Mark Rostron has been exploring the areas of repentance and forgiveness in the gospels, and share his thoughts with us here.
Jesus said, just prior to His Ascension, “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). My recollection is of hearing the words ‘a gospel of forgiveness of sins’ but I can find no translation that uses those words. However, the thing that struck me – that forgiveness of sins is absolutely at the heart of the gospel – is still, as far as I can see, pretty apparent in the text as it is.
Now, this is hardly original, let alone radical or revolutionary, but the way Jesus frames his words does convey an emphasis which may not always be in keeping with how we present our faith and mission to others. Forgiveness of sins, along with repentance, is actually the thing to be proclaimed. Now this is not in any way meant to diminish the fact that Jesus is the one through whom repentance and forgiveness occur, or simply the fact that He is Lord and God and to be known and worshipped. But does it shed a different light on – putting it in brutal terms – what we want to do to people?
When we look at our friends, family members, colleagues and acquaintances who aren’t Christian, what is it we want to happen to them? I wish you knew Jesus? I wish your life could be transformed by His Spirit? I wish you knew the joy and peace that I feel? How many times can we genuinely say that our first thought is ‘I want your sins to be forgiven’? And not as a prelude to what the person will have to do for this to happen, or as an introduction to how they can have a life-long relationship with Jesus (vital as this is). Our Saviour commands us to proclaim forgiveness of sins.
But what of repentance? That annoying word that bypassed my initial revelatory listening experience but refuses to disappear from the text every time I look at it. No, it’s definitely there and I guess it must be pretty important. ‘And repentance and forgiveness of sins shall be preached in his name…’ was the verse I investigated and, by doing so, I came across a potential discrepancy between the various translations. Is it repentance and forgiveness of sins or repentance for forgiveness of sins?
The latter implication is further emphasised by certain texts: ‘repentance leading to forgiveness of sins’ is how the New Heart English Bible puts it, ‘conversion to the forgiveness of sins’ says the Aramaic Bible in plain English and, really hammering it home, God’s Word Translation states ‘Scripture also says that by the authority of Jesus, people would be told to turn to God and change the way they think and act so that their sins will be forgiven.’ But is it and or for, and does it really matter? Essentially, what I’m asking is this: Is repentance the necessary stage one for forgiveness of sins?
There are two ticks in the yes box that we can note straight away. One is the fact that some translators use the word ‘for’ rather than ‘and’, and I don’t have the scholastic expertise to say they are not correct. The other is that, whatever the translation, repentance comes first in the text before forgiveness and, quite often, first means more important. But what of the One who gives the command? What do we see in Jesus’ recorded life and teaching to be his attitude to forgiveness and where does repentance come in the chain of events?
Without wishing to be too glib, I think we can say that, when it comes to forgiveness, Jesus was pretty keen on the idea. He talks about it a lot, in a lot of different contexts and, as with a lot of his teaching, he can be appearing to promote different things at different times, making it very difficult to build one’s entire attitude around one soundbite.
But let’s start with lines that are recited in church on a weekly basis. ‘Forgive us our sins, just as we also have forgiven those who sin against us’ forms part of the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6, and it is the only part of the prayer that gets a repetition in verses 14 and 15 with what is quite a threat of what will happen to us if we aren’t prepared to forgive. Sandwiched in between these verses are the references to temptations and evil – in other words, the stuff we could do that would require repentance and a change of course in our lives.
In the first place, these things are surrounded by ideas of forgiveness, but there is also the implication that we can ask God to help us with those things which will potentially ensnare us on our journey, just as we ask for help in the kingdom’s work, our daily sustenance etc. The only part where it seems God can’t – can’t! I don’t know if we can say God can’t do something, so let’s say it would be very difficult for God to provide help – is when we refuse to forgive.
So that is about our forgiveness and the forgiveness that we bestow on others. But what about God’s forgiveness of other people. Are we to say ‘I forgive you but at this point God won’t? In order for that to happen, you have to…’ Not according to John 20:23, where Jesus says, ‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ This is huge, in terms of responsibility if nothing else. It is also another example of Jesus speaking to his disciples post-resurrection about their mission to dispense forgiveness, this time with a note of caution.
Can we put this together with the previous passage in Matthew and say that we must forgive others their sins and then their sins will be forgiven? Always? Period? Tempting, but we have to remember the previous notion that Jesus talks about different aspects of subjects at different times, and so to pick two occasions and put them together to form the argument most pleasing to us is, if not wrong, rather dangerous territory.
But I think we can suggest that Jesus wants people’s sins to be forgiven and so, when he commissions his disciples with this opportunity to forgive sins, this would be something of a preference. In other words, there would have to be a pretty good reason not to pronounce someone’s sins to be forgiven. Sadly, it often feels as if the opposite is the case. It is as if forgiveness is such a precious commodity that it can’t just be dispensed willy-nilly. There needs to be repentance first, and repentance can involve a complete rejection of some pretty major aspects of a person’s life? Is this biblical?
At the centre of the Bible is the character of Jesus, and that character is shown to us, not only in his teaching, but how he interacted with sinners and the lost – those far away from the religious culture of the day. Perhaps it is in these encounters that we can see more of Jesus’ attitude towards repentance and forgiveness?
The above image is courtesy of BenteBoe from Pixabay.com
Mark Rostron was a support worker for about nineteen years (physical and learning disabilities and mental health), and is now a writer and carer for his wife. He lives in Gorleston and worships at St Mary Magdalene church.
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