I don’t know about you, but I struggled with guilt and forgiveness in my life for many years; years that reached back into my childhood, through my teen years, and finally into my young adult years (at which point the Lord broke in and began to do a mighty work to teach me what his forgiveness and his person are all about).
Today I just picked up a book from Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon entitled: The Christian Experience Of Forgiveness by H.R. Macintosh (Thomas F. Torrance’s teacher at the University of Edinburgh). Macintosh is very much so a theologian of the modern period, and his sensibilities are situated within a pietist (albeit, Reformed) framework; of the sort that you might find in a trajectory provided for by Schleiermacher. And yet, Macintosh, while focusing on the ‘modern’ mode of theology as grounded in human experience, moves beyond that as he seeks to ground what that experience looks like from the giver of all experiences, from God.
As I have been reading through Macintosh’s volume I have come across quite a few exemplary things worthy of quotation and reflection, but since this is a blog post I will have to reduce that to one (quote). I found Macintosh’s insight on forgiveness, in the section that I am going to quote, to be very encouraging and edifying (which is why I want to share it). So often it seems that in the Christian sub-culture ‘forgiveness’ as a category is so taken for granted nowadays that it seems to have lost its necessary force (necessary because we are all in such need of it). I think that part of the problem (i.e. lack of focus on forgiveness) is that we have domesticated the concepts of sin and forgiveness so much, or we have psychologized everything away so much, that forgiveness’ significance is either lost on us, or we don’t even really understand our deep need of it in concrete ways. I am afraid if anything, that if we even think about forgiveness we do so in a cliché Christianese sort of way, such that, again, the concept itself has lost its real and transformative force that it ought to have as we live our lives coram Deo before God and before others (and before ourselves). Hopefully what Macintosh has to say about forgiveness will help to re-ignite how important forgiveness is (if its importance has been lost on you) for each and every one of us and as a result we will just magnify him as the only one who can truly forgive us as our heavenly Father. H.R. Macintosh writes:
… To the saint it is a daily discovery that God does not cast him out. Christian as he is, he remains a sinner; saved, doubtless, in respect that he is now in filial communion with the Father, yet not translated magically into a sphere where temptation is unknown, but set to develop moral freedom through struggle and discipline, under the leadership of God and in His enjoyed love. Recurring faults are met by a mercy which he would not dare to claim in right and which excludes the notion that “salvation”, given freely at the start, could be sustained in being by meritorious performance. In the family of God all are in this sense “unprofitable servants” to the end, costing more than the worth of any service.
We reach the conclusion, accordingly, that the ground and spring of forgiveness is in God, not in man. The source and presupposition of its occurrence lies in His being what He is—faithfully and unchangeably the Lover of men. But this implies that the sweep of His mercy must not be narrowed at any stage. When Jesus spoke of the goodness of the Father who sends rains on the just and the unjust, and is kind to the unthankful, He uttered a truth which evangelicalism has been tempted to ignore, or defend in tones of apology. It is not only the good, thank God, who live as His beneficiaries. Mercy is His being, and streams forth to all in uninterrupted kindness. To all, however evil, He continues the gifts and possibilities of life, with a throng of varied powers and impulses suited to the development of personality in the kingdom of free and loving spirits; this also is grace to sinners, given not reluctantly but willingly; in a sense it is forgiveness, manifesting His untiring will to save. How men often reflect on this in a marvelling temper when they have found God in Christ, and look back across years of dull insensibility! How many things in that old life become expressive, witnessing to the ceaseless patience that had pursued us! Even then we were not forsaken by the Father. He surrounded us with persons, influences, appeals which are a proof, in retrospect, that He had never turned from us. That is a fact revealed to us through personal and individual experience, but it must hold good for the whole world. He who was merciful to our folly is merciful to all.
I finally overcame the guilt of sin I mentioned above, but not until I came to a point where I could truly trust Jesus. Part of my problem, in the past, in receiving God’s forgiveness was that I had a lot of doubt in my heart about God (his existence, etc.). But the reality was, was that I had this deep sense of guilt over sin, in fact it was of the condemnatory type, and I came to realize (Romans 8) that this was not from God (II Corinthians 7), because it was producing in me an unrecoverable sorry of the type that pointed further into my own resources and not out to God’s in Christ’s. But once I came to realize that God truly was there and there for me abundantly in Christ, I was able to fully receive God’s forgiveness, I was able to rest in the reality that there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ; the reality that if God is for me in Christ who can be against me; if the Lord does not condemn me, then where was this condemnation and guilt over already confessed sins coming from? It wasn’t coming from the God who already told me that he had forgiven me, that I had already been absolved in Jesus Christ’s confession for me (at the cross and in his priestly session at the Right Hand of the Father).
We need to experience God’s forgiveness, in real and particular ways. I would say that it is precisely because the world (including most of the church) does not experience God’s forgiveness that the world looks the way it does today. It is because we are trying to fulfill desires and wants that mask over our even deeper need to experience the liberating and humanizing forgiveness of God in Christ for us.
 H.R. Macintosh, The Christian Experience Of Forgiveness (London: Nisbet&Co. LTD., 1947), 36-7.