Forgiveness as the Undoing of Sin

Ray Mayhew


Part of the tragedy of being human is that once an act is done it cannot ever be undone. Seemingly, it becomes imbedded in the fabric of space and time, never to be removed. Despite our gratitude for the removal of guilt, it is still very difficult for many to live without regret. And this is the reason people often remark that they know God has forgiven them but they cannot forgive themselves.

The Scottish theologian, Tom Torrance, in his book The Mediation of Christ, said: “As the Old Testament makes clear, really to forgive sin is to undo it, to blot it out as though it had not taken place. But to undo an event like that, to undo the time with which it was bound up, is an utterly stupendous thing which only God himself can do.”

If it was not for Torrance’s reputation and stature as an orthodox theologian, I might have dismissed this as sentimental thinking. But when he speaks of sin being “undone” and undoing the “time with which it was bound up,” he is applying a dimension of the atonement that is often overlooked and opening up a dimension of forgiveness that has been sadly neglected.

In this article I work out the theological underpinnings of the above statements, which are primarily found in the Old Testament concept of forgiveness as the undoing of sin (not just the removal of guilt) on the Day of Atonement. And how the concept of Jesus as the last Adam lays the foundation for the atonement making possible undoing of sin in the New Testament.

Having laid the biblical foundations, I then go on to deal with the pastoral implications of those who live with regret and struggle with forgiving themselves. These include dealing with the social consequences that might remain, the renewing of the mind, and the issue of painful memories. Forgiveness does indeed mean that sin is “undone,” that to forgive sin is to undo it—to blot it out as though it had not taken place, and to undo the time with which it was bound up. But bringing people into such freedom takes pastoral skill and the healing of the Holy Spirit.


Forgiveness As The Undoing of Sin

Part of the tragedy of being human is that once an act is done it cannot ever be undone. Seemingly, it becomes imbedded in the fabric of space and time never to be removed. As Christians, of course, we have forgiveness, and after repentance and confession we can live without guilt. However, despite our gratitude for the removal of guilt, it is still very difficult for many to live without regret. And this is the reason people often remark that they know God has forgiven them but they cannot forgive themselves.

Some years ago, I came across a very striking excerpt in a George McDonald novel that I have often reflected on over the years. It is a brief conversation between two of the leading characters:

“It does seem hard that a man should be made capable of doing things that he has not been made capable of undoing again.”

“It is indeed a terrible thought! And even a small wrong is perhaps too awful a thing for a created being ever to set right again.”

“You mean it takes God to do that.”

“I do.”

“I don’t see how he could ever set some things right.”

“He would not be God if he could not or would not do for his creature what that creature cannot do for himself, and must have done for him, or lose his life.”

Recently, I have been reading some of the works of the Scottish trinitarian theologian Tom Torrance. In his book The Mediation of Christ he makes a very similar statement to that made by McDonald: “As the Old Testament makes clear, really to forgive sin is to undo it, to blot it out as though it had not taken place. But to undo an event like that, to undo the time with which it was bound up, is an utterly stupendous thing which only God himself can do.”

If it was not for Torrance’s reputation and stature as an orthodox theologian, I might have dismissed this as sentimental thinking. But when he speaks of sin being “undone” and undoing “the time with which it was bound up,” he is anchoring this into his theology of the atonement and opening up a dimension of forgiveness that is often neglected.

For most of us, forgiveness means that our relationship with God is now restored and that we will not be punished in the future for our sin. This means that I am no longer guilty and now stand in the grace of God. However, as astounding as this is, the tragedy of being human is that I still have to live forever with the knowledge that I did in fact do the wicked deed. The fearful truth of free will is that I am capable of doing deeds that can never ever be undone.

An example would be a man who sexually abused a child. After being arrested, he appeared before a judge and was sentenced to five years imprisonment. Once the prison sentence has been served, there is a sense that society has forgiven him and that he has paid for his crime. However, every morning he still has to get up and live his life knowing that five years ago he did indeed do this wicked act.

If I am a Christian, I can live with the assurance that I am forgiven by not only society, but also by God because of the death of Christ. However, the human tragedy remains that once a deed has been done it cannot ever be undone—or can it?

This brings me back to McDonald and Torrance with their thought that forgiveness is more than the gracious removal of guilt—that it is a miracle that undoes the time in which it was bound up and is in some mysterious way the undoing of what has been previously done. If this is true, this is good news beyond belief. What we already know about forgiveness is amazing, but if it is valid to add to it the concept of forgiveness as the “undoing” of sin, the wonder of the atonement of Christ becomes an even greater miracle. The possibility that we can truly forgive ourselves and now live without the pain of regret becomes something we indeed need to shout from the rooftops.

