Posts Tagged With: legalism

 
 

Ascension and Pentecost III. The Gospel of Forgiveness

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:19–23).

(This is Part 3 of a series. Part 2 appears here.)

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Jesus appears to the disciples after His resurrection. By William Hole (1846-1917), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On the night before Jesus died, He gave a final “pep talk” to His disciples, often referred to as “the upper room discourse” (John, chapters 13–17). During that discussion, He went into some depth about a few topics that He had touched on over the past three years: Serving one another; loving others; the promise of everlasting life; the coming, presence, and purpose of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life; and the believers’ responsibility to spread His Gospel.

 

Between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus would go into greater detail on some of these topics. A few subjects that received passing mention earlier in the Gospels take greater emphasis during the 40 days after His resurrection. At that time, He gave them final instructions for continuing His work after He ascended to heaven. On Pentecost, He gave them His Holy Spirit so that they could fulfill those instructions. A few key themes continually arise in His final instructions.

One of the most important, and in many churches least emphasized, elements of Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching is the message of forgiveness. Yet, it is central to Jesus’ final instructions to His disciples, and it should be central to our message. As He prepared them for their forthcoming ministry, He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:21–23).

Churches debate what this means. Some Roman Catholics will point to this passage to defend the practice of sacramental confession: according to them, this passage authorizes the priest to pronounce forgiveness of sins to those who confess their sins and request absolution. Some Protestants will say that this is little more than authorization to preach the Gospel so that people may receive forgiveness by believing in Jesus.

The Catholic view I described is definitely an exaggeration of that passage’s teaching; in fact, it is actually a caricature of Catholic teaching about forgiveness (from what I read in a few books and learned from a few devout Catholics). On the other hand, though, the Protestant view above (that Jesus was merely authorizing His disciples to preach the Gospel) seems a little inadequate. He did not say, “If you tell people they are forgiven, they might be forgiven”—but that really is the essence of much evangelical teaching on this subject. However, Jesus implies that the disciples had some kind of authority to extend OR withhold forgiveness in such a way that it is counted that way in heaven. God honors that forgiveness as if He extended it Himself. (I will add that this is an application of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 16:19, when He told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This had everything to do with preaching and teaching with divine authorization, and nothing to do with “naming and claiming” health and wealth for yourself. It also seems to be related to Matthew 9:8, where, after Jesus healed a paralytic by forgiving his sins, the crowd “glorified God, who had given such authority to men.”)

How do we, as ordinary twenty-first century Christians, exercise this authority to forgive? That is a complicated question, but here I offer at least three ways we can extend God’s forgiveness with His authority.

First, we need to actually live the message of forgiveness in our own lives. We need to live, think, and speak as people who know that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but who have been fully forgiven of our sins through faith in Jesus. We must live as forgiven people.

Then, we need to forgive others as He has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13). Instead of harboring bitterness and resentment, we should forgive. Instead of gossiping about the sins and indiscretions of others, we pray for them, with a heart of forgiveness, seeking God’s mercy in their lives. Instead of looking down on those who sin differently than we do, we should forgive and love them, looking on them with mercy and compassion.

We see this in the life of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As he was being stoned to death, his last words were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). On the basis of John 20:23, it is a safe bet that none of them would have found the sin of killing Stephen held against them when they stand before God’s judgment seat. Furthermore, one of those people whom Stephen forgave (Saul of Tarsus, better known as the apostle Paul) would experience the forgiveness of Christ and become one of its greatest spokesmen.

Finally,  we must proclaim a message of forgiveness:

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45-47).

The Gospel we are called to preach contains a few key points: Jesus died for our sins; He rose again; in response to that, we repent of our sins; on the foundation of all that, we receive His forgiveness. St. Paul would later describe it as a “free gift.” If Christ’s work on the cross is absent, it is not the Gospel. If repentance is absent, it is “cheap grace” that tramples the Son of God underfoot (Hebrews 10:29). If forgiveness is absent, we are without hope, for the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

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In “History of the World,” Moses drops one of the tablets, thereby losing five commandments and leaving us with 10. It seems like many Christians try to add new commandments. Jesus summarized them in two.

