Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Forgiveness: This Age or the Age to Come?

“And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Whew. Okay. I’m not going to talk about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit today. I have something else in mind entirely.

So here goes. There are two spheres in which God’s forgiveness operates: “this age” and the “age to come”. That’s a pretty important distinction for you and me to be able to make when we read our New Testaments, otherwise very likely we’re going to be doing a fair bit of squirming about our own personal situations.

Defining Terms

This “age to come” of which the Lord speaks in Matthew is neither our present day, nor is it the coming millennium. It is eternity. We know this because the parallel passage in Mark ends with “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” If that seems too inconclusive for some, consider the use of the term the “age to come” in Mark 10 and “that age” contrasted with “this age” in Luke 20.

The two spheres are very different. In them, the withholding of forgiveness serves two very different purposes: in this age, the purpose is disciplinary; in the age to come it is punitive. The consequences of God’s forgiveness withheld are also evident in the duration of judgment: in this age, discipline continues only so long as is necessary to produce the desired change of attitude; in the age to come, judgment is eternal.

Obviously, then, the stakes are vastly different as well.

Forgiveness in Two Ages

Forgiveness in our earthly sphere is often recognizable when bad things stop happening or good things start, as I established in an earlier post. (This is not true in every case, as Job and many of the prophets could tell you; their afflictions were not disciplinary.) Thus, in the Old Testament, forgiveness is almost always associated with a change of circumstances. Even today, the consequences of our sins in this world may range from deep unhappiness to premature death, unless forgiveness is obtained.

This is true whether we are speaking of unbelievers or of God’s children. Judgment begins with the house of God; and it begins here, in this world, precisely so that the children of God need not be judged along with the world. Forgiveness for believers in “this age” terminates God’s discipline and brings on his blessing. (Of course, certain bad choices have consequences that continue for a lifetime. The forgiven believer is not necessarily free of the fallout from her choices, but she is no longer under the discipline of God, and may even find that some of those difficulties are later used by God for his glory, for her benefit and for the benefit of others.)

Eternal forgiveness is another thing entirely. We do not read anything at all about it until we get into the New Testament.

Examples of Forgiveness

Thus, as I pointed out in a related post last week, the references to forgiveness in the Sermon on Mount (Matthew 6) are to forgiveness in this age, and are most relevant to those who have the privilege of calling God “Father”. They have nothing to do with eternal judgment, but are concerned with the process by which a Father disciplines his children to teach them to be more like him. Therefore when we fail to forgive our brother and sisters, we necessarily experience the discipline of God in this life. You may be able to think of an example or two in your own experience.

There are actually not many other passages in the Gospels and Epistles that speak directly to the subject of forgiveness, but it might be a worthwhile exercise to consider a few of them and try to discern whether they speak of forgiveness in this age or in the age to come. Since our sense of our security in Christ is at issue, the answers to these questions are not trivial.

 The Paralytic (Matthew 9, Mark 2, Luke 5)

The paralytic was brought to the Lord Jesus by friends with faith. In one account, he is lowered through the roof. Rather than heal him, the Lord first tells him:
“Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven.”
This age or the age to come?

I think we must conclude the Lord has only this present age in view, and only the sins the paralyzed man had committed up until the time he was forgiven. As the Lord Jesus (in effect) told another invalid, one Get Out of Jail Free card is more than most people get:
“See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”
What he is saying, I think, is that no wicked thing the paralytic had ever said or even thought up to that point in time would be held against him by God. Any consequences that would otherwise have fallen upon him in this life were now rescinded. The man was forgiven without either confession or expression of repentance. Of course, getting a new start left him responsible for the things he would do in the rest of his life, and to behave appropriately.

Contrary to the expectations of the scribes present, who would have anticipated from their knowledge of the Old Testament that the man’s ailment was a result of God’s judgment, Christ’s forgiveness appears unrelated to the man’s physical condition. He extends forgiveness to the sinner independent of the healing and prior to it. In fact, it appears he only adds the healing to make the much more significant point that he indeed possessed the God-given authority to forgive sins.

This relieving of human beings from the normal consequences of our actions is something God did frequently throughout history, or we’d all be in a terrible way. For all that the God of the Old Testament is thought of as judgmental, it is evident he has characteristically “overlooked” the ignorance of men.

It could have been so much worse.

 The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18, Luke 17)

The parable of the unforgiving servant follows from Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive a sinning brother. (Luke 17 records similar teaching about forgiveness without the parable.) The unforgiving servant’s penalty in the parable for not forgiving in this life is being delivered by his master to the jailers “until he should pay all his debt.” That’s a scary prospect, especially because the word used for jailers in the passage may be translated “torturers”.

So, this age or the age to come?

Well, personally, I’m convinced it refers to this present age again. The parable is told to the disciples, not to a more general audience. Thus, the “every one of you” of verse 35 (“So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart”) refers to believers; to followers of Christ. Just as the unforgiving servant had to live with the earthly consequences of his sin, which would otherwise have been lifted by his generous master, so those who will not forgive their brothers and sisters in this life must undergo the Father’s appropriate, loving discipline.

 Father, Forgive Them (Luke 23)

Where the Lord’s prayer on the cross is concerned, plenty of discussion goes on concerning who the “them” is and what precisely Jesus was asking they be forgiven. We will not get into that. What is evident from Peter’s message to the Jews at Pentecost is that the Lord Jesus was not requesting blanket immunity, past, present and future, for all those responsible for his suffering, especially since most remained staunchly unrepentant.

It’s purely speculative, but my own theory is that if the Lord Jesus had not made this request of his Father, the outpouring of God’s wrath on those present might well have been of such a magnitude that none of them would have survived to hear Peter’s convicting message. All this request bought them was a temporary respite in hope that some would later receive the gospel, which certainly occurred.

That would make it once again a matter of forgiveness in this age, and of a very specific sin.

 The Prodigal Son (Luke 15)

Here, though I think it is only expressed figuratively (and parables should not be stretched beyond the basic message they were intended to communicate) seems to be a passage that speaks to us of forgiveness that goes beyond a single, major offense committed by an otherwise faithful child. It goes beyond even a series of offenses. The younger son’s condition is so reprehensible that he leaves his father entirely, intending to live out his life not only on his own terms but determinately and voluntarily estranged from the source of all his blessing. It’s not only a lifestyle issue, but it’s a rejection of authority, communion and even his own purpose in the world. It’s a complete lack of appreciation for everything he has been given. It would be hard to more accurately describe the sinner’s need for the most comprehensive sort of forgiveness; forgiveness not just of specific sins, but of a whole manner of living, thinking and being that cries out for repentance.

It’s not a surprise, then, that the parable was told in response to the complaint that the Lord received sinners and ate with them. These were people thought by the Pharisees and scribes to have one foot in hell already.

Thus, while firmly grounded in the imagery of this present age, it seems to me the father’s restoration of his son speaks to us of a change of heart and a forgiveness sufficient to eternity. As the father put it to the elder brother, “This your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”

Unlike our rather regular trips to the Father seeking forgiveness for our daily “debts” as children of God, the parable of the Prodigal Son doesn’t appear to anticipate a sequel.

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