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Forgiveness as a foundation for Renewal
Rick Sutcliffe

I think we all understand well the fundamentals of the Christian faith--that God is holy, that all men and women are sinners unable by any effort of their own to approach him, that He sent his Son to be the means of taking our punishment and achieving potential reconciliation, and that in him we can, if we accept his salvation, be forgiven our sin and be born again.

Such is the theory, one that any Sunday school child can recite, and any preacher worth his salt expound in considerable detail. We tend to focus on sin, the inadequacy of works, the need for faith, and salvation as a gift, and rightly so. These points are critical, and without understanding them, one cannot gain salvation.

However, sometimes we need to take a fresh look at the new covenant, as the gospel is also termed.  What does the Old Testament say about its essence?

Jer 31:31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. 33 “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

This passage is also quoted starting at Hebrews 8:8, as part of the writer's thesis that the new covenant is superior to the old (based on the law and animal sacrifice for temporary propitiation for sins) and that because it is superior, it completely replaces the old. The argument is that the old covenant depended on the actions of the nation, that it was broken, and had to be replaced by one dependent not on human frailty, but only on God who does not change. Thus by his Holy Spirit he writes the requirements of righteousness on the hearts of those whom he chooses to save, and it is no longer dependent on external actions to maintain. Instead, action flows from what he has put within. All this of course is that God may be glorified in Christ as the sole provider of salvation, as the writer to the Hebrews elsewhere says Heb 12:2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

But although the glory of God is the broader and eternal end of salvation by grace through faith, in the exposition of the new covenant above, the immediate end in view is something more immediate and practical -- forgiveness. This seems to me to be the most neglected aspect of this whole process. If a person fails to understand what forgiveness is, they may not accept God's offer in the first place, as they may think their sins are too great to be forgiven. If their understanding afterwards is incomplete or unclear, they maybe unable to apply God's grace properly in their own lives or those of others, and so diminish the glory God might gain from the outworked life  of a forgiven soul.

Intellectually, we know what forgiveness is in the secular realm. If I have a debt of some kind, I must either pay it in full, or lose all my assets into bankruptcy to the creditor--unless someone else pays it off or the creditor simply cancels it. God's forgiveness is of the same kind, though much greater. We owe a debt due to sin to the creator of the universe. Because he is perfectly holy and we are not, the debt is infinite, and cannot be paid off, cannot be worked off, even if we have all eternity in the ultimate debtor's prison. But what we could never pay, Christ paid for us, satisfying the debt.

Col 2: 13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

We also understand, at least intellectually, that God's forgiveness is unconditional, in the sense that once our debt is cancelled, it's gone for good. Ps 103:12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Of course, it has consequences, because when he buys our debt, he buys us as well, and we belong to him thereafter. Eph 2:10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

The human authors of the New Testament understood this well:

Tit 1:1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness--

Jas 1:1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.

2Pe 1:1 Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who through the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:

Jude 1 Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James, To those who have been called, who are loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ:

Re 1:1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,

Note that I do not call service to Christ a condition for salvation, as though it had to be done prior to gaining it, but a consequence of it, for it must inevitably follow from salvation.

Romans  12:1  Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.  2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Note that the end of verse one could be translated as "your logical service", and the weight of the idea is that obedient service to God must flow from the life of one saved. The person who has the grace of God in him or her becomes the means by which God additionally flows grace to others. Indeed, if this does not happen, the word of God is very clear: 

1Jo 2:4 The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

1Jo 4:20 If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.

But in this light let us return to forgiveness specifically, and ask what it means to live as one forgiven. That is, how does the general principle of the redeemed person  obediently doing the will of God apply in particular to forgiveness? How do you be a forgiven person?

One of the most difficult things is realizing that the past is gone. If he remembers our sins no more, we ought not to be obsessing over them ourselves. We should not look back with pleasure on our old sin lest we fall into the same ones again, but we ought not look back with self-loathing either. The past is past. Let it be. Some call this forgiving ourselves, but I call it recognizing that God's forgiveness is absolute, complete, and eternal.

