Forgiveness

Why is the concept of forgiveness so difficult for Christians to grasp? On the cross Jesus paid in full for sin. The debt is covered. Christians are called to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us. God’s forgiveness is unlimited, so forgiveness from Christians is unlimited. We do not stop at seven times, or at seventy-seven times, or at seventy-times-seven times. We forgive to the seventy-eleventh time, a number that does not exist, so we can never stop forgiving.

Confusion comes when we use the word “forgive” to cover two distinct actions. One is to forgive silently, “from the heart.” This the Christian is always required to do. There is no revenge from the Christian, no “getting even,” no holding grudges. The other is to absolve, to announce forgiveness. This the Christian does for repentant sinners, but not for unrepentant sinners. Christians do not withhold God’s forgiveness, but they withhold absolution from any sinner who does not want to be forgiven.

To approach an unrepentant sinner with the news, “I still forgive you,” or, “God still forgives you,” is a mistake. It might seem loving and Christian to speak those words; but in those circumstances, those words could be viewed as microaggression. The unrepentant sinner does not want forgiveness, not from the Christian and not from God. The unrepentant sinner loves his or her sin more than he or she loves his or her Savior. Offering unwanted forgiveness cheapens God’s grace; it makes a mockery of the love of God and of the cross of Christ.

When Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not cast your pearls before swine,” he was speaking about the announcement of forgiveness. Before we can tell a sinner that his or her debt is paid, we must first inform that sinner of his or her debt. Only when sinners understand the cost of their sin can they also understand the glory of Christ to pay that cost in full. Handing out forgiveness like candy does not glorify the Lord.

But if absolving an unrepentant sinner is bad, casting doubt on the forgiveness of a repentant sinner is far worse. As soon as sinners realize the wickedness of what they have done, they should also be assured that their debt is paid in full. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient payment to cover any debt; it is more than enough to compensate for all the sins of history. Staying angry, seeking revenge, holding a grudge, or making the sinner pay for the sin is not an option for the Christian. When we cast doubt on the ability of any sin or any sinner to be forgiven, we cast doubt on God’s gift of forgiveness to us as well. God’s forgiveness does not simply flow into the life of a Christian; it flows through that life and into the lives of others.

Jesus said to Peter, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven.” The night after his resurrection, Jesus breathed on all the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; it you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.” Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just pastors, but every Christian holds those keys and has that power. Being remade in the image of Christ, we always want to forgive. But as Jesus did not speak words of forgiveness to the stubborn scribes and Pharisees, so we do not absolve unrepentant sinners.

Christians forgive. Forgiveness is found in the Church. The government has no obligation to forgive criminals, not even if they repent of their sins. Indeed, the government must punish criminals for the good of all citizens. The government must restrict chronic abusers and protect vulnerable citizens, even if the abuser has repented and has received Christ’s forgiveness. The ability of the President and governors to pardon criminals should never be mistaken for forgiveness. A pardon ends punishment and sets a criminal free, but forgiveness removes guilt and changes a sinner into a saint. Paradoxically, in this world the Christian remains both sinner and saint, but in God’s eyes the sin has already been removed; the life of a Christian is already pure and blameless and holy in the sight of God.

Forgiveness should be easy to understand and to discuss. Because of the sinner-saint paradox, our eyes and minds are dimmed, and sometimes even forgiveness seems confusing. Each of us can take that confusion to the cross, where we see the price of our sins paid in full, and we know that Christ’s forgiveness belongs to us—and to whoever has sinned against us. J.

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Advent thoughts: December 21

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2—read Micah 5:1-6).

Once again Matthew assures us that a verse prophesies the coming of the Messiah, even though a quick reading of the chapter would seem to suggest that it concerns the days of the tribes of Israel being invaded by the Assyrian Empire. Matthew even makes a subtle change in his translation of the verse, rendering it, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6). The shepherd reference is borrowed from Micah 5:4, but the change from “too little” to “by no means least” would seem to be a contradiction and not a paraphrase.

“Too little to be among the clans,” but, “by no means least” fit together because of the meaning of the rest of the verse. Bethlehem was a small town; but it has become the most famous small town in the world because Jesus was born there. The victory Jesus was born to win was far bigger than any victory over an Assyrian army. Jesus defeated all the forces of evil, including our sins and the power of death. For that reason, the prophet Micah looked beyond the fearsome invaders of his time to focus on the victory that matters more than any other, because it defeats the forces that cause wars and other violence on earth.

