Christian Forgiveness: Conditional Or Unconditional?


The_Crucifixion001Some years ago I read a new thing about forgiveness—well, new to me. The idea popped up on a post at Spec Faith by Stephen Burnett, then expanded as I followed a link to a post by Kevin DeYoung. I respect both of these men, but I have to admit, I think they’re missing something important about Christian forgiveness.

As I understand the principle they’re presenting, they believe there are two ideas about forgiveness: one, a therapeutic forgiveness that is popular today even in the secular world, and two, a Biblical forgiveness that is dependent upon the repentance of the offender.

In his article about these two types of forgiveness, Mr. DeYoung goes to pains to explain that the second type of forgiveness in no way condones an attitude of bitterness or revenge:

We should always love our enemies. We should always fight against bitterness. We should cast all our cares on the Lord. We should learn to trust God’s providence. We should be eager to forgive those who hurt us and be reconciled to them.

The foundational thought to this idea that a Christian only forgives those who repent, is that we are to forgive like God forgives and He forgives conditionally—that condition being repentance.

Let me back up and explain “therapeutic forgiveness.” I’d not heard the term before, but I think it does describe a humanistic co-oping of a Biblical principle. The idea here is that giving forgiveness makes the person doing the forgiving feel better. There is no intent to reconcile, however. It’s just a way of escaping negative feelings like anger and bitterness.

Many Christians, influenced by Lewis Smedes and a lot of pop psychology, have a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. They think of forgiveness as a unilateral, internal effort to get our emotions under control. (“What Is Forgiveness?”)

The Biblical view, according to Mr. DeYoung, is that forgiveness is the means to reconciliation. Hence, the Christian should always be ready to forgive, but true forgiveness only comes when both parties move toward one another, repenting and receiving or offering forgiveness as necessary.

Again the rationale behind this concept is the Scriptural statement that we are to forgive as Christ forgave us.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV, Eph. 4:32)

I’ll admit, I have problems with this approach. First, I don’t think there has to be two choices: either therapeutic or Biblical conditional forgiveness. I think there can easily be a third option: Biblical unconditional forgiveness.

Part of my thinking is that some Bible scholars get tied up trying to think the way God thinks. Mr. DeYoung, then, says God’s forgiveness is conditional and therefore ours should be too, as if it’s possible for us to understand the conditional nature of God’s forgiveness.

Ah, but doesn’t Ephesians 4:32 say that’s how we are to forgive? I don’t think necessarily it does. I don’t read the verse as saying we are to forgive in the same manner that God forgives, but that we are to forgive because we received forgiveness.

Paul says essentially the same thing in Col. 3:13:

bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

The intent does not seem focused on forgiving in like manner but extending to others the forgiveness we received.

In other words, I see these verses mirroring Jesus’s instructions to forgive in response to the forgiveness we received. See, for example, the parable He told about the slave who received forgiveness for his debt only to turn around and withhold forgiveness from his fellow slave:

Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ (Matt. 18:32-33; see the entire parable in vv. 23-35)

It seems apparent to me that this “in the same way” is not talking about manner or even condition. In reality neither slave asked that their debt would be forgiven. They asked for more time to pay it off themselves. The act of forgiveness was an extension of mercy—the undeserved offer to cancel the debt.

This is what Christ did on the cross

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Col. 2:13-14)

As I read those verses, I’m convinced that God didn’t forgive us when we had put ourselves in a position to deserve it by repenting. He went to the cross while we were yet sinners.

Consequently, I don’t believe as Mr. DeYoung does that God’s forgiveness was conditional. He gave His forgiveness to anyone and everyone, but not everyone has accepted it. When Scripture says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16), I think the words “world” and “whoever” remove conditions from God’s side of the equation.

When Paul instructed Timothy to pray for all men, he explained his reasoning this way:

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.

There are literally dozens of verses throughout the Bible that carry this same idea. But one of the most telling, for me, is 2 Thess. 2:10ff which looks at salvation and forgiveness from the side of those who do not accept it:

[the lawless one will come with all power and signs and false wonders] 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. (Emphasis added.)

These who perish did not receive, implying that they could have received. They took pleasure in wickedness, implying that they could have refrained from taking pleasure in wickedness. They did not believe the truth, implying they could have believed the truth.

