Thursday, March 18, 2010

Forgive. . . or Else!

Forgive. It's a biblical teaching that is absolutely clear. Read these verses:
12 'And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 'And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.]' 14 "For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 "But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:12–15, NASB95)
21 Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21–22, NASB95)
32 "Then summoning him, his lord said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 'Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?' 34 "And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 "My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart." (Matthew 18:32–35, NASB95)
If those were the only verses about forgiveness, it would still be quite clear that God intends that we forgive people who sin against us. There are three questions about forgiveness that deserve consideration. They certainly aren't the only questions, but they are three that touch on the major issues we must work through to succeed at forgiving.

The first question goes something like this: "Since only God can actually forgive sins, is it really our responsibility to forgive anyone?" There is a sense in which only God can forgive sins. Taken this way, it really doesn't matter what you or I do with the sins of other people. If I choose to forgive or not to forgive, what matters is whether God forgives. It wouldn't matter whether or not we forgive at all, except for the fact that the Bible teaches that we should forgive. That alone settles this question. That we are to forgive may puzzle or confuse you as to the reasons or other questions, but scripture is clear that we are to forgive.

The second question reflects variations on Peter's question about forgiveness. "How many times must I forgive someone?" That simplified answer is easy enough. Take however many times you think would be gracious plenty and multiply it by seventy. Even then, most scholars would probably say the point isn't the specific number of opportunities taken to offer forgiveness to a person, but that however often forgiveness is needed, that's how many times forgiveness is to be given. But I said "variations" on Peter's question because other questions about forgiveness are related to this one. For example, there is the question about the nature of the sin and the extent of forgiveness. Here's what I mean. "Isn't that sin so bad, it's just hard to forgive?" It's a variation on the 'how many times' question. There may be other ways to ask this question, but the basic idea is that a particular person, because of the nature of their sins, somehow has gone beyond forgiveness. This is particularly true if the sin has affected us seriously, or if it's one of those sins that we dislike very much.

The third question begs a difference between our sins and the sins of others. This is reflected in the story Jesus told about the two servants. The first owed a debt to his master that he would never be able to repay, yet the master forgave his debt. That servant was owed a much smaller sum by another servant, but the forgiven servant was unwilling to forgive his fellow slave. Instead he demanded that this fellow pay up. Because of his unwillingness to forgive as he had been forgiven, the master ultimately withdrew his forgiveness.

Possibly, this third problem is the greatest of all. Not that either of the first two are minor in any respect, but the idea of comparing one's own sins to the sins of others is a huge problem. Each of us wants to view our own sins as minor, but the sins of others are enormous. It's the way we tend to look at things. I've offered this idea on several occasions and often it has been met with skepticism. It seems that people would rather deny that it's true. Even if they accept the basic idea, they prefer to think that other people may have this problem, but not them. I would humbly suggest that we think hard on this one, and be willing to accept something we don't want to admit.

We struggle with each of the three questions. We all would like to think it doesn't matter whether we forgive or not. After all, God will take care of all the forgiving that's needed. Well, except for the fact that God himself teaches us that's not true. He expects us to forgive. Yes, God's forgiveness will ultimately matter far more, but it doesn't mean our forgiveness is without purpose.

We also struggle with variations on the theme of 'how many times must I forgive.' After all, some people just don't seem to deserve it, or have exceeded any reasonable expectation of being forgiven, or they've stressed us to the breaking point and we feel we don't have any forgiveness left. Whenever we reach that point, remember to multiply your forgiveness efforts. That is what Jesus expected.

We also struggle with thinking that our sins are minor and other's sins are major. Because of that, we struggle to offer to them the forgiveness they need. We don't seem to recognize the nature of sin. We love to categorize sins into big ones and little ones. Read passages where sins are listed and quite often you'll see some that we consider minor right beside others we consider awful. Division into big sins and little sins is an artificial thing.

I can illustrate from the Ten Commandments. One of the commands was to remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Two others are do not murder and do not commit adultery. Those last two are huge. The first doesn't seem nearly as bad. Failing to observe the Sabbath Day and keep it holy was on par with murder. Listen to James' observation on violating the Law:
10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 For He who said, "DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY," also said, "DO NOT COMMIT MURDER." Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10–11, NASB95)
All I did was use one of the other of the ten commands. The point being simply that each sinner ought to consider the serious nature of their sins. We all need forgiveness. We cannot excuse ourselves as less needy, when our sins result in the same need of forgiveness. If God is willing to forgive us, why are we so unwilling to forgive others? Is it because our sin is less offensive than theirs?

