From: H.R. Mackintosh, The Christian Experience of Forgiveness, chapter 10. Edinburgh, 1927.
Experience of Being Forgiven
The characteristic faith of the New Testament,
preached anew by the Reformers, is a faith which sees the demands and
accusations of conscience in a clear, but dreadful, light. The way to God for
such beings as we are lies not through aesthetic impressions, or through
submissions to authority which ethically are irrelevant; it lies through the
sense of right and wrong. It appears indeed to be the will of God that no one
can appreciate pardon, in the sense it bears in the Gospel, who is not on the
way to recognizing himself as a complete moral failure, between whom and the
Holy One lies a deep, broad gulf. The inner oracle of man's heart, where there
is spiritual sensitiveness, declares him polluted and unclean. And if God be
holy, the place of the unclean must be far from God.
Righteousness on Our Own
To the average man, doubtless, this is scrupulosity in an absurd degree. He sincerely thinks that much ado is being made about next to nothing. The more sensitive man, on the other hand, the man who for a month has tried to keep one single Divine command - say, the command to be wholly pure in thought, or to love God more than all else - cannot but confess that far from being what he ought to be in the sight of God, he is poles asunder even from his own ideal. What comes home to him, in hours of sober, clear-eyed self-scrutiny, is his intrinsic unfitness to live before God. He is evil, and evil cannot dwell with the Eternal. The attempt to live unbrokenly in the presence of God is bound under these conditions to be unendurably painful; something in fact that could not long be sustained but for the hope of better things.
So that to understand forgiveness we must take the relation of religion to morality on its deepest plane. By the creative will of God we have the moral law, the moral consciousness, at the core of our being; and in accordance with this our given constitution, it looks not merely altogether natural, but positively obligatory, that we should seek to win our place with God on the lines of moral achievement. Yet the harder we try, the more certainly we lapse into despair. Were it not that we have learned that the ways of God are not easy to argue about, we should tend to say that a Divine purpose is manifested here. I mean that if the universal experience of believers is any guide, it looks like God's intention that we should first make trial of our moral independence, and, failing utterly, should learn that righteousness and holiness belong to God only.
Certainly it is mysteriously easy for the morally earnest man to grow proud of himself; and if it were to be laid down that the self-approval of a good conscience is never, even in the best men, untainted by worthless pride, I do not suppose that the assertion could be seriously refuted. If we are ever to be in a right - that is, a wholly filial [sonship] - relationship to God, this self-satisfaction must be torn out by the roots. We must come with empty hands, content to owe everything to God, though it seems more than nature can bear thus to take all and earn nothing. To bring us to this point, the only possible starting-place, a sense of moral unworthiness is the indispensable prerequisite.
Quite simple experiences of the inner life may reveal us to ourselves. It becomes plain that self-love, mixed with better elements, is at the roots of our being. However firm our self-control, the first reaction of which we became aware upon a sudden and cruel blow dealt us by a passer-by would unquestionably be one of hatred; the first emotion that filled our mind at hearing of the success of a rival would unquestionably be one of envy. We should recover ourselves promptly, no doubt; we should suppress the envy or hate; gradually our feeling might even pass into positive compassion or a pleased delight in others' good. But in the meantime, if we faced the truth, we should have seen deeper than before into the terrible make-up of our nature. It is a corrupt nature, the worst ingredients of which are undeniably beyond our own power and blaze up in sinful fire before ever we realize what is happening.
By strong self-discipline, it is true, we can tame and train ourselves to decent behavior in the presence of our fellows; but while action may be curbed, the struggle with the first involuntary spurts of feeling is all but unavailing. And as we face God, it becomes clear that in any case such violent and forced self-suppression can never satisfy His fatherly heart. What He asks is that we should love Him and our neighbor with all our heart-freely, gladly, unfeignedly. And this is worlds away from our actual state, it is like the marooned sailor's imagination of wife and child and home. Nothing that can be said, and said truly, of the good that is in a man can change the fact that this evil, so fierce, and guilty, is also there.
