Monthly Archives: January 2016

Forgiveness Is Not Enough

Forgiveness is not enough. If sin is as destructive as the New Testament claims, if it’s a condition of the will as well as a quality of the act, if it attempts the absurd, destroys the self, and produces death (see the posts of January 06, 16, and 23), divine forgiveness is only the beginning of salvation. In forgiving sin, God deals with the insulting aspects of sin not by becoming angry and taking revenge but by renewing his standing offer of reconciliation and fellowship. God, so to speak, absorbs, ignores, and neutralizes the insult to his dignity. But what about the damage sin does to others and ourselves? Sinful acts cause damage that sometimes continues long after the act. A person who steals your possessions or injures your body or harms your child sets in motion a cascade of ill effects in the world that may cause damage far beyond the their original intention or control. Such sinful acts affect others at every level, physical, social, psychological, and spiritual.

Suppose for example that someone lies about you so effectively that you lose your job, are abandoned by your closest friends, and your marriage is on the brink of divorce. You determine that you will not allow your enemy’s hatred to evoke hatred in your heart and provoke you to take revenge. Suppose further that your enemy comes to realize his sin, repents, confesses his wrong to you, asks for forgiveness, and seeks reconciliation. You respond by assuring your former enemy that you will not seek revenge and harbor no hatred. Does repentance and forgiveness heal the damage sin has caused? No, not fully. Even the best efforts of the repentant person to replace property and mend relationships cannot restore things to their original state. Repentance and forgiveness cannot replace a lost limb or bring the dead back to life or restore trust to a betrayed heart. It cannot undo past suffering or erase traumatic memories. Our willingness to forgive does not cause us (or others) to forget. We don’t have complete control over our psychological nature any more than we have complete control over our physical nature. Damage to the psyche can be as lasting as damage to the body. We cannot change the past or stop the cascade of cause and effect flowing from past sin.

Human repentance and forgiveness is not enough. Nor is divine forgiveness enough; it is only the beginning of salvation. In last week’s essay on divine forgiveness I asserted this:

“the work of Jesus Christ was not designed to change an offended and revenging God into a loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ suffering is not the cause of divine forgiveness. No. Jesus Christ is the visible, temporal enactment of divine forgiveness, of God’s eternal selfless love for us.”

In the same way, I do not think it is correct to think of the work of Jesus Christ as making it possible for God to heal the world of the destructive effects of sin. Jesus Christ is the enactment of this divine healing. God always has been the creator, the giver of life, the healer of our diseases, and the Lord who “works all things for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). God has determined from all eternity that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Jesus enacted divine forgiveness by willingly enduring the fullness of sin’s insult and injury, without retaliation. What could be worse than annihilating humanity and blaspheming God? Healing impossible and forgiveness unthinkable! From a human point of view, the result of the sin done to Jesus was totally irreversible, completely hopeless. No human regret, repentance, or attempted restoration could change the deed that was done. In the suffering of the cross we see divine forgiveness happening before our eyes and, in the resurrection of Jesus, we see sin’s damage healed and turned to God’s service and glory.

Jesus’ resurrection was not merely the healing of his private wounds and the restoration of his personal life. The New Testament gospel understands Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of a new humanity, the first fruits of the resurrection of all the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20), and the liberation of creation from its “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). In Ephesians, chapter one, Paul speaks of the mystery of God’s eternal plan “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (1:10). The history of Jesus Christ from his birth to his suffering, death, and resurrection sums up the history of all creation from beginning to end. God’s hidden work in creation, providence, forgiveness and redemption becomes visible and concentrated in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we can see how all the damage, destruction, and death caused by sin, from the beginning to the end of time, will be and has been healed. Christianity reads history backwards, from the future revealed in the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ to the act of creation and the course of providence. Every divine act in creation and providence finds itself fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus Christ is, was, and always will be the life-giving, forgiving, and healing God with us and for us.

Next week: we’ve seen how God forgives insult sin directs at God and heals the damage cause by sin, but how can we be saved from the condition of sin, which the New Testament describes as corruption, sickness, slavery, powerlessness, blindness, and death?

 

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What is Divine Forgiveness?

In the previous post I asked you to consider the question, “What is so bad about sin that we should want to be saved from it?” And the answer that forced itself upon us was that the nature of sin is “absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.” Only when we understand sin’s destructive effects on us does the gospel of Jesus Christ become good news to us. The gospel tells us that Jesus Christ came to rescue us from these ills, restore our health, and lead us to a destiny glorious beyond our imagining. What must Jesus do in order to save us?