All this to say, the third reason I don’t believe forgiveness for the Christian is conditional, based on the repentance of the offender, is because I don’t believe God’s forgiveness is conditional.

I understand there are believers of a different doctrinal persuasion from mine who will disagree, but maybe two out of three reasons will be enough to make the case against this idea that forgiveness needs to be earned by repentance.

This post is a revised version of one that originally appeared here in July, 2014.

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The Grown-Up Christian Is …


I admit it—I’m a sucker for pictures of babies. But there is method in the madness today. We can’t really talk about grown-up Christians without at least mentioning newborns. Below is an article on the subject that first appeared here in June 2012. I’ve made a few changes here and there.

– – – – –

“Man is sinful and in need of God alone who can save us.” So I stated in a post about the problem of sin.

Unfortunately, too many people don’t understand what God’s work of saving us means on a practical, everyday level. There might be an idea that we start attending church and that we will go to heaven, but little else.

Even new Christians may not be clear on the “what next” part of things. Are we supposed to clean up our language? Start doing “holy” things? Put on a serious expression and stay away from anything that’s fun?

Well, no.

The grown-up Christian life is actually characterized by abundant joy, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When Jesus was talking to Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who came to Him privately to ask questions, He said that to come to God we must be “born again.” Jesus created this metaphor to illustrate that coming to God is the beginning of life, and just as we grow physically from immaturity to maturity, we do the same spiritually.

So coming to God through Jesus Christ is the “birth.” From that point, when we confess with our mouth and believe with our heart that Jesus Christ is Lord, we have a new life.

How great if God waved His hand over us at spiritual birth and changed our desires, so that what we once hated, we now love; what offensive things we once loved, we now hate. But life doesn’t work that way. Babies don’t settle in the day they come home from the hospital and begin driving—or trading stocks on E-trade.

Instead, they have things to learn. They need time to grow. They need proper food and abundant rest, and yes, they need their messy pants changed. Eventually they need to be potty-trained. It’s a process.

The Christian life is no different.

A brand new Christian is not going to turn into a mature Christian over night. We don’t transform ourselves into mature Christians by imitating what mature Christians do, no more than a toddler can become a man by using his toy tools on his toy car in imitation of his adult dad working on his real vehicle.

Don’t get me wrong. Imitation has value, but it should not be mistaken for actual maturity.

So what is maturity? If we are in need of Christ’s redemptive work because of our sin, does maturity then mean Christians no longer sin?

I’m pretty sure that’s what a lot of people believe—some Christians and some non-Christians. Why else are Christians vilified for doing what everyone else in the culture does?

According to one poll, 85% of those answering the questions said Christians are hypocrites. Meaning we don’t live according to our beliefs.

And we don’t, not perfectly. We are in a battle to accomplish that very thing. What we believe is that we should follow Jesus—we should love God and love our neighbor. What we do is, live too often for ourselves, forgetting God, ignoring our neighbors.

So how are we any different from the rest of the world? In some respects, we aren’t. We still sin. On the other hand, we are growing up to salvation. We’re taking baby steps away from conformity to the world; we’re allowing God to transform us into His image.

It’s just not an instantaneous deal, so when we mess up—and we will mess up—we stand exposed for the world to see our imperfection.

The thing is, if no one expected us to be perfect, our exposure as “not perfect” wouldn’t be a big deal.

But expectations aren’t reality. The truth about Christians is that we do sin, even though we don’t want to. Paul said it best in Romans 7: “The good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”

So mature Christians aren’t instantaneous, and mature Christians aren’t perfect.

Then what’s true about mature Christians? Besides being forgiven, redeemed, God’s children, the mature part means we actually refuse to pretend that we are what we are not. We do not go into the world with the intent to sin. We do not celebrate some false notion of being free to sin since God’s already picked up the bill.

Actually the opposite is true. When a mature Christian sins, it breaks his heart because he knows it breaks the heart of his Father. He knows that he should walk worthy of his calling (see Eph. 4:1) that he should please God in all respects (see Col. 1:9).

His sin, then, will drive him to his knees. He will bring it to his Father to claim the forgiveness He has already given. He will let God teach him and correct him and shape him.

In this way his life begins to take on a distinction that marks him as someone like Christ. The cool thing is, the more like Christ he becomes, the more he’ll want to serve and repent and learn and grow. He won’t parade an imagined perfection in front of the world. He won’t take credit for what God has done. But he will rejoice in the God of his salvation.

