Monday, January 16, 2012

forgiveness

the following is the sermon i preached yesterday morning at first church of God harrisburg.

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good morning, first church. and welcome again to the visitors among us, we're glad to have you. as justin said a couple weeks ago, two of our focuses over the next year are Jesus and the gospel. In the coming weeks, we'll be looking at and digging into what this gospel really is. some of you may be wondering, why spend all this time on the gospel? and if you looked at the bulletin, you noticed that we're talking today about forgiveness. you might say, why talk about forgiveness? i know what that is; i've done that.

the reason we're talking about these things are twofold. first, because i think we throw around words a lot without really thinking about what they mean. how many of you, if i asked you to define what the forgiveness is, could tell me in a sentence or two? how many of you, if i asked you what the gospel is, could tell me in a minute or so what that means? how about glory? or righteousness? or love? or grace? or worship? i think a lot of us have an intuitive understanding of these things, but in my experience most of us haven't really thought about what these things actually mean. most of us use these words without thinking too much about what we're really saying. and while that's not awful, if we don't dig in to the truth of these things, we'll stay shallow, and, like Hebrews says, be grown men still drinking out of the bottle. we'll miss out on the fullness that God has for us in these things.

now follow me here, because i need to give you a little background. “gospel” is an old english word meaning “good news.” in greek, which the New Testament was orginally written in, the word is euangelion. this is where we get our word “evangelical” from, someone who is all about the gospel. and from its verb form we get our word “evangelism,” which is often translated as “preach the gospel.” now all of that is so you understand the second reason we need to talk about these things. if you have your Bibles with you, flip to Romans, chapter 1. if not, there are Bibles in the pews, so feel free to open it up and follow along. in the opening of the Letter to the Romans, the apostle paul is writing to the Christians in rome, and he talks about how he's been wanting to come to them for a long time. he says in verse 15, “i am eager to preach the good news to you also who are in rome.” he says he wants to evangelize them. paul wanted to evangelize the Christians. some of you may have heard or grown up with the idea that the gospel is kind of the front door of Christianity – Christianity 101, so to speak – and we eventually grow past it. you may have thought that evangelism is all about what Christians telling non-Christians about Jesus. but paul here is saying that he wants to talk to the romans, who have been Christians for years, about the gospel. and we are, like paul, eager to speak with you about the good news.

Now, when we think about the gospel, there are many parts to it. we can talk about God creating everything. we can talk about God becoming part of the creation in Jesus, as we just celebrated at Christmas. we can talk about repentance, a call to change the way we think and act, turning from sin to God. and the list goes on. for today, we're going to focus in on one of the major things that Christ accomplished for us: forgiveness.

so what is forgiveness? webster's dictionary says to forgive is “to give up resentment or claim to requital for an offense, to grant relief from a debt, and to cease to feel resentment.” now that sounds all nice and fancy, but in my mind it's just a bunch of words, mostly other big words we don't use a lot, so it's still detached from real life. instead, let's look at some things the Bible says about forgiveness.

let's look in 1 Corinthians 13. many of you know this as “the love chapter”, because paul here gives us a view of love from multiple angles. among them, in verse 5 he says love “does not keep a record of wrongs.” as true forgiveness is an act of love, i believe this is one way paul describes what forgiveness really means. think about it: if you keep track of all the ways someone has done you wrong, have you really forgiven them?

and since all true love flows from God, for He is true Love, we know that God does not do this. flip with me to psalm 25, picking it up in verse 4:

“make Your ways known to me, Lord; teach me Your paths. guide me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; i wait for You all day long. remember, Lord, Your compassion and Your faithful love, for they have existed from antiquity. do not remember the sins of my youth or my acts of rebellion; in keeping with Your faithful love, remember me because of Your goodness, Lord. the Lord is good and upright; therefore He shows sinners the way. He leads the humble in what is right and teaches them His way. all the Lord’s ways show faithful love and truth to those who keep His covenant and decrees. because of Your name, Yahweh, forgive my sin, for it is great.”

as the writer of this song, king david, is crying out for forgiveness, did you see what he asks of God? he wants God to remember him, to think about him, in accordance with his love, and not remembering david's sins. how often have you heard the phrase “forgive and forget”? now that can't really work with God, because He can't really forget something. God knows everything. He knows our faults and failures. but He doesn't remember them. do you see the difference? it's not like God no longer knows about our sins. it's not like He doesn't know they happened, or can't remember them. but He won't remember them. He doesn't dig into his memory and actively remember them. He doesn't bring them up over and over again. He doesn't hold them against us. instead, He treats us with love, without regard to our transgressions.

now God is also a God of justice, and He can't just forgive. imagine if a judge let a murderer off the hook because he said he was sorry; would that be just? certainly not! and it's worse than that. flip forward to psalm 51. david writes this psalm right after he is confronted for his sins by the prophet nathan. at this point, david has sent men into battle while he slacks off in the palace, he sleeps with another man's wife, get her pregnant, tries to cover it up, ultimately orders one of his generals to abandon the man on the battlefield, essentially killing him, and then marries his widow and lies about the whole affair. he's sinned against urriah the soldier, bathsheba his wife, david's own wives, his commanders, his soldiers, and his whole nation as their king. it's hard to think of someone david hasn't wronged in this mess. but here, in psalm 51, he says “against You [God] and You alone have i sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” and in the grand scheme of things, david's right.

