Rachael Denhollander’s courageous courtroom statement needs to go on reverberating. It was heart-wrenching and harrowing yet God-glorifying. It was a testimony to God’s justice and grace in the face of horrifying evil. A paedophile and predator was forced to hear something of the destruction wreaked by his actions. This young woman went further and spoke of the eternal realities that lay behind all that was brought out in that Michigan courtroom. Her trust in God meant that she could speak of justice and absolute distinctions of good and evil. She could also speak of grace and forgiveness without in any way trivialising what sin is and what it deserves.
She spoke to the judge of the need for the courtroom to hear a sentence that would “the greatest measure of justice available.” Yet she also spoke of “final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you…Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.”
“I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me…though I extend that to you as well.”
Justice and Forgiveness
Rachael’s subsequent interview with Christianity Today also needs to reverberate. She makes it clear that justice must never be minimised in emphasising forgiveness. “I have found it very interesting, to be honest, that every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness. Very few, if any of them, have recognized what else came with that statement, which was a swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice. Both of those are biblical concepts. Both of those represent Christ. We do not do well when we focus on only one of them.” She points out disturbingly that the Church in her experience does not handle cases of abuse at all well.
Repentance and Forgiveness
Rachael makes it clear that repentance is not a mere sorry but “a full and complete acknowledgment of the depravity of what someone has done in comparison with God’s holy standard. And I do believe that entails an acknowledgment of that, and a going in the opposite direction. It means you have repented to those you have harmed and seek to restore those you have hurt”. She explains what she meant by the call to repentance in her courtroom statement:
It means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously. It simply means that I release personal vengeance against him, and I trust God’s justice, whether he chooses to mete that out purely, eternally, or both in heaven and on earth.
What does it mean to forgive others? When Christ teaches us to pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12) it includes these elements of repentance and forgiveness. As we have a proper sense of what it means to be forgiven we will be those who are ready to forgive. David Dickson briefly but helpfully draws out some of these points.
1. Christians Need Repentance
None of Christ’s disciples are so fully sanctified in this life that sin will not be found in them. We are under a necessity to acknowledge our sins.
2. Christians Need Daily Repentance
That every day in many things we all offend and must confess not only sin but sins.
3. Christians Need Daily Forgiveness Even Though They are Forgiven
Although we may have a right to forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus, yet we must seek to apply this right to our daily faults. We must beg the use of this right in seeking forgiveness.
4. Christians Know that Sin Deserves to be Punished
Our sins deserve due punishment (indeed death is what sin naturally deserves) and this makes us liable us to the penalty. This is why sins are called debts here.
5. Christians Know that Forgiveness Removes Punishment
When sin is forgiven, the avenging punishment is also forgiven. This is part of the meaning of what we are directed to say “forgive us our debts and forgive us our sins”. Sin cannot be forgiven and avenging punishment retained at the same time. Both the guilt and this sort of punishment are forgiven and taken away together.
6. Christians Must Not Trivialise Wrongs Done by Others
Wrongs done to us by others oblige those who have injured us to repair the wrong. Such wrongs make them not only debtors to God but also to us. Therefore our Lord calls such as have done wrong to us “our debtors”.
7. Christians are Not Wrong to Seek Justice in the Right Way
Public considerations may move us to seek redress wrongs by means of justice. We must not only, however, renounce private revenge for wrongs done to us but also forgive them, especially when the offender calls for it from us. Christ presupposes that those who seek forgiveness from God also themselves give forgiveness to others.
8. Christians Forgive as Well as Being Forgiven
When we forgive men their wrongs done against us it is an argument to persuade us of forgiveness from God for our own wrongs. Christ wills those who say “forgive us our trespasses” to say also “as we forgive those that trespass against us”.
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