OUR MINISTRY OF FORGIVENESS
May 1, 2005
One of the reasons the song “It Is Well With My Soul” moves us is that it has the line in it which says that “my sins are nailed to the cross and I bear them no more.” Those words address something that will, as long as we are human beings, be one of our very deepest needs. That something is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a quality that we will need to receive and then give, and it is a must in family relationships, in the church and even within our own hearts and souls. We can’t live without forgiveness.
It was that way, too, for the church at Corinth. One of the things that had to happen for it to be the church that it needed to be was for forgiveness to take place. When we read, for example, II Cor. 2, we discover that sin had existed among these people. A certain member had been rebuked for his wrongdoing. Some people think this is the same fellow we read about in I Cor. 5. There are others who believe this may be a man who has challenged Paul’s authority and perhaps has done whatever he could to wipe out Paul’s good name and reputation. At any rate, the sin had been recognized, it had been confronted, and thankfully the wrongdoer had repented. And now the church was being instructed by Paul to “forgive and comfort him and to reaffirm your love for him” (2:7-8). “Such an open forgiveness had to occur,” said Paul, “so that we would not be outwitted by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his design” (II Cor. 2:11). What that says is that our enemy knows how to use any episode of unforgiveness as a way to destroy the health and the progress of the Lord’s people. The practice of forgiving and comforting and loving is as much the work of a faithful church as confronting the sinner was in the first place. That is something that Paul was emphasizing to these readers.
As his second letter to the Corinthians goes on, the apostle dwells on the church’s ministry of forgiveness. Especially over in chapter 5 we meet this part of the work of the Lord’s people. We are going to read II Cor. 5:17 – 6:1. The Bible says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” Amen to the Lord’s word.
The Need For Forgiveness
What about, then, the wonderful ministry of forgiveness that Paul speaks of in this passage? Maybe the place for us to begin is to think for a moment about why forgiveness will be needed by all of us. In this shallow and self-centered world, the thinking often runs something like this: “I am not a bad guy. Sure, I have done whatever I wanted, but I haven’t hurt anybody. I haven’t committed any crimes. I don’t need to be forgiven for anything.” That is a tempting line of thought. If we think that way, it might help us to notice what lies in the backdrop of this passage we have just read.
Look back up for a moment for 5:11 and notice that Paul has spoken of the fear of the Lord. He says, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” He appears to be talking about persuading others that his message is from God and that they ought to hear it and take it seriously. When he mentions “fear of the Lord,” he is not talking about some sort of feeling of fright or terror. He is instead talking about an attitude toward who God is. He is speaking of the fact that there ought to be reverence for God, respect for his holiness, awe at his greatness and his eternal glory. In this particular context, that fear of the Lord is the result of having considered the fact that this tent in which we dwell now is wasting away, and that we must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and that each of us must receive what is due for what we have done in our bodies. When we consider those facts - my time here is temporary, I will stand in judgment, and I will receive the response to what I have done in my body - what one of us doesn’t have things that need to be blotted out and forgiven? I can see my own need for forgiveness when I look at it against that background.
Secondly, notice in II Cor. 5:14 that the need for forgiveness is made brighter by considering the love of the Lord. Paul said, “For the love of Christ controls us because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died, and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” One of the most revealing things about any person is how he responds to love shown toward him and sacrifices made for him. We have all been loved to the greatest extent and at the greatest cost, and whether that has a hold on us will say everything about us. If you can imagine yourself having been loved by someone, having been cared about, having been sacrificed for, and then you completely ignore that - there is no gratitude; there is no response to the claim of love; and there is only selfishness and self-centeredness - if you can imagine confronting the eyes of that person who has loved you so much and seeing the hurt that is there, then you will understand something about the need for forgiveness all of us have.
