Ephesians 4:31&32 “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
I have told you about my preacher friend John whose Sunday morning sermon was televised in their small town in Pennsylvania each week. John had fitted up a primitive studio in his den and every Saturday he would stand in front of the camera, press the remote control and speak for twenty-five minutes. Then later that evening he would drive down to the studio and give the tape to the engineer who would televise it the next morning. One Saturday night things kept going wrong. John made take after take and still made bloopers. Time was running out and he had one last attempt. Things went well for fifteen minutes until he got tangled up, and trying to disentangle himself he made things worse, and then even worse. There was now no time left to edit the tape so John drove off to the studio that night and handed it over. The next Sunday morning he switched the programme on and watched himself beginning his message. As he got nearer the point when he’d fallen apart he found himself muttering under his breath, “Don’t say it John. Don’t do it,” and then as he got into this embarrassing time he had to endure the agony of watching himself making the mistake, and then trying to get out of it, and making matters worse, while all the time trying to look confidently at the camera. John said it felt like a foretaste of the Day of Judgment.
Imagine that tonight we were going to watch a video of your entire life. It was going to be projected on this wall and all your falls and mistakes, your foolish words and lustful imaginations were all going to be shown to the rest of us. The whole unexpurgated version of ‘This is Your Life’ in vivid Technicolor would be up there along with Dolby wrap around sound capturing the things you did when you thought no one was looking, the words blurted out which you have long since forgotten, all the sentences muttered under your breath. If your family were here to watch it would they line up to shake your hand afterwards? Would you come to the front at the end and take a bow? No. You say that you’re glad that no one has such a film of your life, but you are wrong. God has. The New Testament refers to God’s ‘book’ in which everything is recorded. It is referring, of course, to the divine omniscience, to the fact that God is not ignorant of anything at all about us.
What would you want to happen to that video of your life? That it be destroyed? Of course, and I want to tell you something wonderful, that that is what God has done through his Son Jesus Christ for everyone of his people who have sought forgiveness from him through his Son. Jesus was sent to deal with this enormous problem of our messed-up lives by becoming the Lamb of God who has personally taken responsibility for all the wrong things we have done. He received to himself all that individual guilt and he has answered for it before Almighty God, and so he has cleared it all away. The Bible uses some vivid metaphors to describe to us just how far God has removed our sins from us. For example, it says that he has cast our sins into the depths of the sea. Think of travelling in a boat and your wedding ring falls off and splashes into the sea in mid-Atlantic. You know that you will never see that ring again; it’s gone for ever. That is what God has done with each of our sins. They have irretrievably gone from us. Or again the Bible says that God has removed our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west. How far is the east from the west? Immeasurably far. The east is still moving further from the west in our imagination, further and further apart all the time. So our sins – the whole of them, not a part – are being removed from us further and further. They never change direction and come back to haunt us – never! Away from us they go! By the time we die they will be further than today! When we stand before the throne of God they will be further still; after a decade in heaven we can imagine them as further still; after a century, further still, and further and further for all eternity, utterly impossible to be brought back to accuse us again. Those sorts of vivid metaphors are to be set before us – we who unto Jesus for mercy have fled.
1. GOD IS A GOD WHO FOR CHRIST’S SAKE FORGIVES SINNERS.
This week I took a small class of Bible students in a church in Swansea. We spent the day going through the book of Revelation together, and there I met a girl called Leila. Her father is a converted Muslim, in fact he spoke at this church at our Christmas Supper a few months ago. Leila grew up in that religious home rather resentful about Christianity, and at one period in her teens she set out to prove from the Bible that there was no God, but one by one all her questions were answered. This is what she said, “My interest in God grew as I began to question the meaning of life; why are we here? Why do we die? Where do morals come from? As I listened to sermons and learned more about Jesus Christ everything became clear. I knew I needed forgiveness for ignoring God, who loves me and made me, and that the only way I can be forgiven is through Jesus. So I asked Jesus to forgive me and save me, and he did.” Her concern, you notice, was to be personally forgiven for her sins.
What actually happened when God forgave Leila? It is obvious that God himself did something. He didn’t just have nice feelings towards her, in fact God goes on record and he says to her, “From now on I won’t remember your sins, Leila” (Isaiah 43:25). How remarkable is the divine forgiveness. God wants Leila to know that he’ll no longer hold her sins against her. She made fun of Christianity, was bored with church and criticised her mother and father for being too religious, but when she sincerely asked God to forgive her he assured her that from that moment on he wasn’t charging her with any of those sins. God made her a promise that henceforth he wouldn’t remember them. I am saying that forgiveness is not a feeling; forgiveness is a promise.