The Bible experts used Micah’s prophecy to tell King Herod where the Messiah would be born. They chose a simple verse for a king who ruled over the Jews but did not understand their faith. The experts knew that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem, not because of a single verse in Micah, but because of the promise God made to David. God told David that one of his descendants would rule an eternal kingdom. To inherit the throne of David, the Savior-King had to be born in David’s hometown. Sharing a birthplace was necessary because of the terms of the old covenant.

God stressed a connection between his chosen people and the Promised Land. Each plot of land was to remain the property of the same family. They could not sell land; they could only rent it out for a time if they needed money. God wanted his people to be good stewards of the land. His concern for stewardship of the land was expressed already to Adam and Eve in the beginning. They and all their descendants were to care for the planet and especially for its living beings. God did not say that people could do whatever they want with the land and with plants and animals. Part of the Judgment to be announced on the Day of the Lord will be the matter of how well or how poorly we have cared for the planet.

We must confess that we have not, for the most part, been good stewards of God’s creation. Some areas have been farmed to exhaustion and have become human-made deserts. Others have been poisoned by human-made pollution. Habitats have been stolen for human use. Habitat loss and careless hunting has driven many species into extinction. When Jesus is seen on his throne of judgment, he will have things to say about the way we treated his world.

Yet the forgiveness of Jesus covers even our sins against the planet. One reason Jesus went to the cross was to pay the penalty for all the times we have damaged and destroyed the world he created.  Jesus is not pleased to see mismanagement of his creation, but that sin is forgiven through his life and death and resurrection. Forgiveness is not license to continue sinning; forgiveness gives us power to reverse our mistakes, to do what is right instead of what is wrong.

The King who inherits David’s throne is also a Shepherd to protect his flock so we live in safety and are not threatened by our enemies. He is our peace—through him we are at peace with God, at peace with one another, and at peace with all creation. Coming from ancient times—indeed, from outside of time—Jesus comes to rescue us and to claim us. We belong to him and his kingdom forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 19

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31—read Jeremiah 31:31-34).

God’s love is more important to him than his justice. God has justice and righteousness, but God is love. His grace is greater than his law. He prefers rescuing sinners rather than punishing them.

Therefore, God’s new covenant is older than his old covenant. The old covenant comes first to diagnose our need for a Savior, but the new covenant was in God’s mind when he began to create the world. God knew that his people would sin. He knew they would need a Savior, because they would not be able to rescue themselves from sin and evil. He knew that he would have to pay the full price to redeem sinners. Knowing these things, God chose to create the world and chose to continue his plan of redemption.

So, God gave the old covenant to his chosen people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” He told them what it meant to be his people: to have no other gods; to honor his name and his time and the earthly authorities that represent his authority; to love their neighbors and respect their neighbors’ lives, marriages, property, and reputations; and to be content with what God provided them, not coveting what belonged to their neighbors. He said that if they kept their side of the covenant, he would provide them with safety and prosperity. If they broke the terms of the old covenant, he would cause famine and drought and poverty, and he would allow them to fall into the hands of their enemies.

The old covenant is conditional. The new covenant is unconditional. Because his people broke the terms of the old covenant, he allowed them to be afflicted by drought and famine. He allowed them to be afflicted by Midianites and Philistines and Assyrians and Babylonians. He allowed them to be captured and carried off into captivity. Even the holy city Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord were destroyed under the terms of the old covenant because his chosen people were unfaithful to the Lord.

At the same time that they preached about the old covenant and the consequences of breaking God’s commands, Moses and the prophets also spoke of a new covenant. Moses prepared the people for a king and priest and prophet. Isaiah repeatedly told of the coming servant who would be Immanuel, God with us. Jeremiah specifically promised a new covenant that would be different from the old covenant, because it would be based on God’s faithfulness and not on the faithfulness of the people.

“I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God said. Those words belong to both the old covenant and the new covenant. Under the terms of the old covenant, the thoughts and words and actions of the people determined whether they remained God’s people. Under the terms of the new covenant, the thoughts and words and actions of God determine whether we remain God’s people.

Old Testament believers were saved by faith through grace under the terms of the new covenant. They believed the promise of a coming Savior. New Testament believers are saved by grace through faith under the terms of the new covenant. We believe that the Savior has come—he is Christ, the Lord—and he has kept all the promises upon which the new covenant depends. He has lived a life of perfect righteousness, earning rewards which he shares with his people. He has offered that life as a sacrifice, removing the sins of his people. He has risen from the dead, victorious over all enemies, sharing that victory with his people.

