Results tagged “forgiveness” from Reformation21 Blog

More Mercy in Christ than Sin in Us

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In his book The Bruised Reed, Richard Sibbes famously wrote, "We have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us." Here is one of those oft repeated statements of Gospel assurance with which believers love to comfort one another. The context, however, is one that has been almost entirely overlooked. Sibbes actually wrote, "If we have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us, there can be no danger in thorough dealing." In context, Sibbes was seeking to encourage believers to make a concerted effort to mortification of sin (i.e. thorough dealing). He wrote,  "A set measure of bruising [i.e. spiritual humiliation] of ourselves cannot be prescribed, but it must be so far as (1) that we may prize Christ above all, and see that a Savour must be had; and (2) that we reform that which is amiss, though it be to the cutting off of our right hand, or pulling out of our right eye." 

Many believers struggle with the assurance of salvation on account of their sin. The Westminster Confession of Faith, in the final paragraph of the chapter on "Assurance of Grace and Salvation"" (Ch. 18), states this so well:

"True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God's withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never so utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair."

John Owen, in his magnificent work on Psalm 130, set King David forth as the example of one who understood this soul-wrestling with God over his sin and longing for the assurance of God's love and favor. David understood, better than any, the multifaceted way in which God's grace worked in his life with regard to his ongoing battle with sin and his experience of a guilt-laden conscience. Owen wrote:

"Under the Old Testament none loved God more than he; none was loved of God more than he. The paths of faith and love wherein he walked are unto the most of us like the way of an eagle in the air,--too high and hard for us. Yet to this very day do the cries of this man after God's own heart sound in our ears. Sometimes he complains of broken bones, sometimes of drowning depths, sometimes of waves and water spouts, sometimes of wounds and diseases, sometimes of wrath and the sorrows of hell; everywhere of his sins, the burden and trouble of them. Some of the occasions of his depths, darkness, entanglements, and distresses, we all know. As no man had more grace than he, so none is a greater instance of the power of sin, and the effects of its guilt upon the conscience, than he."

Owen went on to set out seven soul-experiences from David's prayers in the Psalms. These serve as typical experiences of one who is already the object of the love and grace of God and yet who feels himself or herself "in the depths." 

1. The loss of the wanted sense of the love of God, which the soul did formerly enjoy. Owen explained: "A sense of God's presence in love is sufficient to rebuke all anxiety and fears in the worst and most dreadful condition; and not only so, but to give in the midst of them solid consolation and joy...This is that sense of love which the choicest believers may lose on the account of sin. This is one step into their depths. They shall not retain any such gospel apprehension of it as that it should give them rest, peace, or consolation."

2.  Perplexed thoughtfulness about their great and wretched unkindness towards God is another part of the depths of sin-entangled souls. "So David complains: Ps. 77:3, "I remembered God," saith he, "and was troubled." 

3. A revived sense of justly deserved wrath belongs also to these depths. "This is as the opening of old wounds. When men have passed through a sense of wrath, and have obtained deliverance and rest through the blood of Christ, to come to their old thoughts again, to be trading afresh with hell, curse, law, and wrath, it is a depth indeed. And this often befalls gracious souls on the account of sin: Ps. 88:7, 'Your wrath lies hard upon me.'"

4. Oppressing apprehensions of temporal judgments concur herein also; for God will judge his people. And judgment often begins at the house of God. 'Though God,' says such a one, 'should not cast me off for ever,--though He should pardon my iniquities; yet He may so take vengeance of my inventions as to make me feed on gall and wormwood all my days.' Ps. 119:120, says David, 'My flesh trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments.' He knows not what the great God may bring upon him; and being full of a sense of the guilt of sin, which is the bottom of this whole condition, every judgment of God is full of terror unto him."

5. Prevailing fears for a season of being utterly rejected by God, of being found a reprobate at the last day. "Jonah seems to conclude so, chap. 2:4, 'Then I said, I am cast out of Your sight;'--'I am lost for ever, God will own me no more'...This may befall a gracious soul on the account of sin. But yet because this fights directly against the life of faith, God doth not, unless it be in extraordinary cases, suffer any of his to lie long in this horrible pit, where there is no water, no refreshment."

6. God secretly sends His arrows into the soul, that wound and gall it, adding pain, trouble, and disquietness to its disconsolation: "Ps, 138:2, 'Your arrows stick fast in me, and Your hand presses me sore.' Ever and anon in his walking, God shot a sharp piercing arrow, fixing it on his soul, that galled, wounded, and perplexed him, filling him with pain and grievous vexation. These arrows are God's rebukes: Ps. 139:11, 'When You, with rebukes, do correct man for iniquity.'"

7. Unspiritedness and disability unto duty, in doing or suffering, attend such a condition : "Ps. 40:12, 'My iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up.' His spiritual strength was worn away by sin, so, that he was not able to address himself unto any communion with God. The soul now cannot pray with life and power, cannot hear with joy and profit, cannot do good and communicate with cheerfulness and freedom, cannot meditate with delight and heavenly-mindedness, cannot act for God with zeal and liberty, cannot think of suffering with boldness and resolution; but is sick, weak, feeble, and bowed down.