Here's the bottom line on forgiveness according to the Bible: either we forgive or we will not be forgiven. Stated another way, It's forgive, or else! Perhaps forgiving is more important than we think.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Community Of Sinners

I wrote a CrossTies article that will appear in our upcoming Sunday bulletin, and then published to the CrossTies mailing list .  In it I used a quote from Eugene Peterson.  I want to reuse that quote here and write in a slightly different direction.  I think he has identified a major issue for today's church.
The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called "pastor" and given a designated responsibility ... to keep the community attentive to God.  –  Eugene H. Peterson, Leadership, Vol. 9, no. 4
I think we know that Peterson is correct when he calls churches, "communities of sinners."  But I'm not sure we practice this community of sinners thing nearly like we should.  Instead, it appears that many Christians work overtime to deny the truth that we are redeemed sinners, and that we are people who still struggle with sin.  At the very best, a church, any church, is a group of sinners seeking help.  We're lost, condemned people looking for salvation.  We're wrong-doers who have hurt ourselves and others.  We're the ones who violated God's will, and any guilt or consequence God sends our way is just and right.  Despite the common attitude that prevails among people today, we're really not victims, we're perpetrators.

The problem?  Many "good Christians" sit in the church assemblies on Sunday, dressed in their finest, and acting as if they are above it all.  "Sin?  Oh, yes, well that's something we might have done at one point in our lives, but even then it wasn't really that bad."  They seem to work hard to leave the impression that they have left it all behind, small and insignificant as it was.  I have known people who openly, verbally, claimed to have no sin.  They firmly believed that they no longer did anything wrong.  While making that claim, they could be some of the most unloving, hard-hearted people you'd ever want to meet, but don't bother telling them.

Could this be the problem when churches become overly concerned with the "kind" of people we want to be members of our congregations?  I've heard the comments made.  "Well, we just don't want 'those' people in our church."  Sometimes that was said because "those" people were of a different race, but just as frequently it was said because "those" people were of a different class, or lifestyle, or some other distinction that involved the way they lived.  In other words, there was something deemed "sinful" about "those" people that made them undesirable.

Here's what I know about the church.  The church is made up of saved people.  It's impossible to be a part of the church Jesus died for, unless one has been saved from their sins.  Oh, you can attend services, and maybe even get your name on a roll somewhere, but I'm talking about real membership.  Only sinners can be saved, and only the saved make up the church.  Of course, scripture makes it clear that all of us fit into the category of sinner, and so we're all eligible for membership, but we're talking about one's perception of themselves that doesn't always match reality.  So, if you're a member of local church somewhere, and a member of the larger body of Christ, something is true that you need to acknowledge.  You are a redeemed sinner.

I know something else about redeemed sinners.  While following Jesus should, hopefully, lead you into a life in which you put away the sins you find present in your life, you will be in a constant and continuing struggle against both temptation and sin.  We need to wrestle with passages like this one:
1 John 1:5-10 This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. NASB95
We need to deal with the text here.  First, nobody should expect to purposely "walk in the darkness" and be in fellowship with Lord.  That makes a mockery of our redemption.  The ideal would always be that Christians live a sin-free life.  The problem is not in any effort to avoid and live a sinless life.  That is always the God-desired, ideal life.

But the Bible is also practical.  John knew the reality of human life.  That's why in the next breath, John says, "if we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us."  In other words, it's possible for a people who are walking in the light to sin.  The difference between the one in the darkness and the one in the light, is that the one in the light recognizes his/her sin and keeps seeking forgiveness from the Lord.  Forgiveness here is for those who confess their sins, not for those who hide or deny their sins.  John goes on, "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us."  That last statement ought to get the attention of every Christian who puts on the front that says, "Sinner?  Oh, no, not me.  You must mean those other people."

The church is a community of sinners, but it's much more.  It's a community of redeemed sinners!  It's a community of hope.  The church ought to be the one group of people to whom anyone might look, not for solace or pity, but hope and an answer for sin.  We are the ones who ought to say to anyone, "Sin?  Oh, yes, I know all about that.  Let me tell you what God has done for all of us!"

See that guy in the three-piece suit?  See that lady with the cute hat and wearing the designer dress?  They're sinners.  Did you see yourself in the mirror this morning?  You're a sinner too.  Are you wondering about me?  I'll tell you quickly and truthfully, I am a sinner.  Oh, yes!  But there is hope for us all.  It's found in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  It's found in his resurrection from the dead.  He knows we're not perfect.  He wishes we knew it, and admitted it.  Jesus does his best work in people who acknowledge their problem.

So, community of sinners, what shall we do.  Continue to treat the church like it was a social club of some kind, or treat it like what it is?  We're really a community of sinners.  Redeemed to be sure, but a community of sinners nonetheless. 