Forgiveness

For most believers, the first idea that comes to mind in answer to this question is forgiveness. We need forgiveness for our sins, and Jesus secures divine forgiveness for us. So let’s think about forgiveness. Forgiveness makes sense only in a personal context. Sin causes damage to us and to others. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the interesting question of whether we need forgiveness from ourselves for the damage we cause to ourselves and focus on the damage we cause to other people.) Some damage we cause to other people is reparable and some is not. If you steal my cash, you could correct that harm by repaying the money. However, if you take my life or cause permanent bodily harm, you cannot repair the damage and restore the body to its original condition. But whether the physical damage is reparable or irreparable, great or small, there is another kind of damage that accompanies all sins against other people: insult or offense. Sin against others treats them as having less than human dignity. You put the disturbing thought into their minds that they are unworthy–unworthy of life, possessions, or respect. Of all the possessions a person has, a sense of their own worth is the most precious. If I do not feel that I am worthy of love and respect, I will be afraid of everyone in every situation. I will trust no one. Life becomes a burden.

The instinctive reaction to insult is anger, hatred, and desire for revenge. In revenge, people assert their dignity by attempting to balance harm with harm and insult with insult. Revenge releases anger and provides a momentary sense of relief. It is an effort to restore our damaged sense of worth, to assert and reestablish our dignity. Of course, revenge doesn’t really work to restore confidence in our dignity, because our desire for revenge shows that we never had confidence in our worth! If we had such confidence, the original insult would not have caused us to hate and desire revenge so intensely in the first place.

Now we are prepared to understand the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is refusal to take revenge for insults against us. Where do we find the power to forgive, and why should we forgive those who insult us? Forgiveness is withholding revenge, but this forbearance arises from a deeper source. The forgiving person has the spiritual power to neutralize, absorb, or be immune to insult. The insult does not shake their confidence in their own worth. Hence it does not cause fear, evoke hatred, and provoke violence. But the forgiving person is not only unshakably confident of their own value, they are also unclouded in their perception of their enemy’s dignity. Even while being insulted, they are compassionately aware of their enemy’s lack of clarity about her or his own worth. When you forgive your enemy, unlike when you take revenge on your enemy, you are witnessing to your enemy’s worth as well as your own in a dramatic way. If your enemies can receive your forgiveness, they may also come to perceive their true dignity. Only forgiveness can “balance” the books on the worth of individuals. Only forgiveness can convert an enemy.

Divine Forgiveness

Divine forgiveness follows the same logic as outlined above. When God forgives, God refrains from taking revenge. Divine forgiveness deals with the personal offense and insult sin directs at God. We cannot damage God physically as we can God’s creatures. But when we damage, insult, and withhold love from human beings, we also disbelieve, disobey, and mistrust God. We refuse his love and reject his guidance. We insult God’s dignity indirectly. (Blasphemy is direct insult of God.) God deserves our faith, obedience, and love, but when we sin against his beloved creatures, we display our ingratitude and disrespect. But God does not take revenge. God absorbs and neutralizes the insult, not returning violence for violence. God does not allow our refusal to love him to cause him to stop loving us. Our insults cannot place in God doubt of his divine dignity or lessen his love. Instead, God demonstrates his unchallenged dignity and eternal love by forgiving us. God affirms our worth by maintaining his eternal love for us unchanged

Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ action of forgiving his enemies is the expression in time of God’s eternal love and forgiveness. Let’s get clear on this: the work of Jesus Christ was not designed to change an offended and revenging God into a loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ suffering is not the cause of divine forgiveness. No. Jesus Christ is the visible, temporal enactment of divine forgiveness, of God’s eternal selfless love for us. Jesus is “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev 13:8).

In Jesus Christ, God absorbs and negates human offense and insult. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s sheer, gracious, unexpected, and incomprehensible forgiveness of insult to his divine dignity! In the humanity of Jesus Christ, God became able to suffer and die for us. Jesus’ human love for his Father in time corresponds to his divine love for the Father in eternity and his human suffering and death for us in time corresponds to God’s love and forgiveness for us in eternity. In the suffering and dying of Jesus Christ, divine forgiveness becomes effective for the conversion and salvation of humanity. In Jesus, God’s refusal to take revenge (forgiveness) becomes the negative side of a positive act of rescue from the power of sin and death.

Next Time: Forgiveness is not enough. We need healing, purification, transformation and glorification.

 

Can Sin Really Be That Bad?

In the previous post (“Why We Really Need a Savior”), I defined sin as a condition of the will in which we assert ourselves against our Creator. We prefer our own judgment about what is good and bad, possible and impossible, and wise and unwise to God’s judgment about these things. In sin, we reject our place in God’s creation and put ourselves in the place of the Creator. We try to reorder creation so that it centers on us and serves our private interests.