Owen concluded the section on the soul-experience of believers in the depths of sin with this summary:

"Now, I say, a gracious soul, after much communion with God, may, on the account of sin, by a sense of the guilt of it, be brought into a state and condition wherein some, more, or all of these, with other the like perplexities, may be its portion ; and these make up the depths whereof the psalmist here complains."

While these are "the depths" that believers often find themselves in on account of their sin, they turn to the One to whom David said, "If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared." Concerning this appeal to God's mercy and forgiveness, Owen explained that believers must keep these things in view:

"1. The gracious, tender, merciful heart and will of God, who is the God of pardons and forgivenesses; or ready to forgive, to give out mercy, to add to pardon. 

2. A respect unto Jesus Christ, the only ἱλασμός, or propitiation for sin, as he is expressly called, Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2. And this is that which interposes between the gracious heart of God and the actual pardon of sinners. All forgiveness is founded on propitiation.

3. Actual forgiveness itself, as we are made partakers of it; comprising it both actively, as it is an act of grace in God, and passively, as terminated in our souls, with the deliverance that attends it. In this sense, as it looks downwards and in its effects respects us, it is of mere grace; as it looks upwards to its causes and respects the Lord Christ, it is from propitiation or atonement. And this is that pardon which is administered in the covenant of grace."

Believers, as we struggle in our souls for nearness to God, a restored sense of His favor and delight and new manifestations of His presence and power, we must learn to cry out to God from the depths--acknowledging God's holiness, our sin and rebellion, what our iniquities deserve and the great mercy of God in Christ that he continually shows us as we turn back to him from the depths. It is, in this way, that we will repeatedly experience in our souls the truth that there is "more mercy in Christ than sin in us"--as the Apostle boldly declared when he said, "Where sin abounded, grace did abound much more" (Rom. 5:20). 

The Missing Message

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While preparing talks for a forthcoming Reformation Conference, I happened across Heiko Oberman's outstanding 1961 Theology Today lecture, "Preaching and the Word in the Reformation," in which he set down what he believed to have been the three most important aspects of the preaching among the Reformers: (1) the sermon as apocalyptic event; (2) the sermon as corporate act of worship; and (3) the relation of the written and the spoken Word of God. It is the first of these to which I wish to give further consideration. 

After dispelling the myth that preaching had disappeared prior to the Reformation, Oberman suggested that one of the things that was unique about the preaching of the Reformers was that it was an apocalyptic event, in which "the sermon...absorbed the medieval sacrament of penance." What the Roman Catholic Church had taken out of the preaching of the Gospel and put into the hands of the priests, the Reformers took out of the hands of the priests and put it back into the preaching of the Word and Gospel. The Reformers believed that in the true preaching of the Gospel the eternal realties of Heaven and Hell come breaking into time and space, by which the hearers are confronted by God. As sinners are confronted with their sin and the holiness of God, they are brought before the Divine tribunal in order to show them the need they have for redemption and forgiveness.  

Moving on from the confrontation of the word, Oberman insisted that "the function of the sermon is to provide proper doctrinal information especially as regards the first and second advent of Jesus Christ." The preaching of Christ is central to the preaching of the Reformation because, as the Reformers understood, "the sermon does not inspire good inclinations, but moves the doors of Heaven and Hell." Oberman summed up this aspect of Reformation preaching when he acquiesced with the essence of pietistic preaching: "Where the Word is preached and man encounters Christ, he is forced to answer 'Yes' or 'No.'" Since all of these things are so, we must understand that true preaching is, "God's last word, to which no syllable will be added." Oberman brought his thoughts on the apocalyptic nature of preaching to a close by explaining how the true preaching of the word brings assurance to believers. He wrote:

For this reason the Reformation could preach the certitudo salutisthe certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law. In the words of Calvin: "When a Christian looks into himself he finds cause to be afraid or even to despair...[But] he will win a sure hope of eternal perseverance when he considers that he belongs to Him who cannot fall or fail." It gives pause to realize that this message which proved to lend the Reformation movement its reconciling and liberating power has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit.

Here, two things stand out to me as being of prime importance. First, only the preaching of the Reformation can hold forth the assurance of salvation. The greatest of all differences between the preaching of Rome and the preaching of the Reformation lies in this: "the Reformation could preach the...certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law." If that aspect of preaching is missing from our churches then we will never hold out to despairing sinners the peace for which their souls so desperately long. 

Second, Oberman made the sobering observation that "this message...has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit." While recognizing that he was referring to the mainline Protestant churches of his day (which were, incidentally, at their heyday in the 1960's), we must also recognize that the same can be said of so many churches in our own day. Rome continues to be void of this all-important aspect of preaching. Liberal Protestant churches maintain the strongest possible distaste for it. Most concerning of all, however, is the realization that the better part of self-professed evangelical churches have abandoned the preaching of the Reformation. From the pulpit, churches that claim affinity with the Reformation are proving themselves to be virtually antithetical to the Reformers. In so many churches in our day, the psychological and social are trumpeted instead of Heaven and Hell, the court of public opinion rather than the Divine tribunal and a sophisticated call to self-atonement through humanitarianism rather than forgiveness of sins through the atoning death of Jesus. We should be appalled at the paltry nature of what flies under the name of preaching today. We should long for preaching that brings men and women before the eternal tribunal, that sets out Jesus Christ in His saving fulness and that calls sinners to respond to Him in faith and repentance. It is then, and only then, that we will know the same "reconciling and liberating power" that was heard and felt in the days of the Reformers. 

