Archive for October, 2010

Which is More Basic to the Gospel, Justice or Forgiveness?

I have been wrestling with the title question over the past few weeks. As a preacher, I find that it is very easy to present the gospel as if it is more basically about forgiveness, my forgiveness or your forgiveness, rather than justice. The problem that I keep running into when I fall into this trap is that I am making the gospel primarily about me or you but not God. So, I often come back to this question, “Which is more basic to the gospel, justice or forgiveness?”

Of course, from a technical stand point forgiveness involves justice; the problem is that we usually don’t think in technical terms. Typically, we think of forgiveness as just overlooking some injustice, or acting like it didn’t happen, or trying to forget that it actually did. Forgive and forget, that’s how we think about it. It seems our common notion of forgiveness has very little to do with justice at all.

Here is an illustration I have read somewhere (though I can’t remember where). When a kid hits his brother, we tell him to apologize and ask for forgiveness. Then we tell the brother to forgive him and move on as if nothing happened (and we often get frustrated when he doesn’t or can’t). When a bank forgives a loan it doesn’t just move on as if nothing happened. A bank can’t do this, there is a lot of money that is no longer there. Rather, a bank says I will take your deficiencies on myself and bear the cost for you (I am not saying banks do this joyfully or without insurance, I am just saying that’s how it actually works). Our common notion of forgiveness seems to teach that the money somehow just magically shows back up in the bank’s pocket when they forgive our debt, but it doesn’t. This is what we begin to see when we inject the notion of justice into our notion of forgiveness. When we ask a kid to forgive his brother for hitting him, we are asking him to take his brother’s deficiencies and bear the cost while continuing to love him.

God’s notion of forgiveness has everything to do with justice. 1 John 1.9 states, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (ESV). Paul tells us in Romans 3 that God put Christ Jesus forward as a propitiation by Jesus’ blood “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3.26, ESV). God is just, so he can only forgive his people for their sin because he punished Jesus for their sin. Our forgiveness is founded on God’s justice. When God forgives us, he is not just overlooking our sin. When God forgives us, he is taking our sin and all its consequences and bearing the cost for us. This is what Jesus did when he died.

This changes how I think about the gospel. If the gospel is more basically about my forgiveness, then the gospel is more basically about me. If the gospel is more basically about God’s justice on which my forgiveness is founded, then the gospel is more basically about God. If the gospel is more basically about my forgiveness, then God is more basically in this for my benefit, for my glory. If the gospel is more basically about God’s justice, then God is more basically in this for his glory. If God is in this for my glory, then he serves me. If God is in this for his glory, then I serve him.

| Permalink
Preachers Benefit from the Body Too

Last week, I wrote about the value of testing what preachers say against the Word, as the Bereans were said to do. That post focused on the value of making sure that what is said is in accord with the Word of God. The reason for this exercise flows from the fact that preachers are not infallible.

Today, after church, I was reminded of another way being a Berean is valuable. As much as preachers are not infallible they are also not comprehensive. Now, to be sure, a preacher who is doing his job well is doing everything he can to speak both truthfully and thoroughly about the passage he is expositing. Nonetheless, there will be things that even the best preacher doesn’t say. Perhaps your pastor, for time or clarity purposes, simply didn’t say all that could be said about a passage. Or, perhaps, your pastor just didn’t make every possible connection he could because he is not (and cannot be) comprehensive. If you are doing the work of the Bereans, it may well be the case that you see something that was not only missed by your pastor but also could be a great encouragement to him. Remember, iron sharpens iron, and preachers are not made of precious metal.

The sermon was on Genesis 32.22-32, the story of Jacob wrestling with God. A key part of the story is God breaking Jacob, both physically and spiritually. God touches Jacob’s hip, dislocating it, and causing Jacob to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. This limp served as a lifelong reminder to Jacob of his own insufficiency, his need for God’s grace, and the mercy he received that night when he wrestled God. The closing verse is a historical note showing that not only Jacob remembered this meeting with God, but the nation also remembered it, enshrining it in their dietary laws. The story of Jacob wrestling with God is important because in many ways, Jacob is a prototype of Israel.

After the service a man came up to me and asked, “Do you know the last place Jacob is mentioned in Scripture?”

Reminded of my shortcomings I quietly responded, “No, not off hand.”

The man then gently reminded me of Hebrews 11.21, “By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.” I have been thinking about this connection that was shared with me and want to pass it along as a sort of appendix to the sermon this morning.

It would be easy to write this off as Jacob having a staff because he was a shepherd; however, that is probably not the case. First, Jacob is in bed because he is old and sick, in fact he is dying, when Joseph brings the boys to him to be blessed. Second, Jacob was basically blind at this point in his life. Old, bed-ridden, dying, blind men don’t need shepherds staffs, especially in or near their bed. However, old, bed-ridden, dying, blind men who have carried a staff to help them walk because in God’s grace their hip was dislocated by God himself when they were younger would probably keep their staff pretty handy.

Jacob is commended in the hall of faith, Hebrews 11, for blessing his grandchildren and worshiping while leaned over his staff, both by faith. It seems to me that the author of Hebrews is reminding us that Jacob never forgot God’s mercy that he received on the other side of the Jabbok river. I hope I don’t have to be crippled to learn to walk with God, but if I do, may I, like Jacob carry my staff by faith to my dying day.

I am not sure how I missed that in my study, but I did. Thanks for sharpening me David.

1 comment | Permalink
Knowledge, Authority, and Testing the Message

J. Gresham Machen, a Presbyterian minister from the early 1900’s, works through what it is to be human in his book, The Christian View of Man. In the first two pages he deals with the basis for all that he says throughout the rest of the book. As our society continuously wrestles with what the proper sources of knowledge are and what authority those knowledge sources have, we need to be reminded of what Machen is says in these few paragraphs. He writes:

In such a time of kaleidoscopic changes, is there anything that remains unchanged? When so many things have proved to be untrustworthy, is there anything that we can trust?

One point, at least, is clear – we cannot trust the Church. The visible Church, the Church as it now actually exists upon this earth, has fallen too often into error and sin.

No, we cannot appeal from the world to the Church.

Well, then, is there anything at all to which we can appeal? Is there anything at all that remains constant when so many things change?

I have a very definite answer to give to that question. It is contained in a verse taken form the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand forever.’ There are many things that change, but there is one thing that does not change. It is the Word of the living and true God. The world is in decadence, the visible Church is to a considerable extent apostate; but when God speaks we can trust Him, and His Word stands forever sure.

Where has God spoken? Where shall we find that Word of God? I tried to give the answer in the first part of this series of talks, which appeared under the title of The Christian Faith in the Modern World. We can find the Word of God in the Bible. We do not say merely that the Bible contains the Word of God; we say that the Bible is the Word of God. In a time of turmoil and distress and in the perplexity and weakness of our own lives, we can turn with perfect confidence to that blessed book.

This of course was the point of Luke’s commendation of the Bereans in Acts 17. They were not satisfied to simply accept what some preacher said; they wanted to know if the preacher’s words were faithful to Scripture. As we walk through life hearing preachers proclaim the truth, whether they be ministers in a pulpit or the secular prophets of our culture, we would do good to follow in the footsteps of the Bereans and stand with Machen on the Word of God alone.

1 comment | Permalink