An expression which you and I may make from time to time is “pardon me.” If attempting to make your way through a crowd, you might say to a person or group “pardon me” (which is a polite way of saying “get out of my way”). If your child decides to let out a loud burp after scarfing down his food, with some degree of indignation you again may be inclined to say “pardon me.”
But pardon is also a term we hear occasionally echoing from the White House. It is an action which the United States Constitution provides the President the power whereby he can “grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States (except in cases of impeachment).” Historically, America’s presidents have used this clemency power freely. George Washington selectively offered pardons to individuals convicted of treason following the Revolutionary War.
Thomas Jefferson utilized this clemency power to pardon individuals who had been convicted under the Alien and Sedition Act. Richard Nixon issued 863 pardons during his presidency with the most notable one being for Jimmy Hoffa for misappropriation of teamster union funds. Following the Watergate scandal, Gerald Ford stunned the nation in pardoning Richard Nixon.
Jimmy Carter granted 534 pardons during his years in Washington including amnesty to evaders of the Vietnam war. New York Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner got off the hook when Ronald Reagan pardoned him for making illegal campaign contributions to Nixon. George Bush pardoned six Iran-Contra defendants including former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger which assured the end of that investigation. Bill Clinton created a flap when granting a pardon to billionaire fugitive Marc Rich.
Responses to such pardons typically include confusion, anger and outrage because a pardon is perceived as an undeserved political payback that smacks of cronyism. It appears to be more about being connected or linked to the right people in the right political places than about justice.
The pardoning of others is nothing new. Such power was vested in the British monarchs who extensively used the influence of pardons. Though kings had to struggle to gain the exercise of this clemency power, when officially granted this ability to pardon was a source of real influence. Pardoning served two purposes with one being the capability of administering justice with mercy within the kingdom. But pardoning was also self-serving in that it enabled kings to consolidate their political power by instilling or reinforcing loyalty among his subjects.
But the purpose of providing pardons in our society isn’t so clear and there are several issues that are worthy of our consideration involving accountability, guilt and punishment. For instance, with a pardon does a criminal conviction stand? Are actions still viewed as a wrong that has been committed by an individual? Is a person still guilty for his or her misdeeds? In other words, should a crime continue to be recognized as such by society? Can punishment be exercised against a person who has done wrong or has the guilt been washed away? Why is one person pardoned and another isn’t? Where is the fairness or isn’t there supposed to be any justice?
A Pardon from God
I’m not intending to speak on the American legal system. Nor do I intend to comment on what Bill Clinton did for Marc Rich, how Ronald Reagan acted in behalf of George Steinbrenner, or why Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. I want to consider the wonderful truth of
It is wonderful to watch a person discover and experience the pardon of God. I have a friend who at one time was a lawyer but who spent 22 months in a federal penitentiary prison. His crime? Embezzling money. You may be thinking, “He should have gone to jail. Lock him up and throw away the key.” He couldn’t agree more.
But let me ask, “Do you think God might have a similar perspective on the ways we’ve conducted our lives?” Paul says all have sinned and that includes you and me. Yet I meet a lot of people who don’t want to admit they have done much wrong during their lives. From my observations, there is a whole group of upstanding people, even church folk, who don’t especially feel as if they need to be pardoned of much of anything. After all, they see themselves as pretty good people.
At one time, Paul thought this way. He did not feel any compelling need to be pardoned by God. In fact, he thought he should be applauded for his actions. After all, he had been an upstanding member of his religious community for years. But listen to Paul tell his story in
A Pardon for Others
But there’s more to life than being pardoned by God through Christ. There is the pardoning of one another. But as you may have experienced, being pardoned by God is one thing but being pardoned by other people is something else. While God desires to set you free from misdeeds, indiscretions and sinful attitudes, some people are not as so inclined. God has His expectations and people have theirs. And just guess who has set the bar of righteousness higher than God?
Have you not found there are some folks who expect more of you than God? I’m not saying God doesn’t look for righteous living. Repeatedly the Word of God reminds us, “be holy as I am holy.” But have you come across individuals who have made it their responsibility to scrutinize your life more than their own? What they see may be in need of a little sanctified fixing up but it is rather insignificant in comparison to their own stuff.
But as I consider God’s Word, I am reminded the gospel is not just about being pardoned by God but my pardoning of others. It is about the truth of
We find it being flesh out in the New Testament as Paul writes to Philemon about Onesimus who had been a runaway slave. What he did was wrong. Paul admits Onesimus had been useless but now he has become a Christian. Paul would like to keep him but he recognizes Onesimus could really help out Philemon. So Paul encourages Philemon to take him back and forget about everything that had transpired in the past. And if there is any need for compensation, Paul says “charge it to me.” In other words, Paul is encouragingly saying it is a time for a pardon.
