience will be clear.

Serial killers are righteous in their own eyes of various stripes, whether they're some of the crude serial killers that haunt all of our true crime obsessions, or whether they're dictators or whether they're simply people who don't necessarily kill somebody, but just mistreat others and write them off and see themselves as righteous alone and everybody else is expendable. Those who see others simply as pawns to them, those who see others as nothing more than stepping stones or things that they use, those who objectify other human beings.

One of the major industries in this nation that contributes immensely to the economy is pornography. I can't think in many ways of a more demonic and a more powerful expression of selfishness and the ways in which we view other people as nothing more than scenery objects for our own self-gratification. That is an impulse that is common to some of the most dangerous criminal minds, and it is common also to those who see themselves as righteous in their own eyes. Because after all, everything exists really just for your own pleasure. Everything exists for your own benefit.

If you're righteous in your own eyes, nothing's going to get through to you, not even your own conscience. Do you see how this hardening happens when you're righteous in your own eyes? Look who Jesus is talking to. Why are the Pharisees singled out for such condemnation? Because they're holding other people to standards that they themselves don't uphold. They are hypocrites and they are using their power to subjugate others. They are exploiting others and they have the appearance of righteousness in the eyes of everybody else. And so this appearance of righteousness, this veneer shields them from introspection.

Christians are often accused of being nothing more than hypocrites. Christians are hypocrites, but so are you and so am I. Hypocrisy is a human problem. But Christians, those who genuinely follow Christ are also people with contrite hearts. That means they are the men and women who fall down on their knees every day and ask for forgiveness. They recognize that they are debtors, and moreover, they are the men and women who will forgive anything. Anything? Anything. Anything, any wrongdoing. Does that mean erasing the wrongdoing and overlooking it? No. Does that mean ignoring it? No.

But does that mean recognizing that we have been forgiven everything and therefore we are called to forgive everyone else and that the ultimate judge is God? Yes it does. God is the ultimate judge, make no mistake. And if you want a very stark picture of that, you don't necessarily have to go through all the tough passages in the Old Testament, you can do that. You get very powerful uncompromising pictures of God's holiness, but you also get amazing pictures, stunning pictures of God's grace in the Old Testament, by the way as well. But if you want to really uncompromising picture, go to the book of Revelation. It's interesting.

So many so called skeptics and atheists demonstrate their biblical ignorance by going after those tough violence in the Old Testament passages, and they are troubling. We should work through them, but they overlook one of the most violent books in all of scripture. And that's the book of Revelation. So, hey, I'm actually giving you ammunition if you're a skeptic. Take a look at the book of Revelation. It's good news though. The fact that God is coming to judge is good news. Why? Professor John Lennox, whom I have had the pleasure of working with, puts it so well.

He says, “Why is it that the psalmists say, ‘Praise the Lord, praise God, because God is coming to judge.’ Why is this something we're celebrating?” He says, "It means your conscience isn't mocking you." And for years and years in the West, we've lived in such relative comfort and stability, especially in North America. We haven't dealt, many of us, with blatant corruption in all segments of society the way so many nations around the world do. So we have been able to think in those terms of, "Well, if God's really loving, he wouldn't judge anyone." If you really think about that carefully, that's an incredibly one sided perspective and it's also a very privileged perspective because people around the world in very corrupt nations do not have the luxury of thinking on those terms.

When you are a person who, every day is being stopped by the police, for instance, not because you did anything wrong, but because they want to bribe wherever you go. And by the way, this is one of my colleagues, this is one of his experiences, this is his experience actually on nearly a daily basis where he works in the nation, where he ministers, where you're expected to pay the bribe. You don't pay the bribe, you're pulled into this police station. You're possibly even killed. When you see that level of corruption and it and it's your everyday life. The thought, when you see so many innocent people suffering, innocent in the sense that they're the weak being exploited, when you see that every single day, and the judges by the way, are the very ones who are corrupt.

The earthly judges are the very ones who are corrupt, the ones who are aiding and abetting and in some cases just perpetrating these crimes, then the thought of a divine and truly impartial judge really is beautiful, comforting and powerful. Because now you're actually really grappling with the level of injustice that we deal with in this world. Here in on North American shores I've mentioned we're tearing through all of our institutions now, we're looking at systemic corruption. I think this is a healthy trend, but there's another interesting fact here.