Charleston: Forgiveness without Repentance?

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Listening to the family members of those who were mercilessly killed in the Charleston church was an opportunity to witness some of the best theology you'll see in your life. I only hope that if I am ever faced with a similar situation that I'll react half as well as those people did as they spoke to Dylan Roof. 

Quite astonishingly, however, some took the opportunity to find fault with the way the family members offered forgiveness to the killer because they said, without qualifying their words, "I forgive you...". 

Based on Luke 17:3-5, the argument goes that they cannot say: "I forgive you." Why? Because there is no repentance. For forgiveness to happen, repentance must take place. Incidentally, I did hear one of the family members urging Dylan Roof to seek repentance so that he may be better off than he is now. 

I firmly believe that we need to be precise in our theology. Heretics and heroes of the faith have often disagreed on important doctrines based on one letter in a word (homoousios vs. homoiousios). 

It is easy for the "theologian" to pick apart their words and make the point that true forgiveness always involves repentance and therefore leads to restoration. After all, we are to forgive one another according to the way God in Christ has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32). But I'm afraid such an attitude is one that has more in common with someone sitting in an ivory-tower office than someone who understands grieving souls. 

I still maintain that what I witnessed by the family members was theology in action that should humble us to the core of our being. 

We are all aware, I trust, that all sins are committed against God. Therefore, no one can forgive sins in the way that God can. He has a peculiar authority that we do not have. All sins, whether mediately or immediately, are committed against God. Sometimes the neighbour is the medium, but the sin is still against God. Why is this important? Because if we forgive our neighbour, this does not relate to the guilt of his sin, but rather to the harm that has been done to us. 

So when the family members of the killed "forgave" Dylan Roof, we are not forced to have to look at their forgiveness and then argue that they have no right to do so because there is no repentance from Mr. Roof. Rather, we are to understand their offering of forgiveness based on the harm that has been done to them because of the loss they have experienced. 

In effect, they are not telling Mr. Roof that he is now justified before God. They are saying, you have harmed us and hurt us; and we forgive you for this harm. 

I noticed one person on twitter suggest that the family members could have said this:

"I don't have the authority to forgive you for murder. Only God does. Repent and turn to Jesus as Lord and Savior. For my part I pray for your conversion, and for justice, and if you ever confess and ask for it, I stand ready to forgive."

Now this sounds good, but it assumes that we cannot forgive for the harm done to us. The distinction between guilt and harm is an important distinction. Moreover, it is all well and good to make these suggestions of what they should have said while we're sitting on a computer, but quite another thing to stand before the killer of someone you love and give him Berkhof. 

They did what their souls, aided by the grace of Christ, enabled them to do in that moment. And I think instead of critiquing these people we should be humbled by the manner in which they spoke. It makes Reformed people look petty and pastorally insensitive. 

The issue of Dylan Roof's guilt remains. He needs to repent before these people and before God if he is going to be saved. One of the family members made that clear: 

"But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that he can change it, can change your ways no matter what happened to you and you'll be OK. Do that and you'll be better off than what you are right now."

We should all be of the mind that it would be a glorious thing if the killed were to meet Dylan in heaven and embrace him. I can pray that justice will be done to him (i.e., he will die for these killings), but that mercy will be shown to him (i.e., he will repent and be saved).

But, whatever we do, let's not cast aspersions or shadows upon these people because we want to take this opportunity to critique the details of their theology. Theological precision has its place, and there are some instances where I think we do need to insist upon repentance for reconciliation in a church context (i.e., "if your brother sins..."). But this is an instance whereby Christians - and indeed non-Christians, as well - can only marvel at the grace and love that has been expressed by these grieving family members. 

Imagine us telling the world that what they saw by the grieving family members was theologically incorrect? And based on Mark 11:25 I'm not sure they were theologically incorrect (on this, see here).

The family members of the Charleston victims expressed some of the best theology I've heard in my life. To think that the victims were better off going to the bible study than not going is a glorious and sobering thought for us all. John 17:24, "Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world."

'Who do I say that I am?'

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"Be holy, for I am holy" ~ 1 Peter 1:16

One of the most difficult things to do is tell the truth...about ourselves. The church prides itself on being a bastion of truth in a world of lies, yet her members often forget that they cannot preserve the truth unless they first preserve it about themselves. One of the ways we can discern whether we are preserving the truth about ourselves is by taking note of our verbal habits, those patterns of speech we adopt that describe who we are - especially in relation to God and each other. These patterns of speech about ourselves reveal our hearts and whether we are primarily seeking affirmation of where we are - by others and by God - or whether we are seeking to become more like God.