because, you see, God is ultimately the most offended party in any sin. He is most worthy of our obedience and honor, and yet we commit evil against an infinite and holy God. this is far worse than whatever anyone else can claim to hold against us. rebelling against the Lord is always the most heinous part of any sin. God is the most offended person when we sin. and so only God can ultimately forgive sin. that's why the religious teachers questioned Jesus when He said He could forgive sins, because, they rightly said, “who can forgive sins, but God alone?”

but 1 John 1 tells us that, not only does God forgive us when we confess our sins, but when we do, He is just to forgive us and to cleanse us. and Romans 3 tells us why. Jesus died in our place, so that the punishment we rightly deserved fell on Him instead. by His life and death, Jesus honored God as we should have, and by faith we now have that righteousness, we now have Jesus' spotless record counted as ours. as the great old hymn says, “Jesus paid it all, all to Him i owe. sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.” and so, through Jesus, we can be rightly forgiven, and God is both good and merciful, both just and the justifier of us sinners. therefore paul rightly states in Ephesians 1, “in Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins.” this is what God has done! this is what we have in Christ! this is good news.

up to this point, we've been talking all about what God has done for us. we've been talking about objectivity reality, that which we have no effect on. God did it, and we can't add or subtract anything from it; we can't change what He's done for better or for worse. however, this good news, this part of the gospel, calls for a response from us. and that response is twofold.

first, God calls us to repent of our sin. this is first and foremost a change of mind, in which we no longer view sin as good and God as an obstactle or tyrant. instead, we see rightly that sin is evil and that God is our wonderful and worthy Lord. we see that sin ultimately leads only to death, in relationship, in health, in spirit, in all things, most of all in separation from God, who is our truest Friend, our great Savior, our loving Father and glorious King. from this change of mind comes new affections and new actions. we stop wanting what sin is offering, and we fight against its temptation. instead, we seek after this God who would give to us so freely. we want to see more of Him, to experience Him more fully, and to follow Him, because His ways are perfect. that's the first part of our response.

secondly, we're called to forgive others. as Jesus teaches His disciples what we call “the Lord's prayer” in Matthew 6, He teaches them to pray “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. for if you forgive people their wrongdoing, your heavenly Father will forgive you, but if don't forgive people, neither shall your Father forgive you.” later on, Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 18 about two slaves. we'll pick it up in verse 21.

“then peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and i forgive him? as many as seven times?” “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus said to him, “but 70 times seven. for this reason, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. when he began to settle accounts, one who owed 10,000 talents was brought before him. since he had no way to pay it back, his master commanded that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt. at this, the slave fell facedown before him and said, ‘be patient with me, and i will pay you everything!’ then the master of that slave had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan. but that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him 100 denarii. he grabbed him, started choking him, and said, ‘pay what you owe!’ at this, his fellow slave fell down and began begging him, ‘be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ but he wasn’t willing. on the contrary, he went and threw him into prison until he could pay what was owed. when the other slaves saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened. then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘you wicked slave! i forgave you all that debt because you begged me. shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as i had mercy on you?’ and his master got angry and handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay everything that was owed. so My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart.”

now, i hope you get the point, as i think Jesus is pretty clear. if you're not willing to forgive, you don't understand what it means to be forgiven, how valuable that is, and therefore you will not be forgiven. but since we don't use denarii and talents as money anymore, let me put this in perspective. the first slave owed what would be equivalent to a few billion dollars today, something he couldn't earn in a thousand lifetimes. to be forgiven that debt is huge. his fellow slave owed him roughly a few thousand dollars. i think sometimes when he here this parable, we think the second slave only owed the guy like $20, and we're stunned that he doesn't let it go. the debt he owed would take months of his full salary to be paid off. this was no small debt. it hurt. it would cost the first slave a lot to let that money go. but in comparison to what he'd been forgiven, it was a pitance, it was pocket-change.

all that to say, yes, it's going to hurt to forgive other people. it's not going to be pleasant in the moment. but God calls for us to follow Him, and not try to set a limit on how far this will go like peter did, but to forgive freely. to not walk in bitterness toward the person who has wronged us, but to love them as Christ loved us when we were still His enemies. we have to recognize what a huge debt we owed to God, and how great a punishment we deserved.

when we get that, the offenses against us pale in comparison. and not only that, but we understand that God is still a God of justice, and so we can forgive, knowing that God will rightly meet out justice; that either that person's sin against us has already been paid by Christ on the cross, or God will repay our offender in hell; either way, it's in God's hands, and so we walk with an attitude of forgiveness, not building up bitterness but seeking reconciliation, not vowing revenge but striving for restored relationship. this is first and foremost a choice we make, to not remember their sin, to not seek revenge or retribution or restitution, not to hold it against them. we offer that to any who will accept it, to any would will confess and repent. and if they sin against us again, the offer still stands, just like God does for us.

i hope this morning, you have a better grasp of what forgiveness is, not holding sin against the offender. i hope you understand with greater clarity and awe God has done for you in Jesus. and i hope you understand and will follow the call of the gospel to repent and forgive.

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