Do I Have to Forgive to Be Forgiven?

There is something Jesus says quite clearly that often troubles us: In order for God to forgive us, we must be willing to forgive others.

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15

This follows up what we commonly refer to as the Lord’s Prayer, which includes:

“And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.” 6:12

If you prefer a parable setting for this teaching look at Jesus’ teaching about the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35

There are a couple of things that can make us uncomfortable about this idea. One is that we might not want to forgive someone who’s hurt us.

Another big problem is that it doesn’t fit well with our theology.

Many Christians frame the good news in somewhat individualistic terms. Something like this: Jesus came to die for my sins so that if I have faith in him, my sins are forgiven and thus I’ll be able to go to heaven when I die.

The other part of that common belief is that our salvation (the term most used) is by faith alone and we don’t have to DO anything. Having to forgive others would be doing something, we might think.

So, how can it be that we have to forgive other people in order to be forgiven ourselves? That’s a pretty big caveat if faith is all that matters, isn’t it?

There are many facets here that we could explore, but here’s the big one.

I believe that we’ve not framed the gospel story correctly.

If we go back and read the gospels again, what would we see as Jesus’ core teaching priority?

‘From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”‘ Matthew 4:17

Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:14-15

‘Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”‘ John 3:3

Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is foremost a (re)new(ed) community of people living under the loving reign of King Jesus. This is the greatest invitation that we can ever receive. His offer is for us to live in peace (shalom) with God AND God’s people through the provision of God’s amazing grace shown magnificently in Christ.

This invitation comes with the free offer of forgiveness of sins and restoration of our broken relationship with God (salvation) as well as the promise of victory over death.

In this kingdom that Jesus invites us to live into (right now and in its fullness one day), we are learning to follow Jesus. To live every aspect of our lives the way he leads us to. (John 14:15, Matthew 28:19-20)

So, let’s return to the forgiveness question. Why does Jesus demand our willingness to forgive others?

Simply because that’s the way things work in his kingdom.

His kingdom runs on grace, forgiveness and agape love.

That’s the way of Jesus – by both teaching and example.

On the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

Actually, forgiveness is only the beginning. He calls us to bear one another’s burdens and to lay down our lives for one another.

Simply put, we can’t live in God’s kingdom and defy one of the core aspects of his kingdom. In the kingdom of God, forgiveness flows.

That’s good news.

To say again: Jesus didn’t come just to save you from your sins. He came to reconcile people BOTH to himself AND to one another. Forgiveness of sins is a part of that.

As Paul reflects in 2 Corinthians 5:

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”

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Paid in Full

There are two different ways to pay off a debt.

You can work hard to do it, which is how it’s normally done. This is good. It teaches us discipline and the value of hard work and is very personally satisfying.

Your debt can also be paid by someone else. This leads not to pride but (should) lead to humility and gratitude.

Christians understand that this is what Jesus has done for us.

‘When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’ John 19:20

The Greek Strong’s Dictionary says this about the word teleo that’s translated here ‘it is finished.’

teleo – to end, i.e. complete, execute, conclude, discharge (a debt): — accomplish, make an end, expire, fill up, finish, go over, pay, perform.

On the cross, as Jesus willingly gave his life for out sins (trespasses, debts), he declared it to be finished.

Paid in full.

And so the gift of God’s grace is given to us. Freely and yet at great cost to himself.

Grace. A gift that we do not have the means to ‘take care of’ ourselves. Taken care of for us by someone else. Someone with both the means to do it and the love to want to do it.

There are many acts of goodness, kindness and generosity that might well be referred to as grace. Good gifts to one another given in love.

But there is something profound about gifts of amazing grace.

Gifts that – echoing Jesus’ ultimate gift – are beyond our own capacity.

At most holidays we give and receive gifts that we could afford to purchase for ourselves. This is a way to appreciate people in our lives and it can be quite nice.

But sometimes we receive a gift that is far beyond our means. And it leads to another level of response.

As you might know, our church family recently surprised us with such a gift. They joined together (I have no idea how much was given from whom) and presented us with a gift of paying off all of my outstanding student loans. To the tune of about $28,000 all together which has been for us a total regular payment of about $800 a month!

I’m still not entirely sure how to feel. It’s sort of shocking to think about. It’s humbling. It’s moving…

One of the things that it makes me think is that this is the way that we should feel about God’s grace.

I’m also realizing that it’s often our acts of love, kindness and – yes – grace, that can be motivated by God’s kind of love and help others experience that love as well.

Being loved well ought to lead us to love well.

Being the recipient of great generosity ought to lead us to great generosity ourselves.

This, in fact, is God’s very plan.

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

The Truth that Sets You Free

Jesus promised that he would set us free, right?

We often fill in the gaps on what we think that means. Free from sin. Free from death. Free from…?

Yet many Christians don’t feel very free even though we are told we should be.

While there are many things that we need to choose to believe God in even when we feel differently, I believe there is something additional with this one.

