Thursday, 7 August 2014

Forgiveness: Is Justification Through Faith Alone or Through Faith-and-Forgiveness? (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:23-35)

Faith is the fundamental and leading cause of justification, but. 

That's what I thought when I read Matthew 18:23-35 today, where Jesus seems to make the forgiveness of God conditional on forgiving others.

Likewise in Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus says that those who do not forgive others will not themselves be forgiven. This should raise exegetical questions for many in the Evangelical camp who believe in justification sola fide (through faith alone).

The simple (but to me unsatisfying) solution is to treat forgiveness like any "work" and thus say that though justification does not depend on it, anyone with true faith will engage in the good work of forgiving others. Therefore those without that work (here, forgiveness) will be lacking in true faith and thus not be among the justified (forgiven). However true that logic is it seems a stretch to me to find it in these particular texts. Their logic seems more clearcut: forgive and you will be forgiven. Don't you won't. That is how, for instance, CS Lewis read it. 

The docrine of sola fide is at the heart of Reformation theology, whether Lutheran, Calvinist, or Wesleyan. It is affirmed by most "free church" Christians outside of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. If we accept sola fide, then how do we understand these texts (Matthew 6:14-15; Matthew 18:23-35)? 

Let's look at Matthew 6:14-15 for a moment first (NIV):

"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

In this verse Jesus states that only those who forgive will be forgiven. He says this in the context of a teaching about prayer. What he seems to be saying is, those who have not forgiven others wrongdoings against them will not receive forgiveness in prayer (or as a result of prayer) from God. 

A tempting way to explain this text is that the person will not subjectively experience forgiveness unless they forgive others. Psychologically true as this may be the text does not seem to allow this interpretation. It says, "The Father will not forgive you." The forgiveness seems to be objective, not subjective. One answer might be that the subjective ability to receive forgiveness and the Father's effective act of forgiving are in fact the same thing. This is a possible interpretation, but I am unconvinced by it. 

A second possibility is to follow the idea that Jesus' teachings before his crucifixion are not meant to be instructions we must follow but demonstrations of our inability to follow the actual requirements of the law as definitively revealed by Jesus. Gregory Boyd and others have argued, for instance, that the Sermon on the Mount is impossible to follow perfectly and was not preached primarily as instruction but to humble the listeners and communicate to them their failure to follow the actual demands of the law (see G. Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic p.205). (This does not mean that we shouldn't try to follow the Beatitudes, only that we should not expect to follow them under our own power or believe that we need to follow them successfully to be righteous in Gods eyes.) 

This solution is also tempting and I think it may apply to some of Jesus' instructions. The trouble with applying it to these texts and the theme they share though comes from the next text to look at: Matthew 18:23-35 (NIV):

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[b] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

Jesus here is addressing his disciples. In this instance he is not merely saying "to be forgiven you must forgive." He is saying something that seems to me to be more challenging and disturbing for Protestants. He is saying, "To retain the forgiveness you have been given by God you must forgive other people." Here Jesus is specifically talking to the forgiven, and he is saying that if after being forgiven their enormous debt to God his followers do not extend that forgiveness to others comparatively minor debts towards them, their forgiveness will be cancelled and they will be punished until they have paid the full debt they owe. 

I think there is good reason to believe that the temporary incarceration and torture described here refers to hell, since on the basis of Scriptural exegesis and Jewish tradition I believe hell to be temporary. It is conceivable that it refers to rebuke and punishment in this life, but for the purposes of this discussion it doesn't matter. What matters is that the pardon extended to the anti-hero of the parable is revoked. 

On the face of it this piece of scripture seems straightforward. Being "of the forgiven" (justified) is dependent not on faith alone but also on extending that pardon to others. The word "others" brings us to an important point, however. 

The immediate context of the parable makes it clear that Jesus is discussing the question of forgiveness, rebuke, exclusion and reconciliation within the community of his followers. Without saying that Jesus would want anyone to limit their love, which I think is incorrect (Matthew 5:45-48), reading this verse in context still seems instructive. It seems what Jesus is saying is: you, my disciples, are the people whom God has forgiven. If you refuse to forgive those whom I have forgiven as I have forgiven you, then I will revoke my forgiveness of you. 

