Forgiveness Belongs to the Church
On Tuesday night's I am working through the Lord's Prayer as part of a Bible study. Personally, it seems that each and every petition provides a new method of the Holy Spirit carving away sin. This has been particularly true recently concerning the subject of forgiveness.
As I near the end of a book on forgiveness, A Shared Mercy, our Bible study covered this important petition on forgiveness. It was quite evident that Christians struggle with what forgiveness is and looks like. Perhaps this is most true for Christians because they wrestle with the idea of God's forgiveness towards us. As I often do, I returned to some of the simple words from John Calvin and his Geneva Catechism,
102 M. What does the word forgiveness signify?
C. That God, by his gratuitous goodness, will pardon and remit the sins of believers, so that they shall neither come into judgment, nor have punishment exacted of them.
104 M. Why do you connect forgiveness of sins with the Church?
C. Because no one obtains it, only as he is first united to the people of God, and perseveringly cherishes this union with the body of Christ even to the end; and in that manner gives evidence, that he is a true member of the Church.
The first thing that stands out is how and why forgiveness is connected to the church. Forgiveness is certainly an individualistic event in the sense that I can say "I am forgiven." But this forgiveness exists only within the scope of the church. Calvin's words are stringent. Forgiveness cannot be found unless one "perseveringly cherishes this union with the body ... to the end" [emphasis added]. The true member of Christ is a member of His body.
While Calvin almost certainly has in mind the "invisible church," it is certainly not some invisible church to which the visible church has no relationship as Calvin says the invisible church "is neither known by signs, nor at any time discerned by the eyes" (100). Thus Calvin can say of the visible church "For from those who make a separation from the body of Christ, and by factions destroy its unity, all hope of salvation is cut off" (105).
This is why "communion of saints" and "forgiveness of sins" are so entangled in the Apostle's Creed. The church is the community of those forgiven and forgiving. This is why forgiving one another is tied to forgiveness in the Lord's Prayer. Calvin speaks of this in two important questions,
285 M. What is the condition appointed, that he would forgive us, as we forgive our debtors? Does it mean, that by pardoning men their offenses against us, we ourselves merit pardon of God?
C. By no means for then it would not be a gratuitous remission. Nor would it be founded, as it ought, solely on the satisfaction of Christ, which he made for us on the cross. But by forgiving the injuries committed against us, we shall imitate the clemency and goodness of God, and prove by this that we are the children of God. By this rule, he would confirm us and at the same time, on the other hand, show us that unless we are ready and willing to forgive others, we can expect nothing else from him, but the highest and most inexorable rigor and severity.
The first one is simple enough. Forgiving others confirms our forgiveness. It also shows us that "we can expect nothing" but "rigor and severity" from God unless we forgive others as we understand our forgiveness.
Calvin follows this with one of his leading the witness style questions common in the Geneva Catechism,
286 M. This then you say, that all those, who will not, from the heart, forgive offenses, are rejected of God, and excluded from the adoption of children. Nor can they hope that there will be, in heaven, any forgiveness with God.
C. So I think that the saying may be fulfilled — the same measure which any one has measured out to others, shall be measured back to him again.
Though forgiving others does not merit us salvation, we should not take that as some reassurance that what Jesus teaches us — both in this prayer and elsewhere — is not genuine. Those who refuse to be a part of the forgiving community of the church cannot "hope that there will be, in heaven, any forgiveness with God."