The Face of Forgiveness

Beholding the Face of Jesus Christ- Philip Jamieson’s The Face of Forgiveness

You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” (Ps 27:8)

Gazing someone’s face teaches us how that person feels about us. Psychologists say that a newborn baby is confirmed of who she is and how worthy she is through constantly looking on the face of her mother. Not just this. Our lives don’t stop at the relationships we have with our parents. Our lives are a series of relationships we have with others, in the midst of which we cannot avoid looking on to their faces, which are sometimes approving, sometimes disapproving, and sometimes angry toward us. We even find ourselves enraged at who we are. This means that who we are is inevitably formed through what kind of relationships we have with others. In other words, our identities are formed through our relationships, and one of the most important ways of relating to others is beholding their faces. As we know already, this world more often than not denies who we are rather than affirms our existence, which is why it is so comforting to look upon the face of Christ. Beholding his face not only comforts us, but it also changes our face into that which is like his. For as Tim Keller and Curt Thompson said, the face of Christ is the face of love knowing who we are full well in all our brokenness. The more we gaze on the face, the more we become like him, as if a couple spending much time looking upon each other begin to resemble each other. That is why beholding the face of Christ is the alpha and the omega of the Christian faith, the easiest thing to begin and yet the most difficult task to achieve. For as we learn to behold the face of Christ we learn to see how unacceptable, unlovable, and unforgivable we are. Not only that, we also learn to see how unacceptable, unlovable, and unforgivable others around us are. Accepting the unacceptable is not the easiest thing to do, unless we fix our gaze upon the face of Christ all the time. And this is why Jamieson’s main message in this book, which is to behold the face of Christ, is so encouraging.

Up until this point, it is a widespread story. We hear this message and others similar to it from many popular sermons. There are so many books out there saying the same thing. However, what Philip Jamieson finds to be problematic is, if these are common stories of God’s grace, what would be their theological grounding? In response, Jamieson digs into the doctrine of sin and atonement. To be more specific, this is what Jamieson asks: what is the theological connecting link between our beholding the face of Christ and his forgiving us our sin? In order to answer these questions, we need to know what “sin” is, and how Jesus rescued us from that sin.

Let’s begin with sin. What Jamieson points out first is its relationality. In particular, its destructive power against all the relationships we have. As I said already, destroying our relationality means destroying our identities. For our identities are formed through our relationships. Even so, western theology with its inordinate emphasis on guilt, has been pounding on our sinful acts rather than who we are as sinners. Sin is relational as well as active, so we have to not lose sight of its relationality and activ-ity. In my previous review, I have shown that guilt, shame, and fear are three symptoms of sin. Guilt is about what we did wrong, while shame is about who we are because of what we did wrong. That is, guilt pays attention to our doing, while shame to our being. Quoting the influential theologian T. F. Torrance, Jamieson brings up what Torrance calls the Latin Heresy as attesting to the disproportionate emphasis of western theology on guilt. This heresy presupposes the human nature of Jesus to be neutral, thus not fully engaging with sin, meaning that the redemption Jesus offers has more to do with our wrongful acts, leading this theology toward guilt. This is the gist of penal substitution theory. However, Torrance draws upon the early church father Irenaeus’ recapitulation theory as one strong counterevidence, saying that the human nature of Christ fully participated and encapsulated our sinful human nature, and this is not to say that he committed any kind of sin. For this reason, Apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made him sin who knew no sin.” In other words, Jesus Christ participated in the destructive tendency of sin toward what we do, as well as toward our relationships, for distorted relationships lead to sinful acts.

It is precisely in this regard that Jesus paid the full price of sin for our sake. The punishment he had to go through on the cross was not just about physical pain, but also about being cut off from the very relationship defining who he was as God’s Son and the second person of the Trinity. Applying the same principle previously explained, we are encouraged to look to the face of Christ because his face, his whole life, is what defines who we are, when everyone else spoke ill of us. On the cross Christ was able to go up there willingly because of the face of God as the grounding of his identity. However, Christ felt shame on the cross not just because crucifixion is a humiliating punishment, but also Christ was cut off from his relationship to his father. In this case shame is what necessarily accompanies such broken relationships, delivering the message of “you are not good enough. There is something wrong with who you are.” Pointing out this shrewdly, Jamieson reconstructs the inner world of Christ’s relationship with God on the cross, and this was why Christ lamented Psalm 22, saying “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” At the same time, because the broken relationship was what Christ suffered, shame should be taken into account prior to guilt, if in place of that broken relationship between the Father and the Son we are adopted as God’s children. In the context of this narrative, being forgiven of our sin should mean that we are liberated from our shame.  At the same time, in a culture in which the language of sin increasingly loses its power, bringing shame into the picture of sin might be able to help restore the sin language. (For more detailed analyses on this topic, please refer to Mark Baker and Joel Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross)

This is the main thrust of the book. The book also delves into the practical/ministerial tactics of removing our shame, such as the public confession of sin, and the importance of transparent community of God. These tactics are dealt with not just lightly, but quite at length, so I would like to point those of you who are interested in some practical strategies to go to the book.

Overall the book is colored with Barthian theology, from its Trinitarian emphasis on the atonement theory to the deeper dimension of the reality of sin going beyond counseling and therapy, and to the relationality of imago Dei. This makes this book a perfect companion to pastoral theology for Barth fans. Even though you are not a Barth fan, it still has a great appeal in that its emphasis on sin is deeper than therapy.

The only point of criticism I have against this book is that it has a surprisingly thin analysis about how and why shame has become the dominant affect in Western society. While Jamieson does engage with some of the important work, such as Ruth LeysFrom Guilt to Shame, it is neither thick in its analysis nor persuasive in its argument.

In general, this book could serve as a great introduction to the topic of atonement, sin, and shame. It could be read together with Curt Thompson’s The Soul of Shame to broaden and deepen the readers’ knowledge base and hermeneutical horizons. I highly recommend it.

The Face of Forgiveness