Consider the following scenario: We sin and God gets angry. Desiring reconciliation, we repent and plead for mercy. God forgives.
This is put crudely. Eastern readers may protest that the scenario is alien to the Orthodox understanding of God; Protestants and Catholics may issue a similar protest—but bear with me. Isn’t this what we learned in Sunday School? Who can read the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32 and not come away with the conviction that when we act immorally, God’s attitude towards us changes. The scenario can be made less offensive to modern sensibilities, but the basic structure remains. Sin brings upon us judgment and wrath. It is now up to us to do something to abate the divine anger. Strategies have historically included repentance, confession of faith in Jesus, almsgiving, reparations, pilgrimages. Inherent to this structure are two elements: (1) a change in God’s attitude and (2) a penitential transaction that placates God and repairs the relationship.
Why do we think that the above scenario accurately reflects the way of things? Because this is how it works between human beings. I injure you—not incidentally, not accidentally, but deliberately, degradingly, maliciously, gravely. Your heart cries out for vengeance. What must happen for the relationship to be restored? I must accept responsibility for my actions, express genuine contrition, ask for forgiveness, and offer restitution. By so doing I disown the evil I have done. But there is still one thing left. You must forgive me. Only then will my guilt be removed and relationship restored. We are no longer enemies.
Note that it is possible for the injured party to forgive the offender before he has apologized and made atonement. Philosophers and moral theologians debate whether this is a good or bad thing to do. Richard Swinburne, for example, suggests that forgiveness before repentance and reparation trivializes the evil that has been committed: “It is both bad and ineffective for a victim of at any rate a serious hurt to disown the hurt when no atonement has been made” (Responsibility and Atonement, p. 86; also see Charles Griswold, Forgiveness). In Swinburne’s eyes forgiving a wrongdoer before he has repented amounts to condonation of his crime. On the other hand, many victims have found that forgiveness of the wrongdoer, even absent their repentance, can be spiritually and psychologically beneficial.
But what about God? Many biblical texts can be cited to support the belief that divine forgiveness is contingent upon the sinner’s repentance and change of heart. David Konstan believes that a conditionalist interpretation is supported by both the Old and New Testaments:
Consider King Solomon’s prayer to God in 1 Kings 8:33-34: “When thy people Israel are defeated before the enemy because they have sinned against thee, if they turn again to thee, and acknowledge thy name, and pray and make supplication to thee in this house; then hear thou in heaven, and forgive [or be propitious toward: cf. the Greek ἵλεως] the sin of thy people Israel, and bring them again to the land which thou gavest to their fathers.” In the hymn that concludes the book of Isaiah, we again find an emphasis on returning to the path of God (55:7) “let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” So too in Jeremiah, the Lord will accept the just and honest man (5:1), and reject the wicked, above all, those who have forsaken him (5:7); but those who return will find redemption. This idea found deep resonance in the later scriptural interpretation. …
This concern with confession and remorse as the conditions for God’s forgiveness is continued in the New Testament. The Gospel of Mark reveals a particular interest in the role of repentance (μετάνοια). Thus John the Baptist is described as having appeared in the wilderness, κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν (“preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” 1:4; cf. Luke 3:3). Luke too affirms that repentance is essential for forgiveness: ἐὰν ἁμάρτῃ ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἐπιτίμησον αὐτῷ, καὶ ἐὰν μετανοήσῃ ἄφες αὐτῷ (“if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,” 17:3). Repentance is a crucial condition for forgiveness: there is no evidence in the New Testament that forgiveness is understood to be unconditional, although this is not always stated explicitly. (“Before Forgiveness,” pp. 101- 102; also see his book of the same title)
Many preachers, biblical scholars, and theologians agree with Konstan, as do many of the Church Fathers. Thus St Mark the Ascetic: “No one is as good and merciful as the Lord. But even He does not forgive the unrepentant.” One might also invoke the penitential practices of the Church to support a conditionalist interpretation of divine forgiveness. After all, absolution always comes after the confession of sin, not before.
And yet …
Let’s return to the popular scenario with which I opened this article: we sin, God gets angry; we repent, God forgives. This is a perfectly acceptable image of God, says Fr Herbert McCabe. Wickedness is serious business, and it is appropriate for us to think of God as becoming angry when we break his holy commandments. God does not condone evil. He opposes it with all of his might. But this is only one image and needs to be set alongside the equally biblical image of “the God who endlessly accepts us, the God who endures our sins and forgives us all the same” (God, Christ and Us, pp. 15-16). God is the husband who forgives his wifely harlot over and over again. God is the shepherd who abandons his flock to rescue the one lost lamb. God is the woman who turns her house upside down to find a lost coin. God is the Crucified who cries out from the tree: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Yet even the image of the absolving God does not tell us the whole truth. “The fact is,” explains McCabe, “that the God of wrath and the God who relents are both good but inadequate images, merely pictures of the unfathomable, incomprehensible love which is God” (p. 16). Neither image is literally true. Both portray God as anthropomorphically changing his mind about us: when we sin, God becomes angry and punishes; when we repent, God puts aside his wrath and re-friends us. But the reality is that God never changes his mind. He is always and eternally in love with us. We do not need to win his forgiveness, for in Christ he has already embraced us in grace and mercy.
If we are going to understand anything about the forgiveness of sin we cannot just be content with pictures; we have to think as clearly as we can. … The initiative is always literally with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of sin is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.
So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom again. (pp. 16-17)
McCabe invites us to contextualize the inter-personal model of forgiveness within a proper construal of divine transcendence and the Creator/creature relationship. When we tell a story of two or more persons, we of course must present them as acting and reacting: I do something, and you respond; I respond to your response, and you do something. That is what happens between persons who live in time. Hence it is not surprising that when the biblical writers sought to tell the story of the God who had entered into covenant with Israel and the Church, they portrayed him as one person among a universe of persons, a person who believes and feels and acts and reacts, who gets angry when his creatures rebel against his just rule and who puts aside his anger when they repent. But it cannot be literally true. The literal truth is something infinitely more marvelous:
God does not respond to his world. He does not adjust his reaction to suit good people or bad. You do not have to be good before God will love you; you do not have to try to be good before God will forgive you; you do not have to repent before you will be absolved by God. It is all the other way round. If you are good, it is because God’s love has already made you so; if you want to try to be good, that is because God is loving you; if you want to be forgiven, that is because God is forgiving you. You do not have to do anything, or pay anything, in exchange for God’s love. God does not demand anything of you. Nothing whatsoever. (p. 27)
The literal truth is Love.
(Go to “The Mystery of Divine Love“)