“For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” God knows everything, but he is able to forget. Between his birth and his resurrection, Jesus forgot the date of his glorious appearing on the Day of the Lord. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because Jesus paid in full for those sins. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because our sins were killed with him on the cross, buried with him, and left dead and buried when Jesus rose from the dead. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because he has removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west.” We belong to him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

The book of Job

“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). The Lord pointed out Job to Satan, noting these qualities of Job, and Satan replied that Job was faithful only because God had blessed him with wealth and worldly comforts. God permitted Satan to afflict Job, while placing limits upon the harm Satan could do. Job lost all his wealth in one catastrophic day, and his ten adult children died the same day. Afterward, Job was afflicted with a painful rash, something like chicken pox or shingles, that covered him from head to toe. Despite all these problems, Job remained faithful to God.

Three friends came to comfort Job. While they sat silently with him, they did well. When Job started to speak out of his pain and depression, they fell short. Job wished aloud for a hearing with the Lord so Job could protest his innocence and learn why God was causing such problems in his life. The friends responded, essentially, that God does not make mistakes. The losses of wealth and family and health were, they said, a wake-up call for Job, a warning to fix his life so God would be pleased with him again.

At the end of the book, God says that Job’s friends are wrong. God did not afflict Job to correct Job’s behavior. Before God speaks, though, the four men are addressed by a younger man named Elihu. Elihu is disappointed in Job’s friends because they failed to set Job straight. Although Elihu does not join them in saying Job deserves to suffer, Elihu suggests that Job is in the wrong for demanding an explanation from God. His language, becoming increasingly vivid as he speaks of stormy weather approaching, anticipates God addressing Job from a whirlwind.

God does not say that Elihu was wrong. Instead, he reminds Job of their relative positions, asking Job where Job was when God created the world. Mockers and critics have said that they do not approve of God’s word to Job. They think that God should have confessed his part in what they call a “cosmic bet.” Their sympathy is with Job, and they do not accept this book’s solution to the problem of why good people suffer while the wicked seem to flourish.

Whenever Christians read any portion of the Bible, we should look for portrayals of Jesus. Job has a particularly memorable confession of faith in Christ: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27). Job himself is a Christ-like figure, an Old Testament picture of Jesus, suffering though he does not deserve to suffer. Recognizing Job as a picture of Christ helps us to see more clearly the full message of the book of Job.

God does not want his people to sin. He guides us by his commandments, not through our problems as his response to our sins. His Holy Spirit, using the Bible, teaches us why we were created and what we are on earth to do. We sin every day, failing to live up to our Creator’s standards, but every day we confess our sins and every day we are forgiven. God does not treat us as our sins deserve. We live under a new covenant, one in which God takes away our sins and remembers them no more.

Because we live in an evil and sin-polluted world, we suffer. Evil is not fair; it is random and unjust, striking the good and bad alike. When we see a random act of evil, we remember how desperately we need a Savior. When we suffer, God permits the pain and the loss to remind us of the cross, the pain and the loss Jesus endured for us. As Job was a picture of Jesus before Jesus was born, so we are pictures of Jesus today, not only by our efforts to obey God’s commandments, but also by our endurance and patience when we suffer, looking to God in faith and not failing to trust in him.

Like Job, we are blameless and upright in the sight of God. Like Job, we have no right to question God’s decisions or second-guess the burdens he allows us to bear. Like Job, when we do question the Lord, we are forgiven. We may not receive the answers we demand during this lifetime. Then again, perhaps we do.

God leads Job through a lesson in biology, pointing to the variety of living creatures God has made, and asking if Job could do anything remotely comparable. The list concludes with two monsters. The first is Behemoth, which some people think is an elephant, others a hippopotamus, and others a dinosaur. The second is Leviathan, which some people think is a crocodile, others a legendary sea monster. Could, however, Leviathan be Satan? Consider these descriptions: “Will he make many pleas to you? Will he speak to you with soft words?… Lay your hands on him: remember the battle—you will not do it again! Behold, the hope of a man is false; he is laid low even at the sight of him. … His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. Out of his mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke, as from a flaming pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame comes forth from his mouth…. He sees everything that is high; he is king over all the sons of pride” (Job 41: 3, 8-9, 18-21, 34). What other created being so resembles the dragon of Revelation 12?