The third thing that is in the backdrop of what we are saying here is Paul’s mention of “the message of reconciliation” (5:19). “The message of reconciliation!” Reconciliation is a word, really, of relationships. It is a word of home and family and of friends. To reconcile means “to restore” a relationship, “to renew or repair” a friendship that has been injured. Reconciliation happens where there has been alienation, animosity and enmity. The very mention of reconciliation presupposes a relationship that has been broken and needs to be recovered. There couldn’t be such a thing as reconciliation unless there was the need for forgiveness in the background. The fact that God has gone to the trouble to reconcile, to present a message of reconciliation, says that all of us need to be forgiven, that something enters the picture that creates distance, space, animosity and alienation between God and his people and between people and each other. Of course, that something, is first our sin, and secondly God’s wrath toward all things that offend his holiness and hurt his people. Sin is the attitude that, after all, “I don’t really need God. Why should someone like me need to pay attention to someone else and need to do what someone else says?” Sin, at its ultimate extent, is putting self in the place of God. Surely that is going to create an alienation between the person and God. Not only that, but God is of a holy nature. He cannot endure to look on iniquity. His holiness must respond to wrongdoing which is committed, and he must then judge it. That is what we mean by the wrath of God. Our rebellion and his judgment are the two things that stand in the background of this idea of reconciliation. Do I need to be forgiven? Do you need to be forgiven? What about the fear of the Lord and the love of Christ and the message of reconciliation? Of course we do.
The Basis of Forgiveness
That brings us to a second line of thought for our study. Upon what basis, then, can that reconciliation occur? How can forgiveness be created in an unforgiving environment and an unforgiving world? Forgiveness is not merely ignoring a known wrong. That is carelessness and indifference. Neither is forgiveness a parole after the sentence is served, either emotionally or actually – “you pay your debt and after you have earned your way back, I will put up with you.” That is not forgiveness. Forgiveness is absorbing the cost yourself and then pardoning the debtor. That is why this is such a tremendously difficult matter that we are talking about here. We all think forgiveness is easy when we want somebody to forgive us, and we all confront how terribly difficult it is when someone is asking us to be forgiven.
The basis of all forgiveness is what God did through Christ on the cross. God has to act in a way that keeps with reality in people’s lives and in a way that keeps with reality in his own nature. He not only loves the person who sins, but he hates the sin. That is a clichéd way to say it, but it is true. God is not only steadfast in his love and kindness, but God is also just in his holiness. And the question is “How can that mercy and that justice both be brought together and satisfied?”
Paul says in II Cor. 6:1 that at the root of this whole story there is the grace of God. As you know, grace is what is needed but not deserved. If forgiveness is going to occur, God is going to have to act in order to bless us with what is needed but not deserved. And that means that the cost is going to have to be borne by the one who extends this grace, and that it will be free to the people who receive this grace. That is true in all forgiveness. Real forgiveness is always an expression of grace. It is not granted to people who have earned it or who have deserved it or who have done enough to be worthy of it. Forgiveness is given.
Now that doesn’t mean that forgiveness is easy or cheap. Look back into our passage here. “God’s grace,” says Paul, “may be seen in what he did for our sake to reconcile us.” Look at 5:21. How can God extend his grace while also satisfying justice in reality? This passage says he took the one “who knew no sin.” There has only been one ever like that, and that is Jesus. He took the one who was without sin and the Bible says, “He made him to be sin.” What does that mean? Does it mean that Jesus became morally guilty of sin? Does it mean that God regarded Jesus as a sinner in terms of having looked at what Jesus did and how Jesus lived? No, not that at all! What it does mean is that God “laid on him the iniquity of us all.” What it means is that “he bore in his body our sins on the tree,” and that God treated him as if he were the object of judgment for all the sins that ever have been committed.
In Isaiah 53, the great prophecy which finds its fulfillment here says, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” And Paul says that God did this so that “in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Here is how God can righteously offer forgiveness to people who are guilty. Here is how God, a holy God, can righteously allow those who have been in enmity against him to be invited back into his presence. He judges the sin in the form of his Son, and then offers us the effect of that when he says, “Come to me; I will give you access; I will adopt you as my children, and I will be with you.”
So what God did by his grace through Christ is what this passage calls “reconciling” us to himself. He took people who were enemies and brought them close again. He took a relationship that had been ruined by sin, and he repaired it and recovered it. He gave us the chance to be in his family and not just out in the world.
What we are saying is that God set the model for forgiveness. He forgave. He paid the price to make it possible for our sins not to affect our relationship with him any longer. Paul says in verse 18, “All this is from God (God initiated it; God paid the price) “who through Christ reconciled us to himself (us being those who are Christians now).” And then in the next verse Paul will say, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (not just us, but the world). From God’s viewpoint, the work of reconciling has been done in the sense that the price has been paid and the way is open, not just for us but for the whole world. Verse 19 says, “God reconciles by not counting their trespasses against them.” They are counted to Christ. Christ bears the judgment on the cross, and now in Christ we have the privilege of being a new creation, new creatures, not estranged from God by sin.