Let’s look at what Jesus said.

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32

I believe that Jesus’s teaching here indicates that there is an aspect to the freedom he speaks about that can only be fully experienced inside of trusting him specifically in the various areas of our lives.

We can be freed from the consequences of sin because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, but not be freed from sin in our lives really.

When we experience freedom, it goes deeper into our hearts.

And remember, Jesus said that we will know the truth that sets us free after he speaks of trusting in his word.

Let’s take just one example: Lying

Many of us will agree with God that not speaking truthfully is not honoring to him or each other. Sin.

In the fullness of his kingdom, we will not lie. We will speak the truth.

But how often as Christians do we still lie to one another?

Now we could say that it doesn’t matter if we lie because all of our sins are forgiven by Jesus and his death on the cross.

True enough. But I don’t think that’s the fullness of the freedom that Jesus is talking about.

Jesus said, listen to what I say. Trust me.

“Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Matthew 5:37

When we don’t speak the truth simply, we don’t listen to Jesus. We don’t trust him. We think that things aren’t going to work out if we do that. People will be disappointed. People will think less of us.

And so we DON”T experience freedom. Even as Christians. In that area, we’re still in bondage to sin, even if it’s without eternal consequences.

But when we trust Jesus -.when listen to him and follow his teaching even when we’re not sure of the outcome…

We find him to be true. We find his Spirit to be with us in ways that we’ve not experienced before.

And we’re set free. We don’t have to lie. We can tell the truth.

And that applies to every area of our lives.

We might be able to know in our heads that we are free, but we’ll only experience that freedom when we trust Jesus.

Why Did Jesus Come?

Christians will often repeat the phrase, “Jesus came to die.”

Is this why Jesus came?

The first answer we can give is an affirmative yes. Jesus certainly understood that his journey on earth would lead to the cross where he would offer his own life ‘as a ransom for many.’ That Jesus died for our sins is an essential affirmation for understanding Jesus.

But the way the statement is often made can come with the idea that this is the fullest and final word on why Jesus came.

Jesus came to die. Boom. Mic drop.

While this statement is absolutely non-negotiable for the Christian, I don’t believe it should be our last word or probably our ‘go to’ statement for describing why Jesus came.

If we look through the Gospel narratives and Letters in the New Testament, it becomes clear that the death of the Messiah Jesus is only the penultimate (second most important) concern (along with the Resurrection which was just as important to the earliest Christians and should be for us as well).

The ultimate reason that Jesus came to die flows from the result of his death and resurrection and also ties together his profound and necessary teaching and example – not to mention the entire biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation.

“And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” 2 Corinthians 5:15

“…who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” Titus 2:14

“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Romans 6:4

“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever!” Revelation 1:5-6

All of these scriptures and many others point toward the results intended by Jesus’ death on the cross: To live not for ourselves but for Christ. To purify for himself a people eager to do good. That we might live a new life. That we would become a kingdom to serve God. Ambassadors for Christ.

All of this ties together well with Jesus’ own preaching of course.

‘From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”‘ Matthew 4:17

The kingdom of God, according to Jesus’ own prayer example is where God’s will is done.

Jesus came to inaugurate the kingdom of God. He came to bring the New Creation. He came to initiate the New Covenant. A people who no longer live in rebellion from God but in communion and deep relationship with Emmanuel – God with us. Seeking to learn from him. To obey everything he has commanded us. To proclaim this good news and invite the nations to a beautiful discipleship to the King Jesus.

Yes, Jesus came to die. And thus to defeat sin and death.

But he died and freed us in order that we might live in the newness of life. Joining him in his work of reconciling all things to himself.

Jesus came that in himself, God had come near. His kingdom is available to us. Reconciling power, peace and provision.

Merry Christmas!

Where There is No Context, the Meaning Perishes

There are many oft quoted scriptures that change ‘a bit’ when put into context.

If you see a Scripture reference with an ‘a’ or ‘b’ after it, be sure to look that one up. Why didn’t they include the second half?

At least in the case of one common verse, the ‘b’ part gives much of the meaning of the ‘a’

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” Proverbs 29:18a

We hear this verse quoted again and again in churches and ministries. The lesson is that we need to have a vision for our organization. Usually a unique, well articulated one. Or else we are doomed, right? Perish!

The whole verse says this:

Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Proverbs 29:18 (a&b)

Oh and the first half also has to be quoted from the KJV, because other translations include more of the actual meaning of ‘vision’ in the first half too.

“Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.” ESV

“Without revelation people run wild, but one who listens to instruction will be happy.” CSB

“When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful.” NLT

Clearly the contrast here is that people who don’t know/ listen to / keep God’s law or instruction perish, lose control, run wild etc.

Or in a common phrase from Judges, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

I’m not saying that a church or ministry can’t or shouldn’t have a ‘vision’ unique to their community, culture or organization.

What I am saying is that it’s much more important for churches to focus most on what God has clearly called us all to do and be.