I took note of these patterns of speech in a video that recently received a lot of attention on the internet called "We are the Church" (watch here: http://vimeo.com/109153388). It was noteworthy for many because it deals with those professing to be 'the Church' who self-identify as 'gay', 'queer', and 'trans'. Those combinations alone will always stir discussion. But beyond the self-applied labels drawn from our current sexual lexicon, the way the individuals in the video described (rather than labeled) themselves, in relation to God and others, is reflective of certain verbal tics that many church-goers - whether liberal or conservative - have adopted. 

If you watch the video you will note the tenor of the descriptions: "I am received"; "I experience grace and community"; "I am loved"; "I am fed"; "I am...the Church." These are good things, of course, but can become toxic when not held together with other, equally good things. Noticeably absent are Christian notions of sacrifice, repentance and hope for change. In fact, in the tone of these men and women is a tinge of 'I dare you' to consider it even appropriate to talk about change and what that might entail, other than change from societal and ecclesiastical constraints that we can smirk at in light of the "freedom" of the Gospel. 

The contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor has been keen to point out the shrinking frames of reference we employ to understand and articulate our identity. Having abandoned more universal notions of "human nature", we seem satisfied to describe ourselves only in terms of ourselves and our chosen tribe (see his Sources of the Self). Taylor calls this "the flattening of modern consciousness". The modern self is the expressed self, Taylor says, where we describe ourselves based upon what we find significant. This is usually done by a personal disentanglement from the sticky webs of birth and historic communities, and a conscious re-entanglement with like-minded souls who will accept and affirm us as we express ourselves. I would suggest we often do the same while speaking with a Christian accent. 

Accordingly, the Gospel becomes about receiving forgiveness for all the ways society, the church, and I beat myself up, so that I can better live my authentic self in community with other authentic selves in the name of Christ. Or, the Gospel becomes about a "hamster wheel" of personal sin and forgiveness that never draws us out into considering what life might be like "in Christ", where we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to crucify our "fleshly selves" (Galatians 5:24) and sacrifice an immediate sense of personal meaningfulness for the greater goal of strengthening the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12). 

The tragedy of layering over our expressive self with Christianese is we cut ourselves off from the hope for change we find in God. Hope can only be found when we talk about ourselves in light of God. 

The ability to speak the truth about ourselves is fundamental to our ability to worship God. This is the wisdom behind frontloading a worship liturgy with confession of sin, because before we lift high the name of God we must hold low the name of our self. In the presence of God we must forsake our self-imposed expressions of who we think we are, and let Scripture 'read' us and define our state. When the Spirit presses the Word on our hearts, we are led to genuine repentance of our sin where we are able to consider the good news of the Gospel and our exclusive identity in Christ. 

Calvin famously wrote that the knowledge of self and knowledge of God are intertwined to the point that sometimes we do not know where the one begins and the other ends. Knowing ourselves to be sinners opens us up to knowing the grace of God that rushes into our sin, even flowing down into and softening the hardened trenches dug deep in our hearts by the force of sexual habit. Knowing God to be a forgiving God encourages us to know ourselves as sinners - yet with hope. The intertwined knowledge of which Calvin speaks is an ever deepening knowledge that, rather than leaving us in a state of complacency or despair, charges us with hope in the midst of our sin - hope that the same grace which announces our forgiveness will change us into the image of the Holy One we worship.

As we learn to tell the truth about ourselves as Christians we need to infuse our words with such knowledge. When we do so together, as the Church, we become a place of truth as well as hope. Instead of affirming ourselves into a standstill, our descriptions become doorways through which the work of the Holy Spirit draws us up to God through Christ. 

Rev. D. Blair Smith is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a doctoral student in patristics at Durham University. He's currently a research visitor at the University of Notre Dame

On pastoral (dis)qualification and other things

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This is not about Mark Driscoll, though it is prompted by a few notes being sounded (not by him, as far as I am aware) with regard to his resignation letter, and the circumstances surrounding it.

First, pastoral qualification is never merely a matter of apparent giftedness and effectiveness. It has at its root a question of character. I thankfully acknowledge that, mercifully, and to the best of our knowledge, Mark has not been guilty of "immorality, illegality and heresy." Nevertheless, I protest that this is not the issue in the matter of pastoral qualification and disqualification. The presence of scandalous and often public sin would certainly disqualify any man from ministry at that point in time and very possibly perpetually. Its mere absence, though, is not the same as being qualified for ministry. There are a set of very specific and detailed qualifications that are necessary - not optional - for any man who would be an under-shepherd of any flock of God. For the sake of completeness, here they are, with some emphasised elements, some relating to present and some to past issues:
This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behaviour, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1Tim 3:1-7)

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you--if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict. (Ti 1:5-9)
Many moons ago, a few of us worked briefly through these issues, some relevant ones being here. Any man - however prominent, apparently gifted or seemingly effective - who falls short in these matters is disqualified from the pastorate. If these matters of character remain as unresolved patterns of behaviour in any man seeking to shepherd the flock of God, then he cannot - for the sake of the church, he must not! - be permitted to take that office.

