Stumbling on a Two-Way Street
Sin is a two-way street. There is the offender and the offended. We may not think of sin in those terms, especially in instances where we are the offended party. But the truth of the matter is that we bear the burden of responding to sin in a Christlike manner whether we play the role of villain or victim (Eph. 4:32).
Scan the moral landscape of today's evangelical church and it is readily apparent that preaching or teaching that we sin (or, worse, that there is such a thing as 'sin' at all) is becoming increasingly outmoded. Oh, sure, we'll concede that we make mistakes. Of course, we do. After all, "nobody's perfect" right? But to suggest that we sin? Well, that's so...so...Old Testament; so...Moses on Mount Sanai...so...judgmental and disgracious.
This somewhat passive approach to the sins you and I commit is, I believe, a by-product of our collectively treating so casually the fact that we are sinners--violators of God's law-- as opposed to mere "mistake-makers" (Rom. 3:23). That being said, this commentary isn't about sin, necessarily. Well, it is but, then, again, it isn't. It's actually about forgiveness. But any true understanding of the importance of forgiveness in the life of the Christian begins with an understanding of the significance of sin; because it is sin that necessitates forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:9). If no sin has been committed, then, no forgiveness is required.
There is an irony in that, ordinarily, you and I are inclined to view forgiveness in terms of an obligatory gesture of contrition owed to us by someone who has wronged us. But there is a flip-side to forgiveness in that we should not view it solely within the context of one's moral or ethical indebtedness to us, but as Christ did, as a gift, a benefit, a blessing to be volitionally and unreservedly bestowed on those who, like you and me, are wholly undeserving of it (Ps. 103:10; Dan. 9:9; Eph. 1:7; Col. 3:13). As the 19th century preacher and theologian Charles Spurgeon truthfully exclaimed:
"You are nothing better than deceitful hypocrites if you harbor in your minds a single unforgiving thought. There are some sins which may be in the heart, and yet you may be saved. But you cannot be saved unless you are forgiving. If we do not choose to forgive, we choose to be damned."
As sinners, we often find it difficult to forgive other sinners. One would think, given this universal spiritual nexus we all share, that the very opposite would be the case--namely, that forgiving those who sin against us would be easy or, at least, easier since we all share the same sin-nature (1 Kin. 8:46a; Ps. 14:3, 53:3; Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:10). One of the primary reasons why we find forgiveness so arduous an undertaking is that sin is weighty (Rom. 6:23; 1 Tim. 1:15; 1 Pet. 3:18). It is our sin that cost the Son of God His life on the cross (Jn. 3:16; Mk. 15:24-25).
Sin and forgiveness are inextricably connected insofar as the fact that you and I are sinners is not only a declaration of what we are in terms of our spiritually-depraved condition (Eph. 2:1), but also of the kind of fruit we are capable of as a result of that condition (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 7:18, 24). The Puritan theologian Thomas Watson underscores this truth quite unambiguously in his book The Doctrine of Repentance in that:
"Sin is like the usurer who feeds a man with money and then makes him mortgage his land. Sin feeds the sinner with delightful objects and then makes him mortgage his soul. Judas pleased himself with thirty pieces of silver, but they proved deceitful riches. Ask him now how he likes his bargain."
In the fall of 1995, the Christian band DC Talk released the album Jesus Freak which contained the introspective What If I Stumble?, the chorus of which poses some very sobering questions for Christians to consider concerning sin and forgiveness:
I mentioned earlier that sin is a two-way street. Consequently, so is forgiveness. For not only when we are sinned against do we have the opportunity to forgive - regardless if it is requested or not - but when we sin against others, for it is when you and I stumble and fall (and we will) that we are reminded of the Christlike humility we are obligated and expected to display toward others (Matt. 18:21-22) when the roles are reversed (as they undoubtedly will be). As Thomas Watson reminds us in The Godly Man's Picture:
"A humble soul thinks better of others than of himself (Phil. 2:3). A humble man values others at a higher rate than himself, and the reason is because he can see his own heart better than he can another's. He sees his own corruption and thinks surely it is not so with others; their graces are not so weak as his; their corruptions are not so strong. `Surely', he thinks, 'they have better hearts than I.' A humble Christian studies his own infirmities and another's excellences and that makes him put a higher value upon others than himself."
Reflecting for a moment on the words of the chorus above, ask yourself the following questions:
How will you respond when the walk of someone you care about stumbles and falls? When his or her walk with Christ becomes a crawl? When they let you down by not living up to an expectation you had of them? When they fail to follow through on a commitment they made? When he or she is caught in an adulterous relationship? Or when you find out your closest friend has been gossiping about you? What then? As you consider these questions, consider also these words from Thomas Watson who, in The Art of Divine Contentment, exhorts us to:
"Look upon the unkindness of your friend and mourn for your own unkindness against God. Shall a Christian condemn that in another which he has been too guilty of himself?"
Forgiveness is a cross those who claim the name of Christ must be willing to bear and with joy (Lk. 9:23; Rom. 15:13).
As believers of and cross-bearers with Jesus, the question is never if you and I will stumble and fall but when and to what extent we stumble. We know this in principle, of course, though perhaps less so in practice. But forgiving those who wrong us actually can be a source of God-exalting joy when we understand that the ultimate goal of forgiveness is our sanctification, that is, to be conformed to the image of the One who forgave - and continues to forgive - you and me (Eph. 1:7).