“How is this possible?” you ask. “Surely God remembers everything. He knows all our past and present and future. He has a book in which all my life is written. You have said that he has seen the video of my life, so how can God become forgetful about all the things I’ve done wrong?” God doesn’t. He doesn’t say that he’ll forget our sins. He says that he won’t remember them. He will choose to cast them deep down into the sea of his forgetfulness. He will choose to remove them from you as far as the east is from the west, continually going further and further from you. “I will not remember your sins,” says God. In other words, “I am determined not to hold your sins against you. I’ll never ever bring them up. I wont rub your noses in them during your life, and when you stand before me in the day of judgment there’ll not be a single sin that I will lay to your charge, and when we spend eternity in heaven together I’m never going to spoil it by suddenly saying something like, ‘You remember what you did when you were 17?’ I have sent them all far away, for ever and ever, Amen. I have buried them very, very deep. I am not going to allow any archaeological crew to exhume your old sins. Digging up your past life is forbidden. Those old remains will remain buried and forgotten for evermore.” There will never be an occasion in our entire future in which God is going to use our sins against us. They are eternally forgiven.
Once Martin Luther was asked if he felt that his sins were forgiven, and he said, “No, I don’t feel they are forgiven, I know they are forgiven because God has said so in his Word.” What does Paul say in our text? God has forgiven us in Christ, or for Christ’s sake. Again it is through something that has been achieved by the Son of God that he can offer forgiveness to us. It is not through pleasant feelings that flow from his love that he forgives. It is because of what his only begotten Son has achieved that justice requires forgiveness.
You ask, “Why can’t God just forgive sin, and have done with it? Why not just declare that all sin, past, present and future of all the 6,000 million people in the world today is all cancelled and forgiven?” Their murders, and tortures, and child abuse, and pimping, and drug selling, and rape, and fire-bombing of villages, and genocide, and prison camp activities, and cruelty to animals, and so one – “All forgiven!” God shrugs, “I won’t remember any of it,” and the world then would go on living with its same wicked ways day by day. Open the prisons. Let them all out. They are all forgiven. God yawns; “It doesn’t matter; it is all forgiven” he says. What is iniquitous about all of that? It would deny the seriousness of those actions of heinous wickedness; it would do nothing to safeguard our world from corruption and contamination, and it would make God frivolous. Here is a brave young husband going to the hospital each day this past week to visit his wife who was stabbed almost to death as she walked home with her little baby boy a week ago. What do you say to that husband about the criminal who has done this to his wife? “Just forgive him! Let him get on with his life! Don’t make a fuss!” You would trivialise everything that had happened – this husband’s deep love and anguish over his paralysed wife to talk like that. Forgiveness is immensely costly. That stabbing is just one crime we know of which has touched our nation deeply this past week. The world has been witnessing millions of crimes as grievous as that during the past month.
If sin offends us then how much more does it offend the God in whose image we are made? That offense has to be confronted. We tremble at the measure of God’s righteous indignation at a crime like that. He is no Buddha, unperturbed by whatever happens. He burns in indignation at what he sees, the cries of the torture victim and the sobs of the little girl prostitutes, and the weeping of the widow whose husband has been stabbed to death by a mugger; all that pain rises to heaven and the wrath of God is targetted against all such unrighteousness of man. God is angry with the wicked every day.
Forgiveness then is costly for God. Could God forgive a single sinner? He could not forgive one angel who rebelled against him, but what of us? If he could forgive one then it was possible for him to forgive an innumerable company. What God does is so radical in order to pardon our sins that the elect angels themselves are amazed. He gives his only begotten Son to make atonement for sin. Can you see the angels looking on in amazement? What is their Lord doing carrying a cross out of Jerusalem? Imagine the whispers in paradise, “Have you heard what is happening on Golgotha? The Lord is bearing man’s sin. His blood has been shed – the blood of the Son of God. He has died and now they’re taking him down and burying him.” The eternally beloved and sinless Son of God receives the wages of sin. He becomes the sin of his people. He is identified with their crimes and made liable to their punishment. There is no mitigation of the just anger of God because the Lamb happens to be his own dear Son. He is made totally vulnerable to all the demands of a just and sin-hating God.
