Peter Orr and Rory Shiner continue their series introducing key Christian concepts. This time, forgiveness and sin.

On the November 8th, 1987 the annual Remembrance Day memorial service was being held in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Among the attendees were local business-man Gordon Wilson and his 20-year-old daughter Marie. At 10:43am the IRA detonated an 18kg bomb in the vicinity of the service. Eleven people were killed that day including Marie Wilson. The twelfth victim, Ronnie Wilson (no relation to Gordon or Marie) died after spending 13 years in a coma.

The bombing drew a ferocious reaction from around the world. The next day U2 were playing a concert in Colorado and during their song Sunday, Bloody Sunday (a song about the conflict in Northern Ireland), Bono stopped the song to express his rage

And let me tell you something. I’ve had enough of Irish Americans who haven’t been back to their country in twenty or thirty years come up to me and talk about the resistance, the revolution back home…and the glory of the revolution…and the glory of dying for the revolution. *$@! the revolution! […] Where’s the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day. Where’s the glory in that? To leave them dying or crippled for life or dead under the rubble of a revolution that the majority of the people in my country don’t want. No more!

Sadly, outrage was not the only response to this atrocity. Because the victims were all Protestant, several revenge attacks were carried out on Roman Catholic civilians. The next day, a Protestant university student Adam Lambert was shot dead by the Protestant paramilitary group the UDA who had mistaken him for a Roman Catholic.

Her last words to him were ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ He then added ‘I prayed for the bombers last night that God would forgive them.’

Gordon Wilson with his wife, Joan in 2011. Photo by Bobbie Hanvey

Because of the nature of this tragedy and personal connections (Ronnie Wilson was the father of my maths teacher and Adam Lambert had been a few years ahead of me at school), the Enniskillen bombing made a significant impact on me as a teenager. But it was the response of Gordon Wilson that affected me—and many others—the most. In interviews the following day, he recounted his last moments with his daughter as they lay trapped next to each other under the rubble. In a deeply emotional state he remembers that her last words to him were “Daddy, I love you very much.” He then added “I prayed for the bombers last night that God would forgive them.”[1] In another interview, he expanded on his feelings: “I bear no ill will to anybody; nor does my wife. I prayed for them last night; sincerely. I hope I get the grace to continue to do so”.[2]

Gordon Wilson’s attitude of forgiveness to his daughter’s murderers deeply moved a nation that was still in shock at the atrocity carried out the day before. Gordon Wilson was a Christian man and embodied the attitude that was exemplified by Jesus. Jesus himself had uttered similar words of stunning forgiveness: As he was being crucified on the cross—being executed as an innocent man—he prayed for his executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they knew not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

A Defining Characteristic

Forgiveness is (or should be) a defining characteristic of the Christian life. The New Testament is not naïve enough to assume that relationships between Christians will always be smooth. It is full of exhortations to Christians to forgive or bear with one another.

  • Most famously, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus instructs the disciples to pray “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12) adding that “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (6:14-15).
  • Later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive a fellow Christian—magnanimously suggesting “seven times” (Matthew 18:21)—Jesus raises it to “seventy-seven times” (18:22).
  • Paul writes to the Colossians to remind them that basic Christian discipleship involves “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other”. He then adds “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:31).

This last verse, especially, reveals the power of forgiveness: it isn’t just something that Christians imitate (i.e. in following Jesus’ example), but something they Christians experience. Because we have experienced forgiveness we can and we must extend it to others.

But what does it mean to be forgiven “by the Lord”?

First, let’s think about what the Bible means when it talks about “sin” or “sins”. This language is often co-opted in advertising e.g. Heinz’s slogan for its low sugar “Fit Ketchup” is “No Sin”. PETA, the animal rights group, are more direct: “Eating Meat is a Sin: Go Vegetarian”.

Two Great Commands

But Jesus points to two great commands: love for neighbour and love for God (Matthew 26:32-40). For him, sin is failing to love your neighbour as yourself (either through actively hurting them—lying, stealing, murder etc. or through neglecting to care for them). And sin is also about failing to love God as we ought. This comprehensive approach explains why the Bible views sin as universal: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In fact, the Bible is brutally honest: “Surely there is not a righteous person on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl 7:20) and “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). In fact, at one point, almost as an aside, Jesus even describes his disciples as “evil” (Matthew 7:11).