Paul seems to echo this perspective when he says that "From now on, we do not regard anyone according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation." ( 2 Corinthians 5:16-17, ESV). The "therefore if anyone" of 17 clearly qualifies the "anyone" of verse 16 to mean "anyone in Christ."  The point Paul seems to be making is that anyone in Christ is a new creation, not to be regarded "according to the flesh" or according to the "sinful nature". They are to regarded in Christ, as clothed in Christ's righteousness. That is the way that every believer is viewed by God, and therefore that is the way they should view each other. 

All of this is both convicting and profoundly moving. It also seems to sink the idea that Jesus' words were addressed only to to the "unforgiven" still trying to be righteous through their own efforts.

But does it?

A closer look at the parable raises more questions. In verse 25 the King declares that the servant will lose everything to pay off his debt. The servant falls on his knees and begs for patience, stating that he will pay off the debt. In other words, the servant states that he himself will atone for his debt, he will make amends himself. 

This is not the situation of those living after Christ's sacrifice on the cross. This is the situation of someone under the law who has sinned and owes amendment and atonement. God has been patient, as the Torah says many times He is, to give time to repent and atone.  The servant, however, has not done so- instead he has racked up a massive bill. This is the situation described in Mishna Pirke Avot 3:20 (circa 180-220 AD):

"He [Rabbi Akiva] used to say: Everything is given on collateral, and a net is spread over all the living. The store is open, the Storekeeper extends credit, the ledger is open, the hand writes, and whoever wants to borrow may come borrow. The collectors make their rounds constantly every day, they collect from a person whether he realizes it or not, and they have what to rely upon. The judgment is true, and everything is prepared for the (messianic) banquet." 

There is much to discuss in that fascinating quote (including the fact that the telos of everything is the messianic banquet, suggesting that the punishment (collection of debt) is to purify Israel so they can attend, not to punish for punishment's sake- but I digress).

The point I want to make is that the man repents and begs for more time to atone, and God compassionately and out of grace cancels his debt. This scenario does not correspond to the new age after Jesus' crucifixion, but to the "previous age" of the Mosaic law. 

The message of the cross is, of course, that God Himself has paid our unpayable debt in the person of His son. The man in the parable is forgiven through grace on account of faith as Abraham or David was, not on account of faith in Christ's atoning sacrifice for all sin as Paul/ Shaul or Peter/Shimon Kefa was.

Does this make sense in terms of the immediate context, ie. in terms of what Jesus was trying to convey to his immediate hearers? I think it does. Jesus regularly went around forgiving and healing (the two seem very closely connected). He did this sometimes in response to faith, and sometimes not, as an act of pure compassionate grace. In this pre-crucifixion context, however, his words- which I could paraphrase as "if you have been forgiven due to repentance (Matthew 18), or you seek forgiveness in prayer, you must forgive others or else you will not be forgiven" (Matthew 6)- make sense. 

The simple reason is that the Cross has not yet happened. His disciples do not understand his role as suffering servant or his repeated predictions of his own atoning sacrifice and resurrection. Of course even if they did he would not be able to offer them its benefits. The atonement is not a nice idea, its an effective act of God that changes the nature of reality. Jesus cannot offer its benefits before it has happened. 

There seem then to be two things that are true, therefore, about these verses for our purposes: 1) they do not mean that those in Christ and forgiven through His sacrifice will lose that forgiveness if they do not forgive others; and 2) they also teach us that we should do so, and how much God would like us too.

This second use of the verse corresponds, of course, to the general function of the teachings and commands of the Torah for followers of Christ. What distinguishes it from other teachings, however, is its specificity for believers in Jesus. The character and logic of this "law" are structured and defined around being forgiven by God, and thus have a special message and special urgency for those of us who have accepted and received the unfathomable gift of God reconciling us to Himself in His son. We are to see others who are in Christ as in Christ. We are to forgive them as we have been forgiven. Yet if we fail we will not automatically lose our state of forgiveness and righteousness through faith in God's eyes. 

This dynamic of both affirming the law and releasing us from its demands should not surprise us. It is the very dynamic of the simultaneous revelation of the seriousness of sin and pardon from it; of the holiness and love of God; of the law and the gospel which we see in the Cross. 


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