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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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.

The Means of Grace

Last fall, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church, I wrote a series of posts sharing and commenting upon Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. I covered Luther’s teachings on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Most of Luther’s approach to those key Christian teachings are probably familiar and comfortable to the majority of Christians, particularly Protestants in North America and Europe. The remaining sections may seem more controversial. In fact, many Lutherans say that they are not Protestants, because other Protestant groups lack the Sacramental teachings that are basic to Lutheranism. To provide some context to my forthcoming posts on Holy Baptism, the Office of the Keys, and Holy Communion, I have written the following summary of Luther’s understanding of the means of grace.

Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something Christians do for God; faith is God’s gift to us. As Luther wrote, when explaining the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.” This calling, enlightening, sanctifying, and keeping us in the faith is done by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace. We come to faith through the means of grace and we are kept in the true faith by the means of grace. The means of grace are those gifts Luther had in mind when he said that the Holy Spirit “enlightened me with His gifts.” These gifts are not the abilities listed in I Corinthians 12; nor are they the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. They are, instead, those things that we often describe as holy: the Holy Bible, the Holy Christian Church, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.

All these holy gifts come from God. All of them have the power to convey the forgiveness of sins. All of them create and sustain faith. All of them guarantee the believer eternal life and victory over our enemies. All of them are empowered by the Word of God.

The Bible is the Word of God. Written by prophets and apostles who were guided by the Holy Spirit, the books of the Bible are God’s Word even though they are also human words. The writers kept their own personalities and their ways of expressing themselves. Yet the Holy Spirit guided them in delivering God’s message, and he protected them from making any errors as they wrote. Luther did not write a section of the Small Catechism about the Bible because the entire Catechism is based upon the Bible. The other means of grace are described in the Catechism, using the Bible to show how they operate as God’s means of grace. Each of them is empowered by God’s Word. Christians are not meant to choose among the means of grace, trusting some and neglecting others. Christians are meant to find comfort and strength in all the means of grace.

Holy Baptism draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Without God’s Word it is only water; because of his Word, it accomplishes all that God promises. The Holy Christian Church draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Through the Office of the Keys, Jesus granted his Church the power to share his forgiveness with repentant sinners. Holy Communion draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Without God’s Word, it is only a tiny snack—a bite of bread and a sip of wine. Because of God’s Word, Holy Communion delivers the body and blood of Jesus to everyone who eats and drinks, conveying saving faith and forgiveness to all who believe that Word.

 

More important than the Great Commission

This statement is likely to stir up a virtual storm, but I’m going to write it anyhow: the Church pays too much attention to the Great Commission.

Yes, Jesus did say that we should make disciples of all nations. Because Jesus said it, we should do it. He said it at a pretty prominent time, too, meeting with his disciples in Galilee after his resurrection. Matthew chose to close his Gospel with the Great Commission.

But, as far as I can see, Jesus only stated that commandment once. The word translated “make disciples” is used four times in the New Testament–thrice by Matthew and once in the book of Acts. It is stated as a commandment only in Matthew 28. Christians making disciples could hardly be considered Jesus’ top priority. On the other hand, Jesus seems obsessed with the topic of forgiving sinners.

Three times–twice in Matthew and once in John–Jesus says, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Some Christians call this power to share Christ’s forgiveness the Office of the Keys, because the first time Jesus says those words, in Matthew 16, he precedes them with, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” John quotes Jesus talking about forgiving sinners on the very first opportunity he has to speak with his apostles after his resurrection. To me, that shows a higher priority on sharing forgiveness than on making disciples.

In his model prayer, Jesus directs his followers to make one promise. The promise is not to make disciples; the promise is to forgive those who sin against us. I remember several parables of Jesus that describe forgiveness. I cannot recall a parable that describes making disciples.

Can we make disciples without sharing the good news of the forgiveness of sins? No, not really. When we share God’s promise of forgiveness and that promise is believed, is the believer also now a disciple of Jesus? Yes, that is true. What is the difference, then, between sharing forgiveness and making disciples?

The difference is in emphasis. A congregation that focuses on making disciples, on teaching discipleship, may forget to share the forgiveness of sins. A friend of mine who was a pastor (but not of the church I attended) once said, “My calling is to share the Gospel, but I don’t do that Sunday morning. The people in church Sunday morning already know the Gospel. I tell them how God wants them to live their lives.”

I’m glad he was my friend, but I’m also glad he was not my pastor. Every time God’s people gather, they all need to hear that Jesus has redeemed them and forgives them their sins. As one professor taught future preachers, “Consider the possibility that someone in front of you has never heard about Jesus before. Make certain your sermon tells him everything he needs to know to be saved. Consider the possibility that someone in front of you might die that week, and this might be the last sermon he hears. Make certain your sermon tells him everything he needs to know to be saved.”

When a Christian shares God’s commands, the intention should not be to change someone’s behavior. (Christian parents teaching their children are sometimes an exception to that statement.) When a Christian shares God’s commands, the intention should be to show that we are all sinners who need a Savior. The apostle Paul once called God’s Law a mirror. We look into that mirror to see how far we have fallen from God’s plan for our lives. Then we understand the vastness of God’s love and the enormous price that Jesus paid for each of us by suffering and dying on the cross.

By all means, the Church should continue making disciples by baptizing and by teaching, just as Jesus said. Instead of telling each other that we are obeying the Great Commission, though, we should remember that we are the body of Christ. We continue his work, challenging sinners by the Law, but seeking always the opportunity to say, “Don’t be afraid; your sins are forgiven.” J.

