Sunday, February 14, 2021

Forgive or Die

“I can’t forgive him,” the young man told his counselor.

Understandable, I think. I don’t know all the details, but it seems the speaker has been quite horribly mistreated and cannot bring himself to feel forgiving toward the person who has hurt him so badly. He simply can’t let it go.

More significant is the young man’s concern for his own soul, since he has read the very words of the Lord Jesus himself and has concluded that if he cannot feel forgiveness toward this individual who has had such a negative effect on his life, then he cannot be saved.

And “forgive or die” is a pretty scary ultimatum to face when your feelings won’t play along with what your Christian friends are telling you is the right thing to do.

The Problem Text

What’s eating at our young friend is the passage from Matthew’s gospel often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, specifically this verse, which qualifies the famous couplet about forgiveness in what we call The Lord’s Prayer:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Wow. You see our friend’s problem, right? On the face of it, that’s a real stopper. And in case we were to conclude that a legal, formal release from debt is all that’s required, the Lord doubles down later on in Matthew by finishing the parable of the unforgiving servant with the words:
“And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
So we see that a mere formality is not enough. The person who wants to follow Jesus Christ must continually adopt an attitude of forgiveness toward those who do him wrong. If he cannot do so, his eternal fate hangs in the balance.

Or does it?

Sola Fide

Those who have read past the gospels into the epistles will have little alarm bells going off in their heads right now, and with good reason. Salvation, they will tell us, is by faith alone. Paul says it over and over again:
“… we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

“… having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“… if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
There are at least nine more statements just like these in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians. Matt Slick lists them here, if you’re interested.

It’s faith that saves, folks, and nothing but. This is the clear teaching of the New Testament. Martin Luther said justification by faith alone is “the article on which the church stands or falls”, and he was right. To add even a single, solitary, microscopic condition to that is to nullify the sacrifice of Christ.

That includes the condition that I forgive my brother from the heart. Yes, it’s an attitude, but it is also a work, and works have no place in securing my salvation.

Whatever the Lord Jesus may have meant in Matthew, we can be sure he did not mean that the Christian’s salvation is obtained by works. There must be an explanation that will satisfy both the reader of the epistles and the reader of the gospels, because their ultimate Author is one and the same.

Thanks a Lot, Pal

“Yes,” you may say, “thanks a bunch for the lesson in systematic theology. But how does that help us with the Lord’s words in Matthew?”

Good question, I will admit. Let me make it even worse for you.

The Sermon on the Mount raises a bucketload of problems for Christians that have to do with the “works” issue, and granting forgiveness from the heart is only one of them. That “sermon” sets impossible standard after impossible standard for the Christian, and hell and punishment are most definitely in view. To pretend they are not is to close your eyes while you read. Try these on for size, from Matthew 5-7:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“… whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”
Oy vey.

In fact, the Sermon on the Mount (along with many of the other sayings of the Lord Jesus) sets a colossal, inhuman, utterly impossible standard for the Christian. It cannot be kept. Not by the original audience, not by you, not by me and not by any mere man, ever.

And the Lord knew it.

Take a Load Off

If you are a young Christian facing a similar dilemma to that of the unforgiving victim in our illustration, let me take a load off your back, if you will allow it.

The Sermon on the Mount sets an impossible standard for the Christian BECAUSE IT IS NOT ADDRESSED TO CHRISTIANS. You are reading someone else’s mail.

We need to understand the Lord’s words in the context in which they were spoken. The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to Jews trying to achieve righteousness in the eyes of God by keeping the Law of Moses. That was its original audience, including the disciples. For the most part the fact that they were followers of Christ as we are today did not make them any less Jewish or legalistic in their outlook while the Lord was with them. That would come later.

The Sermon and the other teachings of Christ require his followers to apply the nature of God himself to every area of life. “You therefore must be perfect,” he says, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

That, my friends, is the definitive impossible standard. It was intended to be. It was intended to remind the audience of their inability to keep the Law of Moses. It was intended to remind the audience that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment”. It was intended to make them smite their breasts like the tax collector in the temple and drive them to their knees crying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

And then comes the death and resurrection of Christ, you see, and it all changes. In the death of Christ, that impossible standard is met once and for all. Just not by us.

Now you will understand that I am NOT saying the Sermon on the Mount is valueless for the Christian because he or she is not its target audience. The fact that it is addressed to people under the Law of Moses does not mean it has nothing to teach us. Far from it. It reveals the character of God. It reveals what sort of person may have fellowship with him. But to be consistent with the rest of the New Testament, the Christian must see himself as distinct from Jewish disciples prior to the cross in two ways: (1) he must recognize that his aspiration to be as completely like the Son of God as our heavenly Father would have him to be cannot be attained through human effort and will inevitably involve failure in this life, and (2) he can have confidence that what is at stake when he fails is fellowship, not relationship, and that its restoration depends on repentance and confession, not a redoubled work effort.


