Is there a difference between absolution and forgiveness? They are similar, but surely there must be a difference. We, as Christians, are called by God to forgive those who trespass against us. That is our obligation. It is a commandment from God.
However, our forgiveness of someone does not mean that the person who offended us is necessary forgiven by God. God’s forgiveness is much more important that our forgiveness. His forgiveness is dependent upon whether or not a person truly confesses their sin and desires to change.
In the First Epistle of John we read:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
God forgives those who truly acknowledge their sin and He does more than that. He cleanses us from all unrighteousness. This cleansing is referred to as absolution, particularly in the liturgical churches. Often times it becomes part of the liturgy. The congregation is given a time in prayer to make their confession before God. Then the priest or worship leader reads some scripture to reassure that God has forgiven them (including the one pronouncing the absolution.)
Does this practice cause a problem for Protestants? Perhaps, but should it? We should all be able to agree that only God can cleanse us from our sins. No human being can do this. Reminding people that God can and does do this might be helpful for many people. In concealing many people I have often heard it said that they know that God has forgiven them, but that they are not able to forgive themselves. What might be wrong with this picture. God can forgive but we cannot. Are we greater than God? The problem is not often arrogance or unbelief. Some people just do not feel worthy enough to be forgiven. They need reassurance from God that He loves them. He has made them worthy through the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. He has accepted their confession. He wants to set them free from the power of sin. As a cautionary note, just because some clergy person pronounces absolution in God’s name does not mean that God is bound by this statement. In order to receive God’s absolution we must truly repent.
An understand of God’s absolution can help us in our understanding of forgiveness. Many times we may not wish to forgive certain people because we do not wish to excuse their behavior. We do not have to worry about that. Our forgiveness does not mean we excuse these people. We leave all judgement up to God. God really does not excuse sin. He punishes sin. He did that through the cross:
Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
As Christians, we need to accept God’s judgment for our sins by acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Savior. We then forgive others because God has forgiven us.