Only thus can God forgive us our sins because our disobedience has been completely covered over by the obedience of the Son of God. God had something against us, just like those parents have something against the felon who stabbed their dear daughter. God has sin against us, and this sin really matters. Only the Son of God volunteering to become our substitute sin-bearer can obtain divine forgiveness. Only when in my place condemned Jesus stood am I pardoned. Only when he answers for my guilt can I be forgiven. When I ask God for forgiveness I don’t appeal to the divine pity but to the divine righteousness. Through the work of Christ God is henceforth faithful and just to forgive every repentant sinner their sins. Christ’s blood demands forgiveness for us. His five bleeding wounds all insist on our pardon because our sins have all been dealt with and we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. There is now only forgiveness for those who are in Christ Jesus. There is no condemnation. God has nothing whatever against us. All he had against us has been dealt with by himself and his Son in a way we can never understand. God the just is completely satisfied in looking on Christ and forgiving me. I am completely forgiven, as if I had never done anything wrong.
There was once a doctor who treated many poor people. He wasn’t a wealthy man when he died and when they went through his books they discovered on many pages his records of many visits was listed and the cost of the medicine, and a line through so many items with the word ‘forgiven’ written next to the debt. His widow, not having much money, tried to collect some of these debts, and when she failed she took the matter to court. She showed the judge her husband’s account books, and he said to her, “Is this your husband’s handwriting?” “Yes,” she said. “Then there isn’t a judge in all England who could change that fact; what your husband has forgiven is forgiven.” So it is when God says, “Forgiven,” then every sin is pardoned.
So what must I do? I must make a journey to Christ and ask for forgiveness through him. Just like this student in Swansea had to set off to God and speak with him, so must you. You must ask God to pardon you. You must make that journey. It is nothing compared to the journey Jesus made to obtain your forgiveness. He left the presence of an adoring company of angels. He left the eternal love of his Father. He left the sinless joy of heaven and down he came, down and down into this groaning sick world. To the womb of Mary, to confinement within the speck of a cell, to the birth in a stable, to the obscurity of Nazareth, to the rude gaze of Jewish peasants and aristocrats, then the lashing and the cross and the tomb. That was the journey he made to buy our forgiveness, while our journey is so slight. I make my journey to him, just as I am without one plea but that he shed his blood for me. Once my journey is over and I am at the feet of Christ then I am safe; I am pardoned and forgiven. In Christ I am justified. In him I am complete. Have you made that journey? If not why not? Why won’t you make it? It is a wonderful destination, being joined to Christ and loved by God and indwelt by the Spirit. Won’t you come to him? Won’t you come now? Don’t you want your sins forgiven? Only through Christ they can be forgiven. Then why not come to him without any more delay? Do you want to speak up for yourself before God? I tell you when you see him your mouth will be stopped. So come to this great forgiving loving Saviour now. He says, “Come!” All of you come to him. Those of you who are too old for rock’n’roll and too young to die – you must come to Christ and be forgiven. You children, Come! You middle aged people, come to Jesus Christ and welcome. That is the foundation of our forgiveness.
2. A FORGIVEN CHRISTIAN FORGIVES.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (v.32). Sound doctrine leads to sound living. Evangelical beliefs lead to evangelical behaviour. Those who know they are forgiven for their sins by Almighty God forgive those who sin against them. So they pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.” What are we saying when we tell our heavenly Father, “we forgive them that trespass against us”? We are affirming the fact that we are cancelling their debts, and removing their guilt, and promising that we will never again bring up their falls. We are declaring that we will never again bring up their offenses to use against them. “We forgive them that trespass against us;” in other words, I am promising three things,
i] I will not bring the matter up to you.
ii] I will not bring the matter up to another.
iii] I will not bring the matter up to myself.
I was listening to Iain Murray ten days ago giving the closing sermon at the Banner of Truth ministers’ conference in Leicester and his theme was from 2 Corinthians 2:11, Paul’s concern in that verse that Satan should not outwit us. Iain Murray said in the course of that sermon that there was no closer relationship than that between a pastor and his people. Richard Sibbes wrote that the reason God uses not angels but men to bring the gospel to people is that he can show in men his own love. Satan always wants to undermine that loving pastoral relationship. He wants to drive a wedge between the preacher and the congregation. He wants to stir up disaffection so that the whole work of the church may suffer. He desires to ruin the reputation of Christ’s servants and cause mistrust, and read the worst motives into anything the pastor does, to kill the spiritual love that exists between a congregation and its pastor. Divide and conquer – that is Satan’s ploy. It is a big responsibility when a member of a congregation spots some sin in a preacher, as to what he is going to do about it. We are to forgive, that is, we say,
i] I will not bring the matter up to you.
ii] I will not bring the matter up to another.
iii] I will not bring the matter up to myself.
