Cheap forgiveness

"Of course God will forgive me," said German romantic poet Heinrich Heine on his death bed. "That's His job." Dr Norman Young, however, suggests God's forgiveness is no such easy-going indulgence.

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When we isolate forgiveness from the whole pattern of salvation, we turn something sublime and transforming into “cheap forgiveness”. When we seize the gift, but refuse the Giver, we turn the costly forgiveness of God into “cheap forgiveness”.

The 1950s gospel hit, “He”, laments that “He knows every lie that you and I have [ever] told”, but then quickly assures us with the song’s refrain: “Though it makes Him sad to see the way we live, He’ll always say I forgive.” It’s sentimental drivel of course; just “cheap forgiveness”.

The poet, A H Auden, has Herod complain at the birth of Jesus that forgiveness was now assured, so “every crook . . . [will] argue: ‘I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged’.”

Again we are hearing “cheap forgiveness”. When a priest asked the nineteenth-century German romantic poet, Heinrich Heine, on his death bed whether he thought God would forgive him, he flippantly replied: “Of course God will forgive me; that’s His job (Beruf).” But God’s forgiveness is no such easy-going indulgence.

God’s forgiveness cost the cross. It’s sublime, serious, sanctifying and woven into the very fabric of salvation; it cannot be isolated as a stand-alone device for guilt-free sinning. The cross informs us that the divine forgiveness was not easy, nor casual, and it was not cheap. The song “He” is shallower than a bird bath, and the remarks of Auden’s Herod and of Heine trivialise something that is profound, powerful and potent.

True forgiveness is difficult to offer and to receive. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Simon Wiesenthal soon found himself as a Jew in a concentration camp. One day a nurse led him to the bedside of a dying SS officer. The soldier had been severely burnt and was now swathed in bandages; he was dying. He confessed to Wiesenthal how he had been involved in the incineration of more than 200 Russian Jews—mainly women, children and old men. As the SS officer rasped out his words of contrition, Wiesenthal recognised that he manifested a genuine repentance:

“I know that what I have told you is terrible . . . I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him . . . I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace” (The Sunflower, 57).

But Wiesenthal was unable to give him peace: “At last I made up my mind,” he wrote, “and without a word I left the room” (The Sunflower, 58). He believed only the victims could forgive the SS officer, and they were all dead. Was he right?

Since sin is an affront against God, Wiesenthal could have said to the dying SS officer, “If I had my way you’d burn in hell, but I urge you to call on the mercy of your God for forgiveness.” This is exactly how Joseph and David saw the matter: “How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9). “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4).

Christians tend to think they should forgive the most heinous deeds. Don’t we pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4)? Didn’t the Lord say 70 times seven (Matthew 18:21,22)? Isn’t forgiveness at the heart of the New Covenant (Matthew 28:26)? And didn’t Jesus, an innocent Man, forgive those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34)? Doesn’t God always forgive? Isn’t that His job?

What then of the warning that God would by no means clear the guilty (Exodus 34:6,7)? Joshua warns the Israelites that God “will not forgive your transgressions or your sins” (Joshua 24:19). The NT is no less frank in saying that “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (Luke 12:10). There is a conditional element to God’s forgiveness: “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15; 18:34–35). Forgiveness is not an arrangement designed to perpetuate disobedience or abuse. Sometimes a refusal to hate is as far as it is possible to forgive.

"The cross informs us that the divine forgiveness was not easy, nor casual, and it was not cheap."

When does forgiveness occur? Many would answer, “When we repent.” Or does repentance refer to the acceptance of God’s forgiveness rather than its cause? Notice that in Colossians 2:13 God’s forgiveness occurred while we were dead in our trespasses: “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses (italics added).

God’s forgiveness embraced the whole world: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19, italics added). Of course “not counting [reckoning] their trespasses against them” is equivalent to forgiveness. The association with “reconciliation” (vv 18, 19b, 20) reminds us that forgiveness is relational; to accept God’s forgiveness is to accept Him, and that has a powerful impact on how we live.

In a forceful example, Paul quotes Psalm 32:1,2. “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin” (Romans 4:7–8). Notice the three synonymous parallels and the twofold use of “blessed”:

  • Iniquities are forgiven
  • Sins are covered
  • Sin is not reckoned [counted]

It is also important to note how the Lord’s not reckoning sin (that is, forgiving it) links back to vv 5 and 6 that speak of reckoning righteousness. Accordingly, the blessedness of forgiveness of which David speaks is synonymous with the “reckoning of righteousness”. “So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works” (v 6). Hence “to whom God reckons righteousness” and “against whom the Lord will not reckon sin” are synonymous (italics added).

Jesus’ death was “to bring [us] to God” (1 Peter 3:18), that is, into fellowship with the Father and with His Son (1 John 1:3); and if we have fellowship with Him we shall walk in the light even as He is in the light (vv 6,7). Therefore, “let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:13,14). However, God’s forgiveness always precedes the repentant sinner’s response. It’s the rain that causes the umbrellas to go up; not the reverse. Likewise God’s “kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4).

Eric Lomax was on the Burma-Thailand railway until the end of the war. The Japanese treated him terribly and his interrogator, Nagase Takashi, tormented him constantly. He despised Takashi with an intense hatred. Even when he had returned to civilian life, his ordeal didn’t end. He continued to be traumatised by the ferocious treatment he had endured as a POW and was consumed with a passionate desire for revenge—he had no peace. Yet when Lomax met a very repentant Takashi in Japan, he “assured him of [his] total forgiveness”; for as he said to his wife Patti, “sometime the hating has to stop” (The Railway Man, 318,319). The healing was mutual and the two former enemies became friends till the end of their days.

Just as energy can neither be created nor destroyed, so God’s forgiveness can neither be created nor destroyed by us. However, by refusing God’s proffered friendship, we can frustrate the purpose of His forgiveness, which is fellowship with Himself. God’s forgiveness was not wrenched by the cross from His reluctant heart. Forgiveness was in the heart of God before it was expressed on Calvary’s hill. God absorbed within Himself the cost of forgiveness; and the objective of forgiveness is a transforming friendship with God. We cannot take the part without the whole; have the redemption without the response; the forgiveness without the fellowship; or the pardon without the Person. To want the one but not the other is to desire a travesty of forgiveness; to want “cheap forgiveness” instead of the sublime and satisfying genuine gift of God.


Dr Norman Young is a former senior lecturer at Avondale University College.