If Leviathan is a picture of Satan, then Job is told (in a round-about way) the source of all his problems and the reason for his suffering. He is warned that on his own he cannot defeat Satan; but, like us, Job is not alone. Jesus has battled Satan, and Jesus has won. When our sufferings remind us of the cross, we can look beyond the cross to the victory—and to the eternal victory celebration that awaits us in the new creation.

At the end of the book, Job has twice as much money and twice as many animals as he had at the beginning of the book. At the beginning Job lost ten children; by the end of the book he again has ten children. Why was the number of children not doubled? Because on the Last Day, when Job sees his Redeemer with his own eyes, he will be reunited again with all twenty of his children. The first ten were not lost as the animals and other worldly wealth were lost. They died, but they were in Paradise awaiting the resurrection. Because Job feared God and turned away from evil, his faith was able to sustain him during his suffering, and his hope in the resurrection for himself and for his children was not crushed. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part five

Training and discipline must have a purpose. Earthly fathers, teachers, and coaches do not put children into difficult situations for no purpose. They seek to develop good characteristics, preparing the children for life’s upcoming events. If God permitted Satan to test Job, God was not being arbitrary toward Job or using Job to win a bet. God had a good reason to allow the testing, and Job somehow was improved by the experience. If God permits you and me to struggle in our lives, he is not being arbitrary toward us. He has a good reason to allow the testing, and we somehow are improved by the experience.

God’s training and discipline are not responses to our sins, because God has forgiven our sins and remembers them no longer. What, then, is God seeking to accomplish by our hardships? The answer can perhaps be found in the way Jesus reacted to his chosen apostles. He chose them—they belonged to him—they were covered by his forgiveness as surely as any Christian is covered by his forgiveness. But it appears that Jesus sometimes lost patience with his apostles. As God he is all-knowing and all-powerful, eternal and unchanging. At the same time, Jesus is human. He is like us every way, except that he never sinned. The sins of others angered him. He cleared the Temple of those who were misusing it. He lectured about the shortcomings of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus taught God’s Law clearly to all who would listen. But what about times when his chosen and forgiven apostles aggravated Jesus? Here are five examples:

“Behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but [Jesus] was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’” (Matthew 8:24-26)

“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ [Jesus] said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:28-31)

“When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, ‘We brought no bread.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said, ‘O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not perceive?’” (Matthew 16:5-9)

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Matthew 16:21-23)

And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and kneeling before him, said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.’ And Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith.’” (Matthew 17:14-20)

If anything frustrates Jesus, he is frustrated to see his own chosen people fail to exercise their faith. Jesus grants faith to his people, but he also expects us to exercise that faith. When we fear and doubt, when we lose sight of the cross and try to belong to Jesus without it, when we try to serve him by our own power rather than his power, then we fail. We do not lose our forgiveness—not unless we completely lose our faith. But Jesus wants us to be focused on him, not on ourselves. He wants us to measure his power, not our faith.

This is not to say that the wrath of God falls upon Christians when our faith is too small. Just the opposite: we are saved from God’s wrath by even the smallest faith, provided that our faith is in Jesus Christ, who drank from the cup of his Father’s wrath toward sinners until the cup was empty. But God, in loving discipline and training, gives us faith-lifting exercises even as coaches assign weight-lifting exercises to athletes. Even if Jesus is frustrated by our little faith, he also loves us and wants to see that faith grow—not for his benefit, but for our benefit.

God trains us through adversity, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). For this reason we rejoice, because our sufferings draw us to the cross of Christ, where all our sins are forgiven, and all our enemies are defeated, and we are claimed as God’s people forever. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part three

How do Christians apply Hebrews 12:5-11 to our lives? “Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us, and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed good to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

If God sees no sin in us, how can he discipline us for our sins? If he sees our sins and responds to them, how can we be sure that we are forgiven? To answer these questions, it is necessary to do three things. First, we must look at the word translated “discipline” and be sure we understand what it means generally and especially in these verses. Second, we must see this passage in its context within the letter to the Hebrews. Third, we must view this verse in context of the entire Bible and its message to God’s people.

Both the NIV and the ESV translate the Greek word used in Hebrews 12 as “discipline.” Working only from the English, it is tempting to make a connection here to discipleship, but the actual Greek word does not suit that connection. In fact, the Greek work is derived from the noun for a young child and refers to teaching or training that child. Depending upon its context, it sometimes describes violent training, such as a spanking. We might compare the word to an English sentence—“I’m going to teach you a lesson”—which could mean anything from an offer to tutor someone to a threat to beat someone.