A second matter has to do with the matter of apologies and forgiveness. We are often told that some man has apologised for something. He was sorry he did it. Fine, and so might we all be. But an apology is not the same as repentance. The gracious dynamic that truly resolves sin and its offence is not the mere passage of time, nor the issuing of a more-or-less public apology (see here for more on this). It is the expression of sincere repentance, with its appropriate fruits, with forgiveness extended in principle and practice, leading - we trust - to genuine reconciliation and appropriate restoration. Quite apart from anything else, I can be sorry for a sin that I may or intend to go on committing. Repentance involves a God-dependent determination and whole-souled commitment to keep from sinning in that way again. So applause for apology is a different thing to forgiving the repentant, and we should not confuse the two, either in their intention or effect.

Finally, let there be no gloating: "let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1Cor 10:12). You may believe you saw this coming. You may have mourned over the painful trajectory that developed, and perhaps the failure of those who publicly applauded phases of Mark's career publicly to address the change in tack. You may have your suspicions and fears about what comes next. But to revel in the sin of another is a demonic thing. To rejoice in a man's public downfall is to join Satan's company. When you see another man, any man, sinning and stumbling, remember that - but for the grace of God - that is you, and pray with tears that it might never be.

I forgive you, but please don't call it 'giving grace'

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What should I do when my husband forgets to buy milk on the way home from work? When my kids leave their new bikes out in the rain? When fellow church members are curt or critical on Sunday mornings? 

Increasingly, I hear the godly action in these scenarios described as "giving grace." And, while I wholeheartedly applaud heart-motivations of love, and God-glorifying acts of mercy, words still matter. When I hear Reformed people urging me to give "grace" to others, I question whether this is the right use of that precious word.

Ultimately, I'm afraid that by using the wrong biblical word for the right biblical response we may be misunderstanding both.

So, when people talk about "giving grace"--to husbands and children and the person next door--what, exactly, does that mean?

There are several biblical uses of the word "grace." Among other things, it can mean favor (Luke 2:52). It sometimes refers to the gifts given by Christ (Eph. 4:7). It can also mean God's working in the lives of elect and non-elect persons--restraining sin, promoting right action and attitudes, and giving temporal blessing (Matt. 5:45).

Primarily grace is, as Louis Berkhof writes, "God's free, sovereign, undeserved favor or love to man, in his state of sin and guilt, which manifests itself in the forgiveness of sin and deliverance from its penalty." 

I think it is a human version of this which most people have in mind when they encourage moms to give grace to their kids, wives to give grace to their husbands, and church members to give grace to one another.  Giving grace, one person to another, is commonly understood as forgiveness or patient forbearance when confronted with someone's sin. This is a biblical and right action, and I give thanks to God for those who encourage parents and spouses to do more of it. Our families and communities need the self-denying kindness which Christ's followers lavish on others.

But I hesitate to call those actions grace. 

For one thing, the Bible doesn't use that word. In the Scripture passages where grace is described as given or received, God himself is always the giver. (The single exception to this is Eph. 4:29 where wholesome speech is said to "give grace to those who hear." But even this verse does not make humans the originators of grace, nor is it referring to grace in the sense of forgiveness.)

Scripture does give us words for what we can do with husbands who forget to buy milk and the children who spill it. We can forgive.  Ephesians 4:32 reads, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you." The Bible also uses the language of covering sin as in I Peter 4:8, "love covers a multitude of sins." And I Corinthians 13 commands a love which "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." 

The Christian ought to be characterized by kindness, forgiveness, patience, and a disposition to assume the best of others.  But the Bible does not refer to these actions, done by humans, as grace. 

Second, as Berkhof's definition highlights, grace is necessarily an act of sovereignty.  John Murray explains it this way: "The sovereignty of grace is implicit in its nature. If grace excludes the constraint of human merit, if its whole constraint and explanation reside in God, it must be of his free good pleasure.  . . To dissociate grace in its source, progress, or fruition from pure sovereignty of will is to annul not only its character but also that by which its exercise is conditioned." Sovereignty is intrinsic to grace. Grace is always from Him and through Him and to Him--and only according to his holy will.

Human forgiveness and patience, on the other hand, are not sovereign acts at all. In my attitude toward my tantrum-throwing children and my (very occasionally) thoughtless husband, I do not freely choose mercy as an ultimate authority. Nor is my mercy effective to bring about my desired results in the lives of my family.

But God has mercy upon whom he will have mercy. He has loved Jacob and hated Esau. And his grace accomplishes what he intends.

Further, we have to consider the fact that we are people under obligation to our gracious God. In spite of the controversy surrounding his application of how grace works, I still think Tullian Tchividjian's definition of what grace is can be helpful here: "Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver." But some would use that word--grace--and apply it to a human response. And we humans are never unobligated givers. In fact, we are obligated again and again by God in His word to do precisely the forgiving that so many would like to call "grace." When my brother sins against me, I am obligated to forgive him. And I am obligated to forgive him not once but seventy-times-seven. I am obligated to love my enemies because Jesus commands it. Jesus is never obligated to love his. 

