In a moral universe, offenders grant power to the offended. The ineradicable, relentless presence of equity takes right from the wrongdoer and puts it into the account of the victim. It is for this, among many other reasons, that it is not only blasphemous, it is nonsense to speak of forgiving oneself. The only One who was ever counted wrongdoer and offended party, and thus was in a position where such a thing might make sense, knew nothing, sought nothing, gained nothing which could properly—or even remotely—be called self-forgiveness. It is thus best to banish the bologna concept post haste.
Besides reducing the greatest transaction in human history into a maudlin, oozing banality, the notion of self-forgiveness is an eyeless mask, a shield obscuring from our sight the overwhelming vision of just what it was our God did in the Messiah. Self-forgiveness, it turns out, is just another ten-cent trick of the devil to enlist man in the theft of glory belonging to the true God alone. Soli deo Gloria will not be spotted on Self-forgiveness Boulevard.
So we return. The offender empowers the offended. What then happens in the transaction of forgiveness? Forgiveness, in the nature of the case, is the giving up, the relinquishing of the forfeited power and the return of it by the offended one to the offender. To forgive is to return the offender to his pre-offense status. This necessarily, then, involves a lowering (or effective lessening) of one who returns his justly accumulated power to the one who lost it by his offense. It’s a return of the chips. And in that equitable universe we mentioned, the chip giveback is always a matter of grace and always a lowering or lessening of the justly held power in possession of the offended one.
If you understand this, you will see that from the very first instance of forgiveness extended by God to fallen, sinful man, Jesus Christ became absolutely inevitable. The Lamb slain from the foundation. If you will have forgiveness, you must accept that you will have God coming down next to you, among you, to return to you what was forfeited. The incarnation was carved in stone the moment God, instead of killing Adam and Eve, clothed them with skin and promises.
Forgiveness, in a word, is a humiliation, a lowering. It is a stooping down, a restoring—and more. But if you take one thought away from this meditation, make it this: God sealed his own fate, guaranteeing His own humiliation, in time and in history, the moment He forgave a sinner. How could it be otherwise than we find it on the Day of Atonement: a blood is coming that will effect reconciliation, that will bring forgiveness. It must needs be, in the end of it all, the blood of God. Life of life for life.
In light of this, “Come down from the cross and save thyself,” is the greatest possible perversion and mockery the devil could throw at our Suffering Savior. He had come down to the cross. How could He then come down from it? To come down from it would have been to rise above it, as was fitting—but without the bounty He sought. For it was not and could not have been to save Himself that we see Him on the cross. It is to save us and secure for us forgiveness. The extent of the forgiveness won and granted corresponds precisely with the depths of humiliation involved in its delivery. Our forgiven estate can be no greater than the humiliation endured by the Lamb. He humbled Himself, emptied Himself of all rightful, just claims to use the cards in His ontological and economic deck, He disavowed all intrinsic and acquired power in order to bring power back to the offender and his progeny. It was in this service that He became obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Forgiveness is always humiliating. That is exactly why we sinners are so loathe to extend it. When we forgive someone, we relinquish real power that had been handed to us. It is not only humiliating, but speaking as a man, it is risky. For we are giving the power back to someone with a track record, someone who has already hurt us.
Seeing how powerful forgiveness is, it is not something that should be spoken or practiced thoughtlessly or carelessly. Doesn’t nuclear power demand stringent controls and guards? If we recognize the force resident in forgiveness we will never be cavalier in dispensing it. We will not deliver it into places unprepared to receive it. (I speak not of trivialities, toe-stepping or petty annoyances.) We will never pretend to deliver it to places we are not convinced it belongs. But neither will we ever withhold it from those whose folly has empowered us while weakening them, as long as they show themselves ready to use it aright. But we will never have certainty; it’s always risky. If we err, if we err on the side of mercy and grace, we fret not. We need only remember, the offense repeated against us simply multiplies the power placed in our hands. Like a hot potato, we really want to give it back.
If we see the transaction of offense/forgiveness as it was carried out in the humiliation of God in Christ, we have taken an important step in our training as ambassadors of Messiah. This is what we read in 2 Corinthians:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Messiah’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Messiah’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.