Not until we have learned these things about our
own heart, can we be said to know more than the crust or surface of ourselves.
When the truth dawns upon us, it is all over with self-satisfaction; one of two
things must ensue either we must sink in ruin or we must find
Repentance and Faith
There is but one way out: we are undone except as there is made good to us the utterly free forgiveness of God. And the state or attitude of thought, feeling and will in which we receive this inestimable gift is that which can only be designated by the two great words, Repentance and Faith.
There must be, that is, at once trust in the merciful good-will of God and penitent revulsion from our personal evil. In responding to the Father, we both own and disown our past. We cannot reach out towards Christ and not (at least incipiently) hate our sins, any more that we can love candor and not abhor a lie. To see God in a new light is to change our estimate of all that we have been and are. It would be almost superfluous to argue the point, which is agreed among us.
That the attitude is one, although with these two aspects, is made fairly obvious by the teaching of Jesus. Religion for Jesus centered in faith, which He lived as well as taught, and which unceasingly He communicated to others. Little faith, fear, undaring prayer - He condemns these in the sense that He views them as an unworthy response to the Father, and His call is for unqualified trust in God's adequacy to all man's need, for wholehearted adhesion to Himself as the Father's representative. Yet it would be correct enough, statistically, to say that Jesus spoke more about Repentance than Faith; the Logia, for example, appears to use "faith" only twice. He assumes that there will be pain and shame felt over the evil repented of. But throughout, whether faith or penitence be emphasized, our Lord evidently has one and the same thing in His mind. We may call it "change of heart". The great instance where He exhibits its actual occurrence is the Prodigal Son; and how human a story it is, that of a man in whom repentance began with nothing more exalted than hunger! Also we can watch repentance at work in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, which it is difficult to think Jesus told without great intensity of feeling.
As we read books about faith and penitence (and good books on that topic are not rare), two reflections are apt to suggest themselves. In the first place, our ideas of the spiritual attitudes so designated tend to be unduly static, insufficiently dynamic. Or, in plain English, we incline to view them as experiences completed as it were at a stroke - things fixed and finished, which can be all seen at a glance and reduced to black and white. Yet in reality they are living dispositions of the soul, to whose essence it belongs to move and grow, as by inherent quality. Their true character and value is discoverable rather from the direction to which they tend than from any transient or emotional manifestation in which they flash out.
And again, we are perpetually being tempted to
construct a model scheme of Faith and Penitence, even against our better
knowledge, and to apply it pedantically by way of standard to each new instance.
Thus questions are forced into prominence which gave immense trouble to
Christian thinkers of a past age, and which, of course, are highly important
once you assume that a certain regular program of inward experiences has to be
gone through. It was debated at great length, for example, which of the two,
faith and repentance, comes first; whether repentance issues from apprehension
of the Gospel or of the Law; whether there may not be a preliminary and as it
were introductory penitence which the Law evokes, but which is succeeded by a
fuller and genuinely evangelical penitence that is the only thing worthy of the
name. But the infinite variety of life scouts all such prescriptions. We can
hardly venture on anything more than a generalization such as this - Wherever
you find a forgiven man, who, as forgiven, is living in fellowship with God and
in reconciliation with men, you may be sure that in the past his spiritual life
has come to exhibit two mobile and permanent companion tendencies - the tendency
to take humbly from God, which is faith, and the tendency to judge and amend
himself, which is penitence. One of the two may predominate at a certain age or
under special conditions; but both will invariably be present, and each will
feed and intensify the other. As he comes with empty hands to God revealed in
Jesus, he will learn ever more profoundly his unworthiness of love so great; and
as he judges his own life, the quickened sense of its selfishness and folly will
force him back upon God's free love.
Repentance (to take it first), like every religious act, concerns the three cardinal modes of being conscious - knowing, feeling, willing. Sin is recognized, it is disliked, it is disowned. Recognition of sin by itself is not repentance; it may be defiance. Nor is sorrow for sin repentance, if it be alone in the mind; it may be remorse or despair. Abandonment of [departure from] sin, by itself, may be no more than prudence. The regenerating fact is all three, as a unity, baptized in a sense of God's personal grace to the sinful.