For Christians, it doesn’t mean ‘keeping the Law’ as it did in it’s original context.

As we think about the idea today, I think of something like, ‘When Christ followers don’t follow Christ, things go really bad.’

Consider this ironic possibility:

When congregations and their ‘leaders’ don’t follow Christ’s clear call (to make disciples shaped by his radical love, they often end up crafting visions of their own making.

We don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying and our programs and plans.

We need to do what Jesus unleashed us to do.

What the Holy Spirit empowers us to do.

Cardio and Quiet Times

There’s something Dallas Willard has said in various places that has stuck with me:

“Memorizing Scripture is even more important than a daily quiet time, for as we fill our minds with great passages and have them readily available for our meditation, “quiet time” takes over the entirety of our lives. Memorization enables us to keep God and his truth constantly before our minds, allowing his Word and wisdom to help us.”   (From Life Without Lack)

Of course having a ‘quiet time’ in your routine can be very beneficial, but the most important aspects of the Christian life are the ones we take with us throughout the day.

It reminds me a bit of how I’ve thought about different kinds of exercise.  Especially as it relates to burning calories, cardio has the most benefit while you’re doing it.  There other health benefits, but the effectiveness of calorie burning ends quickly when the activity is done.  

Resistance training – like weight lifting –  might not always burn as many calories during the activity, but the building of muscle stays with you, with a 24/7 increase in calorie burning.

Memorizing scripture allows us to ‘set out minds on things above’ in the moments of everyday life.   

How much Scripture can you recall when you need to?

Which practice / discipline has been most fruitful in your life?

I Am Not a Shepherd

I recently wrote a short post for my denomination’s blog about our need to repent of ‘one size fits all ministry.  You can read it here.  We desperately need to repent of that idea that there is one composite set of gifts and and passions that every ‘pastor’ is to strive toward.  This is simply not at all biblical and has caused pain and frustration for both ‘ministers’ and congregations.  

It’s also not enough to just acknowledge this.  This conversation desperately needs to come down from the conceptual level to the ground level.  We need to be able to discern (in community) our callings and name them for what they are, even if that requires some non-category fitting nuance.

So, I’m leading by example in the comment that I shared under that post and will re-post here.

I am a teacher.

I am not a shepherd.

Several years before having read any APEST (see Ephesians 4) literature, my experiences showed me that not everyone who serves in existing ministry roles have the same gifts. In my case it was that myself and the other pastor I served with complemented each other quite well. At the time I didn’t have the framework to think about it, but I now believe he is a shepherd and I am a teacher.

There is a fairly robust discussion in the exegesis of Ephesians 4:11 about whether shepherds and teachers are one role or two. I’ll save that conversation for another day, but I (along with the majority of those who have put APEST in to practice) believe that these are different callings.

Of course, we can see in the New Testament (see 1 Peter 5 for example) that there is in some way a collective shepherding function of local elders, but some people are particularly called and passionate about shepherding the church. They tend to prioritize relationships and community building. They often thrive on caring for others, take note of when people are missing and are hurt when people leave their ‘fold.’ Shepherds don’t often have to be talked into making calls and visits to check up on people. One quality of the ministry of shepherds I know personally is encouragement. They excel and thrive on building people up, making them feel loved and wanted.

This is all wonderful stuff, but it doesn’t characterize my primary God-given passion. I ‘can’ shepherd competently, but I have to talk myself into making checkup visits. I’d much rather challenge people to grow then tell them they’re doing well. I’m not really that bothered when people decide they’d rather go to another church. In short, I’m a pretty lousy shepherd because I’m not gifted to be a shepherd.

I am a teacher. I actually resisted this because of a stereotype I had of a teacher (in the church sense, not the public school sense) as someone who relates information. Truth be told, I would like to be a prophet, but I am not. But once I began to understand what a teacher is, particularly through an APEST assessment that involved feedback from other people who know me and my thinking and ministry.

And, Neil Cole’s book Primal Fire. For me, this is probably the best, practical book on APEST and ‘leadership.’

When Neil describes the teacher, I said, ‘yes, yes, yes…’ over and over again.

Teaching isn’t about information but transformation. Putting knowledge into practice.

According to Cole, teachers facilitate the learning of truth and a kingdom lifestyle.

He says that the treachers greatest motivation is the dual task of exposing false assumptions and replacing those errors with truth. Yes! That’s what I do.

A teacher is a learner – with an insatiable curiosity and fascination. This one got me: “A teacher doesn’t have to be prompted to study. Books are like friends.”

This is Cole’s definition of teaching: “Facilitating the learning of others so that they know, do and pass on to others relevant and meaningful truth.”

Alan Hirsch’s book ‘The Permanent Revolution’ further solidified my understanding of my calling. He says that “The teaching ministry as the Bible intends it is more oriented toward life and obedience then toward ideas divorced from life.

I could go on and on, but I just want to say that I am a teacher. I am not a shepherd.

What about you?