FORGIVENESS AND THE CHURCH (Colossians 3:12-15)
Forgiveness is our theme this month. Today we touch on forgiveness and the church. You’ve probably heard of Tina Turner’s song, “What’s love got to do, got to do, with it?” In the same vein, someone might ask, “What’s the church got to do, got to do, with it?” I wouldn’t be surprised by such a question because we live in an individualistic age. Many people come to church with the mind-set of a moviegoer: we come to watch and then we go. We never really get involved. And if there’s a better movie somewhere, well, we can always go there next time around. But this “dating the church” mentality means you’ll never really understand and learn what forgiveness is all about because it is only by being deeply involved in the life of the church that one can truly understand and learn what forgiveness is all about. This is because the church is the one community above all others which has experienced the forgiveness of God and is therefore in a unique position to be the channel of God’s forgiveness to a world that desperately needs forgiveness, provided of course that the church lives up to its calling. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is primarily about the church, and in chapter 1 verse 7 he points out that in Jesus Christ the beloved we (i.e. the church) have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace. Others, however, do not share in this blessedness. In chapter 2 of Ephesians Paul says that those who are not in Christ Jesus are dead in trespasses and sins, are sons of disobedience and are by nature children of wrath. Those however who are in Christ Jesus have been reconciled to God by the blood of Christ. And in chapter 4 verse 32 he draws out the implications of this truth: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” To repeat: it is in the church, i.e. among the forgiven people of God, the community which has received forgiveness and is therefore mandated to practice forgiveness, that we ought to seek a true understanding of forgiveness and it is in committed participation in the life of the church, especially the local church where God has called us to serve, where we can be trained to practice Christian forgiveness.
There are a number of implications here which I will touch upon briefly.
First, forgiveness can be practiced only in the context of personal relationships, and since it is Christian forgiveness that we are concerned with, such can only be practiced first and foremost in the personal relationships of Christians in the Christian Church, and then through the church and to the world.
Second, if Christian forgiveness can only be learned and practiced in by committed participation and involvement in the life of the church, then it is high time we stop dating the church and become seriously involved.
Finally, if the church is the forgiven community of God mandated to extend the forgiveness it has received to a world in need of forgiveness then the church, i.e., the people of God, should live up to its calling and practice what it preaches.
1. THE CONTEXT OF FORGIVENESS
A Filipino-Chinese businessman once told me that the 3 most important rules of business are “Location, location, location.” Something similar applies to biblical interpretation. The 3 most important rules are context, context, and context. I do not intend to do a word-for-word exposition of this passage. I only wish to point out that Paul says something about putting on holiness before you come to the words “forgiving each other,” and something about love, peace and unity, after the words, “forgiving each other”. Taking the context into consideration it seems to me that forgiveness is related to the holiness of the church (see verses 12 and 13a). When the church puts on holiness it naturally practices forgiveness. A church which is composed of holy people will be a church where forgiveness freely flows and circulates precisely because the people who compose it are holy! But not only that, it seems to me that forgiveness is also related to the promotion of peace in the church and the preservation of unity in the church (see verses 14 and 15).
To summarize: we can say that forgiveness proceeds from holiness in the church, promotes peace in the church, and preserves the unity of the church.
But in that case it logically follows that forgiveness is not intended to promote wickedness in the church and is not meant to destroy the essence of the church as the holy people of God. This leads us to our second point.
2. THE CONDITION FOR FORGIVENESS.
I now digress to consider what the Bible teaches about church discipline and excommunication. Some people might say, “If the church is called to forgive, then just do it and be done with it.” However, it is not that simple. Two important passages come to mind. The first is Matthew 18:15-17 which we shall read without further comment. Next is 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 and 9-13.
The question is, “If the church is called to simply forgive, why do we have passages like these in the Bible?” And the answer is: because forgiveness was never meant to promote wickedness. It is meant to give a person a fresh start so that he or she could live a brand new life in Christ. That’s why when Jesus impliedly forgave the adulterous woman in John chapter 8 by saying “Neither do I condemn thee,” he added, “Go and sin no more.” And this is where repentance comes in. Before God can forgive you have to repent. Repentance is the condition for forgiveness. It is a misconception to think of forgiveness as tolerance of evil. Like love in 1 Corinthians chapter 13 we can say that forgiveness does not rejoice in iniquity. The Lord himself made this clear in Revelation 27:19-23. “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.”
Repentance therefore is essential. When a person is unrepentant and has no intention of changing his or her ways, we do him no favour by extending to him what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” We only establish him all the more in his wickedness. That is why the Lord himself warns us in Matthew 7:6, “Do not give to dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.”
3. THE CONDUCT OF FORGIVENESS
But if a person is truly repentant we should not withhold forgiveness from him or her. Some people might think that because of the things I have just said I am espousing the view that the church should be stingy when it comes to forgiveness. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I am advocating is this: that we maintain the balance of Scripture. The fact is the church should be ready and willing to forgive and in fact the church should sincerely make known that readiness and willingness so that people may be encouraged to repent and receive forgiveness. But after all is said and done they simply have to repent. All our willingness and readiness to forgive is to no avail if they themselves deliberately exclude themselves from forgiveness by their non-repentance.
But if people are genuinely repentant then our attitude should be that of the father of the prodigal son, who upon seeing his son still a long way off, felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. (Luke 15)
Going back to the case of the immoral man in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 – it seems that he eventually repented of his sin and in 2 Corinthians chapter 2 verses 5-8 this is what Paul says, “The punishment by the majority is enough. You should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.”
That is it then. The balance of Scripture is this: The church, having been forgiven by God in Christ, is called to forgive. It is therefore ready and willing to extend forgiveness. However, people who have sinned are also called to repent. If they do not repent they only have themselves to blame if ever they are excluded from forgiveness. The church cannot extend forgiveness to them because it has no right to cheapen the value of the precious blood which the Lord shed for the cleansing of his church. But if a person sincerely and genuinely repents then there should be no limit to our forgiveness towards him or her. God’s word is crystal-clear in this matter: as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” And how has the Lord forgiven us? Psalm 103:10-12 says, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
As high as the heavens are above the earth; as far as the east is from the west. That is how God has forgiven us. That is how we ought to forgive others. As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.