According to the Christian message, God acted in Jesus Christ to save us from sin. This message is called “the gospel” or the good news. But do we hear it as good news? Aren’t believers as well as nonbelievers tempted to ask, “What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?” Whatever its motivation,  this is a good question and deserves a good answer.

Sin Attempts the Impossible

The first step toward grasping the badness of sin is understanding that the sinful will and the act of sin attempt to do the impossible. God is the Creator, and we are God’s creatures. A creature cannot make itself the Creator by an act of will or imagination. God gave creation existence, order, purpose, and destiny. We cannot change it. By preferring  our own private wishes above God’s will for us, we won’t change our nature. But we can divide ourselves by superimposing an imaginary image of ourselves over the person God created. In our image of ourselves we become alienated from our true nature and destiny.

Likewise, our attempts to make creation fit our preferences and go according to our wishes cannot defeat God’s plan. God is the Lord, and God sustains the order he created. We too are creatures in God’s created order and we have no power that God does not give us. We can do nothing God does not permit. Attempting to defeat God’s will aims at the impossible.

Sin Destroys the Self and Implies Death

If you try to do the impossible, you will fail. And this failure is destructive. When we imagine taking God’s place as the Creator and Lord of creation, we entertain a false image of ourselves. And what is appealing about that image is a lie, an impossibility. We imagine attaining a greater abundance of pleasures, a feeling of power, dignity, security, and many other good things. In reality, however, we cut ourselves off from the Creator who is the source of everything good. God freely gives us life and power, the dignity of being in his image, and the security of his care. Since we are not the Creator, we cannot supply these things for ourselves. Apart from God we are nothing. Sin implies only death and destruction. If God cooperated with our sin, if he gave us what we say we want, he would stop giving us life and all good things. We would die. More than that, God would forget us, and we would never have been.

But God does not cooperate with our sin! He keeps giving us life and all that sustains it. And this gracious act has a double effect. God wills to save us from our foolish, absurd, and self-destructive wish. But God’s gracious preservation—for the sake of our future salvation—also sustains us in our self-contradictory condition. And this condition is painful in two ways. First, we experience division, self-alienation and frustration within ourselves. Our true nature and destiny keep coming into our consciousness reminding us that we are not what we should be. We cannot seem to remake ourselves to our liking, and this is a source of great unhappiness. We bounce back and forth between pride and shame, both of which are attempts to escape from what we are or what we think we are.

However, the greatest suffering we endure is felt hardly at all, except as a huge emptiness. Something very important is missing. Since we have cut ourselves off from God, we do not have fellowship with God. What an infinite loss! We give up the Source of all good, true, and beautiful things and leave home for the “far country” in search for something better. We lose confidence in our worth and our sense of place in the world fades. Since we possess a dim awareness that we are empty and powerless, we can never feel secure and in control.

In this case, as we can see clearly, sin is its own punishment. There is no need for God to add any suffering to the suffering we inflict on ourselves. Indeed, in view of his love for us manifested in Jesus, God protects us from receiving the full consequences of our own choices. And the merciful suffering we endure may awaken us to the truth and motivate us to turn toward home and begin to seek God.

Sinful Acts Cause the Sinner and the Whole World to Suffer

Our sinful wills drive us to endeavor to force creation conform to our selfish wishes. Whatever its nature, every act expresses the will of the actor. A sinful act attempts to express the sinful will of the actor. The sinfulness in the sinful act is the will to substitute the private wishes of the sinner for God’s will. But there is a sense in which no sinful act can succeed in achieving its true aim, because we cannot defeat God’s will.

Suppose I wish to take your money or your car. Or perhaps I want to diminish your sense of self-worth by cursing you or lying about you. Of course, these acts are possible. Thefts, murders, lies, and all sorts of other sins occur in the world, and they have destructive effects. And they are forbidden according to God’s law. But they do not defeat God’s will and replace it with the sinner’s sinful will. The sinner intends to take God’s place as the sovereign over the course of the future. This cannot happen. God works out his sovereign will whatever creatures do; God can work through natural causes, through chance events, through free human actions, and even through sinful acts. God negates the sinful imagination that inspired the sin and defeats the sinful intention in the act. It comes to nothing. It fails utterly because it is impossible. But God uses the physical motion and results of the act for his own purposes. “God works all things for the good of those who love him…” (Romans 8:28).