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Passing the Torch: Honoring the Preachers Who Were My Greatest Influences

My good friend, Les Ferguson, Jr., reminded me of another friend's blog challenge in which he asked for us to say a few words about preachers who have influenced us along the way. The only problem with this idea is that I'm sure I will forget someone. I've known a lot of preachers. Many of them have influenced me in some way or another, but I'll try to mention a few that stand out.

The first one I can remember, unfortunately, goes unnamed. I was in the first or second grade when he was preaching in my hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. I'm pretty sure his first name was Richard. I'm also sure that God will remember him. He had one of those deep, booming voices, though I don't remember that he yelled at people. It's just that his voice carried in the way that some orators manage even without sound systems. I remember two things about this man. First, I had my tonsils out and he came to see me in the hospital. Some might not think that so strange, but I was just a kid, and I could have surely gone unnoticed and nobody would have complained. But he was there. Second, I still remember his hand on my head, and in that deep voice he would say, "You're going to become a fine preacher one of these days, aren't you?" I would laugh and dash out of reach. But maybe, just maybe, a seed was planted.

The next preacher who had an influence on me was Cecil May, Jr. Cecil preached a meeting in my home town when I was a Junior in high school. At that point in time, all my friends at church were already baptized, but not me. I was the proverbial holdout! But in the spring of that year, I signed up for a Bible Correspondence Course from the Billy Graham Crusade, completed every lesson, and corresponded with my teacher in several letters. I had questions. The answers I got were not completely satisfactory. Then Cecil came to town and preached that meeting. I remember the conversation I had with myself, the struggle to choose, decide. Cecil's lessons that week helped greatly. He continued to be a major influence in my life. He sang at my wedding along with a group from the church in Vicksburg. He probably would have done the wedding, but my wife wanted the singers, so Cecil sang bass instead of doing the ceremony. A few years later, it was Cecil who encouraged me to drop my unrealistic desire to attend Harding University and opt for the White's Ferry Road School of Biblical Studies. Not that either of us had a problem with Harding, but by then I had acquired not only a wife, but two children, and financially it was smarter to go to White's Ferry Road. It was a great choice! Cecil has been a continuing influence on me since, in many ways. I'm glad he's been such a great part of my life.

I'm tempted to mention all the men who taught at the White's Ferry Road School of Biblical Studies, but that would take too much room. I will say that every one of them played a great part. I will mention two. Percy Keene was a wonderful teacher and mentor. I met Percy when he preached in Natchez, Mississippi. My brother and his family lived there and attended where Percy was the preacher. He was a kind, friendly man, but I didn't know at the time what a great influence he would be. Later, when I went to visit and check out the school at White's Ferry Road, I discovered Percy had become one of the instructors. Conversations with him proved to be the scale-tipper. Over the next several years, until his death, he was not only a teacher and mentor, but a friend I called on many times. He was full of stories, loved to laugh, spouted great wisdom, and believed that I could do far more than I ever thought possible.

The other instructor from White's Ferry Road is a fellow named Bill Smith. Students in classes ahead of mine would fill you with fear and dread of Bill Smith! I discovered a man who was a true student of God's word, and who challenged his students to think. I learned more Bible from Bill Smith than from anyone I've ever studied under. He killed a few sacred cows, and plowed new ground in my head. He introduced me to a kind of Bible study that I'd never known before. But he was never a source of fear. Those other students either didn't know him, or they were doing what many upper classmen do to the new guys, trying to spook them! Bill has always been a man who wanted his students to know God's word, and to be able to communicate it to others.

Thought I never studied under Richard Rogers in a school setting, Richard was another preacher whom I loved to hear. He taught sessions for something like 25 or more years straight at the Tulsa Workshop, and every year I made it a point to attend his lectures. I bought his audio and video tapes, and books. Richard was one of those men with the gift of teaching and I never heard him speak a word without learning something new, or seeing something old more clearly than before.

There have been many more. Ted Brooks, who preached in Riverdale, Georgia when I preached in Forrest Park was a good friend during a very bad time. We met weekly for lunch and Bible study. We sat together for hours and had those deep, personal discussions that produce a great deal of light. His personal friendship, encouragement and support has always meant more to me than I can fully explain.

I need to make a list because it's late and I'm tired, and I'm sure I could mention others. One thing I know. I've got some great teachers, mentors, and friends who have helped me learn, grow, and even recover from my own desperate mistakes. Without such men, I would never have known that Jesus came to save sinners like me, nor would I have ever been able to share that good news with others without their help.

So, "thank you" goes to many preachers. It just doesn't sound like it's enough, does it? Well, I'll let the Lord see to their reward. His will be far better than anything I could give them anyway.