Unfortunately, other than anchoring it into his general theory of the atonement, Torrance does not, to my knowledge, elaborate on how this undoing takes place. However, there are enough clues, not only in Torrance’s work, but also in the work of other significant theologians, to enable us to develop the concept further.

For the sake of clarity, I will approach the subject from three directions. First, I will uncover the biblical basis of viewing forgiveness as the undoing of sin. Second, I will use the concept of Jesus as the last Adam to provide some insight as to how this miracle is possible. And third, I will discuss how we can practically apply these truths in our own lives and in the context of Christian living and discipleship.



The Biblical Basis For Seeing Forgiveness As The “Undoing” Of Sin

In the Western tradition, an emphasis has often been placed on the judicial dimension of forgiveness. I have broken the law of God, and, through the grace of Jesus Christ, God the judge can graciously remit the penalty of my sin. This is central to what forgiveness means. However, the New Testament doctrine of atonement rests on the foundations laid in the Old Testament, and when we delve into the Old Testament texts, we discover that the concept of forgiveness is wider and more comprehensive than the judicial dimension alone. It is not difficult to demonstrate that the concept of atonement not only included mercy and forgiveness, but involved removing, cleansing, blotting out, forgetting and indeed the very undoing of sin.

The Hebrew word for atonement, “kippur,” in its verbal form alone occurs 102 times in the Old Testament. Atonement was achieved daily for the community by the regular morning and evening burnt offerings, and climaxed by the great Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, once a year. While there is often much discussion on the meaning of the sacrifices themselves, there is less attention paid to what the word atonement actually means in Hebrew. And as this word gives us the conceptual framework, the “furniture” if you will, for understanding the atoning work of Christ, it becomes important to define it as carefully as we can.

Our word atonement comes from the Middle English “at-one-ment,” and while with its obvious overtones of reconciliation this is a good concept, it is not a good translation of the Hebrew. The English word reflects more the result or the effect of atonement rather than providing an accurate description of the meaning of the Hebrew.  To access the root meaning of the Hebrew word, I have used one of the great theological works that has come out in recent years—the multi-volume New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. The dictionary deals exhaustively with the word “kippur” and concludes that it has three primary meanings. The first is to “cover,” the second is to “ransom” and the third is to “wipe away.” However, these are not mutually exclusive as one usually interprets, or fills out, the meaning of the other.

Many years ago, I was taught that the primary meaning of atonement is to “cover.” The illustration was often given that the word for the “tar” or “pitch” that covered Noah’s ark was the word “kippur,” which indeed it is. However, much to my surprise, the New International Dictionary states that the primary meaning of “kippur” is not to cover but to wipe away or to wipe clean.

I find this very helpful as, personally, I have always found the concept of atonement as covering sin to be rather inadequate. In English, if we cover something there is always the possibility of it being uncovered again. And while we do not believe that God will uncover our sins, the word “cover” standing alone could lead us to believe that they are still part of our record, still part of the essential “me”: they have been covered but not necessarily removed and expunged from my record. However, if “kippur” means to wipe away or to wipe clean, then we have the initial basis for understanding atonement as the removal of sin.

It is not difficult to demonstrate from the Hebrew Bible that wiping away is a common way of understanding the meaning of “kippur.” For instance, in Jeremiah 18:23 it is used in parallel with the words “blotting out”: “Do not wipe away (kippur) their crimes or blot out their sins.” The Hebrew words to “blot out” mean to erase the writing from a scroll, implying that if something is blotted out it is erased and removed from the record. A modern illustration would be a court of law where the prosecution might inappropriately question a witness. In such a case, the judge would ask that that statement be deleted from the record. This means that for all intents and purposes it was never said—it has been expunged from the record. Should the case go to a court of appeals, it will appear as if the statement had never happened. The parallelism used in Jeremiah 18:23 demonstrates that the one word illustrates the meaning of the other. To “blot out” means to “wipe away” and to “wipe away” means to “blot out.”

Without overreaching, we can legitimately take this one step further. In the Old Testament, the word “blotting out” is also used in parallel with forgetting. In Isaiah 43:25, we read that, “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for my name sake and remembers your sins no more.” If “wiping away” is a synonym and illustrates the meaning of “blotting out,” then, according to Isaiah 43:25, “blotting out” is a synonym and illustrates the meaning of “forgetting.”