The Shorter Catechism, to which the virtues of Scotsmen have occasionally been ascribed by sanguine natives, offers a noble reply to the question, what repentance is. "Repentance unto life", it answers, "is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth with grief and hatred of his sin turn it unto God, with full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience". The knowing, the feeling and the willing, of which I have already spoken, are obviously present here. Where the "true sense" of sin comes from - whether it is called forth by acquaintance with Christ, or by a noble friendship, or by the painful or solemnizing facts of life - is not stated; what is insisted on is its reality. But it is at least closely associated with "apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ"; which indicates that in all probability the authors would have agreed that the sense of our own badness and ill-desert stimulated by a realization of God's presence in Jesus is likely to be sharper and more lasting than that due to our conceiving God simply as Moral Governor or Judge. It cannot be forgotten that the character of Jesus itself acts as the most searching of all criteria of sin.
seventeenth-century thinkers have a look of being all but infallible on questions
of what is called "experimental [i.e.,
practical] religion". In the present case, they perceived that in describing
what goes on in the mind of one who is accepting the Father's forgiveness in
Christ, they must on no account set up a narrowly conceived pattern of
experience to which each penitent is expected to conform. They did not lay down
that the consciousness of sin must be poignantly acute, or duly protracted, or
accompanied by quaking terrors of conscience; in a plain manly way they declared
that if the man was serious the sense of sin would be real. Nor did they assert
that to have peace with God the penitent must believe a special theory of
atonement; for them, the one thing needful is to apprehend the mercy of God in
Christ. They gave no color, either, to antinomianism [opposition to the Law],
though the forgiven were now chartered libertines who after obtaining pardon
could act pretty well as they chose with the certitude that if they should again
happen to do wrong, more pardon could easily be had. They simply said that part
of the mental content of true repentance is the resolve to stop sinning and
serve God with a right intention.
Turning from Sin
emphasis on the volitional aspect of repentance is of special value. Stress
is laid, not on storms of feeling, but on
the act of turning from sin. It is not only that God cannot pardon the man who
intends to remain at his old level; such a man cannot take pardon. Hence
great evangelists have insisted strongly on reparation. In reference to the
moral stringency of Jesus, which so impressed Zaccheus, Dr. W. M. Macgregor
observes: "Preachers are apt, in talking of the mercy of Jesus, to forget that
there is no mercy in allowing a mean and dishonorable man to go on in meanness;
mercy to such a man requires that he should get the chance of escaping
dishonor". After all, we lay hold upon God by the strongest thing in us, our
sense of right; and evangelical religion is poisoned which loses this sense
the moral inexorability of God's claim. Without the abandonment of evil - in
predominant desire and intention, that is, I do not say in achieved completeness
- penitence may become nothing higher than a disease of feeling, with no more
reality in it than the habit of self-disparagement indulged by some peculiarly
vain men. The resolve, at whatever cost of humiliation or effort, to set things
right, is a part of repentance; and although it is no doubt implied in a
penitent's secret transactions with God, it dies out, and the reality of
penitence with it, unless it is given practical embodiment and made
Repentance a Pre-condition to Forgiveness?
Two difficulties are often felt at this point. First it may be said: Why contend that repentant faith is a precondition of our being forgiven? Can there be conditions of any kind? Does true love wait on repentance, and especially love like that of God in Christ? Surely mercy on that scale transcends the offence, anticipating all movement on the transgressor's part, even that of compunction, and heaping its gifts on the unworthy without reserve. Anything else (it is argued) would be a timid and calculating love, very unlike the love of Jesus. The self-giving of love in pardon with unqualified generosity is itself the most powerful incentive for the evocation of penitence such as makes a repetition of the offence impossible.
