Sunday, January 7, 2018

Forgiveness

We’re back to looking at some of the high points of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In the part of the letter that we’re going to look at, he proves and illustrates the Gospel that he was explaining in the previous parts of his letter. To do this, he refers to two prime Old Testament examples, Abraham and David. Today, we are going to consider what David wrote which Paul quotes here. Listen.
Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. Romans 4.6–8
David writes about how blessed it is to be forgiven, something that he knows from experience. What we’re going to do is take apart this Gospel promise of forgiveness so that we all will enjoy better the sense of forgiveness that David knew.

Let’s start with this. The first step in grasping the wonder of forgiveness is grasping the horror of sin.

To do that, we’ll start where we often do – with a definition. So, what is sin? I think that what most Christians will say is that sin is doing things that you really shouldn’t do, things that God doesn’t want you to do. And of course, that is true. But there is a problem. It is incomplete. And since it is an incomplete definition it is a defective definition. This is something we need to fix because if we don’t we won’t be able to grasp the wonder of forgiveness as well as we might.

So, what’s wrong with that definition? Here’s one thing that I’ll just mention and then move on. This definition doesn’t include those things that we are supposed to do but don’t do. Failure to obey is also sin.

But where I really want to spend some time on is this. Our definition is defective because it is superficial. It doesn’t understand the roots of sin, roots that go deep. 

Consider this from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. Ephesians 4.17–19
Paul, here, calls the saints to live in a way that is so very different from how unbelievers live. And though he mentions some sinful activities that the unbelievers give themselves to, that’s not what he stresses. Paul writes about the mind. He describes unbelievers as living ‘in the futility of their minds’. He teaches that, ‘they are darkened in their understanding’. Do you see what Paul is getting at? He is teaching that unbelievers live so poorly, so sinfully, because they are not able to think accurately about life. They don’t understand it. Their minds are darkened.

Imagine someone in a deep cave without any light, trying to find his way out. His eyes are wide open, but he actually sees nothing. It’s all dark. He stumbles about, but he has no idea of how to find the way out. That’s the situation of unbelievers as they try to live. Their eyes are open, but they can’t see anything. They wander within the dark cave unable to find their way out. They don’t understand how life works. So, time after time they make poor choices, Godless choices. Life for them is filled with sin.

There’s something else that Paul writes about in that quote from Ephesians that you need to see. He teaches that there is something that lies behind a darkened mind, this inability to understand life. Paul points to an unbeliever’s ‘hardness of heart’. In the Bible, the heart is where the real you resides. This is where a person’s basic ideas about life come from. A heart that is hard has it all wrong. The basic assumption of a person like this is simple: ‘Life is all about me’. And so, it is no wonder that this kind of person rejects what is real. Life is actually all about God.

The most basic aspect of an unbeliever, his heart, who he really is, has got life all wrong. His heart is Godless. And that shapes how he thinks about life. He is groping in the darkness. As a result, whether what he does is socially admired or completely despised, all that he does is sin.

This is where we all start out. We all begin with certain rebellious assumptions of the heart that give rise to a darkened mind which shows itself in sinful actions. We all start out like this. We all start out as sinners.

So, let’s adjust that definition of sin. It’s more than just doing things that you really shouldn’t. It’s more than actions of the body. It’s also thoughts of the mind. It’s also the assumptions of the heart. These are also what sin is about.

Now, why did I go through all of that? Because I want you to get excited about the fact that you are forgiven. It’s only as a person clearly sees the depth of his sin that forgiveness will become something that amazes. We all acknowledge that we are sinners. We all acknowledge that we do things that we know that we shouldn’t do. But it’s too easy to think that these things that we do that we shouldn’t aren’t all that bad. It’s too easy to compare ourselves to unbelievers who do terrible things and then tell ourselves that what we do isn’t as bad as that.

So, while God is really angry at rapists and murderers, He’s really only just a little peeved at us. And forgiveness, then, isn’t that big of a deal since our sins aren’t that big of a deal. But if sin also includes the darkened thoughts of the mind and the self–centered assumptions of the heart, then our sins are just as reprehensible as theirs.

This is where I need to talk about something that relatively few pastors talk about these days: the wrath of God. What is it that every sin deserves? What is it that our sin deserves? The holy, just and fiery wrath of God. And what might that look like?

Moses sent the twelve spies to check out the Promised Land. Ten came back saying that, despite God’s promises, invasion was impossible. Result? God killed them, painfully, by a plague.

Korah and those with him rejected Moses to whom God had given the leadership of Israel. He wanted to be leader instead. Result? God opened the earth to swallowed them alive.

Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit. Result? God struck them dead where they stood.

Adam and Eve took a bite out of some fruit, just a little bite. Result? God banished them from His presence and cursed every aspect of their existence with death.

‘Big sins’ and ‘little sins’ – if there is such a distinction – all merit God’s wrath.  And I haven’t even mentioned what happens later in hell.

So, here’s something that would be good for you to take some time to ponder. You deserve God’s wrath. Consider only what has happened today from the time that you woke up until right now. Consider how you thought about what was going on as you got ready to get here. Consider how the assumptions of your heart determined things like what you wanted to see happen and how so many of those assumptions were about you and your agenda. Just based on the assumptions, thoughts and actions of this morning, you deserve God’s wrath. He really should make your life now a taste of hell and your life later the full course. And if you don’t agree, then you don’t know yourself very well. This is how the Bible describes you.

You should be experiencing the crushing weight of the wrath of God. But you aren’t. Why?
Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. Romans 4.7–8
You are not being punished, something which you so richly deserve, because your sins are forgiven. You are not being punished because the promises of God about this forgiveness are yours. Listen closely to these verses that we use in our Declaration of Pardon.
He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. Micah 7.18–19
I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. Isaiah 43.25
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. Psalm 130.3–4
Your sin, your evil actions, evil thinking, evil assumptions – things which have earned you God’s white–hot rage – are all forgiven. God refuses to act toward you in light of any of that. Forgiveness.

But how could this happen? How could a holy God forgive evil sinners like us? And the answer, of course, is the grace of God.

And what is this grace? It is God being kind, compassionate – and forgiving – to people He should hate and be really angry with. And since we start out this life as sinners in heart, mind and body, then it’s pretty clear that God decided to be gracious to us not because we somehow were good enough or even because we weren’t all that bad. No, from day one we have sinned in our actions, because of the thoughts of our minds and out of the assumptions of our hearts – and God hates that. So, the reason why anyone finds himself or herself forgiven – why any of us are forgiven – resides in the mystery of God’s ways. God decided to be gracious to us because He decided to be gracious to us. It is because of that mysterious decision that He came in the flesh as Jesus to atone for our sins. It is only by the grace of God in Jesus that we are forgiven.

So, what do you do with this? Well, I think that one thing to do with this is to enjoy it. Hey, your sins are all forgiven. That’s something to relish. But to do that, to really do that, you’re going to need to think about it a bit. A gift is enjoyed the most when the thoughtfulness of the giver is understood and appreciated. How many people got a generic Christmas gift that someone bought for them simply because they had to have something to give. But there were some who received a gift that reflected the thoughtfulness of the person giving it. That’s something special, something to be cherished. It’s when God’s thoughtfulness is grasped that His gift is best enjoyed. Reflect on the thoughtfulness of God who overcame such sin to give you a precious gift – forgiveness.

Those who take the time to think about what the Gospel has to say about our sin with its deep roots in the mind and the heart, about the wrath of God that rages and destroys, and then about our complete and utter forgiveness – these grasp something of the wonder of being forgiven. And that will show. A thoughtful gift, properly appreciated, evokes love and devotion for the giver.