Question: What is meant by the term forgiveness, as the scriptures use it? It is a word we use a lot and it surely is a gift to us. But what does it really mean, say, in the context of the parable of the lost son in Luke 15?
Answer: Great question! Forgiveness is something that appears throughout the entire Bible and, much like a diamond, is portrayed with many different facets. The book of Leviticus, for example, shows us that forgiveness is tied to the shedding of blood (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7; 19:22; see also Heb. 9:22). As such, it is often mentioned in connection with the temple (1 Kings 8:30, 34, 36, 39, 50) and is said to be central to who God is and what he’s all about (Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:18). Also, when God forgives sins, he promises to remember them no more (Jer. 31:34; Ps. 103:12). In the New Testament, we’re told that forgiveness is given in baptism (Acts 2:38), received through faith (Acts 10:43), and that it can’t be separated from forgiving one another (Col. 3:13). What ties all of this together, of course, is Jesus, whose blood has been poured out for the forgiveness of all (Mt. 26:28; Eph. 1:7).
So, how does the parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32) shed light on forgiveness? First, take a close look at the plan that the prodigal comes up with after he realizes that he’s hit rock bottom: “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants’” (Lk. 15:18-19). Notice how the prodigal is planning to be treated as a servant, hoping that he can work his way back up into good standing with his father. The father, however, “saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Lk. 15:20), and before his son even had the chance to put his proposal on the table, the father tells his servants to dress him, put a ring on his hand, and kill a fattened calf for him (Lk. 15:22-23).
Forgiveness, then, as you noted in your question, is entirely God’s gift! We are often tempted to think that forgiveness is something like an 80/20 operation, where God forgives us most of the way and then leaves us with the task of finishing the job, whether it’s by some kind of “forgiving myself” or proving my worthiness for forgiveness over time or through other methods of working our way back up to God’s favor. As the parable shows, however, forgiveness is totally God’s work. To be in sin is to be as good as dead (“this my son was dead,” [Lk. 15:24]), and it is only through the gift of forgiveness that one is made alive.
One final thought about how the parable ends. Notice also how the older son refuses to get over himself, as it were. There is a lot of dying throughout this parable: the father is willing to die, essentially, the prodigal son is as good as dead, and we even have a dead calf, too. The older son, however, is the only one in the story who refuses to die to himself, insisting instead on pointing to all of his service to his father, or how he has worked his way up over the years (Lk. 15:29). This, as we saw, is the opposite of how forgiveness works. It is rather to be dead before God, while those who are forgiven are dead to themselves.
Thanks be to God, then, that we, who were once “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) like the prodigal son, have been made alive again through the gift of forgiveness in Christ (Eph. 2:5)!