With the intention usually in the mind of this objector there will, I think, be widespread sympathy; but he does not greatly help matters by his indiscriminate use of terms. In reality, the objection rests on a confusion between love as a feeling or attitude, and forgiveness as an act. Certainly no one who had learnt religion from the New Testament would affirm that before loving an offender, you should first wait and see whether he is penitent. But loving and pardoning are not, as such, identical. Love is the creative capacity of pardoning, and the mainspring of its effluence; but it is not, simply and by itself, the decisive concrete act of restoring peace between estranged hearts. Love, just because it is love, and is the very nature of the living God, is affected by the entrance of sin; not in the least that it has ceased to be, but that, personal relationships having been affected, the activity of love is affected too, and its activity is (so far) interrupted.
A moral love, in short, must take the form of active antagonism to the sinful life, even though the personal affection is still there, constant and waiting. Now pardon is the establishment of right mutual relations; and mutual relations, of a personal kind, cannot be restored in absence of a willingness on both sides to have them rectified. As it has been put: "Forgiveness, like any other gift, may be refused; the will to forgive must meet the will to be forgiven". (White, Forgiveness and Suffering, p. 60) Thus while love is the fount of all, pardon does not flow forth automatically, but by free spiritual action. It is a specific application of love to a certain situation, and the kind of situation is determined not arbitrarily but by love's intrinsic nature.
It is for this reason that pardon without penitence (if, for the moment, we assume its psychological possibility) demoralizes, like indiscriminate charity. Even the offender feels it to be an instance of moral levity, too plainly signifying that the injured man has not really pardoned the fault at all, but merely tolerated it. And how far is toleration of evil from indifference? The effect on an unformed character of the repeated assurance of forgiveness without regard to penitence is undoubtedly to foster egotism and its bevy of attendant vices; and a single case of the enfeebled ruin consequent on such facile condonation affords a more damaging refutation of its claim to high virtue than all the arguments in the world.
It is however unnecessary to labor the point that forgiveness in the absence of repentance would demoralize; such forgiveness is by the nature of the case impossible. Pardon is not a thing, like money, which can be bestowed or withheld at random. As between God and the spirits He has made, pardon is not a thing at all; it is His taking us back into full, unhampered communion with Himself; it is His inauguration of a relationship between Him and us in which the perplexity and confusion of the bad conscience have vanished, and which in His purpose is characterized by mutual trust; for not only do we trust His loving goodwill, but with incomprehensible grace He trusts even us to go out and be His representatives among His other children. And can it be thought that the existence of such communion of Spirit with spirit is independent of the inward attitude of either?
Personality has been defined as "capacity for fellowship"; if sinful men are ever to enter upon fellowship with God they must acknowledge their unworthiness of love so great; and this truthfulness of mind is penitence.
It is of course this direct bearing of repentance upon God that gives rise to its specifically religious character. There may be a turning from sin which is in no sense turning to God. For the preacher, very specially, it is not enough by satire or invective to persuade his hearers that they have made fools of themselves and missed the happiness they might have had. Such handling of their need may produce a sense of degradation which is almost wholly self-regarding, or at best aesthetic. Repentance then becomes no more than an apology to ourselves.
Men only repent as Jesus would have them do when their experience has an immediate relation to the Father, when it constitutes a fitness for a new relation to Him, when it opens the heart in the direction of His reconciling love and melts something of the hardness within. In the absence of this, not even the moral import of sin is appreciated. Sin does outrage our own nature; it does estrange self and neighbors; but even these truths are in part missed when we overlook its antagonism to the love of God.
It is actually possible to conceive of a man who measures his own life by the moral beauty of Jesus and laments its deformity, who yet is not repenting "unto life" because of his complete unconsciousness of the fact that, in this Jesus, the Father is coming near to him in mercy. Penitence, in a word, is a reaction toward God produced at its highest by the demonstration afforded in Jesus of what sin is to God, and of the unimaginable lengths His love will go to reach and win the guilty.
Repentance unto life, moving as it must between
conscience and God, is as lonely a business as dying. We sinners come face to
face with God, in the final resort, one by one, though none of us has ever so
come who had not been led towards God by Christian friends. To repent is a clear
act of the spirit, not any ecstatic swoon or dim craving in the blood.