This Hebrew concept of God forgetting sin is a very powerful one. It means as far as he is concerned, the time in which a particular sin was committed is—mysteriously or metaphorically—erased from God’s mind. He sovereignly disregards and consigns it—in the word of Miroslave Volf—to the “vault of oblivion,” and the truth that he will “remember our sins no more” is truly astounding. It is indeed, as far as God is concerned, the undoing of sin and should fill us with unspeakable joy and gratitude.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that this is the only way we can truly have clean consciences. For example, if many years ago I had an affair with another woman, even if since then I have confessed my sins and been forgiven, I would not normally say that I have a clean conscience about that period of time. I would say that I had been forgiven for my adultery, but I would still be very “conscious” (from which we get the word “conscience”) of that shameful incident in my life. Normally, we only speak of having a clean conscience about situations of the past in which we behaved properly and acted with integrity.

However, scripture says that the blood of Christ can cleanse our conscience (Hebrew 9:14). This seems to imply that I need no longer be conscious (cf. the word “conscience”) of my past sins because a miracle has occurred. They have been blotted out and expunged from my personal history and, in the words of Torrance, “undone.” And this appears to be the logical result of atonement if the word itself means to “wipe away”—resulting in sins being blotted out and remembered no more (Is. 43:25).

The events on the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16 further reinforce this concept. The day has a number of unique features, but the most striking is that two goats were used, one of which we call, in English, the scapegoat. Both were sin offerings, but one was slain (and its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat) and the other, the scapegoat, was sent away into the wilderness. It is important to note that the Hebrew word, “azazel”—for some unknown reason translated as scapegoat in English—actually means “destruction.”

In the New Testament, Hebrews 10:11 states that sacrifices not only forgive, but that they also “take away sin.” Jesus himself bears witness to this and is described as the Lamb of God who not only forgives, but also “takes away the sin of the world.” (The word goat and lamb were sometimes used interchangeably) Therefore, atonement, “kippur,” or wiping away, is not only filled out by the concept of blotting out and forgetting, but also by the concept of something being carried away to utter destruction.

It is not difficult to see then how these concepts reinforce one another. Sin is embedded in time. If the sin is carried away to destruction (“azazel”), then so is that piece of my personal history that contained it. It is blotted out, forgotten by God, wiped away and carried off in the person of the scapegoat. It is only reasonable that the result of all this is that sin is indeed utterly “undone” in the sight of God.

Much more could be said, but, without getting bogged down in the technicalities of Hebrew words, it is not difficult to demonstrate that the concept of atonement—from which forgiveness flows and on which the New Testament model of the death of Christ rests—embraced not only judicial forgiveness but the miracle of sin being “undone.”

The reality of this truth seems to be born out when we reach the climax of the New Testament and the judgment of the Great White Throne. Revelation 20:12 records that “the books were opened…and the dead were judged by what was written in the books by what they had done.” However, for believers the sins that they have committed have been blotted out by the atonement of Christ. This is why our Lord said in John 5:20, “He who hears my words and believes in him who sent me has eternal life and does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life.”

In a very real sense, judgement is not future tense but past tense for believers. Being in Christ means that when judgement fell on him it also fell on me and I can now stand before the judgement seat without fear. That which would condemn me is blotted out, wiped away and forgotten by God.

If this is all true, we next need to ask if there are any clues in the New Testament that explain the mechanism by which God achieves this miracle. The atonement is indeed a high mystery, but we are not left without metaphors and analogies by which to interpret it.


How The Concept Of Jesus As The Last Adam Lays
The Foundation For The “Undoing” Of Sin

Adam was the generator, the procreator of humankind, and if Jesus is truly the last Adam, he must, in the words of Torrance, “penetrate back through the guilt laden irreversibility of time into the very beginning in such a way as to undo the past and undo our sin and guilt” (The Christian Doctrine of God, 215). However, he cannot become “Adam,” the father and the generator of mankind, in the middle of human history. He has to penetrate backwards through history so that it can be reconstituted in himself. And this is what seems to be implied by Luke in his genealogy of Jesus.

Luke’s narrative of the baptism and temptation of Jesus seems strangely disjointed when compared with that of other synoptics. If we look at Matthew and Mark, we find that Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, the Father speaks from heaven, and “immediately” the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12).

Luke mentions him being baptized, he mentions the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and he mentions the Father speaking from heaven (Luke 3:21-22). However, although Luke knows that the next thing to take place is that he is “immediately” driven out into the wilderness, he deliberately interrupts the narrative at this point and inserts the genealogy of Jesus, taking it all the way back to Adam (Luke 3:23).

Having done this, he then picks up the broken narrative and speaks of our Lord’s experience in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. Why would Luke interrupt the narrative and place Jesus’ genealogy at such a disjointed point? We know from the other gospels that the events surrounding Jesus’ baptism are all connected chronologically: He goes down into the water, the Holy Spirit descends, the Father speaks from heaven, and he is immediately driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. Why does Luke break this up and insert a genealogy between his being baptized and going into the wilderness?