Some Christians don’t like the word “dispensation”, so I’ll avoid it. But Protestants of almost every stripe agree that God did things differently at different periods in human history. They may not all agree on the beginning and end points of those periods, and they may not agree on exactly what message God was sending to man during them or why he may have been doing it, but it is obvious there are differences between what God expected and commanded in the days of Noah, in the days of Moses and today.

If we do not see the difference between living under the Law of Moses and the status of the believer in Christ, we are in big spiritual trouble. We may try to work to earn our salvation. We may constantly fret that we can lose it when we sin. We may live a life characterized by fear and legalism instead of inner peace and love. It’s an awful way to live and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but far too many in Christendom hear the words of Christ to Jews under the Law and apply them to the present period of grace ushered in by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

They will not fit. They are old wineskins full of new wine, always splitting and ruining both.

Metamessages on the Mount

You know what a metamessage is, right? It’s a message inferred from a message.

For example, the rich young ruler comes to the Lord Jesus under the Law of Moses, assuming righteousness to be attainable by it. So he asks the Lord, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” What work can I do? What action can I take? He has gotten the message of the Law of Moses, but he has entirely missed the infinitely more important metamessage that eternal life is not available on the basis of deeds. The Law cannot be kept. It doesn’t save anyone.

The Lord doesn’t say “You’re missing the point, you idiot. Eternal life comes by faith.” Instead, he answers the young man on the basis of his own presuppositions, by setting him an impossible task, one which he knows he will never accomplish. He says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” And so we read that he went away sorrowful, because he had great possessions.

If he had instead sold all his possessions, would he have been saved by his works? Of course not. But he would have followed Christ, and in doing so he would have come, as the other disciples eventually did, to an understanding of salvation by faith.

But the leap in thought and theology required for the rich young ruler to grasp this truth was too huge to be settled with any single answer, so the Lord didn’t give him one. He simply led him, very gently, to the knowledge of the inadequacy of his own righteousness. That starting point was all he could offer at the time.

The same is true of the Sermon on the Mount. It starts from the premise, believed by everyone present, that its audience might be able to attain righteousness through the works of the Law. Then, very systematically, the Lord addresses almost every area of human life and interaction to demonstrate that this cannot be done. “You want to keep the Law,” the Lord says in effect, “Well let me tell you what the REAL standard is. It’s too high. You can’t do it.”

When the disciples look at the rich young ruler vanishing sorrowfully into the distance and muse “Who then can be saved?” I picture the Lord saying, “Now you’re starting to get it.”

With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

The Same Truth in Other Words

The metamessage of the Sermon on the Mount, by the way, is merely a repetition of what Joshua said to Israel when the Law was originally given. It is entirely consistent with the Old Testament. He told them, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.” When Israel insisted on pursuing righteousness through the Law, he added this:
“You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.”
The message of the Sermon on the Mount is the perfect standard of God’s righteousness. The metamessage is that we cannot keep it ourselves.

This is reinforced by the apostle Paul, who says:
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.”
Short version: Great law, but I can’t keep it.

And really, God’s primary purpose in giving the Law in the first place was to bring his people to that place in their thinking.

Back to Our Young Friend

So, back to the subject of forgiveness. We can’t do it. We definitely can’t do it over and over again time after time, as the Lord instructed Peter, whether it’s 77 times or 70 x 7 times.

But maybe by coming to the place of realizing he can’t do it himself, our friend has found something worth knowing. Is it possible that his own inability to do what he should might lead him to sympathize with someone else who failed even more miserably? Because I think that is the Lord’s intent and desire.

If he cannot forgive today, and if he is really a child of God, I would want to assure him that he is in no danger of the fires of hell on that account. Salvation is “not a result of works, so that no one may boast”. That includes the work of forgiveness. And the Lord is gracious. He does not expect us to grasp the full scope of his work in our lives as young believers anymore than he expected his own disciples to be able to process the differences between Law and Grace when he was still on earth. It took the indwelling Holy Spirit and a few years to really sink in.

But assuming our friend is really a child of God, I can assure you that one day he will forgive. It may take months, weeks or years, but when the reality of what he has been forgiven comes home to him, he’ll see granting forgiveness as a delight and a pleasure, as the most natural thing in the world.

Because when you see the world rightly, it is.

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