Now I have to come clean with you about something here. It's funny, I do this podcast, the Vital Signs podcast, and I do another one with Nathan Rittenhouse called Thinking Out Loud, and I listen to a lot of podcasts, but I don't listen to the kinds of podcasts that I do. This is I guess some version of Freud's. I would never be a member of a club that would have a guy like me as a member. Well, here's my little confession, I don't like these kinds of podcasts. It's funny, I like true crime podcasts and I have a conflicted relationship with these true crime podcasts. I feel very conflicted by the fact that so much of this stuff is entertainment to me, but I do.

I listen to a lot of these true crime podcasts, but one of the features about them that's so fascinating nowadays, so many of them, what they're demonstrating are really the shortcomings of the justice system. So many of them. I know the latest season of Serial did this, so many of them, what they're putting on trial, they're putting our courtrooms on trial. They're looking at our justice system and putting it on trial. And these investigative reporters, they're showing so many of the holes, so many of the major systemic problems in our justice system, and what it underscores is the desperate need for a truly impartial judge. Somebody who can actually judge righteously and who can actually forgive in the truest sense of the word.

All of us need to be forgiven. All of us need the forgiveness of the righteous judge. But what about justice? What about justice? So often we look at these cases and when we really grapple with injustice, there's a reason it's turning so angry in our culture right now. Because there's a demand where is justice and who's going to pay? Somebody has to pay. We need to find the guilty party. Somebody has to pay for all of this pain, and often there's this drive to find somebody who's at fault even when it's an environmental disaster.

You'll notice now there's a common narrative that happens every time there are major environmental disasters, there's an attempt to find a culprit for that as well. Find somebody who has to pay. It's again, one of the most natural impulses that comes to us. Somebody has to pay for this injustice. Who's at fault? Somebody has to pay. We all want mercy for ourselves, we don't necessarily want mercy for others. But if we recognize that we're all under mercy, what happens to justice? How can you have justice that doesn't come at the expense of mercy and how can you of mercy that doesn't come at the expense of justice? How do you have both justice and mercy?

This is where Jesus Christ on the cross emerges as the most holistic, the most powerful picture of what we need. Christ goes to the cross to suffer on our behalf. And notice by the way, let's back up. If we are all implicated by evil, if it's not the problem of evil, if it's our problem of evil to borrow William Lane Craig's phrase once again, which I think is very helpful. If it's our problem of evil, then all of us deserve to pay. We all deserve to pay with what? With our lives. And that's precisely what scripture says, by the way, the punishment of sin is death.

We all deserve to die. And not only that, we all deserve to be eternally separated from our maker. That's what we deserve. That's justice. But we want mercy as well for ourselves, right? You want mercy, I want mercy. But so often my human tendency is to say, "I want mercy, but just for me. Everybody else needs to uphold the full standards of the law, or maybe just me and my friends and my family, but everybody else." But the biblical story is a radical type of mercy. So how do you have justice that doesn't come at the expense of mercy and mercy that doesn't come at the expense of justice?

Christ, who is the perfect human being, the only human being, the only real true fully human person in all of human history to walk in our world on human feet, he goes to the cross, he dies in our place, the perfect sacrifice for all of us. He lays down his life for you. That's how serious your sin is by the way. You deserve to die and Christ dies for you. That's how gracious the love is, but it's also just fulfilling that requirement and rising again to offer you life, offering you forgiveness. You need to be forgiven. And only if you accept Christ's forgiveness, humble yourself, recognize that your own righteousness is useless before him, cannot save you.

Jonathan Edwards once said that your righteousness is as helpless to save you as a spider web is to stop a rock from falling through it, that's how flimsy your righteousness is. You cannot save yourself. You are not righteous and "your righteousness" will not do anything for you. You must be forgiven. And once you are forgiven by Christ, and once you recognize, you accept that forgiveness and you recognize that the full implications, this takes a long time to settle in and you'll never wrap your mind around it permanently or totally, you can't.

This is incredible stuff, but every Christian grappling with this, they need to recognize they've been forgiven everything. The gospel is good news, but that means that no longer are they in a position to condemn anyone. There's no room for that. You've been forgiven everything. You're like that servant who's been forgiven everything. So often the temptation is to go find those who owe you something and try to punish them to the full extent of the law, throw them in prison, put your hands around their neck. That's what we do. That's the human tendency.

So when we recognize that we need to first die to self, we will also recognize that once we are animated by Christ's life, we can walk in newness of life. And this is a tremendous and marvelous thing, and we'll talk about that on the final episode of this series, “How Do We Forgive the Unforgivable?” So you've been listening to Vital Signs podcast, exploring signs of life in today's culture. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and a writer here at RZIM.

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