Contrition must be as solitary as sin. Every man who has ever done a real act of
penitence, who has looked up into the Face of wounded love and taken from the
unseen hand that incredible, but never-failing, gift of pardon, knows that in
the well-remembered hour God and he were alone together, and that the voice he
longed to hear would have been drowned and lost in the tumult of common life.
The will to face solitude thus is a prerequisite of having our sins forgiven. So
narrow is the path to the mercy-seat, and back again, that two cannot walk
Repentance and Faith
The penitential movement of the soul is also Faith. It is as we cast ourselves on God that the assurance of pardon comes home to us and that very definite inward state, "peace of conscience", gains reality within. To begin with, this involves that the religious value and momentousness of faith resides not in its psychological or reflex effects, but in the Divine object it apprehends; what saves is not faith simpliciter [simply faith], no matter in what, but faith in God our Saviour. Indeed, it is just because faith invariably terminates on God, in His character as faithfully and unchangeably Redeemer, - to use old-fashioned terms, on the Promiser even more than His promises - that faith is never represented in the Bible as saving men by an inherent meritorious virtue.
It is the condition of being taken into fellowship
with God, as eating is the condition of being nourished. But the act of eating
does not produce food, nor does faith give reality to God's pardoning grace. To
speak of merit in such a case, as if we deserved to be forgiven because we
believed that God was forgiving us, is preposterous. If I give a man money, he
must of course take it if it is to belong to him; but the taking is not a
performance I reward by bestowing the gift. To deny this is to turn experience
upside down. Faith, for the mind of the New Testament, is the act in which the
fundamentally right relation to God is actualized. Personal trust makes the
trusting man righteous in God's sight; it is the attitude - in fact, the only
attitude - which contents the Father's heart.
Forgiven by degrees?
This truth, that the apprehended object (or God) is that which imparts to the experience of faith its distinctive character, has further consequences. It vetoes, for example, the curious and really sub-Christian idea that we are forgiven by degrees. "Forgiveness", writes R. C. Moberly, "is strictly and absolutely correlative to what may be called the 'forgivableness' of the person forgiven"; and to this he adds that as there is, upon earth, no consummated penitence, so neither is there any consummated forgiveness. "It is not consummated perfectly till the culprit is righteous: and love does but pour itself out to welcome and to crown what is already the verdict of righteousness and truth". (Atonement and Personality, pp. 56, 60-61). We are pardoned, then, by installments, in proportion as we are forgivable. This, we may fairly say, is either a truism or an error.
If "forgivable" means simply "capable of being forgiven", no one will of course demur. We have already seen that penitence and faith are the spiritually necessary preconditions of our receiving Divine pardon; an unforgivable man, on these terms, is the man who neither repents nor trusts. But Moberly's allusions on the one hand to forgiveness inchoate and provisional, and to forgiveness consummated on the other, clearly show that this is not his meaning. He envisages a forgiveness on God's part which is conditional, subject to revision, in a real sense precarious and asymptotic.
This notion, that when God forgives the sinful what He actually does is not to take them back to His heart, freely and unreservedly, but to take them on trial, is I think, manifestly out of touch with so central a part of Jesus' teaching as the Parable of the Prodigal. So far from pardon being represented there as a matter of degrees, of the calculated less or more, we are shown, once for all, how it is the transcendent property of love, at the sight of penitence to, break through the barrier of wrong, and run to meet the wrong-doer as he stumbles up the path, and bring him in, and robe him, and set him down at the table loaded with the feast of fellowship. That is a picture of forgiveness full and unqualified. No other conception appears ever to have been in the apostolic mind.
And indeed, provisional pardon is an idea scarcely fitted to evoke a joy unspeakable and full of glory, or to inspire the tempted with unwavering courage. What the New Testament exhibits is a company of men proclaiming the infinitely glad and daring gospel that we sinners can have full salvation now, in the sense that now, and before we become better men, God will treat us, unreservedly, as His dear children.