Ro 6:6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin--

Ga 6:14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

If God can forget our sin once it is nailed to the cross, we should too. There is too much to do in service to him to be whining to ourselves over old sins that the almighty God has already nailed to the cross, covered in the blood of his son, and written off the books forever. Part of being saved is beginning to take God's view of things--including of ourselves, and his view is we're forgiven--permanently and eternally.

Of course, we still do sin. Each time we do, we go against our master and Lord, and we grieve him for our lack of obedience to the power he has put in us through his Holy Spirit.  He offers the ready means to take care of all this, and expects us to do so:

1 John 1:5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 8  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

The message is clear. If we are the people of God, it is precicely because we obtained his forgiveness. We need to keep asking for it on a daily basis. If we do, that is part of the evidence that we are his.

But, you might protest, this is all very well and good, but what do I do when someone else sins against me? Well, there are steps:

Matt 18:15  “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Indeed, Christ goes much further than this in his exposition on what the law really means:

Matt 5:  21  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. 23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. 

Mt 6:12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ 14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

The point of those two passages is to tell us that a person who does not show love to a fellow Christian, but treats him or her with contempt is liable to judgement, and the person who calls such a one a "fool"(that is an unbeliever) shows himself to be possibly an unbeliever instead, and in danger of the judgement of death at least, if not of hell itself.

1Co 11:27 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord

28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.

Consider this from another angle. John and James tell us rather bluntly that if we do not love one another, we are not Christians. That is, one who does not both recognize who is part of the body of Christ, and love that person for the sake of Christ, cannot mount any credible claim to be part of that body.

1Jo 3:11 This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.

1Jo 3:23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.

1Jo 4:7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.

1Jo 4:11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

1Jo 4:12 No-one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

2Jo 5 And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.

James 2:14  What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? ….18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

When we look into 1Corinthians 13, the "love chapter" for specifics, we find such things as:

1 Cor 13:4  Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Notice that part about "not easily angered" and "keeps no record of wrongs". Therese two phrases indicate that if we are to show we are indeed Christians by keeping the law of love in this respect we will:

(1)  not easily or often get angry with a brother or sister in the first place, as many other passages indicate:

Eph 4:2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

Col 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

2Ti 2:24 And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.

(2) not keep a record of wrongs, that is not stay angry or resentful. This has two consequences (a) that we will not bear grudges but will instead be quick to offer forgiveness when we do take offense (b) that when we do offer forgiveness, our word means something. That is, it's not done resentfully as a child does without really meaning it, and once our word is given, it's good.

Mt 5:37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’, ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Jas 5:12 Above all, my brothers, do not swear--not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No”, no, or you will be condemned.

If on any account, therefore, we find ourselves holding a grudge against a brother or a sister for years, months, or even weeks, we are sinning. If we have ever said we forgive yet keep bringing it up, we are sinning.

The question of whether our anger is at real sin or not isn't at issue here. Neither is the question of whether the other person deserves forgiveness or has even asked for it--after all they may think you are the sinner, not them! They may be right. And what if you are right and they are in the wrong? Wouldn't you rather be wronged than be unloving? Wouldn't you rather demonstrate love than be vindicated? And what if they don't receive your forgiveness? Well, that's their loss--at least you have done your duty before God and to them.

Sin overmuch in the way of not loving your brother or sister (specifically here by failing to forgive), and you must, according to the scriptures, ask yourself the question of whether you can discern the body of Christ, whether you do love his people. If the answer is "no" then at best you are inviting the judgement of God on your very life, and at worst you are simply not one of his people yourself and are still facing eternal judgement. Only you know which is the case, but do you really want to face God's judgement, even as a backslidden Christian? 

Summary: Forgiveness is at the heart of salvation. Knowing one needs forgiveness is essential for acknowledging sin and receiving grace unto redemption. Knowing one needs forgiveness on a daily basis is part of the evidence that we really did get it in the first place. Knowing that we need to forgive others is part of the evidence of Christ working in our lives through the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, the person who lacks the evidence of forgiveness in and through their life is offering a convincing argument that they themselves have never been forgiven, have never met Christ at the cross.

--Rick Sutcliffe


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