Asking for forgiveness is easy. If we are caught we look guilty and say,
I'm sorry.It works for puppies. Forgiving also seems easy. We can pat the offender on the head and say,
That's okay.No one likes to hold a grudge; we want to be understanding and sympathetic.
Repenting is hard. We do an about face. The emotional feeling, guilt, is only a start. Repentance is not a pose or an attitude but a plan of action, a promise, and commitment. Repentance without accepting our due punishment or without making restitution is childish play acting.
True forgiveness is also hard to do. For when we forgive someone who has wronged us we take responsibility for them. The emotional feeling, sympathy, is only a start. Forgiving takes more than words. We who have been wronged are required to assist repentance, to enable reform, to grant a path of restitution.
When we ask for forgiveness in this petition we are accepting a contract from our neighbor whom we have wronged or from our God whom we have shamed. Understood properly, wronging our neighbor is shaming our God. In these words we sign a contract that grants us forgiveness and holds us to a promise to make amends. Generalities will not do. Specifics are required, even when they are private: specific dates, specific objects, specific tasks, specific amounts, specific persons. Repentance is not about feelings but about deeds.
When we grant another person forgiveness in this petition we, in our lord's Name, are offering a contract to our neighbor who has wronged us. Into our hands, our lord has given a grave and difficult task. For now we must look to the good result of repentance and absolution, we must take up the burden of helping the one who has wrong us to truly repent, reform, and renew. This is not about a specific sin any longer, but about the whole character and life of our neighbor. We do not interfere, we do not dictate, we do not control their new life. Neither does our lord, who is the ultimate source of mercy and sanctification. Instead, like Him, we are the coach for a new way to play the game. We are the example of the better way of life. We are, when we speak His Word of Law and Gospel, the Means of Grace for a sinner beloved by our God.
But that is not all. For what we learn here about ourselves and what we come to trust in about lord Geshua, His call to repent and His offer of mercy, we must carry with us into the rest of our lives. If the only repentance and forgiveness that goes on is confined by this time and place, no matter how sacred, we will have failed. In our everyday dealings with other people in the ordinary life of work and home, we are called to be a Means of Grace to our neighbors and family. That means we offer our repentance to those we wrong and vow to make amends, even when the sins are tiny things like white lies, gossip, or unfair dealing in the market place. This does not mean blubbering confessions to our boss that we were not sick yesterday. It means we are not sick today and will never lie to them again. Crimes are easy. We will have ample opportunity before the judge and jury to confess and promise to reform. The judge will also give us our obligation of punishment and restitution. But the small sins of life are tougher because we must be our own judge and jury.
Yet the words come easy to us,
I forgive you,even when there is no repentance. It is too easy to
…put this all behind me. That is cheap grace, when we forgive without defeating the sin. It is all about me, about my feelings, my comfort, my self image. I am nice, I do not hold grudges, I do not judge others. But mere words, without the commitment to the sinner to help them, mere acceptance of evil because we are too preoccupied with ourselves to bother—these lapses to jelly are not good for our neighbor or our society. We must offer forgiveness, but that offer includes the call to repent and expects a response of gratitude.
After all, why does our lord insist on repentance and covenant? Why not make us all saints no matter what? He could do that. But His purpose is better people with stronger character so that, together, we can build a better community and world. The purpose of His offer of forgiveness and call to repentance is fighting evil. When we just say
I forgive you. without repentance we are draft dodging in the war against evil. It sounds nice, it sounds loving, but it is actually selfish and mean spirited to leave our neighbor in sin and allow evil to flourish in our society.
It is proper that this contract to repent and forgive is offered and accepted in church, especially inside the Prayer that our Saviour taught us. While we are not openly specific in this petition, we all know internally what we have done and what we have left undone. And here, in the readings and the sermon and the liturgy, we hear the Voice of our God offering His contract, His Covenant of mercy and new life. Here the terms of Covenant are spoken and we can examine our lives by His holy standard. Here we can listen to our neighbors also confess their sins and participate in absolving them, and us, of our guilt and shame. And here we can eat and drink with other sinners that meal of His flesh and blood, His sacrifice, that makes us all saints by grace.
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