Atonement and Forgiveness

Several weeks ago, while attending a seminar at a local seminary here in Kansas City, I heard this amazing statement from one of the speakers:

“Our atonement comes from forgiving others.”

I almost did two barrel rolls when I heard this. Was this person serious? We are atoned for by forgiving others? Sadly, that’s exactly what the person meant. In bringing this up on Facebook, someone proposed to me the following: “It might be accurate, however, to say that Christ’s atonement is conditional upon us forgiving others (Matt 6:15).” I’d like to take a moment to address both these points briefly.

That a trait of a true Christian is that they forgive others is, of course, absolutely correct. We’re not trying to run to the opposite extreme. The problem, however, is in trying to tie the atonement into our personal forgiveness. From there we run into many issues:

First, we cannot possibly mimic the forgiveness given by God for our sins – that’s simply impossible. That’s like comparing a father forgiving the man who killed his wife and children to a kid who forgives another kid for stealing Halloween candy. It might also be helpful to point out that the Greek word translated as “trespass” in Matthew 6:15 (whose root is παράπτωμα) means a lesser kind of transgression, as opposed to the “debt” discussed in Matthew 6:14 (root word: ὀφείλημα) which means something plainly owed to another person. The two “trespasses” discussed in either verse are of two different levels and degrees of seriousness. This was the point of Christ’s parable of the ungrateful servant who, owing an ungodly amount of money to his master, refused to forgive the small amount of money owed to him by a fellow servant. The fact is, it is simply impossible for us to mimic the forgiveness given to us by God, when compared to the forgiveness given to others.

Second, we have to ask ourselves: would we be able to honestly say to God, on the day of judgment, that we forgave all trespasses done against us? From every tiny little thing to every major thing, would we be able to forgive the other person, or even remember to do so? I probably don’t remember all that was done against me, and there are some from my past that may take greater spiritual maturity before I can. If there is still that imperfection, and our atonement is the basis of this, then does that mean that we will not be atoned for and therefore shall be cast into hell?

Thirdly, if we fail to forgive someone, and therefore annul our atonement, does that make the atonement of Christ itself null and void? If so, then from where will our next atonement come? For if we believe truly that Christ “died for sins once for all” (1 Pet 3:18) then even our imperfection in not forgiving every transgression (as discussed in my second point) can still be covered, for the year-by-year, sin-by-sin sacrifices of the Temple ended with the sacrifice of Christ. If, however, we say that the atonement is done away with in our transgression, then the atonement is imperfect. We therefore have to “make up” for our lack of righteousness, and must do something to please God.

Fourthly, as we saw from the previous paragraph, this entire thinking leads, in one way or another, to works-based righteousness. The atonement becomes dependent not on what God does or what God did, but what we do. This makes God’s ability to redeem His people, so important under the new covenant, completely dependent upon the creation rather than the creator.

Lastly, and in relation to the last point, this makes the entire sacrifice of Christ pointless. I might ask: if we are atoned for simply by forgiving others…then why did Christ die? Why did Christ suffer the most painful, embarrassing execution of His time, and all in front of friends and close family, if all He had to do was tell people to just forgive one another? Why did Christ come at all, if atonement comes from a message that any prophet could have given?

Again, I’m not demeaning the importance of forgiveness, but forgiveness is because of what Christ did, not what Christ can do. A true believer forgives the small transgression against us because of the great transgression we have committed against God, and its own forgiveness through the salvific sacrifice of Christ. We don’t forgive because it feels good to do it – we forgive because we have been forgiven. To say that our atonement is in our forgiveness of others is to present a kind of postmodern nonsense. To suggest that our atonement is conditional on our ability to forgive is something that I must, with all respect, disagree with.

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