Passionate Forgiveness

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked,  “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?  Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered,  “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Matthew 18:21, 22

There’s a good reason this discussion follows hard on the heels of the instructions about confronting sin.  Jesus wants us, as His followers, to be more willing to forgive than to condemn; to be eager to restore rather than banish; to bear with one another’s faults graciously.  If you look at the parable which follows our passage above Jesus uses to illustrate His point to Peter, you’ll notice nowhere does He ever deny a debt being owed.  In fact, the whole point of the parable is that a debt is outstanding and should’ve been collected long ago.  In no way does Jesus ever deny the reality of sin or its effects, rather He points to the need for the sinner to repent and for us to be forgiving, patient, gracious and kind towards them.

If sin didn’t exist, then why the need to forgive?  Again, if there were no wrongs done, then the need to confront them would be non-existent as well.  Judgmental attitudes only come into play because we compare sin to sin, and in some weird sense we have devised a method of hierarchy for the worst to the least harmful.  Yet it only took a piece of fruit to lose Adam’s place in creation; only a bite to set the world on fire through the pain of Eve’s subjection.  No, the teaching on forgiveness demands we admit sin is a deadly disease or virus we place in our lives through choice.

Is the world generally more willing to forgive than resent?  Even if there are pockets of those who are willing to forgive, their patience with failure is limited without Jesus, as is ours.  No matter what anyone tells us about love, the general consensus about forgiveness, mercy and grace is about either self image or a religious ideal.  Unless we as believers realize this principle through the vision of the cross we will mistakenly think it is a get-out-of-jail-free card for the wrong doer.  The cross leaves no doubt about the cost of sin, nor can we sidestep the deadly consequences for those who continue to practice it.

I believe most people have a problem with the confrontation side of sin, mainly due to the way in which the confrontation happens rather than the fact of the it.  I’m sure some would prefer not to air their warts in any public forum, whether it be with one person, two or in the privacy of prayer.  But this is not how our God instructs us to operate, so bringing sin into the light is essential to a healthy Christian community.  However,  I bet if we did less confronting with idea of putting people in their “place” (wherever that is), we’d find the idea of confronting others less intimidating.  For what it’s worth, I don’t think anybody likes it in this form, and with good reason:  it usually means condescension, humiliation and shame.

Some in the church, afraid of being judgmental or condemning, throw out the baby with the bath water by ignoring the sin in people’s lives for the sake of either unity in the body (which never works anyway) or fear of offending someone and seeing them run away from the church.  We already know the other side of the coin where people are condemned for their sin and sent packing before the ink is dry on their spiritual ticket.  Both attitudes ignore Christ’s instructions to confront sin with an attitude and willingness to restore right relationship as opposed to condemnation and excommunication.

Instead the ideal is for passionate, radical forgiveness, first by recognizing the sin itself but, second, by moving on to the healing by restoration.  The difference between a religious ideal or the world’s practice and those who follow hard after Jesus is the desire to reconcile everyone to Christ.  Jesus said of the woman who washed His feet,  “Those who have been forgiven much, love much,” and it holds true here as well.  If we realize just how much our sin cost—i.e. the fall of Adam and Eve from fellowship as well as our own deviations from right relationship with God—gratitude becomes the attitude of the day.

In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul confronts an issue of theft, adultery and cheap grace by the church there.  A man who is an established believer took his father’s wife as his own and the church approved for some reason.  We are not given the reason they approved or if it was just a matter of accepting the man as a sinner and moving on.  What we are given clearly is Paul’s adamant stance that the man sinned and needed to repent—which in this case meant giving back the wife to his father as a form of repentance.  In 2 Corinthians 2 he acknowledges the man’s repentance and the church’s actions of putting him out as sufficient to restore him to fellowship.  In other words, his repentance of removing his sin was enough to reconcile him to God and therefore the church.

Paul in the first letter wasn’t trying to punish the sinner but remove an infection of bad behavior.  I think we have a mistaken idea of what his goals were here, because the church traditionally excommunicated for sins deemed heinous or blasphemous and it takes real work to get back into its good graces.  In Paul’s view it only took the man acknowledging his sin and righting the wrong.  That’s it.  Nothing more needed be said or done about it for fellowship.  No punishment, consequences by the church or fine for the sinner.  What he didn’t like about the situation was the elders and believers who approved of the man’s actions.  These people should have been clearly against such an act of betrayal (even if the woman in question was a believer and her husband was not) because it misrepresented God’s view of marriage and covenant.  If the man had immediately given back the woman he stole to his father, he wouldn’t have needed to be put out of fellowship.  The only reason for excommunication, then, is an unrepentant heart.

We complicate our job too much when we think it’s up to us meet out justice.  When Paul instructed us to treat a divisive brother like an unbeliever, he wasn’t telling us to be unkind or act like the man didn’t exist, merely we weren’t to trust him with the keys to the kingdom of God.   Yes, Paul told the believers not to eat with such a man, but we have to understand that in their culture, eating at someone’s table meant more than it does to us today.  Again, it isn’t our job to parcel out judgment but to discern between right and wrong, sin and righteousness.  That’s it.  We can put someone out of fellowship only if they are unrepentant and stubborn in their choices, otherwise, we’re instructed to bear with one another patiently, all the while remembering God’s patience with us.

No one is too deep in sin to be redeemed.  No one is beyond God’s reach.  The only person God will not redeem is one who refuses to be.  A person who exhibits a lifelong habit of sin in one area but admits it and continues to submit it to God will conquer it.  Of course, they might take baby steps toward recovery in this area, but it might mean that in areas seemingly not related at all, they will make great strides.  We don’t know what it means and cannot judge God’s work in the heart of a person except by the fruit they exhibit.  The best we can do is create an atmosphere for all of us where we can heal and work on those things which trip us up.

God desires us to forgive 77 times, or in another version 70×7.  I don’t believe anyone could keep track of this many times, which means Jesus must be telling us to be perfectly willing to forgive, like our Master.

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One Response to “Passionate Forgiveness”

  1. tlc4women Says:

    Exactly!

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