Even though God uses sinful acts for his good purposes, they still cause great suffering. They cause suffering in those to whom they are directed. Murders cut short the lives of those they target and cause deep grief in those left behind. Out of the sinful condition of the will—which itself implies death and nothingness—come actual death and destruction, pain and suffering, loneliness and heartache, war and hatred. Just as the sinful act arises out of the sinner’s internal misery and death, it returns to plague the sinner once more. When sinners externalize the sin festering in their hearts, they are made that much more aware of their miserable condition and this awareness compounds their misery. The anger, condemnation, and scorn of others fall on them, making them even more aware of their unworthiness and ugliness. The human community seeks revenge. Hatred excites hatred. Violence provokes violence. And the isolation and selfishness expressed in sin finds itself rewarded with exile. Sin is its own punishment.

“What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?”

Answer: the nature of sin is absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.

And that is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news!

Why We Really Do Need a Savior

The Savior

From the beginning, confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior has been the defining mark of Christianity. The two titles and the works to which they refer complement each other. How could Jesus save us if he didn’t have the authority and power needed to do this great work? And what would his authority and power mean to us if he did not use them for our benefit? For the next few posts I will examine Jesus’ work of salvation. I will address such issues as “From what does Jesus save us?” “How does Jesus save us?” and “For what does he save us?” Today, I want to begin exploring the first of these questions. If Jesus is the Savior, what is the danger from which he saves us?

The Danger

Christianity proclaims a message of salvation. Ordinarily, when we speak of something as having been “saved” we mean that it was under threat of being damaged or lost but through the intervention of some power it was removed from danger and prevented from suffering damage. Usually, we don’t speak of things saving themselves. You can save money but money does not save itself. You can save data to a hard drive; data doesn’t save itself. If you are saved from drowning, it’s through the intervention of someone else. Something needs saving when it is powerless to protect itself from damage or loss.

What is the danger, damage, and loss from which Jesus Christ offers to save us? The first answer that comes to the believer’s mind is “sin”: “Here is a trustworthy saying: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Indeed, that is a good summary of the Christian message of salvation. But simply quoting a saying is not the same as understanding it. What is sin? And why does it constitute danger of damage and loss? Why is that danger so great and why are we so helpless against it that being saved from it required the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God?

The Paradox and Mystery of Sin

Answering the question “What is sin?” is not as simple as quoting 1 John 3:4: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.” Of course, every act of sin breaks the law of God. But more questions beg to be asked and answered. Why do we all sin? Is a particular act “wrong” only because it is forbidden by the law? Are its only destructive consequences the divine punishment imposed on the lawless act?

The biblical doctrine of sin presents many paradoxes and puzzles for our contemplation. Sin is a general condition and a specific action. It carries its own destructive consequences within it, but it is also met with divine punishment. Sin is universal, but it is not an aspect of our created nature. We cannot be coerced to sin against our wills, yet we cannot escape sin by the power of our own wills. Sin is slavery but also rebellion. It is a sickness and a choice.

The Essence of Sin

What is the essence of sin? (In a sense that I will need to define later, sin has no essence because it is not a real thing or a real act; it is a defect in a real thing or act. Nevertheless, we need to speak of sin as if it were a thing if we are to speak about it at all.) God created human beings with the potential to know him and to become like him in character and action. Human nature is designed for knowing and loving God. This is its proper activity. Only by doing this can we thrive and fulfill our potential as living images of God. If human beings refused to know and love God, they would be contradicting their nature, thwarting their fulfillment, and throwing away their happiness. Sin consists in this absurd choice and this miserable condition.

Sin is a condition of the human will in which we affirm our own private interests and trust our own private judgment about good and bad instead of trusting and affirming the perfect will of our Creator. Out of this condition of the heart arise sinful acts, acts that attempt to force God’s creation into conformity with our wills. In sin, we substitute ourselves for God. We attempt to become our own protectors, providers, and judges. We act as if we were wiser, stronger, and better than God. Rejecting our own created nature, we try to remake ourselves according to our fanciful image of what we wish we were. Then we begin working to remake the rest of the world into our distorted image, creating death and destruction everywhere.

Why do we make this absurd choice and embrace this miserable condition? There is no answer to this question. For there can be no reason to make an absurd choice. That’s what being absurd means. You may ask about Adam and Eve. They brought sin into the world and we “inherit” the broken world they made. But why did they make that absurd choice? And even if we do inherit a tendency to sin from them, we reaffirm that original sin in our own willing and acting. We inevitably do what they did. Why? God alone knows the answer to this question. For us, however, it is just a brute fact.

Next Time, we will consider the inherent and natural consequences of sin and the idea of punishment for sin. Does sin contain its own punishment as a natural out-working of its essence or does God add pain and destruction above and beyond sin’s natural consequences?