The Ministry of Forgiveness
The need for forgiveness for all of us is seen against the background of the fear of the Lord and the love of Christ and the message of reconciliation. The basis for forgiveness for all of us is seen in the grace of God which took the sinless son, laid our sins on him, and now offers us righteousness in him. There is a third part in this line of thought which is crucial, and that is the work that is supposed to be done in the interest of forgiveness.
What God did to reconcile us to himself makes it possible for anybody to be forgiven. But since relationships involve two people, then what is possible has to be made actual by a person accepting that reconciliation. The one who needs to be reconciled, and can be reconciled, must actually be reconciled. He needs to know that the way to a right relationship is open; he needs to have thought it over enough that he wants to be right with God and right with other people, and then he must actually accept the forgiveness which is graciously offered.
That is where what Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation comes in. This is where the work, the participation of those who have been forgiven enters this picture. If you are a Christian, I am talking to you and to me right now. “Those that have been reconciled to God are given,” says Paul, “the ministry of reconciliation.” That is the responsibility to serve in the interests of helping people know the forgiveness of God and of having a healthy relationship with God. This ministry is accomplished through the use of what Paul calls “the message of reconciliation,” in other words “the gospel.” He is saying that by making others aware, by proclaiming to them what has been done to make forgiveness available, and then by encouraging them to take advantage of this blessing, we engage in the ministry of reconciliation. And in this way, “the reconciled,” Paul says, “are working together with God” (6:1). He makes his appeal through his people. He wants us to implore, to encourage people everywhere, “Be reconciled to God,” as he says in 5:20. And he expects us to appeal to everyone not to receive the grace of God in vain.
Someone wrote, “It is because the way of reconciliation now stands wide open that the ministry of reconciliation has been committed by God to his servants. Listen to this. “There is no service to mankind more crucial and urgent than the exercise of this ministry. This ministry with its message of reconciliation is the ultimate issue, the one thing needful for our world in all circumstances and in every generation.” (Hughes, p. 206). We have the task that is more important than any other task, and that is to work with God in the process of forgiveness and reconciliation.
A faithful Christian - or a faithful church - will take to heart its ministry of forgiveness. A Christian will have been reconciled to God in his own life and will be building more of a sense of peace within himself, realizing that he has access to God and that he has the spirit of adoption. But then individuals like that will need to be conciliatory - to be reconciled and then to let that spirit show up in our attitudes and in our hearts. To be conciliatory means to be ready to forgive, to be forgiving by nature, to be seeking to be at peace with those around us in our families, in the church, in the brotherhood, with our neighbors, and our co-workers. One who takes to heart this ministry of reconciliation will be working with God to make peace, not by ignoring sin in the world but by helping people to realize that on the basis of what God has done in Christ the price has been paid and forgiveness can be embraced. And if the price has been paid, you and I, as the Lord forgave us, will be ready to forgive other people on the basis of what Jesus has already done on the cross. Really, the work of Jesus on the cross is the basis of all real forgiveness, and we are to pass along the message which has the power to bring about reconciliation in people’s lives. That message is that God has done it. It is all of God.
But now don’t receive the grace of God in vain. William Barclay in one of his daily Bible study books commented on this idea of receiving the grace of God in vain. He said, “There is such a thing and it is eternity’s tragedy as the frustration of grace. Let’s think of the matter in human terms. Suppose that a father sacrifices and tolls to give him son every chance in life. Suppose he surrounds him with love and plans for his future with care and does everything humanly possible to equip him for life. But then suppose the son feels absolutely no debt of gratitude to his father. Suppose he never feels the obligation to repay by being worthy of all this. Suppose he fails not because he has not the ability but because he will not try, because he forgets the love that gave him so much and he takes his own irresponsible way. That is what breaks a father’s heart. Therein is the very essence of this tragedy. It is when God gives men all his grace and they take their own foolish way and frustrate the grace which might have recreated them once again. Christ is crucified and the heart of God is broken.” (Corinthians, p. 236).
We appeal to each one, myself and you, be reconciled to God, receive not the grace of God in vain. If that reconciliation needs to occur today and you need to be obedient to the gospel, then please don’t let this opportunity pass. If there is reconciliation that needs to occur between you and another, don’t let this opportunity pass today to seek after that. If we can help in some way, will you let it be known while we stand and sing together?