Published in: on February 20, 2018 at 5:33 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Power Of Forgiveness – A Reprise


joshmcdowellI heard another story of incredible forgiveness a number of years ago. A well-known Christian writer and speaker and apologist, it turns out, had a horrific childhood. His father was an alcoholic and in his between sober and drunk stages, was violent. His mother had a medical condition that necessitated the family bring in outside help. The man they hired began to sexually abuse this boy between the age of 6 to 13. When he finally worked up the courage to tell his mother, she didn’t believe him and whipped him for lying.

I’m referring to Josh McDowell, the author of Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and over a hundred other titles. This man who has been so vocal and passionate about the truth of God’s good news–his love and forgiveness–once considered Christianity worthless and identified himself as an agnostic.

What changed?

Josh McDowell met Jesus Christ.

Apparently his radical change came because of a college paper. He set out to examine the historical evidence for Christianity in order to disprove it, but instead he found compelling proof of its veracity.

He embraced Christianity, was discipled by a pastor for six months, enrolled in Wheaton College, and eventually attended Talbot Theological Seminary here in SoCal.

But the key turning point in his life, he said, was when he forgave the man who abused him. His was not a secret “in the heart” forgiveness. He actually tracked the man down, went to his home, and told him that what he’d done was wrong and hurtful, but because of Josh’s new life in Christ, he forgave him.

Of all the powerful forgiveness stories I’ve heard–Christ forgiving His crucifiers, Stephen forgiving those who stoned him, Corrie ten Boom forgiving the Nazi concentration guard, Elizabeth Elliott forgiving the indigenous people who killed her husband and four other missionaries with him, Kent Whitaker who forgave the person who murdered his wife and son–this one ranks right up there toward the top.

In all honestly, apart from Christ, this kind of forgiveness seems next to impossible. It doesn’t even seem all that desirable. Our culture wires us to be much more inclined toward revenge than forgiveness. Maybe it’s more than our culture. It’s probably wired into our nature. We want pay back.

If the guilty person is remorseful, then forgiveness doesn’t seem quite so hard. But if they remain hardened and unrepentant, forgiveness seems like an unacceptable concession.

The thing is, it’s not our job to play judge. God is the One who is ready to judge, according to 1 Peter. He is the Judge who is right at the door according to James.

For us to step back and refuse to do what isn’t our job in the first place, helps us, and it doesn’t change the fact that God will take care of the other party–either by covering them with the blood of His Son or by meting out judgment at the end of the age.

Let me reiterate what Josh McDowell experienced. Forgiving the man who hurt him, and his parents for allowing it, removed a weight he’d been carrying. It freed him to love.

Paul identifies an unforgiving attitude as a scheme of the devil.

for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes. (2 Cor. 2:10b-11)

Wow! Part of Satan’s plan of attack has to do with taking advantage of our lack of forgiveness.

That alone is sobering enough, but of course Jesus also taught extensively on our need to forgive our brothers. Understanding our own forgiven state seems to have a residual effect–it turns us into forgivers.

It makes sense. When we get the immensity of what we’ve been forgiven, we understand how cheap and petty we are to hold something against someone else.

The person Jesus died for, I’m going to squeeze a little more? To accomplish what? If that person is redeemed by the blood of Christ, am I asking Christ to do more than die for his sins? If he is not redeemed, am I saying I can punish him more adequately than God can?

My lack of forgiveness accomplishes nothing, but it’s negative effects on my life don’t end. A lack of forgiveness calcifies and turns into bitterness, resentment, hatred. Those things eat at our souls.

Josh McDowell is living proof that forgiving others made a great deal of difference in his life. God saved him and taught him what he needed so that he could be free and could heal from the hurt of his childhood. It wasn’t instantaneous, and God continues to heal all these years later. He healed and He is healing. And forgiveness is at the center of it all.

= = = = =

This post originally appeared here in July, 2013.

For more about Josh McDowell’s story you might be interested in Undaunted:

For the first time, Josh fully reveals the dramatic spiritual transformation that occurred when he faced his past head-on and put everything entirely in God’s hands. It’s a story of overcoming shame, grief, and despair and embracing real love for the first time. It’s a tale of divine grace: when the worst that life can throw at you happens, you can come out on the other side with a faith that is full, free—and undaunted.