The explanation seems to be that at his baptism Jesus is asserting his solidarity with sinful humanity. In the words of Torrance, this is the point at which he exercised a “vicarious repentance” on our behalf. Luke wants us to understand that, in doing this, Jesus is assuming the role of the last Adam and clearing the ground to eventually reconstitute humanity in himself. And to make this point, Luke deliberately inserts the genealogy (which, unlike Matthew’s, does not just go back to Abraham, but all the way back to Adam) at this stage in the flow of events. It is both a dramatic and a revelatory way of interpreting the narrative.

The epistles then unpack the implications of this, asserting that because Jesus is the one who created all things, including time, when he became incarnate as the God-man, he had the authority to reconstitute what he created—including humankind, human history and the time in which it is imbedded.

When he died, the old creation died with him. If the one who “holds all things together” dies, then all things are no longer “held together.” They come undone; they disintegrate and fall back into non-being. Therefore, when Jesus died as the last Adam, representing the old humanity, all of human history died with him. It was undone, blotted out, annihilated and “uncreated.” In his death, human history disintegrated and was rendered null and void.

The creation initially came from non-being, ex-nihilo, out of nothing, and Athanasius repeatedly insisted that, if God removed his hand for even a moment, it would immediately fall back into non-being. And in some mysterious way this is what happened at the cross. The creator of creation died, and with him the cosmos fell back into the abyss of nothingness. It is for this reason that in the New Testament the resurrection of Christ is presented as the inauguration of a new creation.

Tom Wright develops the resurrection of Christ as new creation in his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Here, I will only briefly illustrate his thinking from the gospel of John. It is immediately arresting that the gospel opens with the words “in the beginning.” In the Hebrew bible, the books of the Pentateuch are named by their opening phrase. It does not use the word “Genesis” to describe the first book of the Old Testament, but rather it titles the book by its first phrase: “In the Beginning.” In a similar way, the second book is not called Exodus but is titled by its first phrase: “These are the Names.” By using the Hebrew title of Genesis (“in the beginning”) as the first phrase of his gospel, John is indicating from the very first sentence that the Word being made flesh is going to result in a new creation.

Wright believes that the seven signs in John’s gospel that climax with the cross, function as the week of the old creation. Easter Sunday then becomes the beginning of the new creation, the eighth day, the first day of the week—which is why the church fathers always saw the eighth day as symbolic of new creation. The Word, who was in the beginning with God, and through whom all things were made, is now by resurrection the Word through whom all things are remade—the prototype of what God will accomplish in the whole created order.

In John Chapter 20, Mary, weeping at the empty tomb, sees Jesus and believes that he is the gardener, and this is a mistake full of symbolism.  Just as the first Adam was a gardener in Eden, so now Jesus, the last Adam, is now the gardener, the steward of God’s new creation. He comes to uproot the thorns and thistles (Isaiah 55) and is mandated to bring God’s new order into harmony, beauty and fruitfulness. John’s desire is to conclude his gospel by depicting Jesus as the new Adam, who is even now beginning to steward the new creation.

C. K. Chesterton, reflecting on the end of John’s gospel, said, “On the third day the friends of Christ coming at day break found the grave empty and the stone rolled away, in varying ways they realized the new wonder. But even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of the new creation with a new heaven and a new earth and in a semblance of the gardener, God walked again in the garden, in the cool, not of the evening, but the dawn.”

Karl Barth was once asked how old he thought creation was. The questioner was simply inquiring as to whether he believed in a young or an old earth. Much to his surprise, Barth immediately replied, “I believe that the creation is two thousand years old.” He was utterly serious in his answer, believing that the resurrection had reconstituted creation and the whole of human history—and indeed the cosmos itself.

While not yet consummated, the resurrection means that we now have the inauguration of the process by which eventually all things will become new. That which was created out of nothing, and fell back into nothingness when the one through whom it was created died, is now reconstituted in Christ. And, in some mysterious way, this includes the created time in which the old creation was imbedded. (Scripture hints at the connection between time and space long before Einstein.) Jesus has retraced Adam’s steps, righted Adam’s wrongs, rewoven the fabric of Adamic time, rewritten the history of Adam’s race (history is now His-story), and reconstituted Adam’s offspring in himself. Everything in the old Adamic order is now, to use Paul’s famous phrase, “in Christ.”

And while we know this is true of humankind (the New Testament is full of statements such as, “One died for all and therefore all died”), we forget that it is also true of the whole creation—including created time. In one sense, the old creation was all undone, it fell back into non-being, and humanity and Adamic history fell into the abyss of non-being with it.