On the Difference Between Seeking Justice and Doing Justice

In a time of increasing emphasis on justice ministry (a.k.a. social justice) in evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries, perhaps we ought to reflect on the difference between seeking justice and doing justice. On almost every occasion in which the Old Testament uses the expression “seek justice” it  refers to seeking justice for others, for “the fatherless” or the “poor” (Isa 1:17 and Jer 5:28). Quite often these instructions are given to people in authority or with social status enough to advocate for others. A king, for example, should “seek justice” for all the people (Isa 16:5). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33). Micah informs us of what the Lord requires: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). But neither the Old nor New Testament tells us to “seek justice” for ourselves. Advocating for the legitimate rights of others is counted a virtuous act. But seeking it for yourself is at best ambiguous; it is not condemned but neither is it praised.

Oversimplifying matters a bit, I see three different modes of enacting justice in the Bible: (1) seeking justice for the powerless against unjust powers; (2) seeking justice for yourself in matters where you believe you have been treated unfairly; and (3) acting justly in all your own relationships with others. Let’s discuss them one at a time.

Seeking Justice for Others

To engage in this mode of justice you must possess some qualities the oppressed do not possess. You cannot be powerless and oppressed yourself. You have to possess power or you cannot help those without it. And you cannot be a member of the oppressed group or you would not be seeking justice for others but for yourself. You cannot seek justice for the poor if you are poor or the vulnerable fatherless if you are vulnerable and fatherless. This distinction between those who have status to seek justice for others and those for whom they seek it makes the activity seeking justice morally ambiguous.

True, all good deeds are morally ambiguous because the moment we recognize the goodness of our actions we become proud of our goodness. And pride is wrong. But seeking justice for others adds another dimension. We must distinguish ourselves from those we aim to help. We have power, wealth, and status, and they don’t. Hence our compassion for the victim can easily transform into relief that we are not victims, not poor, not powerless. A root of distain is given life.

Additionally, it is easy to forget the people we were trying to help and get caught up in the noble, heroic cause of justice and the feelings of self-importance it engenders. It is often said these days that giving “charity” to the needy offends against their dignity but seeking justice for them affirms that dignity. But as you can see from the analysis above, seeking justice also distinguishes between those who have power, wealth, and status and those who do not. Seeking justice makes plenty of room for a condescending attitude on the part of the justice seeker. It would be ironic indeed if in seeking justice we grow to despise the very ones for whom we seek it.

One more irony: justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible dialectical rule that we become like what we hate.

Seeking Justice for Yourself

Seeking justice for yourself is not a noble or virtuous act. It’s normal and spontaneous indeed, but we have no duty to make sure other people treat us fairly. We have a highly developed and finely nuanced power of detecting injustice when it is done to us. But we are notoriously bad at judging our own cause. Who feels that life treats them with perfect fairness? Does anyone feel like they get enough recognition or are paid enough for their work? Who is happy with a B+ when you know you deserve an A? Every 6-year old child says, “No fair” at least 5 times a day. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to discourage or even condemn seeking justice for yourself. It’s too easy to clothe envy and selfishness in the purple cloak of justice. No one is qualified to be their own judge. We need an objective standard and an impartial judge. I addressed the need for an objective standard for justice in my post of November 28, 2015 (“No Love, No Justice! On the Difference Between God’s Justice and Ours”):

Human justice distributes goods according to merit and demerit as measured by a set of rules or law. Just laws embody the principle of justice that says, “each according to his due.” Just acts follow those rules. A just person lives by those rules with all sincerity. Clearly the question of justice is the question of the fitting relationship between two things: between a law and the principle of proper merit or between a rule and a behavior that expresses that rule. One serves as the standard for the other.

Doing Justice

Doing justice is at the heart of the issue. Seeming to seek justice for others does not require that you give up your supposed rights and privileges. You can seek justice for others for less than noble reasons and you can remain deeply self-centered while doing it. But doing justice is an altogether different matter. I do justice when I submit all my actions in relation to God and others to the test of the right. Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others. We do justice when we do the right thing whether it is in harmony with our interests or not. The foundation for doing justice is loving justice more than you love yourself.

How can we claim to seek justice for others when we don’t do justice ourselves? And how can we seek true justice for ourselves when we turn a blind eye to the injustice we do to others? Perhaps, if we will concentrate our hearts on doing justice in all our acts, we will be better able to seek justice for others. And if we focus on doing justice we might not be so insistent on seeking justice for ourselves.

Next time, I will start a miniseries on Jesus as Savior. From what does Jesus save and how?