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The gospel of forgiveness

A parable appears in the headlines


The gospel of forgiveness

There is nothing so horrible as watching one of your children suffer. Mary, the mother of Jesus, knew this in a way that no other mother ever will. She stood at the foot of the cross, watching as the Roman authorities crucified her son (John 19:25). What would she have made of Jesus’ words to his persecutors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)? How could Jesus forgive these men who had not even repented? And how could Mary ever do the same?

Several years ago, a mom in Minnesota, Kari Hoffman, watched in horror as a stranger threw her five-year old son off the third story of the mall. The two were looking at the animals at the Rainforest Cafe when a young man came up and started whispering to her son. Thinking this stranger worked for the restaurant, Hoffman was petrified when the man seized her son and hurled him over the rail of the balcony.

The young boy somehow survived the 30-some foot fall, was rushed off for emergency brain trauma surgery, and spent four months in the hospital as he slowly began his recovery from multiple skull fractures, two broken arms, and a broken leg. His attacker pleaded guilty to attempted murder and is currently serving a 19-year sentence in jail.

In December, this story resurfaced when the white mother announced that she had forgiven her son’s attacker, who is black. The story ignited controversy on Twitter. Some commentators saw this story as a demonstration of the power of forgiveness while others were cynical, painting the mom’s forgiveness as a symptom of woke white guilt. Many of the critical responses have focused on the attacker. How could he be forgiven if he hasn’t even asked for forgiveness? What would it even mean to forgive someone who refused to say “I’m sorry”? Conservative commentator Ann Coulter went so far as to say that “Christian churches in America have gone totally off the rails if this is what they're teaching.”

These critics, however, have missed the very essence of the gospel’s meaning. The idea that some sins are too great for forgiveness—or that one must ask for forgiveness before being offered forgiveness—turn the Christian gospel of grace into a scrupulous system of anxiety. In fact, the reformers staked their lives on countering a false gospel that taught forgiveness was contingent upon each person enumerating all of his or her sins. Even repentance itself, Calvin insisted, is not “a foundation for meriting pardon.” The reformers redirected people away from their own efforts to the biblical God of grace.

The reformers redirected people away from their own efforts to the biblical God of grace.

As Jesus hung dying on the cross, he asked God to forgive his murderers—before they asked for forgiveness, before they even knew that what they were doing was wrong. Christ forgave not after his attackers repented, but “while we were still enemies” (Romans 5:10). We are also called to forgive in this way, regardless of our trespassers’ repentance, because Christ commands us to forgive in the same way that he forgives us (Matthew 6:12).

In offering forgiveness to her son’s attacker, Kari Hoffman isn’t participating in a woke conspiracy or violating what it means to be a mother. Kari Hoffman is, like Christ, extending forgiveness despite her offender knowing not what he does.

In Luke 2, when Simeon sees the long-awaited Messiah in the flesh, he prophesied that a sword would pierce Mary’s own soul. Many scholars believe Simeon is referencing Mary having to witness her son’s crucifixion—the nails in his hands and feet, the mocking crown gouging his head, the piercing of his side. The baby she carried in her womb, bore in a stable, fed from her own body, and raised as her son, she would one day watch die a gruesome death at the hands of murderers. And she would one day have to, like her son, forgive them.

Few parents experience watching such soul-piercing atrocities occur to their children. And yet some do watch their children suffer excruciating pain or death at the hands of others. Kari Hoffman is one of them. I am sure, like Mary, that the pain her son endured pierced her soul. And yet that’s why the forgiveness she has offered her son’s would-be murderer is the most supernatural, Christ-like thing she could do. All Christians should pray we would be able to do the same.

Katelyn Walls Shelton

Katelyn Walls Shelton is the senior policy adviser at the Institute for Women’s Health. She previously worked to promote the well-being of women and the unborn at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She graduated from Yale Divinity School and Union University and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, John, and their twin toddlers.


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