To be “in Christ,” the last Adam, therefore means that I have now been baptized into a new human stream with which the Father is “well pleased.” It can now be said of me—and of course, “me” includes all of my personal history—that, “If any man is in Christ he is a new creation, old things have passed away, behold all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).


The Practical And Pastoral Implications Of Forgiveness
As The Undoing Of Sin

Because sin is “undone,” I am now free to live as if it had never happened, in joy and free from guilt, shame, and regret. However, in order to live this way, there are three important practical and pastoral implications that need to be kept in mind: dealing with consequences, renewing the mind and healing the memory:

  1. Dealing With Consequences :: Even though I am now living in Christ and my sins are blotted out and forgotten by God, serious physical and social consequences often remain as a result of my actions. The legacy left by a divorce, an affair, a bankruptcy or a prison sentence still has to be faced. However, it is crucial that these consequences be re-framed in redemptive rather than punitive categories if they are not going to haunt us daily for the rest of our lives. And to do this, the following important truths must be grasped:
    • #1 :: We must remember that because God is by nature a redeemer, he is at work unceasingly behind the scenes seeking to bring good out of evil. If the most egregious sin that humankind ever did—crucifying the Son of God—can be reversed and redeemed, then the possibility must exist that all other sin can also be reversed and redeemed. We frequently say that sin separates us from God, but Torrance points out that sin also binds us to God. The very act of crucifying Christ was used by God to bind us to himself. The sin of rejecting him, and the resulting crucifixion, became the very mechanism by which God would draw us into his forgiveness and love. If this reversal is true of the greatest evil ever perpetrated by humankind, then it must also be a possibility for the lesser evils that are a part of my personal history. And therefore, when we are overwhelmed by the potential consequences of our sin, we must believe that God is continuing to work on damage control—mitigating the effect of our sin and seeking to restore, recover and reverse its consequences.
    • #2 :: We must never forget that in scripture consequences are repeatedly used to shape the character and ministry of those used by God. After repenting of his crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah, David becomes a man of deeper compassion and greater sensitivity than he was before the shameful acts took place. In a similar way, even though it occurred before his conversion, Paul had to live with the consequences of his complicity in the murder of Stephen and his subsequent systematic extermination of Christians. And yet it was these sinful acts that were used to carve a channel of compassion in his heart and motivate his apostolic ministry. He that is forgiven much loves much. It is not without significance that, after 250 years, “Amazing Grace” is still the most popular of our hymns and that it was written as a personal confession of the ex-slave trader, John Newton.  The sin of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Paul, Newton and countless others was in no way wasted. God used the consequences of their sin to uniquely shape their character and ministry.
    • #3 :: it is crucial that we now view the consequences of our sin as a new set of social circumstances rather than as a set of punitive consequences that will blight the rest of our lives. Without minimizing the seriousness of my own sin, it helps to realize that many of my past circumstances were the result of other people’s sins—some of them going back many generations. In fact, the very fabric of our personal histories is often woven largely by the mistakes of others. Mine was woven by decisions made after the First World War that resulted in my grandfather immigrating to England. Where I was born was shaped by Hitler’s decision to invade Poland, leading to the outbreak of war with Britain, the blitz and my parents moving from London to Middlesex. The decision my father made after the war to take a job in Africa, and the decision my mother made to stay behind, shaped my childhood, as did their subsequent decision to divorce when I was eleven. And so we could continue. But as children, we are remarkably resilient and normally able to accept the circumstances we inherit, make the best of them and get on with life.

    In a similar way, now that I am an adult, I must also come to terms with the reality that my personal decisions, my sins, have also had consequences, and sometimes these are very serious. However, once I have repented and my sin is “undone” by the atonement of Christ, I must now accept these consequences simply as a new set of social circumstances rather than as a punitive legacy that will both haunt my past and blight my future.  I must now do for myself what I have been doing with circumstances forged by other people’s choices long before I was born. Just as when I was a child I had to live with the consequences of other people’s choices—and did so without relentlessly blaming those who made them—so now as an adult I have to learn to live with consequence that are a result of my own choices. But what makes all the difference is that because of the cross I can now view this legacy simply as a new set of social circumstances, rather than as an inevitable legacy of punitive consequences.

    This might appear foreign to us, but as I have pointed out, this was something we did naturally and spontaneously when we were children. And Jesus tells us that if we want to live in the kingdom of God, in the midst of circumstances created by man, we have to again learn to live as little children. Just as when I was a child I accepted the social ecosystem that I inherited without constantly recriminating my parents and everyone else who contributed to it, now I have to do the same with the social ecosystem created by my own sinful choices. But because of the cross, rather than living in denial, this is simply living in Christ.

