Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Forgive and Forget?

[This post follows a sermon titled "From Forgiven to Forgiving."]

There are times, as a preacher, when I have a clear sense that what I will say is particularly relevant.  Three important Sundays come to mind in this respect.  The first was April 18, 2004.  Six days prior I had been called to a 9 PM meeting of all the pastoral staff of the church where I served.  That night, it was revealed that our pastor had sinned such that he must resign.  Obviously, he would not be preaching on the following Sunday, and my brothers asked me to fill the pulpit.  My text for the day was Hebrews 12:1-3.  I don't remember much about that day or about what I said (except when I look back at my notes).  However, I distinctly remember feeling the weight of preaching in the wake of such a tragic moment in the life of the church.

The second was July 22, 2007.  The setting was a different church, but having been there for almost two years, I was convinced that we needed God to breathe a reviving wind into our congregation.  Though my normal pattern is to preach through books or sections of books in the Bible, I broke from my pattern that day to preach on Ezekiel 37...the famous vision of the valley of dry bones.  I look back on those notes, and I remember the weight of that day as well.  It was challenging as we considered the dryness of our live, but it was encouraging as we turned our eyes to the God who brings times of refreshing.

The third was two days ago.  Though God did use a circumstance to prompt a change in my preaching pattern again, it was not a change to address a tragedy.  It was a change to address something that is very hard for all of us...forgiving one another.  The text was Matthew 18:21-35 (the parable of the unforgiving servant), and again, I felt the weight of its relevance...in my own life and for all who would hear.  After all, what spouse has never been tempted to hold the past over the head of the other (though repentance and confession has taken place)?  Who has never been tempted to think of "that hurt" when "that person" walks in the room, though forgiveness has been extended?

[Pause for commercial break] There is much that could be said in this arena, but I will have to limit what I say to a "blog-sized" thought.  For more on forgiveness, I would recommend the following resources:
  • From Forgiven to Forgiving by Jay Adams - I should publicly say that it is no coincidence that my sermon has this title...I intentionally borrowed Jay's.  Jay makes the case, quite well, that forgiveness is not a feeling...it is a promise.  This is a critical distinction in our feelings-driven culture.  So, if you find yourself saying something like "I don't feel like forgiving" or "I don't feel like I have forgiven," this book would be beneficial.
  • Unpacking Forgiveness by Chris Brauns - Brauns works through the topic of forgiveness by addressing lots of great questions.  Here are a few: Should I just get over it?  How should I respond to the unrepentant?  How can I conquer bitterness?  How can I stop thinking about it?  These are important questions to think through.
  • Relationships: A Mess Worth Making by Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp - This is not a book primarily about forgiveness but about relationships (in case you were having trouble decoding its mysterious title).  However, within the wide range of issues associated with relationships, Lane and Tripp deal with sin, mercy, and forgiveness.  I have benefited greatly from their other books, and while I have not read this one, it's on my list.
  • Forgiveness: Showing Grace When You Have Been Hurt by Rob Green - For those who think a whole book might be too much, this booklet gets to the point and is very practical.
  • What Do You Do When Your Marriage Goes Sour? by Jay Adams - This is another booklet, and it includes an explanation of the three promises we make when we forgive.  I have several in my office if you'd like to have one.
[Back to our regularly scheduled blog]  When it comes to forgiveness, it is a common thing to hear the phrase "forgive and forget."  It is also common to hear people speak about not having a problem forgiving but having a big problem forgetting.  I think this is a good place to stop and think for a few minutes.

How does one possibly forget a wrong done?  How do you put it out of your mind?  How can you erase the memory?  In 2002, I was treated unjustly by my senior pastor, and as a result, my family suffered for it.  Even as I type this blog, I can remember the events of that day as clearly as the day it happened.  What am I doing wrong?

These are good questions, and in order to get the right answer, it's important we have the right definition of "forget"...a definition shaped by the teaching of the Bible.  I am convinced that, when it comes to forgiven sins, the biblical concept of forgetting is not the same as me failing to get milk at the grocery store because my mental recall failed (something that happens all too frequently).  So, let me take you to two texts (one from the NT, one from the OT) to get a grip on what it means to forget.
  • 2 Peter 1:9 - "For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins."  Here we have a prime example of forgetting.  Prior to this verse, Peter lists qualities that should be increasing in the life of the believer: virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love.  These are the qualities that will keep Christians from being "ineffective" or "unfruitful." 

