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The Forgiveness Factor


"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us all of our sins." What do you do when you forgive someone? What really happens to you when someone you've hurt turns to you and says, "I forgive you"? What is the miracle of forgiveness?

This question haunted me in a new and powerful way after I watched Michael Christopher's dramatic play The Black Angel a couple of years ago. It was about a former German Nazi general named Engle who, after thirty years in prison for war crimes, was trying to make a new beginning for himself outside of a little village in France. Building a cabin in the mountains for himself and his wife, he believed his past, with its horrendous guilt, was now forever behind him, paid for by three decades in jail. Now he could try to forget it all. He had earned the right to make a new beginning.

But there was a certain French journalist by the name of Morioux who could not forget. His family had been murdered at the start of the war, when Engle's army massacred the entire village he lived in. No, Morioux could not forget. For thirty years he planned revenge. If the Nuremburg court could not sentence Engle to death, Morioux would carry out his own sentence.

Finally, after thirty years, the time had come. Morioux had gone into the little village and stoked up hatred and fear in the minds of the village radicals, and he did his work well; for on that night they were going to come up there as a mob will Morioux, kill Engle and his wife, and burn down the cabin.

However, Engle's story contained some loose ends that the journalist had to tie up. The afternoon before the planned vengeance, Morioux went to the cabin, identified himself to the shocked Engle, and began his inquisition. Morioux probed Engle's story all afternoon, and as he explored Engle's soul, Morioux's own soul began to change. Revenge began to taste sour in his mouth, and he changed his mind. He told the former Nazi general, "They're going to come to you tonight, and they're surely going to kill you. Come with me. I will save your life. I can get you out of here alive."

The general waited for a long minute before he answered. Finally he said to the French journalist, "I will go with you on one condition."

Morioux said, "What's the condition?"

"That you forgive me."

"No, no. Save you I will. Forgive you I cannot. Never."

That night the villagers came as a mob with the courage of anonymity. They burned the cabin to the ground and shot Engle and his wife dead.

The play left everyone there gasping for an answer to the question of forgiveness. What was it that General Engle wanted more badly than life itself? What was it that he needed so much that he would rather die than live without it? What was it that Morioux did not have the power to give? What is the miracle of forgiveness?

Listen again to the promise of the Word of God. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us all of our sins." The Word tells us that God can be counted on to forgive. God's unfailing grace can do what Morioux could not. God's forgiving is also a model of our forgiving. That is, what happens between God and a sinner can also happen between two human beings alienated from one another. God shows the way.

We must notice the close connection between confessing and forgiving. If we confess, he forgives. But we mustn't put too much content into that and make it say what it does not say. The text does not say if you do not confess he will not forgive. The text only says that if we do confess we are assured that he will forgive. What he does with unconfessed sin, we leave to the mystery of his unlimited mercy. Yet, this we can seize with confidence: if we confess, he surely forgives.

To truly understand this promise of God, we must first answer the questions, "What is confession?" and "What is forgiveness?" I invite you for a few moments to join me as we probe deeply into these two questions.

The nature of confession

First of all, I want you to join me in brushing aside some of the pious debris that can clutter up the reality of a confession. Let me mention three things that confessing is not.

Confessing is not talking about sin. If talking about sin were confessing sin, our generation would be on a confessional binge. No generation on earth has ever let it all hang out the way we do. Celebrities race each other to the publisher with their secret sins, their steamy manuscripts under their arms, eager to tell their private gossip to a noisy public. Fortunes are made on the premise that you and I are peeping Toms at heart. I've listened to my favorite radio psychologist and marveled at people's readiness to divulge their private peccadilloes to a few million eavesdroppers. Blabbing our secrets is not confession. Spilled beans do not a confession make. Talking about sin is not the same as confessing it.

Secondly, confessing sin is not the same as explaining it. I want to tell you that I'm more than willing—usually—to try to explain my faults. I want everybody to understand me and appreciate the extenuating circumstances under which I am practically forced to do the crazy things that I sometimes do. I can explain everything. That afternoon on the mountaintop, General Engle explained his sins. He felt Morioux should know what it was like to have been a German general under that lunatic, Adolph Hitler. He explained—and we can explain—but not confess.

Thirdly, confessing sin is not the same as being realistic about it. If realism were the same as confession, again, our generation would be the champion confessors of all time. No generation has been able to look at the grizzly and tawdry side of human nature eyeball to eyeball without blinking the way we can. A few years ago, psychologist Carl Meninger wrote a book called Whatever Happened to Sin? in which he called us back to the reality of sin. I paged through his fine book and noticed two missing words: confess and forgive. Realism makes us honest. It makes us tough. It makes us callous, but it does not make us confessors of our sins.

If confessing is not the same as blabbing our sin, explaining our sin, or being realistic about our sin, what in heaven's name is it? Confession always includes three qualities.

The first quality of confession is an acknowledgement of our responsibility. To confess is to acknowledge responsibility. As I grow older and witness more tragedy, I am convinced that people are sinned against as often as they sin. People are as often victims as they are culprits. Yet, I don't know just how much you can blame on your anemic genes and chromosomes, or how much you can blame on your fouled up psychological childhood environment. I don't know how much you can blame on something else, but this I believe: somewhere in the dynamic of your decisions, you determined what you should do. It's not my mother, not my father, nor my toilet training that's to blame: it's me, I have not confessed until I have acknowledged my responsibility, even though I am not certain what it is.