    My circumstances may have been drastically altered by my sin, but because of the miracle of the cross they are not penal and there is no reason for me to go on endlessly blaming myself and living in regret. It is my fault, but, once I have repented, God only asks me to simply accept the new circumstances and cheerfully make the best of them—just as he would ask me to do if they were the result of somebody else’s choices. In light of the cross, to go on blaming others when I am commanded to forgive, or to go on blaming myself when I have been forgiven, is unacceptable. The cross enables me to objectify my own actions and demands that I now forgive myself even as I am commanded to forgive others.

    How our actions have injured the lives of others is perhaps the most painful legacy of sin, but even here we are not without hope. It is not without significance that the narrative of Jacob and Joseph takes up almost half of the first book of the Bible. And as we know, it is a story embedded in a dysfunctional family and riddled with bad choices that span three generations and culminates in the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers and his subsequent life of slavery. However, it also stands as a monument to God’s creative activity in working to redeem and mitigate the consequences of one person’s sin as it affects the life of another. This makes Joseph’s words towards the end of the narrative even more poignant when he says to his brothers, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.”

    Such is the redemptive action of God in the midst of this tragic family that he will eventually name his people after their father Jacob, and the twelve tribes after his twelve sons. And in the age to come, their names will be on the gates of the New Jerusalem as a memorial to the fact that the consequences of sin can be redeemed, even when it has drastically affected the lives of others. This long catalog of disastrous inter-generational choices is placed at the beginning of scripture to give us hope.

    Deborah Niyakabrika’s story (recorded on a World Vision Australia video) describes how her son was murdered in an isolated act of ethnic vengeance three years after the genocide in Rwanda. “Months after the killing, a young man visited Deborah. ‘I killed your son,’ he said. ‘Take me to the authorities and let them deal with me as they will. I have not slept since I shot him. Every time I lie down I see you praying and I know you are praying for me.’ Deborah answered, ‘You are no longer an animal but a man taking responsibility for your actions. I do not want to add death to your death.’ Then Deborah did the extraordinary, ‘But I want you to restore justice by replacing the son you killed.’ She continued, ‘I’m asking you to become my son. When you visit me I will care for you.’ Today that young man is an adopted member of her household.” The young man who killed Deborah’s son could have been paralyzed by guilt and regret for the rest of his life. However, he realized through Deborah’s words that God was working to redeem and minimize the consequences of his sin, and he became the replacement for the son she had lost.

    For most of us, the issues are not so dramatic, but can be equally painful. Although my sin is undone, the social and physical consequences may indeed remain. But through the cross, they can now be re-framed in redemptive, rather than punitive categories.

  2. Renewing the Mind :: Many of us forget the seismic struggles that we had in coming to accept the truth that our punishment had been borne by Christ, that he had died in our place, that salvation was all by grace, and that our efforts could contribute nothing. For people like Luther, this was a frontier that took them years to cross. And while for most of us the struggle was not so intense, we can identify with Luther and his fight to grasp this strange and mysterious transaction.For me, coming to terms with the fact that Jesus died “for” me, as my substitute, was not such a struggle. But coming to terms with the fact that he had also died “as” me, as my representative, was much more difficult. That the death of Christ was in fact my death; that I had been crucified with Christ and that what Paul called “the old man” was dead, even though he still seemed very much alive; that I was under no obligation to live after the flesh, even though I still lived in the body, were all truths that took me much longer to appropriate.  They seemed totally implausible to me when I first encountered them, but like all of us, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I came to discover their power and learned at least in some measure how to “walk in newness of life.”Eventually I came to see that being “in Christ” meant that I not only regarded his punishment as my punishment, but also his death as my death, his burial as my burial, his resurrection as my resurrection, and his ascension as my being raised up and seated in the heavenly places.For most of us, these truths are familiar, even though when we stop to reflect on them they are all wrapped in deep mystery. However, to live in the reality that my sins are undone, I now need to take the next step and embrace the truth that just as his death was my death, his burial my burial, and his resurrection my resurrection, so also—because he is the last Adam—his history is my history. It seems rather strange at first, but it is actually no different than any other dimension of being in Christ, and certainly no more mysterious.In dealing with the past, both before and since I became a Christian, I now choose to live in Christ, in Christological history, in the new humanity that was birthed out of the empty tomb, even though my personal history, much like my old nature, still tries to define who I am. But the truth is that there is now a parallel universe, a “race in Christ,” with a perfect history, even though the old humanity is still in evidence. My part is deciding in which universe, in which truth or “race,” I will now choose to live.