On the other hand, it is fatal to the exhilaration of Christian living if the reality of God's fatherly communion with us be made dependent on the growth of our acquired goodness. When character is thus taken as the ground of our acceptance by God, what is it but a new legalism? Writing to a friend about the Life of Pusey, to whose massive and exalted piety he pays tribute, Dale observes: "The absence of joy in his religious life was only the inevitable effect of his conception of God's method of saving men; in parting with the Lutheran truth concerning justification, he parted with the springs of gladness".
God's love in Christ, in its full measure, is offered not to those merely who are believing enough, or penitent enough, or reformed enough in their lives. It is offered to all who will cast themselves on God, though it be with "faith as a grain of mustard seed". The earthly love that shows like to God's is never apt to put its penitent loved ones on probation, but rather accepts them just as they are. And our thoughts of God's mercy must be not less wide.
This may seem a doctrine that ministers to laxity
or induces presumption, but, provided the nature and cost of the Divine pardon
be realized, the effect ought to be of an opposite kind. Surely there is less
presumption in taking my complete forgiveness from God's hand at the outset and
always later, as a purely loving gift, than in coming to Him afterwards, at
intervals, with the sense that I am now a better man and therefore fitter to be
forgiven. Nothing more apt than this to breed self-consciousness could be
imagined. The truth is, when securities for a good life are demanded from the
sinful before forgiveness full and free is placed in their hand, the result is
to turn Christianity into a form of morality rather than a
God Receives the Unworthy!
The paradox that it is not the worthy, but the unworthy, that a pardoning God receives is a point indicated somewhat technically by Ritschl in his well-known monograph (Justification and Reconciliation, p. 79ff.). He insists that God's judgment of forgiveness is not analytic but synthetic. These formidable terms suggest a point of real importance. When we are on our knees in penitence, the inward question cannot but arise: What does God, the Holy One, think of us? Some real answer to this we must have if we are to live at peace with ourselves and the world. And if He receives us, if He will not cast us out, but gives us a place in His fellowship, on what is this gracious estimate of us based? On our character, on what by good endeavor we have made of ourselves? Is it not rather on what His pure grace bestows?
If we chose the first of these alternatives and held that God accepted us for our (in any degree) excellent character, at once our own badness would also confront us. In short, we should have to listen to the verdict of conscience on ourselves, and that would certainly insist that from a God who "marked iniquity" (Jer. 2:22) we should deserve no mercy at all. Thus, it turns out, the consequence of claiming that our good shall count with God is that our evil must count too. We cannot have it both ways; we cannot rank as self-made men when our virtues are in the scale, but, when our sins come uppermost, say to God: "Why didst Thou make me thus"? (Rom. 9:20)
So that, from the nature of the case, forgiveness is a marvel that baffles all logic: God can recognize only those who feel that they are utterly unworthy of recognition. That the Holy One should receive sinners is, to natural logic, a contradiction in terms. But, in this wonderful life of ours, it is not quite unfamiliar.
Something of the same paradoxical kind emerges as we have seen for a man who finds that he has won the love of a good woman - it is all of grace, he confesses, and nothing of desert. He has been gifted with a great new boon on which he had no claim. So it is here: the God, who by His holiness shatters our claim to live before Him, nevertheless by His love gives us a new life. And by the phrase, "a synthetic judgment", this fundamental point is emphasized, that the forgiving grace of God does not presuppose our worth but calls it into being.
His pardon is not a tribute to our character; it
is not a fiction; rather it is a creative volition, in which the Father affirms
the real being of that which was not there apart from Him. In a word, He thereby
inaugurates a new relation between Himself and unworthy men which is grounded
not in their virtue, but in His pure and perfect grace.
Forgiven or Unforgiven? What is the Difference?
But at this point some one may demur. Must there not, after all, be something in men which differentiates the forgiven from the unforgiven? How can you explain the simple fact that certain people do live with God on the footing of pardoned sonship, and others do not? That distinction cannot be rooted in chance, for Christianity is not a casual religion; it must be relevant to some quality or attitude in individual men. What then is it in a man which makes God forgive him, but not his neighbor? Plainly, whatever it is, it must be something present in him now, not merely something yet to be. Now, if forgiveness be a miracle of grace, this question cannot be fully answered or disposed of; but we may go a certain distance towards answering it if we consider carefully the nature of penitent faith.
