When I listen to people talk about what it means to be a Christian, I hear a lot about forgiveness. And that’s great. You really haven’t understood the story of the gospel until you’ve grasped the reality of sin and our desperate need for forgiveness.
But at the same time, I worry. If we’re not careful, we can make a tragic mistake here. Though forgiveness is critical, the simple truth is that forgiveness is not enough.
Pulling into the garage, I’m instantly annoyed. It’s a mess. I can barely get my car into its usual spot, and I have to squeeze past boxes of Christmas decorations, piles of clothes and toys waiting to go to Goodwill, and other odds and ends strategically placed to create a nearly impassable obstacle course between me and the door into the house. I eventually make it, but only after one bruised shin (caused by getting my foot caught in my daughter’s bicycle), one aching head (caused by slamming into a cupboard while trying to regain my balance after being attacked by the bicycle), and three damaged boxes (caused, of course, by falling into them after my ill-advised attempt at performing a self-lobotomy with the cupboard). Needless to say, by the time I make it into the house, I’m frustrated. Clearly the garage did not get cleaned today. I’ve had a long day at work and I really hadn’t anticipated becoming a contestant in Wipeout as soon as I pulled in the driveway.
Suppose walking into the house with my frustration, bruised shin, and aching head, I yell at my wife.
Keeping the garage clean isn’t her responsibility, and she’s probably had an even busier and harder day today than I have. But suppose that I yell at her anyway.
How do you think that would go over? At the very least I can guarantee that my home would no longer be a place of peace and harmony. Now I’ve added guilt to my frustration, and my wife would be hurt and angry at how I’ve treated her.
Things are not well. Shalom is gone.
Fortunately my wife is an amazing person. After leaving me alone for a while to sulk, pout, and recover from my traumatic garage experience, suppose she seeks me out and tells me that she forgives me. Wow. I’ve nothing to deserve her forgiveness. Actually, I’ve done just the opposite. And yet, here she is demonstrating unbelievable grace and seeking to restore our relationship. That’s incredible.
But, it’s not enough.
To see this, let’s change the story a bit. Suppose I’m an alcoholic. On my way home from work that day, I stopped at my favorite bar and have a few too many. By the time I get home, I’m drunk. Of course navigating my way through the cluttered garage is difficult; I’d have a hard time walking successfully across an empty parking lot.
So, when I get inside the house and yell at my wife, that isn’t just an isolated incident caused by pain and frustration; it’s the act of a person caught in a pattern of addiction and abuse.
Now again, my wife is an amazing woman. So suppose that she waits until I’ve sobered up, walks into the room, and tells me that she forgives me anyway. That’s still an incredible gift! By reaching out in grace and mercy, she offers reconciliation, seeking to restore our relationship. What a tremendous thing to do.
But, it’s not enough.
I’m still broken.
Remember, in this version of the story, I’m an alcoholic. My wife’s forgiveness is a gift to be cherished, but it doesn’t address the deeper reality of my addiction, or the fact that I’m likely to do it again. I’m forgiven, but broken. And forgiveness without healing simply isn’t good enough. Indeed, forgiveness without healing just sets the stage for telling the same story over and over again.
That’s why God promised more.
Would it really matter that much if simply God forgave us? If we remain essentially unchanged, we really wouldn’t have anything different. God has graciously forgiven his people time and time again. And he’s even done more. He sent kings, prophets, and priests to lead and guide his people. But none could deliver God’s people from the sin, guilt, brokenness, and alienation that has plagued God’s creation since the Garden. God’s people needed more than a new leader. They needed more than another chance. They needed more than forgiveness. They needed new life.
Forgiveness doesn’t help if you’re still dead.
That’s why God did not just promise a deliverer who would leave us mired in our brokenness. No he promised a Messiah who would pour out God’s Spirit on God’s people so they could be transformed from the inside out: “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezek 11:19-20). “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer 31:33). This is forgiveness that reaches all the way down and re-creates a people after God’s own heart.
Forgiveness is great, but God promised more.
[This is an excerpt from a book that I’m writing about the gospel, Good News for the Living Dead: A Fresh Take on the Gospel Story. You can read the other excerpts and keep track of new ones as they become available on my blog.]
About Marc Cortez
Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.