Here is a common exchange between two people. Someone says, "I'm sorry, I wasn't at my best today. I feel I let you down when you needed me." The other replies, "Oh, that's understandable. You had a lot on your mind, and, well, after all." "That's understandable." People say it to me all the time when I have blown it. Oh, that's understandable. But then a little voice comes on inside my head and says, "But what if it weren't, what if it weren't understandable? What if it were my own deliberate fault? What if I meant to do it? Would your precious, 'That's understandable' have any meaning then? What if what I did to you came singly and only from malice?"
The Scriptures make a distinction between exoneration, which is to say, "That's understandable." (You did it because of extenuating circumstance, and forgiveness. You have no excuse. But I forgive you anyway.) The question we need to ask ourselves in every case of a bad conscience is this: "Do I require exoneration or do I require forgiveness?" The New Testament puts its full weight on the second. The New Testament puts its full weight on forgiveness.
We are speaking about two different ways of dealing with fault. One way, the way of exoneration, establishes innocence. I wish to be justified by affirming and establishing my innocence. Interestingly, medieval justice considered a felon 'justified' when he was dead! Having paid the capital penalty for a capital offense, the criminal was 'justified', or exonerated, once he had paid the full penalty. No more flesh required. A dead criminal equals an exonerated criminal, by definition.
Today we would generally justify ourselves by establishing our innocence and thereby proving our accuser wrong. We would gather together evidence to prove that we have not done what we are accused of having done. Or we would muster up extenuating circumstances surrounding our action so as to get off the hook with the pallid verdict, "Oh, that's understandable." We would be followers of the pack of the acquitted on the basis of innocence or extenuating circumstance. Prison wardens report that there are so few cases as to be almost 0% of cases of convicted prisoners who do not maintain their innocence, right up to the last day of their sentence.
I don't Know about you, but I do not wish for exoneration. I want forgiveness! This is because I know others, and sometimes myself, a little too well to trust in exoneration. "If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquity, then who can stand." (Psalm 130:3)
You have to hold a fictional view of human nature to believe in exoneration. This is because exoneration implies real innocence. And whose motives, among us, whose least action among us, is ever wholly pure? "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The SHADOW knows..." "No one is righteous, no, not one." (Romans 3:10) FitzSimons Allison, the retired Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, says, "Original sin, which is human nature evenly distributed, is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine."
The great New Testament text on the crucial distinction between exoneration and forgiveness is found in the Book of Romans, Chapter 5, Verse 8: "But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." The love of God is not shown in His clearing the innocent, but rather in His clearing the guilty. The power of God's love consists in the forgiveness of sinners, not in the exoneration of the innocent.
To say this suggests a different understanding of what human beings require than the tired placebo, "Oh, that's understandable." Have you ever read in the newspaper where someone committed a "senseless" crime? Or a young boy died "needlessly" in the cross fire of a shootout. Or five postal workers were murdered in broad daylight in a "senseless" act of "random" violence? Give me a break! Is there such a thing as a sense-ful murder? Or a need-ful shooting? The truth is, not only was the "senseless" crime not senseless or random from the standpoint of the perpetrator; but many crimes are committed with full, deliberate intent. What about conscious, intentional guilt? Can we exonerate that! You were caught red-handed, on video; in writing with your signature attached. What plea can you give other than guilty? Unless you plead a "social disease" as the Jets did in their "West Side Story" ode to Officer Krupke! Or as you and I so often do in our victim mode.
This is where Jesus Christ plays His hand. He died for "the ungodly" (Romans 5:6). "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (I Timothy 1:15). "I came not to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners." (Matthew 5:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32) Christ Jesus plays His hand in the justification of the ungodly, not the godly. He is not in the business of exonerating. He is in the business of forgiving. "While we were enemies" (v.14), while we were yet sinners (v. 8), we were reconciled.
We can rejoice in the ministry of Jesus to publicans and sinners. Only under the heading of His pardoning conscious offenders, can we discern that which is unique, and also universal, in His achievement. Could you ever exonerate yourself if the truth were fully known? Could you ever forgive yourself? Jesus Christ has, And it's not understandable.
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.