Forgiveness: The New Covenant
One of the main reasons believers miss the doctrinal mark is because they fail to see that the old covenant has been reconfigured in favor of the new one under Christ.
When he speaks of a new covenant, he makes the first obsolete (Hebrews 8:13)
When it was time for him to face the cross, Jesus revisited the subject of prayer and told his disciples of a coming change.
And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man can take from you. And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:22–24)
When they first asked him, “Teach us how to pray,” he couldn’t tell them to pray in his name—he hadn’t been resurrected yet. So he gave them a sketch of how to pray under the Law. But his resurrection would usher in a new covenant, and with it, an entirely new prayer dynamic.
He hammered this home at the Passover just before his crucifixion. The Law had been a part of Israel’s history for over 1,200 years, ever since Moses had stepped down from Mount Sinai. Jesus picked up the unleavened bread and the cup and announced the dawning of a new age:
This is my body which is given for you. This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is also shed for you. (Luke 22:19, 20; Mark 14:22–25)
The old covenant had had a continual stream of bulls’ and goats’ blood, an endless cycle of priests, and a small box for God’s glory. If it had been faultless, a new covenant wouldn’t have been needed (Heb 8:7). And it wasn’t. It could cover sin for a while, but it couldn’t purge it away (Heb 9:9). God had installed it as a stop-gap measure until Jesus could come and install the new one (Gal 3:23, 24).
The new covenant didn’t reinvigorate the old one; it reconfigured it. Instead of the blood of bulls and goats, it’s anchored by an everlasting sacrifice and an everlasting priesthood which has an indestructible priest ministering at God’s very right hand. As Jesus elucidated to his disciples, it’s structurally different from the old covenant, allowing the believer to step into Jesus’ shoes and pray in his name.
The dynamics of forgiveness changed along with it. Gone is the quid pro quo. The believer isn’t forgiven because he’s forgiven others; he stands forgiven because of what God accomplished in Christ (Eph. 4:32 – “just as God in Christ forgave you”). He has an ever-ready and permanent access to God’s throne of grace. New Testament forgiveness, then, isn’t an exercise to gain entry into the kingdom, it has become the means by which a believer brings the life of God to those who have lost their way.
The New Paradigm
The touchstone for New Testament forgiveness is 1 John 5.16.
If any man see his brother sinning a sin unto death, he shall ask and God will give him life for those that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. (1 John 5:16)
John writes a Spirit-inspired letter to believers, the Father’s “little children.” He reminds us that God is light and that we have fellowship with Him and with each other because of Jesus’ sacrifice. And then he gives us this, the new forgiveness paradigm—what a believer should do when a brother sins and falls out of fellowship.
The first clue to the different dynamic is what John calls the sin unto death. He says not to pray for the one who has done that. Why? Because he is past hope. Contemporary Christianity likes to say that once a man is saved, he’s always saved. The New Testament says otherwise. The author of Hebrews writes that if a believer decides to reject the Lord after he’s been made a partaker of the Holy Ghost, after he’s tasted of the good Word of God, after he’s experienced the powers of the world to come, he’ll lose his salvation. And there’s no chance of him getting it back.
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the son of God and are holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 6:4–6)
John says, “Don’t waste your time praying for these.” This marks the sea change from the old to the new. The new covenant’s focus of forgiveness isn’t on the aggrieved believer, it’s on the offender, the sheep that has sinned and has left the fellowship of the Lord and his body. If the object of the believer’s prayer were his own mutilated condition, what kind of sin this brother committed wouldn’t figure in the equation.
John writes that when a believer sees his brother sinning a not-unto-death sin (“seeing” the sin, the believer would likely be the victim) the believer shall ask. He doesn’t write forgive. He doesn’t say, as the psychological camp would have it, the believer should stand on a pedestal and announce his forgiveness (and by implication his brother’s sin) to God and the world. He says that he is to pray. He is to enter his prayer closet, the throne of grace, and ask—intercede before God Almighty for his wayward brother. He isn’t to be concerned about the consequences of the sin—how beaten and bruised he is—but the plight of his brother’s soul.
The selflessness in this is stunning. A brother in Christ has sinned against one of his own, having deserted the life of the Spirit. Fulfilling the desires of his own flesh, he has wounded not just his victim, but the whole body of Christ. (Remember Jesus on the road to Damascus, “Paul, Paul, why are you persecuting me?) He has traipsed into darkness. He hasn’t rejected Christ, but he is outside the gate. His victim, bruised and battered, doesn’t seek revenge or recompense. He isn’t mindful of his own wounds, his own blood. His mind is full of his brother’s troubled soul and the danger he has created by sinning against the Lord.
He doesn’t enter the throne of grace to boast of his modesty, “Lord, look what he’s done to me. Look how I’m wounded, how I’m hurt, but see, I forgive him,” or to seek his rights, “Lord, avenge what I’ve lost.” No, he leverages his own God-given righteousness, his own God-given grace, and his bright fellowship with the Lord to secure forgiveness for the one who has wandered away. Bruised and battered, he sinks to his knees and softly intercedes, “Father, please don’t lay this sin to his charge.” He is well aware of the Day—that great and terrible day of the Lord when God will judge all men and avenge those who have harmed his body. He doesn’t want the sins against him heaped on his brother. He wants him back in fellowship with the Lord and the church.
In the midst of this, he becomes Christlike, not living for his own wants and needs, but selflessly laying his own life down for the salvation of others. The Father hears him, and he answers.
And this is the confidence we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. (1 John 5:14–15)
John writes “God will give him life.” Life is that one great word in the Bible which encompasses everything that God can do for a man, from salvation all the way to glorification—“I’ve come that they might have life.” He pardons the offender’s sin and gives him whatever life he needs to come back to the Lord, come back into the fold.
John doesn’t mention it in his letter, probably because it is self-evident, but the believer no doubt also receives within himself God’s life as a byproduct of his prayer. He has been to the throne of God on his brother’s behalf, and he has used his own righteousness to become a mediator for him. How is God going to get life to that wayward brother? It’ll be through the church. The church is his body; it is his hands, his feet. The interceding believer couldn’t help but leave God’s presence with his eyes and heart brimming with God’s love for him.
As we see in the stories of Paul, of Jesus, and of Stephen, this kind of forgiveness is one of the most holy, one of the most sacred and beautiful things that a Christian can do for his brother. We must dare to follow in their footsteps.
An excerpt from New Testament Forgiveness.