Faith, we have seen, is, as it were, the receiving surface for Divine pardon. Where it exists, the soul has awakened to reality; there is a new longing for righteousness; there is, deep down, a self-identifying with Jesus and all He stands for. But this means that while, as far as personal identity goes, the man still is continuous with his old being, in a yet profounder sense, what he was has ceased to be. Though he might not dare to say it of himself, an omniscient onlooker might fitly apply to him the apostle's strange but triumphant words: "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20). God's love in Jesus has changed the man transformingly. That is fact not one whit less than his old identification with self and evil was fact. And, in our stumbling fashion, we have no option but to say that God sees this. Indeed, in that which God sees, it is the principal and determining fact; and there is a real relation connecting it with the Father's attitude to him now.
Faith means admitting Christ to an inward union
with your mind and heart and life. By God, who looks on the heart and sees
things as they are, the man who has faith is seen as one with Christ, and thus,
astoundingly but not immorally, is forgiven.
God Accepts the Imperfect
But the sinner so forgiven is still imperfect, it
is urged. Undoubtedly he is; but why, it has been well asked, should we go on
perpetually assuming that God can and will accept only what is perfect? Were it
so, none could ever hope for pardon. We must remember the infinite significance
of even the faintest believing contact with Christ; as one with Him, however
imperfectly, we are become new men. Quantitatively, if we may employ so gross a
term, the penitent sinner is, and will always be, unequal to his idea;
qualitatively his attitude to God is now the one attitude of soul which the
Father seeks in a child - he is willing to receive as a son receives. True, to
the end there is mystery here for the man guided merely by moral principle; God
does not treat the man as he deserves. But does love anywhere do
How can we Know we are Forgiven?
Already we have implicitly touched upon the next problem: How can we know that we are forgiven? Clearly if forgiveness counts for us as inestimably precious, we shall wish to be quite sure of it; it is therefore not surprising that the past debate regarding what is called "Assurance" has been long and spirited.
The best thing ever written about assurance is two sentences in one of Denney's books. "Nothing", he writes, "is more characteristic of Churches than their attitude to assurance, and the place they give it in their preaching and their systems of doctrine. Speaking broadly, we may say that, in the Romish Church, it is regarded as essentially akin to presumption; in the Protestant Churches it is a privilege or a duty; but in the New Testament religion it is simply a fact". Allowing for the edge of epigram, this is sound and memorable.
The Roman thinker disposes of assurance in his own fashion; it is given, at all events for the moment of absolution, in the voice of the absolving priest. What seems most out of line with New Testament faith, in this conception as a whole, is not the interposition of the priest, as God's official representative, nor is it the demanded performance of meritorious satisfactions in penance; it is rather the belief, round which the entire theory is built, that with every new mortal sin the sinner forfeits his standing in grace; or, to put it otherwise, that with each voluntary transgression he has ceased to be God's true child and must regain his status by the pathway of penance. And this breeds the mood of painful suspense.
Nor could much comfort be drawn by the anxious-minded from the strict Calvinistic dogma of a two-edged predestination. If the metaphysical predestinarianism of Augustine, Calvin, or the Synod of Dort be laid down at the foundation of theology, if, that is to say, the "elect" are a certain number of souls which can neither be increased or diminished, and if, consistently with this, the sovereignty of God be dwelt upon in abstraction from His fatherly love for all men, how natural that men should fall into doubts regarding the good-will of God to them personally! The question, "Am I one of the elect"? when asked by a timorous and self-distrustful heart, is a question that from this point of view is by no means sure of its answer.
Within the past two or three centuries different answers have been offered to the inquiry: "How shall I be assured that God forgives me, and forgives me now?" People have been advised, for instance, to consider their own increasing love for spiritual things, their undeniably good works, and the like. Yet it is difficult to see how this could help much; if they are persons of genuinely spiritual feeling, they must know that they cannot be really good without God, and the point at issue precisely is whether or not they are in fellowship with God.