This is an aspect of Jesus’ teaching that people find most difficult. Obviously, there are incredibly evil people in the world (Hitler, Stalin etc.), but surely there are good people too! How can Jesus say that “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18)?

Our work ethic, our care for our families, our charitable donations, our morals etc. might make us appear well-ordered (good, even!). But we live as if God does not exist.

Part of our problem is that we think of humanity as a tower-block with a cut-off point below which people are “evil” and above which people are “basically good”. Most of us think of ourselves a few floors above the cut off point. But we’d do better to think of sin in terms of relationship. Let me illustrate with a story: [3]

Sam grew up in a very loving and generous family. When he turned 18 he decided to move away to another town. For reasons known only to him, on the day he left he sat his parents down and told them that he no longer wanted anything to do with them—no contact, no visits, no relationship at all. He was even going to change his last name to express his complete break from his family. As far as he is concerned his parents no longer existed. Sam moved to his new city and lived as a model citizen. He donated a high proportion of his earnings to charity. He became a generous and loving husband and father. He was a well-respected and upstanding member of the community. However, in all of his upright, loving even, behaviour, his relationship with his parents was broken.

This is how it is with us. Our work ethic, our care for our families, our charitable donations, our morals etc. might make us appear well-ordered (good, even!) But we live as if God does not exist.

For the Bible, the essence of sin is how we are with respect to God. Jesus expects that we love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind (Luke 10:27). This sets the bar disturbingly high.

The second part Jesus mentions—to do with our neighbour—should disturb us too. We aren’t just to love our neighbour, he says that we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19).

A Problem for God

None of us do these things. And so the Bible’s verdict on humanity is that we are universally sinful. So what should God do about it? Would it be it just and fair for him to simply forgive us? This is a big question in the Bible and Christian theology.

But, as with nearly everything else in understanding the Christian faith, it is Jesus’ death on the cross that gives us the key. At the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul summarises the gospel like this:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (15:3).

The reference to the Scriptures here reminds us of how the Old Testament (OT). In the Old Testament the payment for sin is death. Right from the start, God warns Adam and Eve that if they disobey his command and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they will die.[4] Death is God’s judgment on sin.

However, the OT teaches other things too:

  1. First, it teaches the idea of substitution. It has a sacrificial system where an animal takes the place of the person who makes the sacrifice—dying for their sins.
  2. Second, the Bible shows that the sacrificial system was really only an anticipation of a person who would come and bear the sins of many. Isaiah 53 makes this clear, prophesying the coming of a figure, known as the Servant, who would be:

…pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed (Is 53:5).

Jesus was that Servant. When he died on the cross, he became the innocent sufferer who bore the sins of others so that they could be forgiven their sins.[5]

And so, in Jesus, our sin is properly punished. God can be just and the one who forgives sins.

The Power of God’s Forgiveness

We see the power of God’s forgiveness wonderfully illustrated in Luke’s Gospel. Here we read of the two people crucified next to Jesus—both criminals. One rails at Jesus, taunting him to prove his ability to save himself. The other, however, rebukes him and confesses his sins: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (23:40-41).

Even though this man admits his sins should be punished, he dares to (implicitly) ask Jesus for forgiveness: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). Jesus’ response to him is wonderful: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43).

Even though this man admits his sins should be punished, he dares to for forgiveness. Jesus’ response to him is wonderful: ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’

Many people, like Gordon Wilson, have followed the example of Jesus in remarkable acts of forgiveness. But forgiveness is, first of all, something that all of us need.

No matter who you are or what you have done, you can be forgiven by God!

[1] https://www.gettyimages.com.au/detail/video/enniskillen-ira-bomb-northern-ireland-ulster-enniskillen-news-footage/866652622 .

[2] https://www.pbs.org/video/religion-and-ethics-newsweekly-irish-reconciliation/

[3] This is an expansion of an illustration which I first heard from my friend Nigel Beynon.

[4] Not the tree of knowledge—but of the knowledge, or experience, of good and evil! That is, this account is not a polemic against knowledge but a polemic against evil.

[5] Some people imagine this as a kind of crass cosmic child-abuse—as if nice Jesus were saving us from nasty God. But we can’t divide them like that. Jesus shares the same essence as the Father—the true son of God. Paul sees them as so united that: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).