Forgiveness at the heart of the gospel

In January 2016 a teenager stole a car and ran over a pregnant woman—Sarah Paino.  She died but the baby was saved.  The sentencing of the teenager was reported recently.  When I heard the news story about the teenager being sentenced, I was gripped with such sadness over this event.  It was not that I felt sad over the death of the woman, but sad over the teenager.  A sixteen-year-old must live the rest of his life knowing that he has taken someone else’s life.  This is a crushing burden to live with.  The time spent in prison is incidental.  The guilt must be overwhelming.

In reflecting on this happening, I was reminded that forgiveness is central to the gospel.  Forgiveness must be the greatest of all gifts which come from God.  Without forgiveness we have no alternative but to spend our lives trying various ways of suppressing the guilt.  For some, such as the sixteen-year-old who killed the pregnant woman, it must be extremely difficult to rationalize the action which brought about the guilt.  It is clear that many people in Australia are unable to live with their own conscience.  This is evidenced by the recent revelation that Perth consumes 31kg of crystal meth each week.  Without forgiveness it is no surprise that people turn to alcohol, drugs and almost anything else to try to forget the guilt.

I have become, I think, almost blasé about this incredible gift of forgiveness.  It seems so familiar now.  But it is something so precious that we should not forget its wonder.  We are indeed very much guilty people, who truly deserve eternal condemnation.  We genuinely all deserve to die because of our sin.  But the gospel proclaims that God is a forgiving God.  It is not something cheap which he has done.  It cost Jesus a great deal of pain to make that forgiveness available to us.  I do not refer here to the physical pain of the cross, which is in itself immense, but to the pain experienced by the conscience of a righteous man, who had to bear the weight of guilt for all humanity.

Luther wrote about Jesus on the cross:

And all the prophets saw this, that Christ was to become the greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber, desecrator, blasphemer, etc., there has ever been anywhere in the world.  He is not acting in His own Person now.  Now He is not the Son of God, born of the Virgin.  But He is a sinner, who has and bears the sin of Paul, the former blasphemer, persecutor, and assaulter; of Peter who denied Christ; of David, who was an adulterer and a murderer, and who caused the Gentiles to blaspheme the name of the Lord (Rom 2:24).  In short, He has and bears all the sins of all men in His body – not in the sense that He has committed them but in the sense that He took these sins, committed by us, upon His own body, in order to make satisfaction for them with His own blood.[1]

I have no doubt that if Luther had listened to the news today, he would have agreed that Jesus became a sinner who is guilty of running down a pregnant woman and killing her.  In living with the guilt of all humanity on the cross, Jesus must have experienced intense psychic pain, having no means of blunting the pangs of guilt.  He had no way of distracting himself from the guilt he bore, our guilt.  Instead he had to bear it completely.  For this incredible gift we will be literally forever grateful.  Guilt is a horrible thing to live with and forgiveness is an overwhelmingly precious gift.


[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Volume 26: Lectures on Galatians Chapters 1-4  (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1963 [1535]), 277.

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