This sketch is significant for me, since it is the first time I have got near to defining sin as what brings us to the threshold of forgiveness. That may not be a new idea altogether, but I can’t remember finding it plainly anywhere. Luther and Barth give me some encouragement in that direction, but I don’t think I am quoting them.
Thinking about hesitation, holding back, at the threshold and the cost of passing through I find a helpful framework for exploring how a mixed group of people might become clear about their situation in terms of sin and forgiveness, clear enough for going over the threshold to be seen as possible practice, a step by step movement. That would rescue forgiveness from being seen as an instantaneous transformation, which would leave it indescribably transcendent.
2 Reflections on sin and forgiveness
Every occurrence of sin puts sinners on the threshold of forgiveness.
It is not generally recognized that this is a most important achievement of sin. Perhaps its most significant one. When it is missed, sin is misunderstood with damaging consequences.
In western Christianity, Catholic and evangelical alike, the achievement of sin has been seen as our falling short of the glory of God, being separated from God, becoming an enemy of God, coming under the judgment of God, ending in eternal death (the wages of sin is death).
Preaching often sought to bring people under the ‘conviction of sin’, and the awareness of being ‘lost’. That is where sin has left them.
Hearing the gracious preaching of Charles Wesley, a poor woman could not think the good news was for her, because she thought she was too bad to be forgiven. That is the outcome of sin which ends with nothing but the achievement of itself: essentially, it forbids forgiveness. Or at least makes it so rare a miracle, so amazing a grace, that in ordinary sober life, its possibility is not to be entertained. Sin takes away all capacity to hope. It stifles all prayer, which becomes a useless irrelevance. Sin grips people, in the heart, so that they see no alternative but to keep going in the way of sin. Sin defines the future.
All this is contrary to the Gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, contrary to the witness of the Scriptures, contrary to the Spirit of God, reaching out to the ends of the earth in oneness with the Father and the Son.
The Gospel makes plain: Every occurrence of sin puts the sinner on the threshold of forgiveness. Or should we say, the Gospel dares to say precisely that, even though its defies acceptance.
The Gospel is that God comes to the sinner. God stands in his path as the angel with the flaming sword stood in front of the donkey who saw and got beaten for it, and Balaam the prophet who did not see and so beat his faithful beast (Numbers 22.22-35). The Lord puts himself in the path of the rampaging Saul (Acts 9.3-9). Jesus turns and looks at Peter (Luke 22.61). While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5.6-8). God does not leave us to storm heaven: ‘Batter my heart, three-personned God’1(John Donne https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44106/holy-sonnets-batter-my-heart-three-persond-god)
So the Gospel reveals the futility of sin. Sin aims to take people away from God, away from life, to close all possibilities except its own, but all it can do is to leave them on the threshold of forgiveness.
At that point, it can still do a lot of mischief – and it does.
People deny they have done anything wrong.
They claim they did their best, or did all that was possible in the circumstances, as though that frees them from responsibility for, and sensitivity to, their being involved as active, even if unwilling instruments, in doing wrong of some sort, or being passively implicated and distorted by sin.
Sin mocks forgiveness, parroting it with cheap grace, letting people off lightly, as they add to their sin by making self-interested excuses and overlooking the harm actually done.
So sin stands where it has got to and becomes bloated, and ever more unpleasant. It adds hypocritical cover to itself, rather than being ‘honest wickedness’.
It heads towards making itself unforgiveable, it certainly becomes harder and harder to forgive, not least because it hardens itself against forgiveness. It says it is not standing at any threshold, only a wall, which has a mirror in it, so that sin sees itself as its own, and only, future. It is caught in the syndrome of ‘evil be thou my good’ – there is ‘no alternative’.
But the grace of God in Jesus Christ shows us that the apparently unforgiveable is no more, and no less, than the hard to forgive. Unforgivability is an exaggeration achieved by sin in its pride: if sin can achieve nothing good, it indulges in plumbing the depths of evil.
God denies unforgivability at the places where it becomes most plausible, like the Cross of Jesus Christ. The victory of God against sin is precisely that God opens the door in a boundary that sin builds up around itself; God shows that it is not a wall, by letting light from the other side stream through. So sin can then be seen as it is; sin finds it hard to face the light and may turn its back to the light, only to live in its own shadow, and to walk back weaving new sin into the strands of sin past. That is all sin can do, in its own godless self-absorption. But the light still shines, testifying that there is a door. When sin comes to doubt itself, like the Prodigal ‘coming to himself’ (Luke 15.17), it hesitates at the threshold, asking, Is this a door? Is it really open for me? Is freedom and life and love possible on the other side? Dare I go through? Shall I give what it takes to go through? All the questions testify to a possibility, a pressing invitation – ‘It is hard to kick against the goads’ (Acts 26.14).
