Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Forgive us our trespasses, but don’t trust or accept the behavior of those who trespass against us…

If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared (Psalm 130:3-4)

We all, from time to time, think that because we hold a certain belief, others who belong to our social/economic/political/religious group(s), whatever that may be, think the same way we do. To some degree this is true; it's safe to assume that if you belong to a stamp collecting society, the members all, to one degree or another, have an affinity for philately. On the other hand, we as individuals often project our personal beliefs onto the group. My theory is, most people don't study these things and whatever way they "feel" about the issue in question, they associate with their group. The formula goes like this: I'm a Lutheran. I think all people are basically good (because it seems mean, negative, and unfair to believe what the Bible teaches about original sin). Therefore Lutherans believe people are basically good. This is demonstrated by the recent Lifeway survey which shows that a large percentage of American Evangelicals hold heretical beliefs[1] (Lindgren 2016).

This phenomenon can also be seen among Christians because of the unrestricted posting of internet memes. Every day I see people who are confessing Christians, who belong to and regularly attend church, posting memes that would make the toenails of orthodox theologians curl in fright and disgust. The most recent gem to convulse my brain was a meme with the following phrase superimposed over a background of floating clouds, or majestic mountains, or whatever, no doubt meant to be “inspirational” (whatever that means):

I forgive people but that doesn't mean I accept their behavior or trust them. I forgive them for me, so I can let go and move on with my life. 

While this may seem to make good common sense, and even be seen by some as inspirational at first blush, this meme’s notion of forgiveness is, in reality, anything but actual forgiveness. This meme could be summed up as "Forgive, but don't forget." This sentiment may resonate with our sinful human nature, but it bears no relation to actual forgiveness, and Christians should not apply this nugget of worldly wisdom to their lives. 

If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared…Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation (Psalm 130:3-4; 2 Corinthians 5:17-20).

First, we Christians confess in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the forgiveness of sins. What does that mean? We believe that through Christ, God the Father has pardoned and forgiven sinful mankind. That's all there is to it, really. He keeps no record of our sins, as the psalmist tells us. In Christ we have been reconciled to God, and our sins are wiped off the books. With God there is no "forgiving, but not forgetting."

Scripture tells us that God hates sin and that it must be atoned for[2]. So, how can he simply declare sinners to be righteous? Well, it isn't simple. It took God the Son, second person of the Trinity, to come down to earth, take on human flesh, keep God's law perfectly, and bear our sin and it’s punishment in our place by dying on the cross to make the atonement. Jesus, the sinless one, became sin for us so that we could become righteous[3]

So, to God, all our sins have been paid for through the death of Christ. They are gone. They are forgotten. There is no record of them for God to consult and hold over our heads, as we sinful men do when we "forgive" our fellows. Moreover, having been baptized into Christ, we are joined to him in his death and in his resurrection. That means that his death is ours, and his life, the life that the Son of God won for us on the cross, is ours also[4]

How do we get this forgiveness of God? Must we complete some series of tasks? That might be logical to the human mind, and we certainly tend to operate that way with our neighbors on a daily basis. That would, however, be us working to atone for our own sins and would defeat the purpose of what Christ came into the world to do. No, God offers us his forgiveness as a gift through the Gospel. Through the means of Word and Sacrament Christ comes to us and works faith in us, according to his own timing and will. That faith, worked in us by the Holy Spirit, through his means, takes hold of the forgiveness Christ won for us. 

This teaching on forgiveness is the most important teaching of Christianity. It is what distinguishes Christianity from every other false religion. Salvation is completely the gift and work of God. It doesn't depend on me in any way, which is a relief, since there is no merit or worthiness in me. This scriptural teaching is of immense comfort to the penitent sinner, and much more satisfying than any fleeting feeling of self-righteousness we get from announcing to the world via Facebook that our philosophy is to "forgive, but not forget" the sins of our neighbor.

In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:8-15).

Second, we are commanded by Christ to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." In this petition of the Lord's Prayer we are literally told to forgive others the way that God forgives us. If we do not, it is perhaps a sign that we do not really believe that God has forgiven us as he has promised. This is a thing we cannot do perfectly and, when we sin by failing at it, we should repent...and ask for forgiveness! In the Small Catechism, Luther explains the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer like this:

We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us (Concordia Publishing House 1991).

Stated another way, when we forgive others, it shows that we truly believe that God forgives us.

We have briefly described how God acts toward us; let's consider how we act toward him. We sin again and again, we repent of our sins, and God forgives us for Christ's sake. There is no mention of God not trusting us, or not forgetting our sins. In fact, scripture tells us precisely the opposite. Our sins are wiped away for good. This is the standard we are to have when forgiving those who trespass against us. 

Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22).

How many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Not seven times, but seventy times seven. So…490 times? Jesus isn't giving his disciples a mathematical formula to figure out the exact number of times they should forgive someone before giving them the proverbial boot. He's telling them to endure repeated injury and continue to offer them forgiveness, just as God has done for them. Imagine how terrified and uncertain we would be if God adopted the philosophy of "Forgive, but don't forget" toward us sinners. When we put ourselves in that scenario, we get some idea of what actual forgiveness is, and why "forgive, but don't forget" is counterfeit wisdom. 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48).

It is logical to the mind of man that we should love those who love us and hate those who hate us. Christians, aware of the fact that we have a corrupt and sinful nature, should be wary of those things that "just feel right," like asserting the self-righteous attitude of "forgiving, but not forgetting." Because of his great love for us, God the Father sent Christ, his Only-Begotten Son, into the world to bear our sin and be our savior. Jesus, God in human flesh, demonstrated for us the very thing he teaches by his willingness to be put to death on the cross as the propitiation for the sins of the world. You see, we did no good thing which attracted us to Jesus and compelled him to save us. He loved us, his enemies, while we were still his enemies[5]. This is the attitude we are to have when dealing with our neighbors. Because Christ has been victorious over sin, death, and the devil, and forgives us our trespasses, we can love our neighbor and forgive them that trespass against us.

 Works Cited

Concordia Publishing House. Luther's Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.

Lindgren, Caleb. "Evangelicals' Favorite Heresies Revisited by Researchers." Christianity Today. September 28, 2016. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/september-web-only/evangelicals-favorite-heresies-state-of-theology-ligonier.html (accessed October 17, 2016).

[1] Reprising their ground-breaking study from two years ago, LifeWay Research and Ligonier Ministries released an update today on the state of American theology in 2016. Researchers surveyed 3,000 adults to measure their agreement with a set of 47 statements about Christian theology—everything from the divinity of Christ to the nature of salvation to the importance of regular church attendance (Lindgren 2016).

[2] Psalm 5:4; 92:15; Hebrews 9:22

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[4] Romans 6:1-11

[5] Romans 5:6-11