Published in: on February 15, 2018 at 5:01 pm  Comments Off on The Power Of Forgiveness – A Reprise  
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From The Archives: Holiness Means What Again?


Pole_vault_barThis article is a revised version first of one that appeared here back in May 2011 as part of a discussion with author Mike Duran about the meaning of holiness.

To understand holiness we need to start with God because He alone is holy. Jesus, who is the exact representation of God (“And [Jesus] is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” -Heb. 1:3a), gave us the insight we need in His “Sermon on the Mount.”

In part He said the following:

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court …

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, … But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.

You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, …

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [selected verses from Matt. 5, emphasis added]

raise the barThe point I’m making is that Jesus set the bar where it belonged—at perfection, starting not with our external actions but with our thoughts and intentions and desires.

In so doing, He exposed us all because none of us is perfect. We all know this, even the most convinced atheist who doesn’t even believe in a moral standard. But because our hearts are desperately wicked, because we are so easily deceived, Jesus laid it out for us.

Now we can’t think evil thoughts about another person, while on the outside smile and help him fix his flat tire, then come away with a sense of goodness. Those evil thoughts pin us to the wall. Sure, we might fool others, and even ourselves if we refuse to look closely, but we aren’t fooling God.

The very pride we might feel at living an externally moral life, or at pointing out someone else’s activities which we categorize as moral failings, shows the real problem: we are, at heart, people who want to be God. That’s the sin the Fall infected us with.

We Christians are missing the point if we look at drug addicts or homosexuals or rapists or corrupt politicians or corporate criminals and think their problem is their external behavior. No doubt their external behavior complicates their lives, but their problem is their rejection of the grace of God He has lovingly and generously supplied through Christ, that which would provide the forgiveness they need.

No amount of “clean living” will change what they need—substitutionary payment for the insurmountable debt they owe. Their lives are forfeit. Putting away cigarettes, unplugging from pornography, taking the four-letter words out of their vocabulary, or any other external and all of them combined, isn’t going to change their standing before God.

Or mine.

We can enter His presence, enjoy a relationship with Him as His child, by grace alone.

But what about holiness? That’s where this started. Holiness is my response to my holy God.

– – –

For related posts, see “Holiness Is Not A Dirty Word” and “Inside Out – The Way Of Holiness”

Published in: on January 16, 2018 at 6:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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How Shall We Then Live?


Another mass shooting.

After a hurricane season that left many people in dire straits, only to see thousands upon thousands volunteer and donate to total strangers.

The worst of human nature and the best of human nature.

Is the answer simple? Do away with guns; teach children to combat bullying; show empathy to strangers?

I don’t think those are the answers. All the way back in Old Testament times God’s law specified what was to happen if someone hated his neighbor and waited for him with intent to harm him. In fact it was in the first family that the first murder took place. Guns not needed.

What was the motive for this latest shooting? It doesn’t really matter, I don’t think. We spend time trying to solve the wrong problem. We want to deal with the result, not the cause.

The cause, pure and simple, is the evil heart of humankind. We will not end violence when people still hate. We don’t end hatred by telling people they need more empathy. We end hatred by teaching forgiveness.

We end hatred by first experiencing the forgiveness unreservedly offered by God and then turning around and extending to others what we have received.

Our problem too often is not realizing we need forgiveness. We’d rather think of ourselves as independent, not rebellious; skeptics, not wayward; free thinkers, not slaves of sin. We are still the two-year-olds who tell their mother they want to do it themselves, whatever the “it” might be.

Not receiving forgiveness for our sins, we also don’t want to give forgiveness to “the really bad people,” whoever they might be. I just saw a bumper sticker that said, “Save a deer, hunt a pedophile.” See, people who prey on children fall into the really bad people category, so it’s OK to hate them.

We bristle at the notion that we are to refrain from vengeance and let God take care of pay-back. Because He might forgive them.

In other words, we have Jonah’s attitude. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh and tell the Assyrians—a violent, brutal nation—that they needed to repent, because they might just do a turn-around and God would withhold their punishment. Which was exactly what took place and which bothered Jonah. He wanted to see the deserved destruction he’d foretold come to fruition.

God rebuked Jonah (see 5:11) because of his attitude.