    To live above my Adamic history in Christological history seems unrealistic, but it is no different than accepting Christ’s punishment as my punishment and his resurrection as my resurrection. To live in the reality of my sins being undone, I must now accept his history as my history just as I have learned to accept all the other dimensions of what it means to be in Christ.

    To live the gospel is to live in a sphere of holy mystery. The new creation has begun even though the old creation still exists. The kingdom is “now” even though it is “not yet.”  I am crucified with Christ but, nevertheless, I live. The flesh still remains even though I choose to walk after the Spirit. And, in the same way, I choose to live in Christological time even though Adamic time continues. There is no new truth here, just a deeper grasp of what we have always known—that our lives, which are simply the sum total of our personal histories, are now hidden with Christ in God.

    The reality of being in Christ rather than in Adam has freed me from the fear of punishment and from the bondage of the flesh. The same reality now frees me from the regrets of the past. In Christ, my Adamic history is replaced by Christological history. My sins are undone, and I am free to live without the terrible bondage of remorse for a past that I never imagined could ever be undone.

    And it works!  The truth of Christological history replacing Adamic history is self-authenticating because it sets us free, just as every other dimension of being in Christ has a liberating capacity. It releases me into the miracle of forgiveness as the undoing of sin.

  3. Healing The Memory :: Unfortunately, living in Christ does not automatically remove our memories of living in Adam. I have argued above that, although God is omniscient, he asks us to live as if he does not in fact now know what I did, for instance, on January 12th when I committed adultery. (I speak hypothetically.) As far as God is concerned, my sin has been blotted out and never took place. However, just as I have to now face the consequences of, for instance, a broken marriage, I also have to face the consequences of memory. But this is not all bad as “he that is forgiven much loves much.” If every act of forgiveness was also accompanied by supernatural amnesia, preventing me from remembering what I had done, my love would probably grow cold.However, some memories are so painful that it’s important we understand how to deal with them in order to effectively live in the reality of our sins being undone. In dealing with memory, there are several points that must be kept in mind:
    • #1 :: With the passage of time we do indeed forget many things and this, in itself, is a grace from God. C. S. Lewis said he could remember the full content of every book he had ever read and that he regarded such a memory as a curse! Most of us would not mind being equally cursed, but, unlike Lewis, many of our memories fade over time. This is not only true of our memory of sin, but also of much that has taken place in the course of our life.Jenny, my wife, has recently been reading some diaries that she wrote forty years ago. They are a detailed account of her last two years in high school, and she is astonished that she cannot even remember some people who were obviously, according to the diaries, significant friends at the time. While we often bemoan the fact that our memories are not more acute, the fact that they are not is often a blessing in a fallen world. Painful memories lose their power over time.
    • #2 :: Pride is an obstacle to living out the reality of forgiveness as the undoing of sin. Unwittingly, we continue to burn the memory of our sin into our minds simply because we cannot believe that we could ever have stooped so low and done such a thing. However, as we know, the biblical picture of fallen man is not a pretty one. Perhaps something of David’s greatness was that after his sin he is able to write a song (Psalm 51), which he then commands to be taught publicly to Israel. David knows that in his flesh he is capable of committing both adultery and murder, and he doesn’t deceive himself regarding this truth.However, the Bible’s descriptions of the depravity of man are, in one sense, good news. After grievously sinning, I do not need to spend the next two decades continuously asking, “How could I have possibly done such a thing? I know that some people do, but how could I have done it?” Scripture is brutally honest. In my flesh, I am more than capable of doing such—and worse. Confession means that I acknowledge this before God, and such an acknowledgment is usually a huge stride forward in the healing of memory. A reaction of pride is a mechanism of denial, and while I might have verbally confessed my sin, I refuse to believe inwardly that I am capable of doing such a thing. This behavior simply sucks us back into the painful memory rather than liberating us from it.
    • #3 :: There is healing for our memories. Normally, we speak of the healing of memories as a grace from God available to victims—forgetting that it is also a grace from Jesus for guilty perpetrators. If the memory of a past sin continues to haunt and paralyze us, we need to seek out those who can minister healing. Sometimes, even to confess to another person what we have only confessed privately to God can bring overwhelming relief and healing.David Watson spoke of a man who had been involved in a hit and run accident. It happened on a Thursday night, and he never told anyone. The memory continued to torture him for most of his adult life. Freedom and healing came only after facing up to and confessing what he had done so many years before. Bonhoeffer said that confession to another person is to bring sin into the light. And, as Jesus is always standing in the light, it means we are placing the sinful memory at his feet.