Like the unmerciful servant, my own debt to God obligates me to mercy toward fellow-debtors. But God has no such debt, nor any such requirement. His grace is given from a position of unequaled authority--the judge of all the earth condescending to lowly rebels--while our human forgiveness is given from a position of mutual humility.

Finally, God's acts of grace always flow from an unchangingly gracious character.
In The Christian Faith, Michael Horton writes, "God remains gracious and merciful in his essence, even though the exercise and objects of his mercy are determined in absolute freedom. In other words, God is not free to decide whether he will be merciful and gracious, but he is free to decide whether he will have mercy on some rather than others . . . God is patient, but he is free to show his patience to whomever he chooses." Whether God bestows grace or withholds it, he is still and always the merciful and gracious one.

In my human, sin-plagued heart, no such essential graciousness flourishes. Instead, I am at war against the deeds of the flesh. And in the absence of forgiveness, bitterness takes root. In the absence of patience, impatience. In the absence of mercy, pride and anger. 
I am compelled to kindness toward sinners, for in those acts I overcome evil with good.
 
Ultimately, my own actions are merely a response to God's gracious actions toward me. And I don't call my human forgiveness "grace" because I want my children and husband to remember that grace is something distinct, something which they desperately need, but something which can only come from God himself.

In the end, it is the freeness of God's grace which most amazes. God had a choice about whose sins to cover, and he chose mine. Not because I was deserving or because he was obligated, not because he owes a debt, and certainly not because he would otherwise fail to be holy, but simply out of his good pleasure. Thanks be to God.

So, yes, let's forgive each other. Let's be patient and kind and cover with love a multitude of wrongs. Let's do those things as humble debtors, constrained by God's mercy and seeking after holiness. But, please, let's not call it "giving grace."

Megan Hill is a member of Pinehaven Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Clinton, Mississippi. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's Her.meneutics and to The Gospel Coalition. You can read her blog about ministry life at www.SundayWomen.com



Time heals all wounds?

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There seems to be a common misconception among believers, at least in my growing experience as a Christian and as a pastor. It is a misconception that I have seen and felt from various directions. It shows itself among husbands and wives, parents and children, church members toward one another and toward the church as a whole, brothers and sisters in Christ in different churches, and various other relationships.

Some particular sin is committed, some specific greater or lesser offence offered or received. (I am thinking more of this than of the gradual accumulation of distress caused by ignorant or ingrained behaviour over time, although they may be connected.) Division is created, either hidden or open. That sin, that offence, is like a splinter in the flesh, creating a persistently sore spot, perhaps even a festering wound, sensitive to every pressure. If you have had such a splinter in your flesh, you know that you might, over time, forget that it is there, precisely because no pressure is applied. You can learn, in measure, to protect the spot in question. And then, in some way and for some reason, pressure is exerted once more, and - yoicks! - do you remember that you have a splinter! The only way to deal with the tenderness and soreness, perhaps with the growing infection, is to remove the splinter. That can be a profoundly painful experience in itself, but at least it solves the problem.

So it is with sins and offences that cannot be covered with a blanket of love. Some pains and griefs will not die but keep creeping up into a relationship to turn it sour. The only way to deal with the pain and the division is to remove the splinter. Generally speaking, this does not just happen over time. But this is what many Christians seem to expect. A husband lies to his wife at a key moment, or insults her publicly, and the matter is never resolved. A wife steals from her husband under particular circumstances, or gossips about him, and the wound never heals. A parent strikes a child in sinful and uncontrolled anger, or indulges in a pattern of selfish neglect, and the matter rankles. A child hurls angry abuse at a parent, or betrays some particular trust, and the words or the deeds hang mouldering in the atmosphere. In such close-knit environments, the pressure is likely to be felt time and again, with the result that there may always be a simmering tension, an underlying rumble that suggests that the volcano might erupt at any moment. Another lie, another theft, another outburst of anger, and . . .  BOOM!

In other environments, the pressure may be less regular. A church member speaks harshly to another, and subsequently avoids that person for months to come. But then they are necessarily thrown closely together, and the wound is found to have festered and there is a spirit of bitter recrimination. A man leaves the church having sat with a face like thunder through countless sermons, hurling insults and abuses at the elders as he goes. Later, a pastor is preaching away, and - behold! - the face of the offender in the congregation, with the immediate resurgence of all the old pains for the man of God. And then, at the door, to be greeted like an old friend by that very man! A couple leave a congregation, having laid various charges against the saints and with significant and sore unfinished business. A decade later, there is a crisis in their life or in the life of someone to whom they used to be close, and they pitch up and expect themselves or others to pitch in as if nothing has happened. A pastor speaks cuttingly and carelessly and unrepentantly, privately or publicly, and a wounded sheep wanders from the flock. Months later, that sheep attends a conference and there is that man preaching on the love of Christ, and the bile rises in the victim's throat.