Joel is one of my students who shared a story from his life with me one day. He was seventeen when he was hastily and carelessly driving his car one afternoon and accidentally struck and killed an Amish woman while she was riding in her horse and buggy. She had only been married a few days. Prompted by his parents, he went to the viewing where the husband embraced and said he forgave Joel for what had transpired. Over time, the Amish fellow remarried his deceased wife’s sister, and Joel and his wife shared a meal with them several occasions. And when Joel and his wife went to the mission field, guess who was part of their financial support team?
Incredible? Yes! But should not the church look like that – a place of pardon? As people make their way through these doors, should they not be able to hear “not guilty?” Should not any sense of punishment and lingering regret that hangs over their heads be withdrawn? Should not men and women be set back on the path of wholeness? God intended His community to be a place where “there is no condemnation” and where individuals who have made wrong turns in life are able to “stand in grace” not only before God but with His people.
A Pardon to Yourself
But there’s another aspect of pardon. It is not about being declared not guilty by God or setting other people free. It is about you pardoning you. It is about setting yourself free from wrongs and indiscretions you’ve committed. It is about released from the guilt you find yourself buried under. It is about being set free, not from the condemnation of God but the condemnation of self which can be the most difficult pardon to give and receive.
I remember years ago hearing of Japanese soldiers being found on remote islands in the Pacific Ocean who believed World War II was still being fought. It has been thirty years (March 1974) since Hiroo Onada was the last Japanese soldier to surrender. He had been left on a Philippine island in December 1944 with the command to “carry on the mission even if Japan surrenders.” Four other soldiers were left as well while the other Japanese soldiers evacuated. One soldier surrendered in 1950. Another was killed in a police skirmish in 1954 as well as another in 1972. But Onada continued his war alone. All efforts to convince him to surrender failed. He ignored messages from loudspeakers announcing Japan’s surrender and that Japan was now an ally of the United States. Leaflets were dropped begging him to surrender but he refused to believe that the war was over. He lived off the land and raided the fields and gardens of local citizens, and was responsible for killing some thirty individuals during his almost thirty year personal war. 13,000 men and almost $500,000 was spent trying to locate and convince him to surrender. Finally in 1974, Onada handed over his sword to President Marcos who offered him a pardon. The war was over. Not the world conflict. It was the war within Onada himself which can often be the most difficult war for anyone to win. When asked of his thirty-year ordeal Onada responded, “Nothing pleasant happened in the 29 years in the jungle.”
Like Onada, nothing pleasant happens when battles continue to rage within one’s soul. Nothing happens when you can not (or will not) hear God saying, “The battle is over.” I love the words of
Though God can pardon everything that has been so wrong with your life, you aren’t that capable. The Lord has cast your yesterdays into the depths of the sea but you haven’t been able to bury matters that deeply. Your horizons are a bit shorter. You have trouble getting some thoughts outside your head and heart. But it does not have to stay this way!
For sure, everyone lives with regrets – regrets that can be debilitating, if not paralyzing. “If only,” is the phrase of their life. Their story sounds like, “If only I had heeded the advice of my parents, then I wouldn’t be where I am.” Or, “If only I had been paying attention, these problems would have never arisen.” If only, if only, if only. You can probably trace back in your minds a series of events and realize if one thing hadn’t occurred, then another thing would not have happened, and the course of your life would have been different. But it didn’t and so, now you live with regrets.
Be honest. There are decisions and events you should legitimately and appropriately regret. That’s one thing. But to allow yourself to be conditioned by them and subject yourself to a sense of never being pardoned, that is something different. It is not only different but it’s not the gospel which is not about regrets but grace, restoration and being set free. The prophet Joel said: “I will restore to you the years that the locusts have wasted.” The gospel is not about having your back against the wall of the archives of your life. It is about the resurrected Christ standing face to face with you and saying, “We’re not going to talk about this any more!”
The late Lewis Smedes passionately and poignantly wrote about the need and power of pardon: “Two anxieties dominate most of our lives. We are anxious in the face of our unchangeable past; we long to recreate segments of our private histories, but we are stuck with them. We are anxious in the face of our unpredictable futures; we long to control our destinies, but we cannot bring them under our management. Thus, two basic longings, lying at the root of most others, are frustrated: we cannot alter a painful past or control a threatening future. (But) God offers answers to our deepest anxieties. He is a forgiving God who recreates our pasts by forgiving them . . . By forgiving us He changes our past. By promising, He secures our future. By his grace we participate in his power to change the past and control the future. We, too, can forgive, and must forgive. We, too, can make a promise and keep it. Indeed, by sharing these two divine powers, we become most powerfully human and most wonderfully free.”
Grab hold of God’s pardon. Rejoice in knowing that with Jesus Christ as your advocate, there are no accusations from heaven. Rest in the assurance that your liberation is grounded in the love of Christ. And be assured the Lord your God is continuing to recreate not only you but others in the community of God according to His good purposes.
John Tornfelt is Professor of Preaching at Evangelical Theological Seminary in Myerstown, PA.