Ritschl counsels them to exert their faith in Providence, and assurance will return. As we shall see presently, this is valuable in a way, though not exactly for the point we are now considering, which is the ultimate ground of assurance rather than the pathway of experience by which we reach it.
One thing, surely, is entirely clear: whatever it be that evokes assurance, it cannot be anything in ourselves, for it is just regarding ourselves that ex hypothesi we are in doubt. One man may say: "I am sure that I belong to God, for I can remember a day when He vouchsafed me an overwhelming impression of His forgiving love." Another may say: "God is mine and I am His; I know it, for I now love Christ-like things to which once I was indifferent." But both are building their house upon the sand. Assurance must depend on present reality, not on past events; on what confronts us unchangeably, not on the soul in its ups and downs.
We can have no trustworthy guide here but the New Testament. It does not make two problems where there is only one. Assurance for apostolic men is not something alongside of faith as an added perfection; it is neither prior to faith and preparatory for it, nor subsequent to faith and derived from it; nor is it a privileged reward for what faith has achieved. It is simply the mark showing faith to be of the right kind.
When we look believingly at God in Christ, where is the presumption in being quite sure of His compassion to the sinful? Can we be too sure of it, too trustful in claiming it for our own deep need? If then a man should say: "I long to be reconciled to God, but a glance at myself unsettles me again and my felt unworthiness makes me unbearably doubtful whether He will receive me", our answer ought to be unhesitating.
Get into the company of Jesus and into the atmosphere of compassionate love He bears with Him, and let this tell upon you. Stay in His presence, as St. Mark pictures Him; bring your mind in earnest to bear upon Him, as He lives, as He dies, and your heart will open to complete certainty that God is not casting you out. Forget yourself, and allow Jesus to make Himself so familiar that you know God's very self is touching you through His holy love.
Thus we escape from subjectivity, as the New Testament invariably does, to the great fact of Christ and God's trustworthiness in Him.
But all this, it is very possible, may not happen in a flash; in many cases we may be sure it will not; and it is at this point that suggestions like those of Ritschl are helpful. He taught, we have seen, that the right method of obtaining assurance is to exert an active faith in God's providence, such a faith as exhibits itself in the patient bearing of hardship. On the main point this is scarcely adequate; for if assurance of the Father's grace has weakened, the resulting and characteristically Christian faith in providence will have weakened along with it.
None the less, Ritschl does point to an important
truth. That truth bears not on the object or evoking cause of the faith that we
are now forgiven - which must always be the redemptive self-manifestation of God
- but on its experiential verification. The trust that God has received us
cannot be verified by rehearsing an argument, by repeating or listening to
words. The problem cannot be talked out, but it can be lived out. It is one
thing to enter the relation of pardoned sonship; it is another to live oneself
into the felt enjoyment of this wonderful new possession.
The Verification of God's Fellowship
All kinds of experience, it is plain, will minister to the verification of a man's conviction that God has given him His fellowship. But two, in especial, may be singled out. In the first place, the reality of our communion with God in prayer will be its own evidence. We discover, as a simple fact, that we have access to the Father and that our petitions are heard. Trusting God for power to destroy sin, we find that sin is destroyed. No convulsion of our nature occurs, no voice peals through us proclaiming absolution; but our communion with God, once begun, continues and deepens.
Secondly, we gradually waken up to the fact, than which nothing in life can be more humbling, - that God is permitting us to cooperate with Himself in doing good. He is giving us a share in the tasks of His Kingdom. He is using us as instruments for a purpose greater than ourselves, and, in the process, is training us in freedom from the world and mastery over its temptations and fatalities.
These experiences, and others like them, confirm and nourish the assurance that our sins - for we sin daily - are, by God's unwearied grace, not being permitted to separate us from Him. Not that we base our hopes upon them, otherwise our certainty of a gracious God would wax or wane in accordance with our success and failure. The foundation-stone of faith that can be lived by is, always and unconditionally, the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.