Forgiving the inexcusable

pool water, representing forgiveness

Forgiveness is one of those subjects where our thinking as Christians can get very sloppy. C. S. Lewis once gave a short talk called “On Forgiveness”, based on the line in the Apostles Creed – “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”. In it, he shows that we don’t believe in forgiveness as much as we like to think we do: 

I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you…’. But excusing says ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame’… In that sense, forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites… the trouble is that what we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.

Lewis explains that we do this because, in practice, there often is overlap between excusing and forgiving. Some of what we did can be excused, but there’s also “the bit left over, the bit which the excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable”. That’s the bit that actually needs forgiving. 

He then suggests:

A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in it, from thinking that God will not take us to Himself unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favour. But that would not be forgiveness at all. Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness…

In other words, only what is inexcusable can be forgiven; what is excusable does not need to be forgiven.

One extra step (that C. S. Lewis doesn’t make in his talk) is to relate Jesus’ death to forgiveness. Heb 9:22 says: “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins”. The difference between forgiving and excusing helps us understand the logic of this verse. It is precisely because forgiving sins is not the same thing as excusing sins that Christ’s death is necessary. Christ’s death means that, in forgiving us, God is not belittling our sins, but taking their inexcusability seriously.  It is only Christ’s death that opens up the glory of forgiveness, in which I can think: 

  • Is my sin excusable?           No!     
  • Is my sin forgivable?            Yes!

On a side note, the reason we don’t need a pound of someone’s flesh every time we forgive others is because we know their sin either has been paid for (by Christ) or will be paid for (on judgment day) – (see Rom 12:17, 19). It may also be appropriate for that person to be punished by those in authority for their sin, if it’s a crime (Rom 13:1-4). But it is only Christ’s death that opens up the potential to forgive the inexcusable. 

So, let’s remember that forgivable and excusable are not the same thing; let’s keep sharing that good news with others, and be ready to confess that great line of the Creed: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”.