The Gospel is not a new set of rules, designed to make us act like we are better than others. The Bible has enough clear commandments: We do not need to add “Thou shalt not listen to this music” or “Thou shalt not dance” (or some of the other extra-canonical commandments that some Christians place on equal footing with the clear teaching of Scripture). In the Mel Brooks movie, “History of the World,” Moses initially comes down from the mountain with three stone tablets, containing 15 commandments, and accidentally drops one (leaving us with 10). Many Christians try to make up for this fumble by adding 666 new sins to the list. Jesus simplified it for us (and yet, in some ways, made it more intensive) by summarizing God’s will in the two commandments to love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:37–40).

 

The Gospel is not a self-improvement program either. We do not accept Jesus Christ, then try to fix our lives to make ourselves acceptable to God, out of fear that He will reject us when we fail. We do not improve ourselves to make ourselves acceptable to God. Instead, God accepts us as we are when we come to Him in faith, and then He changes our lives on His own schedule.

This is the Gospel we are called to preach. Jesus died to forgive us. We come to Him to receive that forgiveness. That is why He came, and that is our source of confidence that we will enjoy eternal life with Him. If forgiveness is not at the center of your message, it is the wrong message. And, if the person is responsible for improving himself, it is not the Gospel; Scripture tells us it is the work of the Holy Spirit to improve us.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fulfillment of the Law—Matthew 5:17-20

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20, NASB.)

Christians seem to have many different opinions about the relationship between followers of Jesus and the Old Testament law.

Many live and talk as though we are still bound by a series of rules and regulations. Even though they may believe that some of the rules no longer apply to us (e.g., eating pork, observing the Sabbath), they find new rules which they believe all Christians should follow (for example, thou shalt not listen to rock music or anything that sounds like it; thou shalt not dance; thou shalt not drink even the tiniest sip of alcohol). When someone violates one of those rules, these people may assume that this person does not know Jesus.

Then there are those people who believe that since we are no longer under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14–15), we can just ignore the entire Old Covenant. In fact, we can even ignore those passages in the New Testament that sound like commands straight from the mouth of God.

Clearly, neither is correct. Paul’s teaching in his letters, as well as much of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, proves that rules and regulations do not save us. But, when Jesus says that those who annul even the smallest stroke of the pen are least in the kingdom of heaven, it is clear that we cannot simply live as we like.

How do we answer this paradox? I will suggest a few basic principles that we can learn from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:17–20, which will help us balance our relationship with Jesus and our obligation to rules and regulations in Scripture.

First, remember that Jesus has fulfilled the law. The central message of the Gospel is that God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus died for you! You are forgiven! That forgiveness is a gift, freely received by faith! You do not earn it by trying harder, or by paying God back. Stop beating yourself up if you fail: All of your sins, whether by failure to resist temptation or by open rebellion against God, are forgiven when you confess Jesus as Lord of your life.

Second, the entire law is summed up in loving God and loving your neighbor. In Matthew 22:37–40, Jesus defined the greatest law of Scripture by saying:

And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

The love Jesus speaks of is not just a warm feeling. It can hurt. Remember John 3:16—God so loved the world that He did something drastic and sacrificial for us. In the Gospel of Luke, after Jesus sums up the two great laws, He taught the parable about the Good Samaritan: In that story, a man went out of his way to take care of a crime victim who probably hated him, surrendering his own time, money, and energy to care for somebody in need.

Because of this, in some ways the New Covenant calls us to a higher standard. We can no longer face ethical dilemmas or personal decisions based purely on the questions, “Is there a rule against this? Am I allowed to do this?” Instead we must ask ourselves deeper questions:

  • Since Jesus dwells in me and I am part of His body, how would He act?
  • What would He do about this?
  • How can I show love for this person in this situation?
  • Not only is it allowable, but also, is it profitable? Is this the best way to seek the best for other people?

These are challenging questions to ask ourselves as we face the daily challenges of life.

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Character and Values, Christian Life, Scripture Sabbath | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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