But here’s the point: waiting until someone does something egregious and then offering them forgiveness is too late. We need first to experience forgiveness ourselves, which means we need to see our own need for forgiveness. As soon as we do, there is no “them” and “us.” It’s just us sinful humans and we’re all in the same boat, all in need of a way of escape.

I’ll never forget when a history professor at my Christian college pointed out that my heart was the same as Hitler’s: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV) I don’t get Brownie points for being less desperately wicked than the Las Vegas shooter. Or anyone else. On a scale of 1 to 10, how desperately wicked am I? Does it matter?

In truth, no. Desperately wicked needs to be rescued, restored, forgiven, made new. And that’s precisely what God offers each and every one of us through the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ.

Published in: on October 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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A Lack Of Forgiveness


Periodically I see some re-runs of my favorite TV cop drama, Blue Bloods, but I’ve begun to notice something. Even though the central characters are portrayed to be Catholics and abide by some of the traditions with which they were raised, there is a serious lack of forgiveness on display.

I don’t think this TV show is on an island when it comes to this issue. More and more our entertainment has bought into the revenge motif rather than that of forgiveness. In fact, instead of forgiveness, we simply are not to take offenses personally because it’s just business. Except when we ARE to be offended, at everything with which we disagree, and hurry off to our safe space where we don’t have to deal with people who cross boundaries we have created.

Of course some boundaries are good and necessary. Others, not so much.

But even more, we now root for the demise of those we find offensive.

I remember years ago when Iranian student terrorists stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, a film crew captured mobs of Iranian citizens in the streets cheering. I was horrified. Not only was there animosity with a nation that had been considered a friend, but people were cheering the capture and imprisonment of people who had lived among them. Then there was the loss of property.

I hadn’t realized how Iranians viewed their government or America for propping it up. But I couldn’t imagine the joy being expresses at the expense of others.

And yet, here in America, some thirty years later, people took to the streets in celebration when they heard that Osama bin Laden was dead.

In those few decades, the US went from a nation of grace and forgiveness—the kind that provided aid to a defeated Japan and Germany and Italy after World War II, such that those nations became our allies—to a nation that seems intent on revenge and pay back

I don’t think the shift is surprising. During this same period of time, we have shifted our moral compass in a fundamental way. Once we extended forgiveness to others because we understood that God first extended it to us. And that we needed it.

Today, as a nation, we couldn’t care less about extending forgiveness. We, like the other nations, advocate shock and awe in our treatment of enemies. Thankfully we still respected the laws set down by the Geneva Convention, so we did what we could in Iraq and in Afghanistan to avoid civilian causalities. But honoring international law is not the same thing as forgiveness.

Those of us US citizens who believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior have a decision to make. We won’t ever be able to turn the clock back, but we can certainly influence our culture, as our forefathers once did. They allowed their Christian principles, notably forgiveness, to be a part of how they responded to people from other nations.

Do we follow that same pattern or are we intent on protecting ourselves?

Forgiveness is risky. People who hate you might continue to do you harm. That’s true here at home or in foreign places. But if we trust God for our protection, it’s not as risky as it may see. “So he answered, ‘Do not fear for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ ” (2 Kings 6:16)

Published in: on September 29, 2017 at 5:21 pm  Comments (3)  
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Certificates Of Debt


Debt is not a popular topic. The US government continues to bow under the massive debt we’ve accrued in the past few decades.

The state of California is no better. And then there is the debt of individual Americans!

The one good thing about all this insurmountable debt, I guess, is that we can more completely understand the parable Jesus told in Matthew 18 about the servant who owed so much money, his king was going to foreclose. The plan was to sell him, his family, and all of his stuff.

Jesus explained that the guy had no way of repaying his debt, implying that what he owed was far greater than what his king would receive from the sale.

A bad investment, some would conclude. The servant cost more than he was worth. Better to cut the losses and get out. And that’s precisely what the king intended to do.

Except the servant pleaded for more time.

As if!

More time was not going to change things. Five years or fifty years, the servant was not going to make enough money to pay what he owed. His situation was hopeless.

Enter the Christ of Colossians:

When you were dead in your transgressions … He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (2:13-14; emphasis mine)

This passage reminds me of Romans 8:1—“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Those certificates of debt Paul referenced in Colossians, those “decrees against us,” are the things of which I stood condemned.

And yeah, they were hostile to us—they condemned us to death. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

But now they’ve been removed—taken out of the way, nailed to Christ’s cross. So it’s easy to see why there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.

