Calvin surely got this much right: "But if there is anything in the whole of religion that we should most certainly know, we ought most closely to grasp by what reason, with what law, under what condition, with what ease or difficulty, forgiveness of sins may be obtained!" (Institutes III.IV.2) Happily, Jesus taught his disciples to pray for forgiveness in the Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:12). Then he died on the cross so this prayer could be answered. For by Christ's death Christians are forgiven. And because of his death they can forgive.
So forgiveness of sins can be taken for granted, right?
Well, that seems to be happening. A religious catalog just arrived in the mail, and the trivialization of the Jesus whose very name bespeaks forgiveness of sins (Matt. 1:21) is staggering. There are multiple pages of baubles (pencils, plastic snow men, paddleballs, punch balls, hats, and scarves) sporting slogans like "Jesus loves you snow much," "Jesus warms my heart," and "Jesus is deer to me!" ("Deer" as in "reindeer" as in "Santa Claus" as in "Jesus." Get it?) If you are in a summer mood, how about this for July 4th: a "USA Cross Gemstone Pin"? It's a cross pendant studded in red-white-and-blue "gems" to make it look like the American flag. Others may prefer a "Jesus Loves Me" kazoo in order to "make a joyful noise." (To quote Dave Barry, I'm not making this up.)
Yet this is not all about feeling good: the stern memory of Jesus' death is evoked by the cross mounted prominently on … lids of one-ounce bottles of bubble-blowing liquid? On second thought, maybe it is.
No, forgiveness is not to be taken for granted. Like most things Jesus taught his disciples, forgiveness is hard. Why? A few snapshots from Jesus' life point to answers.
First, forgiveness is hard because it frequently does not occur to us that we need it. Consider the incident of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet and was silently condemned by Jesus' dinner host Simon (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus announced that this woman was forgiven, so great was her love for the One preaching the kingdom message of repentance and faith. But Simon wasn't even on the same planet spiritually: while the woman was gaining eternal life (Luke 7:50), he was fuming in petty indignation (7:39). His sins remained, because he remained blind to their glaring dominance. Who hasn't played the Simon in analogous circumstances?
Second, forgiveness is hard because people can be so ornery. The behavior of John and James is instructive. When they felt Jesus was being slighted by some Samaritans, they wanted to call down heavenly fire to burn them up (Luke 9:54). That isn't very forgiving. But they should get credit for at least asking permission. More true to human nature, probably, is an incident in Chicago in January 2000. A man waiting on a train platform was poked with a snow shovel by a homeless man who was badgering him and others. So he poked the homeless man back-with a knife, in the neck, fatally. He got twenty years, since reduced to six. The urge to kill can overwhelm the capacity to forgive. (This happened to Jesus the day he was crucified.)
Third, forgiveness is hard because in the end it is something only God can do (Luke 5:21). Sure, common grace ensures that there is some measure of forgiveness among people at large, like there is some natural capacity to love no matter how benighted a nation, tribe, or family. For this we give thanks. But forgiveness of the magnitude and quality modeled by Christ, and called for by the gospel-that's another matter. Stephen at his stoning, like Jesus on his cross, asked forgiveness for his executioners. That is either lunacy-curses and calls for revenge would make perfect sense-or God-grade benevolence. To choose the later is to affirm a quality of forgiveness for which the Bible's God is justly renowned-and which Jesus prayed his followers would faithfully exercise.
This points to the hardest part of forgiveness: to do it we must receive it. To receive it we must own our need and confess in Christ our sole hope. This is beyond mere flesh and blood. It's easier to be judgmental, in denial, or vindictive. It's a good thing that with God all things are possible, even forgiveness of hard-bitten recalcitrants like us. And then as we freely receive, we may freely give.