Martin McGuinness, who died this week, was a controversial figure to say the least. An IRA paramilitary commander who was allegedly involved in many sectarian murders, he became a politician instrumental in the Northern Ireland peace process. For some he is a hero, for others he remained a villain. One thing is certain, that without his influence peace in Northern Ireland could not have happened. I’ve heard it said already since that he is a classic example of how it is not how you start that matters, but how you finish.
For some though, the wounds caused by the IRA run too deep. The families of victims say they cannot forgive. Lord Tebbitt, whose wife was paralysed in the 1984 Brighton bombing, has said publicly that he hoped McGuinness was “parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of hell.” He could not forgive, because forgiveness requires confession and repentance.
Now, I don’t know anything about Martin McGuinness’s faith. I don’t know whether he was sorry for his past, and whether his work for peace was inspired by turning to Christ, and seeking forgiveness from God. I can’t comment on that. But one thing is for sure, forgiveness isn’t easy. Even where there has been a whole life-change through coming to know Christ, and confession and repentance, people find it very hard to forgive. And rightly so, forgiveness is hard. If it is to mean anything at all, it needs to be.
Forgiveness of course goes right to the heart of the gospel. And here is where the gospel gets controversial. Because the gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that even those who have done the most terrible things can find mercy, and be welcomed into God’s kingdom. There has to be acknowledgement – repentance and faith – but it is about how we finish, not how we start.
On the cross, Jesus cried out on behalf of those who were mocking, hurting and destroying him, “Father, forgive them…” His death paid the price for our sin. On the cross, Jesus took on himself all the sin of the world and nailed it there, he paid the price. What does that mean? The Apostles’ Creed tells us that after his suffering on the cross, ‘he descended to hell’. Other versions may have ‘he descended to the dead.’ Whether we think Jesus literally went into hell (or Sheol or the place of the dead) we can come to at another point. (This article on the Desiring God website here is very helpful).
But the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that Jesus did bear the punishment and consequence of sin – that is hell, and the eternal separation from the loving presence of God – on our behalf. That means that those who deserve hell receive heaven instead. Not because God just decided to go soft on sin, but because his Son willingly took the full force of God’s right anger at sin for us. He suffered death so that I don’t have to.
The apostle Paul knew just how difficult this was for some – the cross, he said, was a stumbling block to Jews and a nonsense to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). It seems so unfair, that an innocent should bear the punishment of the guilty. But this is astonishing grace – it is not just some random person, it is God himself who takes it on himself. God the Son willingly, lovingly, wonderfully, takes our place. Forgiveness is free for us, but costly to God.
The gospel of Jesus Christ means that there is nobody alive today who is too far gone, nobody who is beyond the possibility of God’s redeeming and saving love, no one who is too bad for the cross. It is God’s power to forgive your sins if you come to him in repentance and faith.
By the same measure, there is no one who is too good for the cross, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3.23). The most outwardly loving, kind person in the world still needs to be redeemed, to repent and believe in Christ. Because none of us deserve God’s grace – that’s why it’s grace: the undeserved loving kindness of God.
There is no route to heaven – for anyone – that doesn’t go via the cross.
Good news should make us rejoice. If we believe this, and know it to be true, the gospel should make us sing. So I’ll end with Fanny Crosby’s wonderful hymn, To God be the Glory. If you haven’t known this gospel for yourself yet, come today to the cross and find God’s forgiveness and mercy there.
To God be the glory, great things He hathdone;
So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
Who yielded His life, an atonement for sin,
And opened the lifegate, that all may go in.
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer, the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
Great things He hath taught us, great things He hath done,
And great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
But purer, and higher, and greater will be
Our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the earth hear His voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,
And give Him the glory, great things He hath done!