He didn’t forgive the debt in the same way that the king in the parable did, simply by saying the word and wiping the slate clean. Instead, Jesus Christ paid the debt.

It’s a great picture because it shows God’s justice—the debt needed to be paid—coupled with His mercy that freed us from the debt.

It also shows the impossibility of the debt coming back on us. How do you un-pay something? How do you un-remove it from where it’s been or un-nail it from the cross, the place of death?

Paul explained about the cross in more detail in the first chapter of Colossians:

For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard (vv 19-23; emphasis mine).

I love the “in order to” part of that passage. Christ has done the work, paid the debt, in order to present me blameless, beyond reproach—or specifically, beyond Satan’s reach. Simply put, all my certificates of debt are marked PAID.

This post is a a revised edition of one that first appeared here in September 2011.

Published in: on January 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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The God Of The Impossible


Nativity_Scenes015Mary was astounded. How could she not be? An angel had told her she’d get pregnant, and here she was, still a virgin, staring down into the little face of her newborn son.

As if that wasn’t enough, a group of shepherds crowded into their quarters to worship her baby. Angels, they said, had told them about this child—where he’d be born and how they could find him and how they would know him.

Then there were the two in the temple when she and Joseph went to present Jesus according to the law. First was Simeon who said strange things: that her son would be a light to the Gentiles and a glory to Israel. Then in his blessing, Simeon added that he was appointed as sign to be opposed. He didn’t stop there, but added some confusing personal prophecy about a sword piercing Mary’s own soul.

Then there was the prophetess Anna who thanked God for Mary’s son and talked about him to everyone who was looking for the redemption of Israel.

All this came on the heels of her cousin Elizabeth, her barren cousin Elizabeth, getting pregnant. The angel had told Mary that would happen, too. And it was then he made the whole astounding series of events make sense: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

The bottom line, and the only thing a person actually needs to believe in order to accept the astounding things we read about connected to that first Christmas, is that truth which Mary accepted. When the angel made his declaration about God’s greatness and power and limitless ability, Mary submitted to God—to His plans for her, His capacity to accomplish what He’d made known to her through His messenger.

She got it—that God was bigger than the laws of nature and that He was the fulfiller of prophecy. She ought not be a mother, but she was. The shepherds ought not have known about her son, but they did. Simeon and Anna ought not have declared a poor baby born to an unwed mother in a manger to be the Messiah, but they had.

Indeed, God can do the impossible.

That’s really the truth that separates people today as believers or unbelievers. If God can do the impossible, then He could take on human flesh and be born as a baby. If God can do the impossible, then He could die, once for all, the just for the unjust. If God can do the impossible, then no sin is too great for Him to forgive, no person so far from Him that He can’t reach them.

One of the worst kings in Israel’s history illustrates that point. Manasseh

erected altars for the Baals and made Asherim, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. He built altars in the house of the LORD of which the LORD had said, “My name shall be in Jerusalem forever.” For he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the LORD. He made his sons pass through the fire in the valley of Ben-hinnom; and he practiced witchcraft, used divination, practiced sorcery and dealt with mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking Him to anger. Then he put the carved image of the idol which he had made in the house of God (2 Chron. 33:3b-7a).

A hopeless case, right? Idol worship, child sacrifice, witchcraft. Evil. But God didn’t turn His back on Manasseh.

The LORD spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention. Therefore the LORD brought the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria against them, and they captured Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze chains and took him to Babylon. When he was in distress, he entreated the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. When he prayed to Him, He was moved by his entreaty and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God. (2 Chron. 33:10-13)

Impossible! But no. God “was entreated by him.” God forgives. God redeems. God reconciles.

The Christmas story is both the proof that God can do the impossible and the declaration that the God who is Lord of the impossible accomplishes the miraculous.

How right to praise His name.

This post is a re-print of one that first appeared here in December 2013.

Published in: on December 1, 2016 at 6:37 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Impossibility Of Empathy


donald_trumpEmpathy, according to my atheist blogger friend Violetwisp, provides a moral framework by which a person can make moral judgments. So, no, God did not “set eternity in our hearts” or a “God-shaped vacuum” or a “moral compass.” Our morality comes from our ability to “understand and share the feelings of others.” (Oxford American Dictionary)

Which is impossible.