The simple passage of time does not heal such wounds. Even in the relationship of God with men, God's forgetting of our sins is a deliberate putting away - under specific circumstances and with good grounds - of that which has caused offence. It is not a gradual fog that gathers due to unavoidable gaps in the divine mind. The matter is there until repentance and forgiveness deals with it, and then it is cast into the depths of the sea. On a human level, the passage of time may dull the immediate pain of the splinter, only for it to flare up when pressure is re-applied. And yet how many of us seem to think or hope that if we just leave our sin or the sins of others alone, maybe the wound will heal? To be sure, it may temporarily scab over, but the slightest movement at that particular point will re-open the injury, and perhaps reveal not just the original cut but a developed infection.

How, then, do we remove the splinter? How do we heal the wound? It is not by ignoring it and hoping that it will get better by itself. It is not by pretending that nothing is wrong. It is not by mentally downgrading the offence and hoping that it all gets better. It is not by saying sorry (this may be a topic for another post, but there is a difference between being and even saying sorry, and seeking forgiveness - you can be very sorry that something has happened without repenting of your sin). It is not by positive thinking.

The way to address it is to identify the splinter, and then to remove it or to allow it to be removed. The wound must be opened, lanced if necessary, the balm of forgiveness poured in, and the whole injury properly bound up.

If you are the offended party, that may require that you graciously identify with the offender where the offence lies, as they may have genuinely forgotten it, may have no sense that they have sinned or caused offence, or may simply be hoping you have not remembered it, or that it will go away. You should consider whether or not it is genuinely a matter of sin against you, or if you simply have an excessive sensitivity at some point. Should the time come to address the matter, you would want to do so not in a spirit of vindictiveness or bitterness, but with a disposition of readiness to extend forgiveness when it is sought. And, should forgiveness be sought, that is the moment at which to extend it in a Christian spirit, fully and freely (Eph 4:32). If your sincere offer of forgiveness to any sincerely repentant approach is rebuffed, you can at least stand with a clear conscience (Rom 12:18).

If you are the offending party, it may mean first of all that you face up to your sinful behaviour. There may be something that is lying on your conscience, and has been for many months or even years, and you need to address it. There may be ignorance about the matter, but there may come a point at which it is pointed out to you, and you need to consider the charge. You may simply be too bullheaded to acknowledge your sin, and that needs to change. There may be something which you are, on your knees before God, persuaded was not sin, but which has still led to some degree of distance and difficulty in a relationship. Whether it is something that you need to raise, or something that has been raised with you, go and deal with the matter in all humility (Phil 2:1-4). Go and repent of your particular sins particularly, dealing with them before God and men, remembering that the blood of Christ cleanses from all transgressions, and sincerely seeking forgiveness not just vertically, in your relationship with the Lord, but horizontally, in your relationship with men. If your desire for and pursuit of reconciliation is rebuffed, you at least have a conscience void of offence.

As I have hinted, you cannot guarantee a righteous response when you seek to deal with these things. Perhaps some tenderness may remain if, from one side or the other, there is an unwillingness to seek and secure a righteous resolution. But you or I should do all that we can to remove the splinter, lance the boil, clean the wound, pour in the balm, bind up the injury, and go on in peace. Time alone will not accomplish this. It needs the tweezers of repentance to draw out the splinter, and the oil of forgiveness to soothe the hurt, not to mention the plaster of renewed affection to allow healing to go on. By God's grace, just as broken bones are stronger than before, so can such restored relationships be even sweeter and surer than they ever were.

The road to joy

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I have just returned from a very pleasant week of fellowship and ministry among the Reformed Presbyterians in Northern Ireland. It was my privilege to preach at the Knockbracken Bible Week, as well as at a men's meeting beforehand, and to the students at the Reformed Theological College during one of the days.

My appointed topic in Knockbracken was the joy of salvation. I was only able to develop it briefly, considering it first against the backdrop of the curse, then looking at justification both in terms of the forgiveness of sin and the granting of righteousness, then on to what it means to be called sons of God, then finally the unfailing God who is the eternal portion of the saints.

Though I had not particularly planned it, there was a particular theme which developed along the way. As the week advanced, I emphasised repeatedly the truth that our sense of the blessings of God is grounded not just in what we have been saved to but also in what we have been saved from. So our appreciation of the blessings in Christ are in large measure proportionate to our sense of the curse from which he has delivered us. The joy of sins forgiven will be commensurate with our grief at sins committed. Our delight in peace with God will hinge in large part on our sense that we have been at enmity with him. We will most appreciate being called sons of God when we recognise that we were by nature children of wrath. It is because our flesh and heart fail that there is sweetest relief in an unfailing God as the rock of our hearts and our portion forever.

Your entry into and experience of joy depends, then, largely on your honesty before God and with yourself and others. That begins with honesty about our misery, our sin, our rebellion, our nature and our weakness. It is only when we face these facts that we will begin to find corresponding peace with and delight in God known in Christ Jesus. As sinners - even as saved sinners - there is nothing to be gained by denying or downgrading the depth of our past and present deeds and needs. Rather, our guilt and weakness is the very backdrop against which the grace of God shines most brightly. The bitterness of our sin and frailty makes the sweetness of divine mercy all the more distinct.

