Luke 1:76-77 “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.”
People fear the diagnosis for which forgiveness is the cure. If I have to be forgiven, that means something is wrong with me. I must have sin, and guilt, and that sin and guilt have been judged. I have known people who became angry when they were told, “I forgive you.” “You forgive me? You are saying that I am the one at fault, that I have done something wrong? How dare you judge me!” We are right to condemn self-righteous, loveless judging that aims only to hurt and humiliate. But there is also a good and godly judgment necessary if we are going to be forgiven. To receive forgiveness is to agree with the judge. I am humbled when I have to admit that something is wrong with me that needs to be forgiven. Maybe I even feel humiliated
Forgiveness can be hard to accept for another reason. It doesn’t come cheap. In the book of Hebrews we read, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). God impressed this on his Old Testament people with all the blood that was spilled in the animal sacrifices that took place in the temple. John the Baptist was the first to make the connection between Jesus and those sacrifices: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus’ blood, shed at the cross, would pay the price God’s justice demanded for our sins.
It is hard to accept that what we have done is so bad that the price had to be so severe. We would feel better about ourselves if we could offer a milder solution than this.
But this is the true way of salvation. Forgiveness does not mean God excuses our sin. He never says, “That’s okay.” It isn’t. It is hurtful. It is deadly. Forgiveness fully recognizes this. It demands that this be acknowledged. And yet, God does not hold our sins against us.
Nor is forgiveness merely a kind sentiment on God’s part. He doesn’t let his affection for us get the better of him and overrule his good sense, as though he were an indulgent parent coddling a naughty child. Forgiveness is based on a historical event. It results in God’s decisive action. The historical event is the crucifixion of God’s own Son Jesus Christ. At the cross mankind was telling God what they thought of his gift and his grace. At the cross God was showing mankind what he thought of their rebellion and sin. But at the cross all the bitter battle between God and man was poured out on Jesus. His love was bigger than man’s hatred and sin. His tortured, dying body and soul absorbed all of God’s anger and punishment at sin until the very last of it was spent, and Jesus, crushed and broken by the force of it all, commended his spirit into his Father’s hands and breathed his last.
Thus, God can speak his decisive word of grace. We hear Jesus, God in the flesh, speaking forgiveness so freely, so liberally, it almost seems too good to be true. To a paralytic who didn’t ask for it he says, “Son, be of good cheer. Your sins are forgiven.” Again, to the woman with the bad-girl reputation, well earned it seems, crying over his feet at the house of Simon the Pharisee, “Your sins are forgiven.” To another woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you.” About the soldiers, fastening his arms and legs to the cross by driving nails through them, doing so with no apology, he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He sends his disciples out with this message, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven.” And even in our lowest, wickedest moments he has left us the promise, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Is that solution such a distasteful one? Does God’s medicine for our sin taste so bad–to be forgiven? When actress Sally Field received her second Oscar in 1984 for her work in the movie Places in the Heart, she told the audience, “You like me. You really like me!” Forgiveness leads us to an even dearer conclusion with God: “You love me. You really love me!” And having this, there is nothing else we really need for Christmas.