Free of Charge (Part 2): Volf on Forgiving

Finally, we have come to the conclusion of my two-part series on Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. However, there is a bit of a twist. I’m going to break down the three concluding chapters so there will actually be two more posts in relation to this one. I just couldn’t do justice to Volf’s book if I tried to wrap it up in one post. Sorry…

God the Forgiver

Volf asserts that for any true understanding of forgiveness, we must first look at the ultimate forgiver, God.  And once again, like we are apt to do with images of God, we distort how God relates to his creation in terms of forgiveness. There are namely two false images that are conjured up when we think about how God deals with offenses: God as Judge and God as the Doting Grandparent. If we think that somehow God negotiates with us, then when we back off our end of the deal or break it outright, God is indeed able to make us pay for the screwed up deal. When we fail to own up to our end of the deal, we pay for it. If, on the other hand we refuse this image, the second image is usually that of the doting grandparent, looking past our sinfulness and injustice, seeing and hearing no evil. Neither one helps us much. We fear the judge because we can’t make mistakes but so often do, but we don’t respect the grandparent because although they may comfort us at times, they look away from the injustice that is in the world and in ourselves.

From here Volf transitions us into a fuller account of how God relates to us in forgiveness, but not without touching on God’s wrath, which is a touchy subject with many but for me was refreshing to hear. “God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love” (pg. 139).  The God who loves also preserves justice, and when that is not met, the result is that God is rightfully angry. God condemns because he loves, but does not destroy in his wrath, instead choosing to redeem that which has been broken.

How does God forgive?Volf provides scriptural metaphors: (1) God doesn’t reckon it to us, no debt to owe (2) God covers sin, God hides it (3) God puts wrongdoing behind his back (4) God removes sin from us as far as the East is from West, separaring it from us (5) God blots out sin (6) God sweeps away sin like mist (7) God forgets our sin. 

So what about justice then? How does God deal with his wrath and heart for justice if he forgives those who trespass? Moral law is a part of God’s being, not something above him nor something he is constrained to serve, he is also not above it, and to suspend his justice would mean that he would cease being God. Here is where atonement comes into the picture, for God does not speak forgiveness but instead acts it out. Volf argues that the satisfaction theory of atonement can help us put things in order more correctly, though not totally. Jesus, on the cross, took our place and paid the price for what we owed, and God therefore forgave us in the process (144). Volf here makes an important distinction, for Christ was not reconciling an angry God to a sinful world nor was he reconciling a sinful world to a loving God, instead Christ reconciled the world to himself, as part of the Holy Trinity in the act of salvation. Drawing on the inclusive substitution theory of the atonement, Volf places high emphasis on our union with Christ, and that Christ’s death is really our death to, and this is part of our sin being separated from us. We also partake in the resurrection of Christ, and his righteousness becomes ours through transformation and imputation, thus helping us to put off our old selves and embrace our new selves.

But how can we respond to such forgiveness? Simply in faith. We receive with open arms what we could not give to anyone else or to ourselves, and we embrace Christ. God gives, we receive. It is not a work, it is an act of sheer grace. But that is not all of it, for we must learn what it means to repent. To receive forgiveness, we must accept both the accusation of our guilt and the release from that guilt. We accept the accusation by confessing our offenses and repenting of them, and if we fail to confess, we fail to be forgiven (153). We are released from guilt when we believe and rejoice in God’s gracious gift of salvation. Volf uses the metaphor of a gift package that has been sent but has not been received, it is simply stuck in the middle. That is how God’s forgiveness works, for it is always offered, but not always received. If it is not received, complete forgiveness does not happen.

So how does God’s forgiveness change us? Volf simply believes that we start to pay it forward, that God’s initial act of forgiveness pushes us to live that out ourselves in the contexts that we live in.

But how should we forgive? What does that look like for us when so many of us are messed up ourselves and are lost on where to begin?

That will take us into our next part Friday…


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