Forgiveness. Reconciliation. They are beautiful notions until we have some reconciling and forgiving to do. It is easy to say we believe in forgiveness. Quick is the silver tongue that speaks the, “I forgive you.” Slow are the feet of clay which shamble ever so slowly and cautiously toward the behavior that follows forgiveness. Did Jesus die so the world could be only partially reconciled in word, but not in His behavior toward us?
Do we truly think so little of the power of God in the Gospel? We maintain an appearance of godliness in word, but deny its power in thought and deed (2 Timothy 3:5). I have a question. Does our reaction to the radical reconciliation of sinners—yes, even great and terrible sinners—to a position of righteousness and holiness so great that it is as if they had never sinned have anything to do with the fact that we so often struggle to believe that is how we have really been forgiven?
I must admit. I can put on a good front. I believe that reconciliation is not partial with Christ. I believe that forgiveness is complete; a pardon delivering one from death unto life. I believe that life is more abundant and full than any life we can imagine or conceive of. Like the Scriptures say, “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, ESV), and all that, right? And therein lies the crux of the matter. My soul is torn in two between what I am naturally able to comprehend, and what God speaks into existence through His mighty, powerful word.
It comes down to this. As the first commandment requires, will I fear, love and trust in God above all things? Will I trust my own words, the words of the world and the devil? Or will I believe God? But I cannot. And so as the the wise and early church taught in the third article of the Apostles Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”1
I am so often like the father of the demon-possessed child. Forgiveness is a wonderful notion. “If you can do anything, [Jesus,] have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22). In other words, “Forgive us… if you can.” But of course, God has forgiven us. He has said so, and therein, has done so. God’s Word is His action. Do you want to know where and how God has acted? Look to His Word. God doesn’t lie. But we do. Our minds prone to doubt, our hearts prone to wander, we question and second guess everything. We take a promise and begin to poke and probe around to figure out what the catch is.
God doesn’t rain hellfire and brimstone down on us for our lack of perfect faith. Instead He tells us to believe, not so much by commanding it, but by reissuing the promise which is to be believed again and again, and again, and again… This is one of the reasons why Jesus established His Church and instituted the preaching office (which we today call a the office of “pastor”), so that we may obtain this faith.
“So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given [John 20: 22]. He works faith, when and where it pleases God [John 3: 8], in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake.”2
Therefore, Jesus does not simply tell the father of the demon-possessed child, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:22), but he also delivers and saves the child. All the poor father could do before this was utter a pathetic, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Here, the father recognizes, and so must we, that the free gift of salvation from the Lord must be an entirely free gift. Even the faith in the free gift which is required must be provided. For we are incapable of even the kind of faith which the Gospel requires. We can take comfort, then, that all which the Gospel requires, the Gospel also supplies, including the faith to believe it.
I will not tell you that the secret to forgiveness is memorizing and reciting all the commands we can find in Scripture to forgive like God. That would simply be to throw you back on yourself, and point you back to the Law. What I will tell you, over and over, and what you need to hear again and again, is that God in Christ has reconciled and forgiven you, perfectly, completely, wholly, 100%. And in that declarative promise, the very thing that is being spoken is actually happening. It’s almost as if when God speaks, things happen… because they do.
This is God’s “speech-act” in which He says, “I forgive you,” and you are forgiven. God says, “You are righteous and holy,” and you are. God says, “Come forth,” and you are drawn to God and brought into a faith that wasn’t your own. God says, “Let us remake man in our image, in the image of Christ,” and you are baptized into Christ, into His death, burial and resurrection. God says, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you,” and you are drawn to the Lord’s table where you’re fed on Christ’s body and blood of the new covenant, by an everlasting food which sustains you through your journey.
It’s almost as if God could speak, and an entire world and eco-system that didn't exist beforehand could come into existence. No, not “almost as if”; it is exactly that way. I believe, help Thou my unbelief! With man it is impossible (including saving faith, trust in God) but with God, all things are possible. All things have to be possible with God, because He is our only hope.
With man—that means you and I and everyone we know—it is impossible to believe to be true what God has spoken. Therefore, we are enemy number one of faith and forgiveness. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). In other words, who will save me from me?! Thankfully St. Paul gives us the answer. And I love the way he answers his own question. It isn’t so much as with a doctrinal lecture on the finer points of the Simul. Instead, he simply turns and gives praise to God. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:25). And I find great comfort in the fact that I don’t have to figure out the exact order of salvation, or the finer details and intricacies of just how God saves sinners like me by grace through faith in Christ alone.
I’ve found that the more I attempt to probe into the hidden ways of God, the more it causes me to doubt and question my own faith. I’ve found it far more comforting and satisfying to rest in things which God has clearly revealed; namely, His Law which shows me I qualify for salvation as a sinner, and His Gospel, or promises, which tell me that saving me is exactly what God has been up to throughout human history. The answer to battling the enemy of self which always attacks faith with its doubt is to do nothing and rest in God’s work outside of you. And if that sounds too easy, believe me, it is anything but easy. It fact it is impossible. At least, for man it is impossible. But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!