Other books in the New Testament use this word with the full range of possible meanings. On the one hand, when Pontius Pilate wanted to have Christ beaten and then released, he chose that word to describe the beating (Luke 23:16). On the other hand, when Stephen described Moses being raised in the household of Pharaoh, he used the same word to describe Moses’ lessons (Acts 7:22). Paul used the same word to describe his lessons as he studied under the Pharisees (Acts 22:3). Other instances of the word fall between these two extremes of tutoring and beating. In I Corinthians 11:32, Paul speaks of God’s discipline upon Christians who receive the Lord’s Supper without discerning the body of the Lord, “which is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” In II Corinthians 6:9 Paul declares that the apostles are “punished, and yet not killed.” In I Timothy 1:20, Paul mentions two Christians who are handed over to Satan to train them not to blaspheme. But in II Timothy 2:25, Paul counsels Timothy to train his opponents with gentleness, leading to repentance and a knowledge of the truth. In Titus 2:11-12, Paul speaks of the grace of God and his salvation “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.” Finally, in Revelation 3:19 Jesus echoes the thought of Hebrews 12 as he says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.” In each of these verses, the same word is used.

How then can we know whether the letter to the Hebrews speaks of training/discipline in the sense of gentle teaching or in the sense of violent treatment? Verse 11 describes the experience as painful rather than pleasant. But to fully understand the repeated use of this word in Hebrews 12:5-11, we need to study the entire flow of Hebrews 11 and 12.

To be continued…. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part two

From Job’s sufferings to Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the Bible pictures godly people suffering, not as punishment for their sins or a consequence of their sins, but simply because we live in a world polluted by sin. Jesus spoke a blessing upon those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. He said that those who died in catastrophic events were not worse than other sinners, but that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). Indeed, Paul viewed suffering in this world as a positive thing: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4) and “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17), among others.

What of the covenant that promises blessings for those who obey God’s commands and threatens curses on those who break his commands? Deuteronomy 28 is one of many passages that describe this covenant. First, though, this is God’s covenant with a chosen people, not with individuals. It was fulfilled in the history of Israel, from Judges through Esther, as both good and bad people prospered in Israel when the nation was largely faithful to God, and both good and bad people suffered in Israel when the nation was largely unfaithful. Second, this passage describes the Old Covenant, the Law of God, from which Christ has set us free. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write in on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). “For our sake he made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).  “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

In the New Covenant Christians are completely and unconditionally forgiven. God sees no sin or fault in any Christian. Daily we confess our sins and throw ourselves on God’s mercy, seeking his forgiveness. Daily he sees us through the righteousness of Christ and treats us as Christ deserves. Our sins were killed on the cross with Christ and buried with Christ. He rose, but our sins remained dead and buried. God sees no sin in us, which is why he has no condemnation for us.

To be continued…. J.

Holy Communion (part three)

The Bible says: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Corinthians 11:26).

Luther explains, “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things? Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, along with the eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’”

Salvageable adds: Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something we do for God; faith is something God does in us. Faith is a relationship that trusts God’s promises. Without God’s grace, our faith would be pointless. Without faith, God’s grace does not reach us and we remain in our sins.

Our faith comes to us through the Word of God. Whether that Word is spoken as an absolution or read from the Bible, whether it is accompanied by water in Holy Baptism or by eating and drinking in Holy Communion, this Word creates faith and strengthens faith. These ways of delivering the Word of God are the gifts of the Holy Spirit by which he enlightens us and brings us into Christ’s kingdom.

A mental illness called anorexia causes a person to deny himself or herself of nutrition needed for the body. This disease is devastating toward the person who suffers from it, and his or her condition is agonizing for family and friends to see. We take spiritual anorexia far more lightly. A person says, “I’m a Christian—I believe in God. But I don’t have time to read the Bible or pray or go to church. God understands. I don’t need church to be a Christian.”

Luther wrote about such a person this way: “But what should you do if you are not aware of this need and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament? To such a person no better advice can be given than this: first, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood. Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it… Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say… Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace, within our without, as the Scriptures picture him….”

Because we sin often, we need forgiveness often. We eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, receiving his body and his blood from the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. The Ten Commandments tell us why we need forgiveness. The Apostles’ Creed expresses our faith in the forgiveness of sins. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for forgiveness and promise to share forgiveness. The Christian Church is all about forgiveness, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion is likewise all about forgiveness. J.

