The Divine Mystery of Forgiveness

by | Apr 3, 2018 | Reflections Blog | 0 comments

Photo by Jason Stephenson

Happy Eastertide! Soon after his resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples in a locked room and says, “Peace be with you.” When their excitement has died down, he resumes.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21-23; emphasis added).[1]

Jesus’s words have long puzzled me. Hasn’t Christ forgiven all our sins? How, then, might a believer “retain” another’s sins? How does my forgiveness release someone’s sins?

The Gift of Suffering

As he often does, Dietrich Bonhoeffer helped break my theological logjam.

There is a specific amount of suffering which has been allotted to the body of Christ. To one person God grants the grace to bear a special suffering on behalf of another person. The suffering must indeed be completed, borne, and overcome…Such vicariously representative action and suffering, which is carried out by the members of the body of Christ, is itself the very life of Christ who seeks to take shape in his members.[2]

by Michael Pasquarello

According to Bonhoeffer, Christ has left behind a certain measure of suffering as a gift to the Church. Because he has, we have an opportunity to unite with Christ (see Phil. 3:10). The quantum exists, and will not go away unless a member of Christ’s body bears it completely.

But Forrest, you ask, Bonhoeffer is talking about suffering, not forgiveness. What has the quote to do with John 20?

Forgiveness involves suffering. When we forgive another’s offense against us, we absorb into ourselves the injury of the offense. We do not turn the harm back upon the perpetrator (1 Pet. 3:9; Rom. 12:17). Neither do we “kick the dog,” passing it forward to another.[3] We take as our own the pain of another’s sin. We trust that God’s redemptive work will turn the pain into joy.[4]

When we bear another’s harm and let it go, we momentarily break the power of sin in the world.[5] That sin is gone. Conversely, if we do not release[6] a sin or its hurt, its presence continues.[7]

Now imagine where this line of thinking might lead.[8] The members of Christ’s body, by their choices to forgive, have the power to change the “specific amount” of sin in the world.[9] But how do we reconcile such an idea with the knowledge that Christ “is the atoning sacrifice…for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2)?

The Solution Lies in Our Identity

What if the solution lies in the Church’s identity as the Body of Christ? First Peter tells us that Christ “bore our sins in his body on the cross” (2:24). Could we as his body be with him on the cross when we forgive, carrying the suffering that comes with others’ sins? Could we—again, not as ourselves but as Christ’s Body, and not through ourselves but by the strength of the Holy Spirit—help him bear the weight of the world’s sins?

“Simon of Cyrene Takes Over the Cross” by Sjef Hutschemaekers, the Roman Catholic parish of Schaesberg, Netherlands

I’m apprehensive about taking this too far.[10] But hints seem plentiful in the Epistles. 1 Peter 4:13 speaks of “sharing [koinoneo][11] Christ’s sufferings.” Colossians 1:24 is even more dramatic: “…in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (emphasis added).

Can we “complete” Christ’s atoning suffering? Can we embody Simon of Cyrene, easing a little (through forgiveness) the burden of human sin on Jesus’s shoulders? Do we reduce his suffering by taking upon ourselves the pain of a particular sin and forgiving that sin into nonexistence? And if we do, then what happens when we do not forgive?

Through Christ’s death and resurrection, God “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). When we as Christ’s Body share in his forgiving sacrifice, he bears less alone. When we refuse to forgive, Jesus bears it himself.

Sharing the Gift

What I have just said may seem to border on a guilt trip. I do not mean to manipulate you into pretending at forgiveness. Some hurts are so heavy that we cannot yet forgive. For such hurts, I trust Christ to respond with compassion when we pray, “I can’t. I wish I could, but I can’t. Please carry this for me until I can carry it for you.”

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt, Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg

But there is a difference between struggling unsuccessfully to forgive and wanting our pound of flesh. The weight of another’s sin against us will be borne. But if we refuse to bear it, it will not fall back on our offender. It will fall back on Christ. And we will miss out on the astonishing privilege of being entrusted with a share in Christ’s redemptive work in the world.

Whom is Christ inviting to you to forgive? Is it the congregant who repeatedly sabotages your ministry? The pastor who proved more interested in career than call? The colleague-friend who betrayed your trust?

What would it look like for you to bring to an end the sin against you? How can you, not on your own but by the Holy Spirit, in your place as part of Christ’s Body the Church, accept the hurt of his/her sin into yourself, and let it go? Join with Christ in his suffering, that you may know the joy of his resurrection.

Somewhere along the way–




[1] Dale Bruner underlines the importance of this passage by calling it the “Johannine Great Commission” (Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2012, pp. 1158ff).

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4: Discipleship. German edition ed. Martin Kuske and Ilse Tödt. Trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, English edition Ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2001. Page 222.

[3] Consider as a metaphor my column on air travel from last fall. If we think of leaning one’s seat backwards into the following row as a “sin”—a bit of a reach, I recognize—“forgiveness” means neither kicking that person’s seatback in response nor passing on my discomfort to the person behind me. Or, if you prefer, it’s a little bit like “The Law of the Garbage Truck”:

[4] I have spoken of forgiveness as “absorbing into ourselves” another’s sin. Please do not misunderstand. I am not speaking here of a some kind of psychological repression where we stuff down the hurt, refusing to deal with it. Neither am I speaking of rationalizing the hurt in order to minimize it.

Both responses are not forgiveness at all. They are, rather, a twisted form of retention of the sin. Both responses will return the harm into the web of human relationships, with fresh energy from their new complications. But when we, by the Spirit’s power, truly absorb another’s harm into ourselves and refuse to let it find expression again, it disappears from human exchange.

[5] The Greek text for 1 Peter 4:1b suggests this understanding: “For the one having suffered in [the] flesh [as Christ has; see v. 1a] has stopped (pepautai) sin.” The first definition of pepautai has a causal sense, as in “cause to stop” (Bauer et al, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition [BDAG]. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001). So if someone has suffered like Christ, that one has caused sin to stop. That sin in that moment has reached its terminus.

[6] “Release, loose”—the literal sense of the word ordinarily translated forgive (apoluo).

 [7] The Greek word for “retain” here (krateo) literally means “grasp, hold,” but it can mean “to cause a condition to continue, hold in place.” That seems to be the clearest sense if Jesus is describing the alternative to forgiving sins.

[8] This is where I start to wonder if I am a heretic.

[9] Theologically informed readers may recognize here the influence of an ontological theory of the atonement. The idea is that in his death Christ did not merely (a) receive what happens to people who live in accordance with God’s will or (b) pay the penalty for crimes against God’s holiness. Rather, he assumed into his person sin itself, which then died when he did (see 2 Cor. 5:21). Without such a framework, my column would make little sense. For a less theological depiction of ontological atonement, consider the work of Keanu Reeves’ character in Matrix: Revolutions or Michael Clark Duncan’s in The Green Mile.

[10] Bonhoeffer himself raises, but does not answer, the concern: “Whether this suffering of Christians also has power to atone for sin…remains an open question” (Discipleship, p. 221).

[11] The word here, literally “share,” can also have the sense of “have a share in.”