Second, confession is shared pain. When I truly confess to you that I have hurt you, I am acknowledging that the hurt I caused you hurts me, too. I feel the pain that I inflicted upon you. I wounded you, and now I am wounded by the cuts that I sliced into your life. Confession can only begin when pain is shared.

Third, confession is a gamble on grace. How do you know that when you've held out your heart and soul in your hand for the other person to examine in all its faultiness, that the other person will not look at it and find reason to shut the door in your face? What a risk is a confession. In the movie Tess, a young bride gambles her happiness on her husband's power of grace to forgive. She risks everything by telling him, on her wedding night, about a tragic mistake she made in a past relationship with another man. As she confesses, his body stiffens. His lips go tight. His dry eyes freeze in a blank stare, and he doesn't possess the grace to forgive. She gambled on his grace and lost, and her life was over. What a risk.

Every confession is acknowledgement of responsibility, the feeling of shared pain, and a gamble on the other person's grace. When these elements are in place, the miracle of reconciliation can begin.

The nature of forgiveness

What, then, is the miracle that happens after confession is made? Again, we need to brush away some misconceptions that can clutter up the reality of forgiveness and keep us from recognizing it as a miracle.

First, forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is hard; forgetting is easy. You need no miracle of grace in order to forget. All you need is a bad memory or enough fear to drive the memory into the dark pit of your unconscious. If God could have forgotten, he would not have needed a cross. He could have just said, "It doesn't matter, I've forgotten it." Forgetting is not forgiving.

Second, forgiving is not excusing. We all need a lot of excusing for the dumb things we do. I am often excused for working too hard. We workaholics always have the edge; nobody dares refuse us to be excused for working so hard. In fact, we all excuse each other for so many things. "I know you're a flake," you might say, "but you're my kind of flake." Or, "My husband is a clod, but with the mother he had to grow up with, what would you expect?" Excusing is easy. Excusing is skirting around the pain and challenge of forgiveness.

If forgiveness is neither forgetting nor excusing, what in heaven's name is it? Forgiveness is, very simply, a miracle. It is the miracle of a new beginning; starting again from where you are, not where you wish you were. When you truly forgive someone, you hold out your hand and say, "I cannot excuse what you've done. I cannot understand what you've done. I cannot forget what you've done. But I want to be your friend again. I want to be your husband again. I want to be your father again. Let's start again." When we're ready to forgive, we do not have to understand everything. We do not have to get the story straight. We don't have to sew all the loose ends together in our minds. All we need to do is to begin where we are in our shared pain and determine to walk into the future together.

What will the future be like? Who knows? The future may involve more pain, more confessing, and more new beginnings. Forgiveness does not guarantee a painless future. Nor can forgiveness turn back the clock. We have to begin where we are, and sometimes that means we have to begin a brand new relationship. A divorced woman may need to forgive her estranged husband, and then begin a new life with a new marital status. A child—perhaps a very old child—who is angry with a parent, may need to forgive a parent long dead. His forgiveness will be a new beginning with his parent's memory.

Whatever the quality of the moment, whatever the status of the relationship, when you sense that another person has shared the pain he or she has caused you, you are ready to forgive—if you have grace enough to do it. There's the rub. As long as we are relating as sinful persons to sinful persons, confession is a huge risk. I may not have the grace to forgive you; you have to take that risk.


The Good News is that with God, all risk is removed. If we confess, he is faithful and just to forgive us all of our sins. We can depend upon it. There's no gamble. What makes the difference? The difference is a cross, set in the soil of a hill in Palestine, where a Man once hanged in shared pain for the sins of the world. In Jesus' suffering, he held out his pain to God as if to say, "O Father, I am feeling with you the pain the human race has caused you. I share your pain, O God." In the sharing of pain on the cross, Jesus made a perfect confession of sin for us. The cross is the guarantee of a new beginning for us, because Jesus made a perfect confession there.

Any confession will work with God that depends upon Jesus' shared pain. Our confessions are never perfect. They're often halfhearted, half intelligent, or even half sincere. Yet God's forgiveness still comes through, because of the cross of shared pain in the life of God. This is why he can be trusted never to shut the door, never to turn his back on us. He can be relied upon not to excuse us, to forget our sin, or to empathize with us, but rather to know and remember full well, and still say, "Here's my hand. I want to be your Lord again. I want to be your Father again. I want to be your friend again. I want to be your fellow traveler into the future with you. Let us begin again."

In one of the most moving dialogues in all literature two brothers, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov, in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamozov, are talking in a tavern about the insufferable evils people commit against each other, and especially against children. Ivan is an atheist, and with demonic passion he argues there is no way in heaven or on earth for God and man to have harmony again. There is no way to bring God and man together in this rotten world. Alyosha sits silently with his face in his hands. He cannot conjure up a philosophical argument to answer his brilliant brother. He finally lifts his head and says, "Ah, but there is One who can forgive everyone everything because he has shed his innocent blood for everybody and everything."

That is the heart of the matter: There is one who can forgive everybody and everything because he shed his innocent blood for everybody and everything.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

The late Lewis Smedes, author of My God and I, was professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The nature of confession

II. The nature of forgiveness