This weekend I was in Charleston for the first service at Emanuel AME Church after the brutal white supremacist terrorist attack of this past week. Walking around downtown, I was struck by the unity of the city. People stood before the church, singing. The town’s churches displayed signs of solidarity and rang their bells together in unison. And the one thing I heard talked about more than anything else was forgiveness, specifically the way the families of the victims said they forgave the terrorist even after the murder of their loved ones. Some saw this as commendable; others were taken aback.
On the one hand, this sort of forgiveness is the reaction most people would hope they would have to evil. At the same time, most of the people who talked about this with me said they couldn’t imagine that they could forgive such a thing. Some even wondered if the note of forgiveness was morally right. After all, they reasoned, this is a murderer who should be brought to justice.
This sort of tension shouldn’t surprise us because it gets right to the root of why the gospel is good news. Too often, we assume that forgiveness means something far different from what forgiveness means in the Bible.
Forgiveness is not the clearing up of a misunderstanding. No forgiveness is needed if all we have is a failure to communicate. Forgiveness isn’t saying that what was done is all right. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for the wrongdoing. Forgiveness, in the Christian sense, is not at odds with justice.
This is because we learn what it is to forgive from the forgiveness we have received. This forgiveness is not cosmic amnesty. The mercy of God and the justice of God are found in the cross of Christ. When God forgives us it is not his saying that justice is left undone. God is instead counting us as in Christ, who took upon himself the due penalty for sin in our place (Rom. 3:21-26). It is not that we are given a free pass on hell. It’s that, in Christ, we have already been to hell—and, in Christ, we are raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God.
At our Lord’s arrest (Matt. 26:47-54), Jesus told Simon Peter to put his sword back in his sheath but not because Jesus didn’t believe in punishing evildoers (think of the closing chapters of Revelation). Jesus told Peter that he could have an armada of angelic warriors at his side (and one day he will). Jesus’ point was that such justice was not Peter’s to mete out. And that’s the point.
The victims’ families are not saying that the terrorist should escape without penalty. For the state to allow him to do so would itself be an immoral act (Prov. 17:15). The state dispenses justice, not gospel mercy because the state was not crucified for sinners. The state’s responsibility is to maintain justice by punishing evildoers (Rom. 13:4).
When we forgive, whether in the wake of an enormity such as this one or in the more mundane ways we have been hurt, we are not saying vengeance is not due. We are saying that vengeance is God’s, not ours (Rom. 12:19). We don’t need to exact justice from one who has sinned against us, because we know that God will judge every sin either at the Judgment Seat or, more hopefully, at the cross as the offender unites himself to the One who is “the propitiation for our sins and not for our sins only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2).
That sort of forgiveness frees us to work together for justice, including justice against murderers and terrorists, because these matters remain matters of public justice, not of personal payback. More importantly, though, such forgiveness frees us from being enslaved by the one who has hurt us. We don’t have to store up bitterness, keep a record of wrongs, or try to dream up means of retaliation.
When we forgive we do not overlook or excuse sin. We are not saying that now everything is “okay.” Instead we are confessing that judgment is coming, and we can trust the One who judged justly more than we can trust ourselves.