No one can actually understand and share the feelings of someone with a radically different experience from ours. Take Donald Trump, for example. I’ve never been a multimillionaire. I’ve never had my own TV program. I’ve never had multiple marriages. I’m not a man. I have never wanted to run for President or to deport illegal aliens by the truckload or to carpet bomb the Syrians. There are many, many other things that make my life and experience different from Mr. Trump’s. So how am I to understand and share his feelings?

I can’t. We could easily be from different planets. He says deplorable things about women. He encourages violence against those who protest against his positions. He advocates for religious discrimination in the name of homeland security. He condones torture. Many of his “plans” for solving the problems in the US are unconstitutional.

I don’t understand someone who behaves as he does unless I assign motives behind his actions. My conclusion is that he cares more for himself than he does for others. Consequently, he’ll find a loophole so he doesn’t have to pay income taxes, then blame the government for the existence of the loophole. “If you’d just stopped me from being greedy and selfish, then I would have been like all other Americans,” he seems to be saying.

Am I empathetic toward Mr. Trump? No. I believe I understand him. He wants what he wants when he wants it and doesn’t care who he bulldozes out of his way to get the power or prestige or possessions he’s set his sights on. But do I feel for him? He’s had advantages in this life that few have had, and he comes to the twilight years of his life as a power-hungry bully who lies and manipulates and blusters and fawns—whatever works to create sycophants. I don’t feel for him. I think he should know better, that he should have done more with what he’d been given.

The truth is, he might have experienced heartbreak when he was young. He might have been lonely and alone as a child and has been acting out from a place of pain ever since—to live in a way that keeps him from feeling the heartache, to exact revenge on a perceived perpetrator, to make up from what he considers his lost youth. I simply have no way of knowing what is behind his deplorable actions and words and ways of relating to people in public.

I do not empathize with him. I don’t even want to. I don’t want to explain away what he’s done or what he continues to do.

tex_watsonEmpathy is a failed strategy. It cannot move me closer to Donald Trump. I could extrapolate from that one example to a host of others. I don’t empathize with David Duke and other racists. I don’t empathize with the Planned Parenthood execs who sold fetal body parts. I don’t empathize with the Manson family prisoners who have had parole denied repeatedly.

How am I supposed to empathize with a sex-trafficker? With a mob hit man? With an ISIS suicide bomber?

In case after case after case, I don’t understand someone or I don’t feel with them. And we haven’t even begun to talk about people from other countries who have customs and practices and traditions that are completely foreign to my experience.

Empathy doesn’t cut it. Can’t cut it. I don’t know enough to understand all these people. I don’t care enough to feel with them in their experiences.

Empathy doesn’t give us a moral framework apart from our own personal experience. And then we only feel with people based on our own perspective. Consequently, our moral judgment becomes, what do I want to have happen? So if I want abortion, then it’s legal. If I want slavery, then it’s legal. If I want divorce, then it’s legal.

Another gaping failure of empathy is to explain how all those unempathetic behaviors came into being in the first place. If the first humans were empathetic toward one another, all should have been well. But someone at some point introduced behavior that contradicted the moral framework that existed because of the perfect empathy governing those early relationships. What caused empathy to break down?

There is no answer to that question in the moral framework constructed by people who look to empathy as the solution to sin.

Yes, sin. That’s what we’re talking about. When one person violates another person, either in word or deed, it’s sin. Sin is actually deeper than that, but for the purpose of this post. focusing on the observable is sufficient.

Empathy can not change sin. That’s really what I’ve been saying. Empathy can’t explain why people sin, and it can give no answer to the cycle of sin—either those who sin against another or those who have been sinned against.

There’s only one remedy that has proven effective—forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t depend on my understanding or my feeling with another. I can forgive without knowing why someone behaved in a despicable way. I can forgive and work toward a restored relationship without feeling with the person who holds hatred in his heart.

I’ve played the empathy card before. I’ve sat with friends and listened to their tales of woe. I’ve worked to understand and feel with them when they have been wronged and mistreated. And what did it bring? Relief? No. It nurtured more of the feelings of resentment and anger that the original actions engendered. No relationship healing occurred. Only greater division.

But forgiveness—that’s a different thing. Forgiveness humbles and heals. Forgiveness bridges gaps without excusing or erasing responsibility. Forgiveness requires growth and added maturity in both the forgiven and the forgiver.