Consider the spirit in which forgiveness is to be offered according to our text; “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” (v.32). So here is no reluctant attitude, “Well, I’d better forgive you, hadn’t I, though you’ve been so bad?” There is nothing like that. There is kindness, and there is compassion or tenderheartedness. True forgiveness flows out of the blessedness of a merciful heart. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” You give forgiveness freely. It is not love with strings attached – “I forgive . . . but I’m watching you, remember.” Nothing like that at all. Forgiveness comes from a love that is thinking of the welfare of another. You are giving him freedom from your hostility. You are forgiving him out of gratitude to God your Father. You are honouring him by copying his gracious forgiveness in Christ.
We are to forgive. You remember a time when the apostle Peter was deeply exercised over this matter of Christian forgiveness. It seemed to him to be impossible. Let us read the words of Jesus from Matthew 18:21-35:
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.'”
The focus of this parable is in verse 33 in the form of this question, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had mercy on you?” That is the point Jesus is charging to the conscience of Peter. If he is reluctant to forgive his brother one more time then let him consider these things:
i] How unreasonable is such an attitude.
You have been forgiven so much by God – in this parable the debt is about five million pounds. The Lord has torn up the bill; you have nothing at all to pay. You are completely free from debt, but now you are refusing to forgive a man a small debt, possibly five pounds. Do you remember the Pharisee who disparaged the woman who anointed Christ’s head with expensive oil, weeping over his feet and drying them with her hair. To Simon the Pharisee this was an embarrassingly mawkish emotional exhibition. He scorned the woman for her behaviour, but Jesus said to him that his problem was this, that Simon felt that he was a pretty upright and decent chap. There wasn’t much for which God needed to forgive him, just the occasional extra yard he took on a Sabbath day’s journey, or he didn’t exactly tithe the mint and the cumin and other herbs. That was all. God had little to forgive him for. So, Jesus said, “no wonder you love God so little. You feel that you and God are virtual equals.” But this woman felt overwhelmed by her guilt. How high and holy was Jehovah while she crawled like a worm who defiled his creation, but God had heard her prayer for mercy and he had forgiven her in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. So she fell at his feet, lost in wonder and trembling joy. She loved Jesus Christ so much because she had been forgiven so much. Those who have seen their sins and the abounding grace of God will be people whose lives will all be mercy to others. How unreasonable was this servant’s attitude. But again in this parable the Lord is highlighting something else;
ii] How mean is such an attitude.
“It seems incredible;” how often do we turn to one another and say that about something we’ve heard or seen in people’s behaviour, how intransigent and merciless sinners can be. “Imagine a man demanding money from a woman who is walking along a lane with a little boy, and when she gave him none, stabbing her with a knife and leaving her bleeding and paralysed with the little boy looking on helplessly. It seems incredible . . .” but it happens. Jesus is speaking of a man who has just been forgiven an enormous debt who catches a glimpse of a man who owes him an insignificant amount and yet he has him thrown into prison.
We have been forgiven more than we ever imagine. From the womb we have gone astray telling lies. There has never been one single thing you’ve done totally free from sin, and yet God has forgiven you the lot! Then shouldn’t we be the most grateful people this world has ever known, and motivated by our gratitude freely offer forgiveness to those who, by comparison, have committed comparatively trifling sins against us?
There is a Christian counselor today who had an automobile accident which resulted in him losing both his legs. He counsels people who come to him with their problems, and many of them don’t know that he’s got these artificial limbs, so he uses them to his own advantage. He will listen to a woman pouring out her bitterness and resentment against someone else and against the God who has brought these problems into her life. When she finishes this counselor can say, “Well now, let’s talk about your problem,” and his desk is on wheels so he pushes it to one side and crosses his legs to talk to the woman, and there is this flash of aluminium and the sight of two artificial legs! What problems with God’s providence he has had to overcome.
Let me use that fact in this way. The grace of God is much greater than all our sins and their effects. God turned all the crimes that were laid on the cross to his own glory and to our advantage. We can do the same. Our repented falls can become assets in serving God. John Newton’s slave-trading past, Jonathan Aitkin and Chuck Colson’s periods in prison were all used not only for their humbling and sweetening but to instruct and warn others. However, the servant in Jesus’ parable had never learned that. He was obsessed with the fact that some men owed him money, and he had no time for sentiment if he bumped into one of them. “Pay me what you owe me you rotter!”