    Then, in verse 9, if we lack them, we're nearsighted to the point of blindness, "having forgotten" that we were forgiven of our sins.  Here, Peter does not mean that our mind has gone blank...that information which was in our mind is no longer there.  No, what Peter means is that we are living as if we had never been forgiven.  So, "forgetting" something here means that this something (i.e.- the forgiveness of sins) is no longer affecting the way we think or live.
  • Jeremiah 31:34b - "For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more."  If Peter's "forget" didn't quite land in your mind, then this verse will certainly help.  Here, the Lord is speaking through Jeremiah about the new covenant...that new covenant which was signed, sealed, and delivered by the blood of Christ.  Part of the blessing of the new covenant is the final atonement for sin.  Our sin is fully and finally forgiven on the basis of Christ's death in our place.  We are off the hook...we are not liable anymore.  And here, the Lord speaks of the fullness of this forgiveness when He says, "I will remember their sin no more." 

    Certainly, we should not think that the all-knowing God loses track of some knowledge or that His memory lapsed.  If that's the case, then how does God "remember...sin no more"?  The answer is similar to what we saw in Peter.  God does not "remember" sin...God "forgets" sin...in that our sin no longer affects His relationship to us.  He does not remember our sin against us.  He will not hold our sin against us; He will not make us pay.  He has done everything necessary to make the payment for our sin in Christ, and no further payment is necessary.  Because of Christ, our sin is forgiven and forgotten.
To recap...what does the Bible mean to "forget" something?  It means that the thing forgotten no longer has any bearing on the situation.  So, forgetting our sins have been forgiven means that God's forgiveness is not defining the way we live.  God not remembering our sins means that our sins no longer define God's relationship to us.  In both cases, there are things forgotten.

In our relationships with one another, we should think about forgiving and forgetting in the same way.  When we forgive, we let people off the hook.  We have experienced real pain, real hurt, but when we forgive, we are declaring that the other person will not be held liable for that pain.  When we forget, we are saying that even when the events of this day come to my memory, I will not hold them against you.  I will not let the forgiven past dictate my relationship to you.

In doing these things, we are not condoning sin anymore than God condones the sin He forgives and forgets.  We are not saying "It's okay" (which is the wrong way to respond to an apology, by the way).  We are actually saying, "It's not okay, my pain is real and deep, but because you are repentant, and because of the greater mercy I have received from God, I release you from liability toward me, and I promise not to hold it against you (publicly or privately) from this point on."  In other words, "I forgive you."

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Applying Philippians 3 to Our Lives

[This entry follows a sermon titled "That I May Know Him."]

In Philippians 1, the apostle Paul tells his readers that they must contend side by side for the sake of the gospel.  They must defend it and advance it in the midst of adverse conditions.  In chapter 3, we get a glimpse of this glorious gospel.  Paul describes what it is to be part of the "real circumcision"...the true people of God...truly Christian.  He says that they are those who worship by the Spirit of God, glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh (v. 3).  From this point, the apostle gives a glorious exposition of what it means to put no confidence in the flesh and glory in Christ Jesus (v. 3-11).

If anyone could boast in their life, Paul could.  In verses 5-6, he writes that he was "circumcised on he eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless."

The apostle Paul was known as Saul before he became "the apostle Paul."  Saul's Jewish heritage was second to none.  He was born into the right family, and that family was full of religious devotion.  Saul was circumcised on the 8th day, per Genesis 17, and his family made sure he knew the Jewish language (Hebrew) and Jewish custom.  He was, truly, a Hebrew of Hebrews.

Not only was his heritage right, his life was right.  He took great pains in living a religious life.  Saul was a strict student and teacher of the law of God; he would let no one twist God's words and get away with it.  He zealously defended the reputation of God's people, especially against this new religious group called the Christians.  Finally, Saul obeyed when he ought to obey, and where he sinned, he atoned in the way he ought to atone.

However, this grand spiritual resume...all this gain...looked different after the resurrected Jesus came and spoke to him (see Acts 9).  Saul saw that none of this so-called "gain" made for a solid foundation on which to stand before God.  He saw that, in depending on his heritage and his religious effort, he was actually trying to build his house on sinking sand.  All that he once counted gain, he now sees as loss (v. 7-8).

Rather than looking to himself and putting confidence in his flesh, this new man now looked to Jesus Christ in faith.  He gloried in Christ Jesus.  Through faith in Christ, Saul was counted righteous, made right with God, called to be an apostle of Christ, and eventually, he became known as Paul.  God had opened his eyes.  Thus, the apostle Paul was born...or, more accurately, born again...and we are all still benefiting from his work.

It really is a glorious text, and the truth of this text is one we must come back to over and over again.  Specifically, in Sunday's sermon, I reminded our congregation that we must never fall into the trap of putting confidence in our great spiritual heritage or our spiritual efforts.  Both can be great gifts of God's grace, but neither are a sufficient grounds for being made right with God.  Only Christ and His atoning death suffice for that!

