“forgiveness is not a legal action”

Alexander Schmemann on “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” from his Our Father:

to ask forgiveness of this sin, means to acknowledge our disunity with others, and it implies an effort to overcome it, which already implies its forgiveness. For forgiveness is a mystical action that restores a lost wholeness so that goodness reigns once more; forgiveness is not a legal action, but a moral one. According to the law anyone who harms me must be punished, and until he is punished the law is not satisfied, but according to conscience the moral law does not require a legal satisfaction, but rather the restoration of wholeness and love, which any law is powerless to effect. Only mutual forgiveness has this power. If we forgive one another, then God forgives us, and only in this mutually related forgiveness of ours and the forgiveness from above is the conscience purified and light reigns. It is this for which man thirsts and searches at his very depths.

For indeed, man does not really need external order as much as a clean conscience, that inner light without which there can be no true happiness. Therefore, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ is actually a petition for moral purification and rebirth, without which any law of this world is no help.

Perhaps the terrible tragedy of our times, of those societies in which we live, consists precisely in the fact that while there is much talk about legality and justice, while many assorted texts are cited, these societies have almost entirely lost the power and moral beauty of forgiveness.

Especially with the last paragraph, it is worth explaining that this book was originally a set of radio lectures on the Lord’s Prayer broadcast by Radio Liberty into the USSR (culled from 30 years of weekly broadcasts which Schmemann made). Yet “those societies in which we live” not only accurately describes the Soviet Union in 1980 but the United States in 2016. Far worse is that Schmemann’s words to a large extent describe American Christianity.

I find myself wondering how much of this is due to Protestant reduction of the reconciliation of all things in Christ to a mere legal transaction resulting in eternal salvation, benefits payable on (and not before) death. As easily as that can be packaged and preached, a courtroom drama is far from expressing the fullness of the Gospel. Even Paul, the main popularizer of that legal metaphor, experienced and spoke of the Gospel in much larger terms than any courtroom could hold, as in Colossians 1:19-22:

Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
        and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
        whether things on earth or in the heavens.
            He brought peace through the blood of his cross.

Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame.

To make the practical turn: preachers who are interested in proclaiming a Gospel that draws and then transforms people with its goodness, beauty, truth, hope, and love (to be clear, this is the only Gospel) have to stop taking lazy shortcuts in presenting the Gospel in narrow and shallow terms week after week. And if we don’t take up that challenge, then we bear moral responsibility when people don’t seem to grow spiritually or to find growth in relationship with God or to practice substantive peacemaking with their closest neighbors and family. A legal action cannot accomplish those things, but the power of the Gospel is the power of God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–to do infinitely more than we can ask, think, or imagine.

Preaching the heights and depths of the Gospel destroys the shallow “gospel” of legal action in any contest of theology, Biblical faithfulness, missionality, or the pure practicality of transfigured lives and communities. Thanks, Fr. Schmemann.

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