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The Law of Forgiveness

Dec 19, 2007

There are some who think that forgiveness is a New Testament concept, while the "Old Testament God" is rather mean spirited and only grudgingly forgives sin. While it is true that the law offers forgiveness only after restitution or sacrifice has been made, the God of the Old Testament is revealed by Jesus Christ in the New.

The law, you see, does not have the power to forgive at the expense of the victim. No biblical judge does. If I steal from someone, a biblical judge does not have the right to forgive my sin at the expense of my victim. Otherwise, the victim would lose his money or property.

The law can only judge sin according to an impartial evaluation and set the amount of restitution according to the value of what was stolen or damaged. The judge has authority only to give an equitable ruling, often in the form of a debt note handed to the sinner. From that point on, it is up to the victim himself to decide how much of the debt to forgive. Only the victim has the right of forgiveness.

And so, God Himself upholds the rights of victims. As the Heavenly Judge, God will uphold any man's lawful rights. But God will also judge the victim with equal severity if and when he is later caught doing the same thing. That is the law of equal weights and measures.

The Old Testament God is not devoid of forgiveness. It is only the law that lacks the ability to forgive. That is its weakness, for if it could forgive sin, it could then justify sinners. Since it cannot, we must rely upon another way of justification--which is presented clearly in the New Testament.

Even so, the law is able to command victims to forgive those who victimized them, once the payment for sin has been made fully. Lev. 19:18 says,

"You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord."

This is something that our current judicial system does not do, for the system keeps a careful record of anyone convicted of a prior sin. It is remembered to his dying day and used against him later whenever possible. Many who have paid their full sentence in prison come out only to find that they remain unforgiven by the judicial system and by society in general. Worse yet, a great many "New Testament" Christians support such an unforgiving system and do what they can to continue punishing them forever.

It is ironic how New Testament Christians think it pleases God to hold grudges against "sinners," while the Old Testament law is much more "liberal" and forgiving. In every new election, there is always another slate of candidates who campaign on "law and order," trying to make the laws more oppressive. Such people are more concerned with punishment than with justice. They probably would not be elected, if Christians would study the law (through the eyes of Christ).

In March of 1981, I teamed up with Ty Hardin (the actor) to walk the halls of the Senate in Washington D.C. and essentially to lobby for God's law. I recall we went to Senator Kennedy's office and asked him to look more closely at restitution programs, rather than prison sentences, in our judicial system. Kennedy was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate at the time. His response was this: "I would love to do this, but every time I suggest it, I get hate mail from the Christians."

That was an eye opener to me. Up to that time, I thought the "liberals" were the problem. I discovered that it was the good ol' Christian conservatives that were the main opposition to the Kingdom of God. Why? Because Christians generally do not know the law, or if they do study it, they misunderstand it. Those who do study it often do so by going to a Jewish rabbi, who gives them an Old Testament perspective, rather than understanding it as Jesus taught it.

One of the main differences that Christianity has with other religions is in this area of love and forgiveness. Virtually all religions teach love, but not in the same way that Christianity sets forth in the Bible. This is evident by the results. When the Romans tortured Christians in the first few centuries, the Christians forgave this terrible injustice. But when the Church became a mere religion in later centuries, it tortured others.

Judaism often teaches men to love their fellow Jews and to hate their enemies (Matt. 5:43), which continues to be evident in the modern Israeli state in their treatment of the Palestinians and of Christians as well.

Islam has similar values, resulting in one faction killing those of other factions. Hatred toward the Jews is an accepted virtue, in view of the injustice that they feel has been perpetrated upon them in the past century.

Where is the love of God as set forth by Paul in Romans 5:7, 8?

" (7) For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. (8) But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."

A zealous Jew would gladly die for Moses, and a zealous Muslim would gladly die for Mohammed. A zealous Christian religionist would gladly die for Jesus. A smaller number would die for friends, and still fewer would die for good men who were strangers. But who would die for sinners and enemies? Only true Christians would demonstrate such love. And such love was demonstrated by Jesus at the cross. It is this definition of love that sets true Christians apart from mere religions--including the religion that Christianity has largely become.

The law of forgiveness mandates that we forgive those who have paid the penalty for sin (or crime). It mandates that we not hold grudges. But Jesus took love to a new level, beyond eros and phileo, into agape, the love of God. That is one of the chief differences between the Old Testament and the New. Jesus took love to a realm that was beyond justice and fairness. He took it to the level of maturity that is so often demonstrated between mother and child. If you want to know agape love, watch most mothers with their children.

To really know God, one must know Him as a Parent, rather than as a mere Judge or King. Other religions honor God as a Great King, but He is so high above mere humanity that they must always bow and grovel before Him. Their relationship with God is a Master-Slave relationship, based upon fear. To approach such a King, one must crawl upon one's knees with one's face close to the ground--as was often done when approaching eastern monarchs.

But God seeks a personal relationship with us. He is looking for friends. His purpose is to transform us from slaves and servants into His sons and daughters. This is the mature relationship presented in the New Testament. Such a relationship was prophesied in the Old Testament, but it was not clarified until the New. When Scripture is viewed as a whole, rather than diced and split apart, we see that our initial relationship with God is as servants, which is good, but it ends with sonship, which is better. Old Covenant religions set forth phileo love (judicial love that is just and fair to both parties) as its highest goal. New Covenant love, however, goes beyond justice and fairness and includes Grace.

When the law gives a person the right to receive compensation (restitution) for being victimized, Grace is measured by the amount of debt the victim forgives without compensation. One may still manifest phileo love, if one does not hold a grudge after the debt has been paid. But agape love is often appropriate, and we ought to have that capability.

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Category: God's Law

Dr. Stephen Jones

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