These truths are part of what is called the doctrine of justification.  Justification is the truth that on the ground of Christ's atoning death, God forgives sinners and proclaims them righteous in His sight when they trust in Christ alone.  Think of it as a great exchange.  Trusting in Christ, all our sin was laid on Him, and all His righteousness is laid on us.  He took the eternal curse we deserved, and we got the eternal blessing He deserved.  Christ was forsaken by the Father, so that we could be received by the Father.  God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).  What a sweet truth it is!

But it's also a practical truth.  Allow me to list a few practical applications of this doctrine as seen in Philippians 3.  I pray they are as meaningful and beneficial to you as they are to me.
  • Just as we must not count on our spiritual heritage, we must not count ourselves out if we don't have one.  This struck me afresh yesterday as I listened to two sermons: one by Alistair Begg and one by Voddie Baucham.  Both men spoke at the same pastors' conference in 2008, and I have been listening to its contents of late.  Alistair Begg has a great spiritual heritage; I remember him speaking of sitting in the pew as a boy with his father pointing to Bible verses as the pastor would read.  His parents were great Christian influences in his life.  On the other hand, Voddie Baucham was raised, as he says, in drug-infested, gang-infested, south central Los Angeles by a single, teenage, Buddhist mother.  No gospel influence there!  Yet, both of these men, by God's grace, are being used to for His glory in gospel ministry.  Just as Alistair Begg cannot count on his spiritual heritage, Voddie Baucham cannot count himself out.  And neither should you...if that's your story.
  • We must be careful not to boast in our standing before God, but in Christ who has died for us.  I realize that for some, it may seem that I am splitting hairs by making this distinction, but I think it's an important distinction to make.  It's a hair that needs splitting.  Why?  Because thinking of oneself as a "true Christian" can become a source of arrogance.  We think about the world and the grave sinfulness of man, and we are tempted to think, "I'm so glad I'm not like all of those people!"  Suddenly, we are one of the characters in Jesus' story about two men praying in the temple, but we're the wrong one (see Luke 18:9-14).  Yes, it is a great blessing to be forgiven and to be counted righteous.  Yes, we live our lives in the full knowledge of these things.  But no, we do not boast in them...we do not think ourselves superior because of them...because we had nothing to do with them!  It was all Christ; we must boast in Christ.  We must not boast in the gift of righteousness but in the Giver of righteousness...the Righteous One! Paul wants to know nothing among his listeners but Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).  He wants to boast in nothing but the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 6:14).
  • Parents must look to this text and find relief...but not relief from our responsibility.  Raising children is a heart-wrenching exercise.  One day, we are rejoicing at the progress we see.  The next day, we wonder if the progress we once saw was just an illusion.  It's three steps forward, two steps back, two steps back, two steps back, one step forward, two steps back, three steps forward...you get the idea.  When we parents remember that a sterling spiritual heritage is no guarantee of being right with God...and we remember that a sub-par spiritual heritage is no guarantee of not being right with God...then we should praise God and stop believing our children are doomed because we forgot family devotions last week.  [Just to be clear...this also means that getting it all right, all the time, in every way, with every devotional, every bedtime prayer, being at church every time the doors are open, etc., etc., ad nauseum, is no guarantee of salvation or spiritual maturity.]

    Of course, this does not mean that we are relieved of our responsibility.  We are to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).  We are to constantly look for opportunities to teach them...in both formal and informal settings (Deut. 6:4-9).  We have the devotions, we pray with and for our children, we have them involved at church, we seek to teach and model, etc.  But we are to do so realizing that we are merely God's fellow workers in our children's lives.  We will plant the seed of the gospel, and we will water it with all the influence we are granted.  However, it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:5-9).

    For those of you who are now empty nesters, take refuge in the truth of this text.  Did you fail?  Did you fail heinously?  It's quite possible.  You may need to go to your adult child and confess your failures and seek his forgiveness for not being the mother or father God called you to be.  However, your parental failures cannot stop the power of God from transforming your child's life, so stop torturing yourself.  Likewise, your parental successes cannot help God transform your child; while God uses means for His work, He needs no help.

    No matter where we are on the parenting spectrum, this text is both freeing and humbling.  It is freeing for us who are overly discouraged by our failures, and it is humbling for us who are over encouraged by our successes.  And it drives all of us to our knees to pray that God would give our children power to comprehend His love for them in Christ (Eph. 3:14-19).
I think the list could go on, but I will stop here.  The point is this...the truth of justification by faith alone is relevant.  It is not merely a doctrine for ivory tower theologians to debate.  It is a doctrine which communicates the gospel to us, and it is a doctrine that gives us encouragement and help as we live for Christ.