One of the many scandals of the Christian faith is its uncompromising belief in the forgiveness of sins. No matter how monstrous our offenses, we need only confess and truly repent; God will forgive, and others should do so as well.
This claim is a notorious one, since conventional wisdom dictates that some deeds simply cannot be forgiven. Indeed, our criminal justice system seems increasingly pessimistic about forgiveness. Americans overwhelmingly support capital punishment, oppose programs directed toward rehabilitation, and adopt slogans such as "three strikes and you're out."
The church has opposed such vindictiveness, because it amounts to a complete denial of God's grace. Christian people believe that even the most heinous crimes can be forgiven-not only by God, but also by those who are schooled in the forgiving practices of the church. Forgiveness depends not on the judge's disposition, nor on the sentiments of an increasingly bloodthirsty public. It depends upon the sinner's willingness to confess and repent. In the justice system developed by the modern state, remorse does not necessarily elicit forgiveness; but in the church, it does.
Jesus teaches us, in fact, that the only unforgivable sin is "the sin against the Holy Spirit"-a rather enigmatic phrase, usually interpreted as the defiant refusal of God's efforts to save us. In other words, we can fail to be forgiven only if we spurn God's grace by refusing to confess and repent.
God's grace is freely available to those who ask for it, yet we often hesitate. And understandably so, since most free gifts seem to have some kind of "catch." We have legitimate doubts about any claim that we will lose weight painlessly, win a million dollars, or solve complex national policy crises without even thinking. We are justifiably suspicious when offered something for nothing. This must be a trap.