By himself, the sinner could never have built or opened the door in the wall. I could never bring myself to the threshold. I was led and carried by sin which pursues its own path, up to the point of denying the threshold is there; but God has shut us up in sin, that he might have mercy on all (Romans 11.32). So the door is opened by grace. It really is amazing grace, even though its operation may be quiet and prosaic. I do not have to pay to gain a right of entry. Access is free. But stepping over the threshold will demand all I have, as a free life-offering of thanks; and it will take all I don’t yet have to give, true repentance, a new heart. If, with help, I go through the door, that will not achieve a sufficient turn around at a stroke. It will commit me to learning and growing, the shedding and reclothing on the other side. At first, I will be very uncomfortable, a stranger, asking how I will ever be at ease in this place, even being tempted to go back to my ‘Egypt’. Rejoicing in the free gift of God, I will have to be giving myself and that will prove costly – that is, it will not be easy to me. The cost to each person does not have a market price, the same for all comers. Because I am to respond with my whole true living self to the mercy of God, I will find out what special price is asked of me. It will take all I have, in some way or another, and I shall be paying as long as I live, but it will be a light burden because it is always sustained by the goodness of God who opens the door and takes me on this path.
3 Grounding in living?
So far, it has been convenient to explore ‘sin bringing us to the threshold of forgiveness’, by picturing the sinner individualistically. So John Bunyan allegorized sin and forgiveness in his dream of Pilgrim’s Progress.
And talking of sin and forgiveness in this way is somewhat abstract, though I hope it is not too difficult for any reader to put it alongside actual personal or social experience, and so test it for practicability.
This piece was born from hard experience some years ago. I was stirred to write it by a sad and disastrous disturbance in a working Christian community. Actions taken in and for the community were thought by some to be right and necessary, by others, unfair, harsh, precipitate, and so not consistent with the communal commitment to the Lord Christ. Not surprisingly in a Christian community, the concept of sin was ready to hand for the interpretation of what was being done by and to a community dedicated to Gospel witness and service.
The community divided. Some perhaps saw it as an everyday management problem, a natural storm in relationships, which could be managed and survived in secular ways. The poignant depth which comes from thinking in terms of sin and forgiving was left aside. There was, in effect, a methodological abstention from thinking Christianly.
Others did see it in terms of sin. Unfortunately, there was no agreement about what the sin in the community was, so accusations flew round and the community stumbled down a miserable way into irreparable division. The broken segments each went its own way, running away from the sin or attributing it to others, each party going forward toward what was said to be an exciting new future, even though there was little sign that forgiveness was being sought and communally lived. The category of forgiveness was either ignored, or assumed with a confidence akin to Heinrich Heine on his deathbed (1856) – ‘Of course, God will forgive me, that’s his job’.
That is one way of describing how a painful year finished and was left behind.
This piece was written at an early point in this catastrophe. It still felt then as though we, as a community, would be able to discuss issues together, and help one another to work through them in ways that did justice to truth and right as fully as we could, and in the process build up the community rather than tear it down. Despite the dark clouds, it was a moment of opportunity. We were at a threshold. We needed to sort out together what kind of issue we were involved in. One aspect of that sorting was to think whether categories of sin and forgiveness might be relevant to our communal situation together in that moment, and if they were, how we were to act within that framework. That did not happen.
We were left to live with the results of the sad and unnecessary way in which we lived through the crisis, in splintering centrifugality. It would be frivolous and unhelpful now to fight again this old battle, where there was no victor, and whose process and outcome we cannot alter. We must learn from pasts we can only grieve over. Learning from the past does not involve us in usurping God in final judgment upon others, or even ourselves. It rather means informing and chastening our understanding by thinking through the past event in a different spirit and vision, and then, with whatever learning we have gained, to think about this Today, whatever may be the Today we are now given to live, so as to do well in word and deed now.2There are lines and phrases in John Keble’s hymn which disturb me by being too otherworldly and unpolitical. But overall I love to sing it. It calls us to Today, with its newness, in thanks to God. It calls us to the practical life on earth, worked out in small ways, knowing that what is trivial has significance with God. On that point, George Herbert put it better, I think. But Keble is there too, talking of ‘our daily course our mind .. set to hallow all we find’. For the present is what is given to us in which we can sin or do well, forgive and be forgiven or make things worse. As human beings, before God, our calling and task is never to save our individual souls, to cultivate our individual well-being (you know you’re worth it) nor even to engineer an heroic death for ourselves in a futile last stand. Our calling is to care for God’s cause in the whole of creation, to attend to that little bit of it which we can see and touch, and to live with and for others, communally.
- 2There are lines and phrases in John Keble’s hymn which disturb me by being too otherworldly and unpolitical. But overall I love to sing it. It calls us to Today, with its newness, in thanks to God. It calls us to the practical life on earth, worked out in small ways, knowing that what is trivial has significance with God. On that point, George Herbert put it better, I think. But Keble is there too, talking of ‘our daily course our mind .. set to hallow all we find’.