Christ in Genesis: “Am I in the place of God?”

After Jacob died, his sons feared that Joseph may have been delaying his vengeance until that time. Their guilty consciences made it hard for them to believe that Joseph sincerely and whole-heartedly forgave their sins. Therefore, they sent a message to Joseph. They claimed that, before he died, Jacob had demanded forgiveness from Joseph for his brothers. We cannot tell whether or not Jacob said such a thing. No record of Jacob’s message about forgiveness appears in Genesis, aside from the quote given by Joseph’s brothers. Their guilt and fear may have tempted them into lying to their brother. It did not matter, though, because Joseph had already forgiven his brothers all their sins.

Before he died, Jesus commanded his followers to forgive those who sin against us. He even put into his model prayer a promise to forgive those who sin against us. Jesus spoke so firmly about forgiveness that some Christians believe that forgiving those who hurt us is a requirement for salvation. They think that the Bible says that we must forgive first so that God will forgive us. They forget that God always goes first. We forgive others only because of the forgiveness of God. We forgive others, passing along the forgiveness won by Jesus on the cross. Refusing to forgive someone who has hurt us calls God’s complete forgiveness into question. If a sin against us is too big for God to forgive, how can we be sure that he has forgiven all our sins? But we do not forgive sinners out of the goodness of our hearts. We forgive sinners because Jesus has already purchased their forgiveness by his blood, his suffering, and his death.

Why does God allow sins to happen, knowing that we will be hurt by the sins of others? In the abstract, Christians can find answers to that question. Dealing with a specific sin, we do not always know which answer applies. In the case of Joseph, he was allowed to know the answer to that question. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph reports, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good, so that many people are alive today.” God permitted the sin of Joseph’s brothers so Joseph could sit at the right hand of Pharaoh and run Egypt, saving the lives of the Egyptian people and of their neighbors, including Joseph’s family.

Sometime God allows sin and evil so we can see the true nature of sin and evil and reject them, preferring what is good. Sometimes God allows sin and evil because he has a way of turning them into a greater blessing, as he did in the case of Joseph. Sometimes God allows sin and evil to provide an opportunity for his people to do good things, forgiving the sinner and helping the victims of sin. Sometimes God allows sin and evil to remind his people of the suffering of Christ on the cross. The devil persecutes God’s people, intended to make us doubt God’s goodness or love or power. When our troubles remind us how God saved us through the suffering of his Son, the devil is thwarted and God’s Kingdom remains victorious.

God does not cause evil, although even evil things come from his creation. Evil is not equal to good; evil is good that has been twisted and misused. God placed metal in the ground and gave skill to a craftsman who makes a knife from that metal. When that knife is used in a murder, God is not at fault. He permitted that sin for a reason, and he provided the ways that sin could take place. If he allowed that sin and did not intervene to prevent that sin (and only God knows how many times he has intervened to prevent evil), then he had a reason to allow that sin. God is under no obligation to tell us all his reasons.

“Am I in the place of God?” Joseph asked his brothers when they came to Joseph looking for forgiveness. The way he phrased the question, he expected the answer to be “no.” Yet as a picture of Christ, his forgiveness was Christ’s forgiveness. He had authority to punish his brothers or to forgive them. He was indeed in the place of God, and his forgiveness was a vivid picture of God’s forgiveness given freely to sinners.

When Peter declared his faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus congratulated Peter on that declaration and added, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven, and whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-19). Later, Jesus said the same words to all his apostles (Matthew 18:18). After he had died and had risen from the dead, Jesus said the same thing a third time. John says that Jesus breathed on the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whatever you forgive on earth is forgiven in heaven, and whatever you do not forgive on earth is not forgiven in heaven” (John 20:22-23).

Who has the keys to heaven? Who has the power to forgive sins (or to withhold forgiveness)? Everyone who has received the Holy Spirit has this power. Since we know that “no one can say Jesus is Lord apart from the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12: 3), everyone who confesses faith in Jesus has the power to forgive sins. Everyone who, like Peter, knows that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is able to share his forgiveness with sinners.

Why would Jesus also give the power to lock heaven, to refuse forgiveness to sinners? He tells us not to give dogs what is holy and not to cast pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). We do not speak words of forgiveness to people who boast of their sins, who refuse to admit that what they are doing is wrong, who do not want to be forgiven. God calls sinners to repent. Because we have the keys to heaven, we also call sinners to repent. Our goal is always to lead sinners to repent so we can forgive them. Yet our words of forgiveness would have no meaning if we said them to everyone, even to sinners who proudly continue to sin and who do not care whether or not God has forgiven them.

“Am I in the place of God?” Since he was a picture of the Christ, Joseph should have been answered “yes.” “Am I in the place of God?” Jesus says, “Yes, you are.” He could bring forgiveness to sinners any way he chose. After purchasing full forgiveness on the cross, Jesus chose to bring forgiveness to sinners through the work of his Church. Every member of that Church has the power to share Christ’s forgiveness. Every person on earth is either a missionary or a mission opportunity.

Like Adam, like Abel, like Abraham and Isaac and Esau, Joseph was a picture of Christ. Today, in a different way, every Christian is a picture of Christ. (That is why we are called Christians.) God wanted ancient people to know his plan of salvation, and he wants people today to know the same plan. He chooses to work with us–his will be done. J.