The meanness of this servant’s attitude is underlined, but there is one thing more;
iii] How dangerous is such an attitude.
You are playing with fire if you tolerate an unforgiving spirit. God won’t overlook it. Jesus tells us that when the king hears about this shocking event he drags the servant into his presence and calls him to account. Won’t God do the same to his own children? Won’t he heap coals of fire on our heads? Doesn’t he say that whom the Father loves he chastens and scourges every son whom he receives, and that this is not pleasant but very grievous? There were defiant unforgiving Christians in the Corinthian congregation and for that reason some of them were ill, and others had died. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, for our God, yes our God, is a consuming fire. God does not lightly brush off the sins of his saints. What stern warnings are given here to those who refuse to forgive. Christ brings them to bear on his disciples to assist them in mortifying remaining sin and in encouraging them to live a holy life. Forgiveness, and then the next day forgiveness, and then another day dawns and more forgiveness is required. Morning by morning forgiveness we show. Paying careful attention to this won’t be unrewarded. It will result in closer fellowship with God and greater unity with other believers.
3. A FORGIVEN CHRISTIAN FORGIVES EVERY KIND OF SIN.
See the sins that are mentioned here: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (v.31). You see how this particular lists majors on the sins of anger, and that it starts with an inner resentful attitude of bitterness towards another person. That is where the murder of the Messiah began in bitterness in the hearts of the chief priests and scribes. Forgive the man who is bitter towards you. Then it progresses to rage and anger; often these terms are joined together, rage being an outburst of anger while anger is a steady festering and seething of anger towards another. Forgive the one who was outraged and angry at you. Then Paul mentions brawling and that describes the loud shouting of people who are quarreling, utterly unrestrained. Forgive those who shout at you; they shouted at Jesus, “Away with him. Crucify him!” He prayed for them “Father forgive them; they know not what they do.” The next word is slander and it refers to personal defamation, either by lies or gossip – any abusive language about you, or cursing your name. Forgive them those sins. Finally Paul expands this list of reprehensible conduct even further, with this phrase, every form of malice. You are to forgive every conceivable form of wickedness. Nothing is too great for us to respond to with the offer of forgiveness. There was a Christian policeman named Steven Oaks who was stabbed to death last year by a terrorist illegal asylum seeker in the Manchester area, and his wife Lesley immediately offered the murderer her forgiveness for what he’d done in ending her marriage and removing a father from her children. It was incredible and very moving. She had taken so seriously the example of God in forgiving her and the requirements of grace that forgiven people themselves offer forgiveness.
I am saying that there are redeeming consequences in a forgiving spirit. Pastor Steve Brown tells this of this incident, “I have a friend who had recently become a Christian. She failed miserably in a relationship with a man who saw nothing wrong with having sex with anyone who was willing. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘it is just a normal need like eating and exercise. How could it be wrong?’ My friend fell for that type of idiocy and then came to my study sobbing her heart out. I listened to her confession, and then I reminded her of the reason Christ died for her. Next I said to her, ‘Joan, you have a great opportunity to witness to this man. Why don’t you go to him and ask his forgiveness for having betrayed the most important Person in your life, Jesus Christ?’ She did this, and he didn’t know how to handle it.
“She went to this man and she said, ‘I’ve come to ask for your forgiveness. Sex is a beautiful thing, and I can’t say that I don’t enjoy sex, but last night I did something far worse than sleep with you. I failed to be faithful to Christ who loves me. I gave lie to the central belief of my life. I’m forgiven, and things are okay between Christ and me, but where I really failed was in this, that I did not show Christ to you clearly. When I slept with you last night, my greatest sin was in hiding Christ. Will you forgive me?’
“Now, that man is not a Christian because of her witness, but he is thinking about it. She had become one beggar telling another beggar where she found bread, and that was a whole lot different from one actor telling another actor where he can do some more acting” (Steve Brown, “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” Nelson, Nashville, 1986, pp.90-91).
Evangelism is much more than methods and verses carefully remembered, or courage to seize a moment. It is the response of people who have failed in life in some big areas, who by God’s grace can reach a place from they can look back and think, “I meant it for evil, but God turned it to good.” So forgiveness can become a wonderful blessing in a Christian’s life and the life of a fellowship.
May 1 2005 GEOFF THOMAS