I suppose forgiveness is impossible too, apart from the great example of forgiveness God enacted when He sent His Son to provide a way for us to access His forgiveness; apart from the power of God to work in and through our frail human desires.

Yes, God alone is stronger than the heinous acts one person does against another. Only God can turn people who hated each other into friends. Only God can give the ability for a Nazi concentration camp prisoner to reconcile with one of her guards. Only God can lead a kidnap victim to forgive the men who were responsible for her husband’s death. Only God can put it in the heart of a congregation to forgive the racist who gunned down their loved ones in their own church.

God does what empathy can never do. Because God can do the impossible. Empathy . . . not so much.

Published in: on November 4, 2016 at 6:27 pm  Comments (3)  
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Forgiveness Is Not An Option


2017-Honda-Civic-ReviewI read a friend’s blog post today about forgiveness and I realized anew how little we talk about or understand forgiveness. Our speaker Sunday said something that also struck a nerve. Actually he was quoting Charles Spurgeon. He said the fall caused us to cling to grievances and to forget benefits.

Cling to grievances. That’s a lack of forgiveness.

Scripture has a lot to say about forgiveness. Here’s a re-post of an article I wrote on the subject, taking a look at one particular Biblical example.

– – – – –

New cars come with options. When I bought my car, it didn’t have a lot of perks. Those I could add if I chose. In most cases, I decided to go with the basics because the options cost extra.

Some time ago I heard another sermon on forgiveness, and it drove home a point I have learned and re-learned: forgiving others is not optional. It’s a product of having been forgiven. It’s not a means to forgiveness and it’s not an accessory that can be dispensed with at will. But for the Christian, it’s part of the basic package.

This is one of the areas that flies in the face of all other religions and anything the secular culture believes. As a matter of fact, it flies in the face of us Christians, too. It is not natural to forgive — but being forgiven makes it possible.

Once you’ve experienced the weight of guilt inexplicably removed through no effort of your own, two things happen. One is a sense of relief and gratitude. The second is a sense of kinship. You see someone else in the throes of justified condemnation, you see yourself and you understand, that was you once upon a time.

Interesting that the Apostle Paul, from time to time, reminded the people he wrote to of just this fact. Take his letter to the Colossians, for example, in which he wrote

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you once walked when you were living in them. (3:5-7 – emphasis mine)

It’s good that Scripture reminds us to look at what we were — exactly what people without Christ are. We were the prodigal, squandering our inheritance, we were the eldest brother, too jealous and judgmental to go inside and welcome his brother home.

But those two brothers illustrate the difference between being forgiven and not. The prodigal was a mess and knew it. He came to his father with nothing but the hope that he could serve because he had no way of making amends. When his father ran to him, hugged him (before he’d had a bath), restored him to his place as son, and set in motion a celebration, he knew he didn’t deserve any of it.

The brother coming in from the field, however, thought he deserved better than he got. He should have a celebration thrown for him, he reasoned, because he’d earned it. What’s more, he wasn’t about to join in a celebration for a wayward brother.

One son, contrite and humble, the other son, bitter and condemning. Which one had experienced the father’s forgiveness?

Jesus’s story doesn’t say that the prodigal son forgave his brother for not coming to his celebration, or anything like that. But it does tell us that the stay-at-home brother had an angry heart toward his brother and toward his father.

So who did he hurt by holding onto his anger? His brother? His father? They, I suspect, had a great time at the welcome-home feast. Only the bitter brother was left out.

So it is with us. Those who have experienced forgiveness aren’t in a position to shake our finger in anyone else’s face, reciting all their misbehaviors. Our eyes are downcast, or closed in worship, or fixed on the face of Jesus.

Those who have not experienced forgiveness feed their anger and jealousy, and end up missing out on the joy and rejoicing they could be a part of.

It’s a nasty thing, unforgivingness. It eats away at joy, contentment, gratitude. Certain names, we don’t want to hear; certain pictures, we tear up and throw away; certain places we no longer visit; certain days, we dread.

Can a forgiven person act that way? Only until the Holy Spirit comes along and says, And you once walked in those same sins when you were living in them. At that point, we realize forgiveness isn’t an option.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in 2010 and was republished in February 2012.

Published in: on September 5, 2016 at 7:18 pm  Comments (4)  
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