By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Why is forgiveness a sign of God’s presence?
Scripture attests to God’s overwhelming love for us and willingness to forgive our sins. Even after God discovers the sin of Adam and Eve, he does not immediately impose a death sentence on them, as previously warned; instead, he outfits them with clothes like a mother preparing her first grader for school Gen 2:17; Gen 3:21. God imposed a consequence for sin on Adam and Eve, but also left them with a “positive conclusion” so that they might learn from their mistake and not be embittered (Turansky and Miller (2013, 130–131).. Similarly after Cain murders Abel, God offers Cain grace, protecting him from revenge (Gen 4:15).
The link between God’s love and forgiveness allows the psalmist to write:
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. (Ps 103:2-4)
So if God’s forgiveness was already well-attested in the Old Testament, why did Jesus need to die on the cross?
Part of the answer is to observe that God’s forgiveness of Adam, Eve, and Cain was providentially incomplete. All three were still cursed; all three still left the presence of God. Christ’s work on the cross was comprehensive, a re-creation event, as the Apostle Paul writes:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:17-19)
Christ reconciled us with God so we should reconcile with one another. With Adam, Eve, and Cain, none of this happens.
Some psychologists look at forgiveness as a reframing event. Reframing occurs when new meaning is attached to a negative experience. For example, psychoanalyst Victor Frankl, when confined to a concentration camp during the Second World War, focused his mind on preparing the lectures that he would give after the war on his camp experience. In reframing his persecution, Frankl was able to survive the camp when others gave up hope and died (Rosen 1982, 141). Reframing falls short of forgiveness because it focuses solely on the individual, neglecting the relationship among individuals and with God.
When God forgives our sin, in a sense we reframe our self-image from rebel to child of God. The greater the sin forgiven, the deeper the transformation enabled. Forgiveness releases us from death row condemnation and allows us to be reconciled with God, those we sin against, and all of creation. When we then forgive others, we become ambassadors for Christ in this magnificent reconciliation project (2 Cor 5:20).
Rosen, Sidney [Editor]. 1982. My Voice will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Turansky, Scott and Joanne Miller. 2013. The Christian Parenting Handbook: 50 Heart-Based Strategies for All the Stages of Your Child’s Life. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.