The Office of the Keys

Jesus says: “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23).

Luther explains: “What is the Office of the Keys? The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. What do you believe according to these words? I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”

Salvageable adds: Who has the power to forgive sins? As the Pharisees said to one another, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7) Jesus has authority to forgive sins because he is the Son of God. Moreover, he has authority to forgive sins because he sacrificed himself on a cross to purchase forgiveness for sinners. When Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, he was granting Peter authority to forgive sins. With that came authority also to withhold forgiveness from sinners who do not repent.

Who exercises the office of the keys in the Church today? Some say that the keys belong to one person at a time; they say that the head pastor in Rome, the pope, is the only person who has those keys. Others say that all the apostles were given the same authority in Matthew 18:18 and in John 20:23. They suggest that church workers—especially pastors and ministers—hold those keys. On Easter night, though, when Jesus repeated his authorization to forgive sins or to withhold forgiveness, he preceded that by breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” From this, I conclude that every Christian has the power to share Christ’s forgiveness. When the congregation gathers, the pastor exercises that authority. The keys are given to the pastor by Jesus through the call of the congregation. Outside the gathering of the congregation, every Christian possesses the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Every Christian can use God’s commandments to warn sinners of their need for forgiveness. Every Christian can use God’s promises to share forgiveness with sinners.

When would a Christian, especially a pastor, withhold forgiveness? When a sinner does not want to be forgiven. When a sinner loves the sin more than the Savior. When a sinner clings to a sin and does not repent. Jesus gave a four-step process for dealing with stubbornly unrepentant sinners: deal with them first one-on-one; then raise the matter again with one or two witnesses; then tell it to the church; and if they will not listen to the church, treat them as pagans and tax collectors.

Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors as mission opportunities. In fact, the only Gospel that contains that passage about how to treat stubborn sinners is the Gospel written by Matthew, the former tax collector. When Christians share God’s commandments, their goal is to share forgiveness. When Christians warn sinners to repent, their goal is to share forgiveness. But Jesus also tells Christians not to cast pearls before swine or to give dogs what is holy. Announcing forgiveness to a sinner who loves the sin more than the Savior is casting pearls before swine. Promising forgiveness to a sinner who does not want God’s forgiveness is giving dogs what is holy.

Jesus spoke far more often about bringing forgiveness to sinners than he spoke about making disciples. In his model prayer, he told his followers to promise to forgive trespassers, but he did not have them promise to make disciples. The Great Commission is best accomplished through the Office of the Keys. When Christians use the commands and the promises of God to bring God’s forgiveness to sinners, they are fulfilling the purpose for which Jesus came and the purpose for which he established his Church. J.

Holy Baptism (part two)

Jesus says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

Luther explains: “What benefits does baptism give? It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.”

Salvageable adds: That triple blessing of forgiveness, rescue, and eternal life were won by Jesus on the cross. He shares those gifts with all who believe in him. Baptism is a means of grace because it conveys those gifts to each individual Christian. God’s promise is made personal through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Baptism is also an adoption ceremony. No one is a child of God through being created by God. All of us have strayed like wandering sheep, forsaking the God who made us. None of us deserve to call him Father. Jesus claims us for his Kingdom and makes God our Father by his sacrifice on the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus pays the full price for our adoption. Holy Baptism is the ceremony that applies that payment personally to each Christian. Even Jesus was baptized. He did not need to be baptized. He is the true Son of God and does not require an adoption. He is sinless and needs no forgiveness. He overcame death and the devil and already possess eternal life. Yet Jesus was baptized to (in his words) “fulfill all righteousness.” His baptism grants power to our baptisms. Through the adoption conducted by Holy Baptism, the Father of Jesus Christ sees each of us as his Son. He says to each of us what he said to Jesus: “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well pleased.”

Mark 16:16 clearly says that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. It also clearly says that whoever does not believe will be condemned. Whoever has been baptized but does not believe remains condemned. Baptism did not fail that person, but that person failed to remain in the faith given by God.

The verse does not address the question about someone who believes but is not baptized. God does not want us to live in doubt. He prefers that whoever comes to faith should be baptized as soon as possible to remove any doubt about God’s promise. Likewise, Christian parents arrange for their children to be baptized at the first opportunity. Trusting the promise of God and the power of his Word, they seek his guarantee, just as Peter said on Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children…” (Acts 2:38-39). J.