    • #4 :: There is the redemption of memory. This is not the experience of everyone, but we often do have the joy of eventually seeing God redeeming our evil and using it for good. Joseph’s brothers lived for over twenty years with the memory of what they had done to their brother and how they had deceived their father. No doubt, some of them confessed their sins privately to God and, with the passing years, the pain of memory was somewhat mitigated. However, eventually they had the joy of discovering that their brother was still alive and was being used by God in the disastrous famine that had hit the Mediterranean basin. Not all of us will hear the words, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good,” but some of us will, and therein lies not only the healing, but also the redemption of memory itself.
    • #5 :: We need to discipline our minds. We cannot erase a memory by an act of the will, but we can refuse to dwell on it. As I have said, although God knows everything, he asks us to live as if he does not in fact know what I did on January 12th. As far as he is concerned, it has been undone, blotted out and never took place. And if that can be true for him, it can also be true for me. Spiritual discipline means that I make a decision not to consciously dwell on past failures. My sense of wonder, love and gratitude for the grace of God should overshadow any residue of guilt and shame.The prodigal son had the choice of continuing to dwell on the insult done to his father and subsequent squandering of his inheritance in the far country, or to dwell on the joy he had brought to the father’s heart by returning home. Scripture exhorts us to “gird up the loins of our minds,” and this is crucial in the arena of memory. My freedom was purchased by the hard dying of Jesus. It is this that has set me free and undone my sin. For me to now dwell on what God has blotted out is to devalue the grace of God.Granted, we cannot close down memory by an act of the will, but we can discipline the mind. Paul tells us that, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good report, if there is any excellence, and anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things” (Philippians 4:8).  And to “dwell on these things” means that I now refuse to dwell on my past sins and failures.
    • #6 :: We need to live in hope that, while we might never be free from some memories in this life, we will be in the age to come—and this is true for both the victim and the perpetrator. Even though we choose to live in Christological time, what we did in Adamic time, particularly grievous sins like rape, murder and betrayal, while they no longer need paralyze us and while we know that they are undone by the grace of God, it is probable that the memory of them will always remain with us, despite implementing the discipline mentioned above.Miroslave Volf believes that the removal of some memories will be a divine gift in the world to come. Volf said, “How do we live with memories of irretrievable loss and violation?” (His remarks are often addressed to the victims, but they are equally true for the perpetrators.) Volf’s answer was that, in the age to come, they will be consigned to the “vault of oblivion.”Previously, I had a problem with Volf’s concept of some memories being erased in the world to come. I thought that, as my memories are the sum total of who I am, if any were erased, it would diminish me as a human being. In the age to come, if memory is removed, am I really still myself? However, on reflection, I realized that even in this life we forget much of our past, but this does not diminish who we are as unique individuals. Therefore, it would seem well within the bounds of possibility that our most painful memories will indeed be consigned to the vault of oblivion in the age to come, without any diminishment of who we are as unique individuals. If Volf’s thesis is true, then this indeed holds out great hope for people who have perpetrated unimaginable horrors.For those of us who have lived a reasonably normal life, we probably do not have many memories that need to be consigned to the vault of oblivion in the age to come. The memory of our sin has either been healed, forgotten or redeemed as we have seen evil transformed into good. However, in any teaching on the undoing of sin, we need to keep in mind that there are those who have perpetrated unspeakable horrors.Several of those closest to Adolf Hitler came to Christ through the ministry of a Lutheran pastor who was their chaplain during the Nuremberg war trials. Most of them were executed but died confessing Christ as forgiven men. However, they were responsible for the death of millions, and perhaps for these, and others like them in history, some memories will most definitely need to be cast into the vault of oblivion. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine how heaven could be heaven for some people, including victims and perpetrators, if they were not.



In closing, I cannot do any better than to repeat the conversation by McDonald that I opened with:

“It does seem hard that a man should be made capable of doing things that he has not been made capable of undoing again.”

“It is indeed a terrible thought! And even a small wrong is perhaps too awful a thing for a created being ever to set right again.”

“You mean it takes God to do that.”

“I do.”

“I don’t see how he could ever set some things right.”

“He would not be God if he could not or would not do for his creature what that creature cannot do for himself, and must have done for him, or lose his life.”

Perhaps McDonald and Torrance have it wrong, and forgiveness does not include the undoing of sin. Or, perhaps the fault is mine and I have misunderstood them. However, as far as I can tell, it seems to be consistent with the concept of atonement in the Old Testament and the construct of Jesus as the last Adam in the New Testament. So I am reluctant to give it up. My experience so far has been that the good news of Jesus is an ever-expanding horizon of mystery and wonder. And, if the tragedy of being human is that once an act is done it cannot ever be undone, then I suspect that the miracle of the Word made flesh also makes possible the miracle of undoing what we thought could never be undone.