Peter: "Lord, if a member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus: "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times."
I say that "I believe in the forgiveness of sins" whenever I affirm the Apostles' Creed, and I pray the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying, "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us." And yet, all too often I fail to see that it is incumbent upon me to forgive and that, if I don't, there are real spiritual and moral consequences. God forgives, yes, absolutely and always. But do I?
My tendancy, and the tendancy of the Church historically, has been to try to limit the scope of forgiveness. Forgiveness becomes conditional, dependent upon the expression of true contrition or, at the very least, remorse on the part of the sinner. A genuine intention of amendment of life is necessary. And this seems perfectly reasonable. If we forgive everything indiscriminately, then nothing really matters, right?
Jesus, however, is not reasonable. He does not teach conditional forgiveness. Peter is essentially asking, "Must my forgiveness be perfect?" And the answer is "More than perfect, perfectly perfect; absolute and unconditional." Notice that Peter didn't say, "If my brother asks my forgiveness," but rather, "If by brother sins against me." Forgiveness, not repentance, is the first step. It is not that I have to "get my act together" in order to be forgiven. Rather, having been forgiven, I can relax into a love that empowers me to "get my act together." Forgiveness creates the space in which we, and the world, can begin to heal.
Now this seems an impossible ideal. And yet, in my experience it is true. As James Alison has noted, forgiveness makes repentance possible. It is only in trusting at some level in the compassion of the one I have sinned against that I can even find the courage to ask forgiveness. It is the prior experience of forgiveness that makes repentance and amendment of life possible. God's forgiveness always precedes our repentance - always. It is always available and never denied. The imitatio dei requires that our practice of forgiveness should operate in this way too. That is what life in the Kingdom of God is like.
Indeed, forgiveness of sins is essential to Christian life because it is the doorway to true spiritual freedom. It is in opening the door of forgiveness that we enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; not only the receiving of divine forgiveness (that is the easy part), but our willingness to offer it to others. The capacity to forgive precipitously, promiscuously, without even being asked to do so, is the mark of Christian freedom. There exists a direct correlation between the two: the greater the forgiveness, the greater the freedom.