That also means that it is incumbent upon ministers of the gospel to make plain what it means to be without God and without hope in the world, to be under the Lord's wrath and curse on account of our sinfulness of nature and sins in deed. There is no need - we might say, little possibility - for exaggeration. Such honesty not only drives sinners out of themselves to Christ, it also means that there will be a deep and true appreciation of the mercies of God in Christ, with all corresponding joy. Such honesty keeps the saints humble in themselves and close to God, conscious of their blessings in him alone. And all this while securing the glory of God as it brings to light the greatness of our so great salvation.

Many today - even in the church - want a gospel that has no shadows, but the good news exists and makes sense only in the context of the bad news. If we want the sick to run to the doctor seeking the right medicine, we need accurately to diagnose the disease and provide the prognosis. Repentance is the heart-cry of the sinner who has come to see his sin as God sees it, and mourns accordingly. Faith is the whole-souled casting of oneself upon Christ as we confess that there is no hope in anyone or anything else. Christ's atonement is not therapy for the lightly troubled. It is life from death. That life is all the more valued and its Giver all the more exalted when the awful nature of death is properly appreciated. Everyone seems to want joy, but few seem ready to pay the price of sorrow beforehand.

It is the darkness of the night that makes the dawn precious. It is the torment of pain that makes relief so sweet. It is the misery of sickness that makes recovery so valued. It is the grief of lostness that makes being found so wonderful. It is the emptiness of self that makes the fullness of Christ so delightful. It is the horror of the curse that makes the blessing of salvation so great. It is the weight of sin's burden that makes its removal so overwhelming. It is the pain of rebellion that makes peace so dear. It is the distance of being cast out that makes the nearness of being drawn in so enticing. It is the frailty of the creature that throws the might and mercy of the Creator and Redeemer into sharp relief.

There are no short cuts to such joy. We should not seek them or offer them. Preach the truth to bring sinners to an end of themselves and to send them to Christ. Face the truth that strips you of all hope outside of God's gracious provision. Then run to the Lord Jesus and find in him all that you will need for salvation, in time and for eternity, and there you will find joy indeed.

Results tagged “forgiveness” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 15.5,6, part two

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v. Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man's duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins particularly.

vi. As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy; so he that scandalizeth his brother, or the Church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended; who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.

Public and private repentance

Having explained the difference between general and particular repentance, the Confession goes on to remind us of the Bible's teaching about private and public repentance. We must always confess our sin to God, privately (at least) and perhaps sometimes publicly. We see confession of sin again and again in Psalm 51. David cannot help but to cry out to God, for it is against God first that he has sinned. It is his cry to his Lord that he would be cleansed and that the sins that haunted him would be hidden away (Ps. 51:4-5, 7, 9, 14). We see the same in Psalm 32, where the king acknowledges his sin to God, covering nothing. He confesses his 'transgressions to the LORD' and urges 'everyone who is godly' to pray to God while he may be found (Ps. 32:5-6).

The good news is that when we forsake our sin, we will find mercy. It is a sound proverb that 'he who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy' (Prov. 28:13). As the Apostle John once wrote, and as Christians have often recalled, 'if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness' (1 John 1:9).

A private confession to God is a necessity. In his presence believers will always find mercy. But there are some cases, particularly when we have scandalized or hurt a brother or sister, when we ought to be willing to confess the sin to other people. A truly repentant person will not shrink from a true repentance before the one that has been wounded. A husband must be ready to confess his sin to his wife, a mother to her daughter. There is no need to publish our sins, especially some sins, for all to hear. But there is good reason to repent of our particular sins before those whom we have personally wounded. It is James who writes, 'confess your sins to each other and pray for each other' (James 5:16). The principle of meeting with people to discuss our sin is raised in the gospel of Luke as well (Lk. 17:3-4). So this is instruction we cannot afford to ignore. 

Nonetheless, what if we have sinned publicly? During dinner with friends witnessing our rude comments? In front of the family when we lose self control? What if our behaviour has led the name of Christ to be tarnished in the whole community, or in his church. In such a case we are in Achan's situation. Everyone already knows what we've done, so we had better confess the act ourselves, as sin - no matter what the consequences. In Achan's case, the confession did not help him to escape his penalty. But he was assured that in his public death-row confession, he was giving glory to God (Josh. 17:9). Maybe it is that sort of public confession we see in one of David's Psalms, where the very title of his Psalm publicly announces that he had committed adultery with his neighbour's wife (Ps. 51:1).

However, we cannot end here. Just as we were reminded that God will forgive those who repent of their sins to him, we are told that we need to forgive those who repent of their sins to us - whether privately or publicly. When a brother or sister or neighbour repents of their sin, we must be reconciled. More than that, we must receive them in love. We need to be ready to forgive and comfort, as Paul urged the Corinthians to do, lest anyone be 'overwhelmed by excessive sorrow'. We need to reaffirm our love to those who repent (2 Cor. 2:7-8). And in doing so, we will be showing the same mercy to others that our Father in heaven has shown to us in Christ.

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.