Forgiveness versus Payment (Part 1 of 2)

“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both.” — Luke 7.42, 43This week, I would love to pose a question to you that was revolutionary when I confronted it years ago. I was just finishing up a presentation to a very large group of people, and on the way out of the meeting, someone in the audience reached out and grabbed my hand. Looking me in the eyes, with the utmost sincerity, he asked one of the most profound questions I have been asked in all my years of speaking. “Did God punish me for my sins in Christ or did God forgive me for my sins in Christ?”

Punishment is defined as inflicting a penalty or sanction on someone as retribution for an offense or a transgression of a legal or moral code. Forgiveness is defined as refraining from imposing punishment on an offender or demanding satisfaction for an offense, to release from the liability for or penalty entailed by an offense, to not demand punishment or redress.

Many of the theological quandaries we get into over the cross stem from looking at Calvary as an act of punishment rather than forgiveness. But what if the lens we should be looking at the cross through is not how God found a way to punish our sin and still let us live but, rather, how God found a way to forgive our sin without immortalizing it?

In the passage quoted above, Jesus doesn’t say that the creditor went out and found a slick way to have someone else pay for the debts instead of the debtors themselves. Jesus said that the creditor forgave the debt.

Pay close attention to the wording of the following passages:

That God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.19, emphasis added).

Did you catch it? God was not in Christ counting our sins against us in such a way that we could still live; rather, God was in Christ NOT counting our sins against us.

Again:

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Ephesians 4.32, emphasis added).

Paul is too clear to be mistaken here, but even if he were, he gets even clearer in the next text:

He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2.13-16, emphasis added).

The Greek word for canceled here is “exaleipho”. It means to obliterate, wipe out, or do away with. It’s as if God on the cross was saying to the world, “The charges have been dropped.” Calvary, rather than revealing a God who punishes sin in Christ, reveals a God who who, having been wronged, refused to press charges.

Was your sin punished or was your sin forgiven?

“What about subsitution?” some may ask. Substitution is extremely problematic when we look at it through the lens of punishment. How can someone pay for the crimes of someone else? But when we look at substitution through the lens of forgiveness, we realize that every act of forgiveness is an act of substitution. Substitution becomes liberated from its legal entanglements when we see what the nature of forgiveness actually is. Every time I forgive someone, I choose to bear what he has done to me, to suffer in his stead, and to set him free from his offense. Only one person has the right to set him free from it, for he is the one who will have to bear the loss. It must be done voluntarily, of his own volition. This is what I see God doing at the Cross. Read thoughtfully the following words of Deitriech Bonhoffer: “Everyone who forgives someone bears the other’s sin.” When God decided to forgive us rather than punish us for all the ways we have wronged him and one another, he went to the cross in the person of Jesus Christ and died there.

What does this mean for us? First, it means that God is radically more forgiving and embracing than perhaps we have yet realized. Second, it means that we stand not in a state of condemnation but in one of full and free forgiveness. If any are lost at last, it will not be because we did not do enough to convince God to forgive us but that we never truly believed how forgiven we really were. And third, it’s a call for those who have believed this to take up God’s forgiveness not simply as a “message” to those around us but as a way of life. We are called to be living conduits of this forgiveness to those around us as well. We are called to imitate God and life a life of this kind of love.

What does this look like? Forgiveness means refusing to make others pay for what they’ve done to us. And it is true that refraining from lashing out at someone when you want to do so with all your being is agony. It is a form of suffering. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out on the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say that it feels like a kind of death, a Cross. But it is a death that leads to resurrection. Not only are those we forgive set free but we too are ushered into the healing freedom that forgiving someone brings instead of lifelong bitterness and cynicism.

We cannot forgive others by trying to forgive them. Only by being forgiven is forgiveness awakened. Only those who are forgiven much forgive much. This week, take some time to meditate on how deeply you are in the heart of God. Take some time to ponder how forgiving He has been of you. Picture yourself emulating that kind of forgiveness with those in your life and then take your first step. Dedicate the next seven days to simply praying for those in the world you like the least. Just pray for them.

In the light of God’s indescriminate love this week, go love like that and thereby, keep building the Kingdom.

I love you guys,

We’ll see you next week.

Herb

 

Would You Give Up Being An American for Jesus? Part 2 of 2

The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them. So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor. They questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But He detected their trickery and said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people; and being amazed at His answer, they became silent.—Luke 20:19-26This week, I’d like to finish up our two-part eSight with a look at Jesus’s words, “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” If you did not get a chance to read last week’s eSight, I want to encourage you to go back and read it, as it will provide a foundation for what we are going to talk about here.

There is a growing desire among American Christians, especially during political races, to reach out and influence others through gaining political power. Now, I want to be clear from the beginning: I do not believe we should sit back and do nothing. My fear, though, is that many of us have been duped into thinking that by voicing our opinions (i.e. voting) we have somehow advanced the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom Jesus came to establish is very different from any and all kingdoms of this world, even America. The Kingdom of God is also advanced in a very different way than the kingdoms of this world.

This weekend, I made some statements regarding this subject in my final presentation. A fellow minister that was visiting from another affiliation questioned me afterward. The statement in our conversation that sticks with me most was, “I’m just afraid we are telling our people not to vote.” I understand my new friend’s concern. I am not saying we should not seek to influence the society around us. What I am saying is that as a follower of Jesus, following His example, we understand that as members of Jesus’s Kingdom, the weapons of our warfare are not the same as those used by kingdoms of this world. In all honestly, it’s a lot easier to just vote. It’s much more challenging to live lives that manifest radical, self-sacrificial love to others in our society, even those we are different from. God’s Kingdom cannot be advanced through the legislation of a kingdom of this world using its power over its citizens, even if it is America. God’s Kingdom is advanced by coming under our society, by humbly and lovingly serving others in our society, whether they are like us or not. God’s Kingdom is advanced through means that affect our society, not from the outside in, legislating behaviors, but from the inside out in a much more profoundly transformative way.

Let’s be clear: The United States is not the kingdom of God. Our country is, in my opinion, the best kingdom that this world has to offer at present, but even at its best, the United States is not the kingdom Jesus came to establish. It’s still merely a kingdom of this world.

Right now within American Christianity, there are those who are using the above passage this week to try and say that as Christians we have duel citizenship, that we as Christians have a duty to America as well as to God. This kind of rhetoric deeply concerns many, including me.

Notice the mindset and words of first-century Christianity. Followers of Jesus were not “dual citizens.” They saw themselves as aliens living under an earthly kingdom they viewed as foreign rule.

“Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers . . .” —1Peter 2.11 (emphasis supplied)

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” —Philippians 3.20 (emphasis supplied)

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen.” —1 Peter 1.1 (emphasis supplied)

This does not mean that they didn’t have a right to claim citizenship in these areas in which they lived (Acts 21.39; Acts 22.28). What it means is that they had taken Jesus’s words seriously. “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13). They had renounced their citizenship in their respective earthly kingdoms and chose to dwell under the rule of those kingdoms as aliens. They had embraced their new identity as citizens of a very different Kingdom, for which they were now “Ambassadors” living under a foreign rule (Ephesians 6:20; 2 Corinthians 5:20).

Let me quickly share what this doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean that we are to live rebelliously, irrespective of the laws of this country, indifferent to this world’s leaders, or that we should not pay our taxes. As followers of Jesus and members of His Kingdom, He commands us to submit to the authorities we find ourselves under, to live peaceful lives, and to pray for this world’s leaders, and pay our taxes. Yet notice the reason we pay our taxes, live peaceful lives, and respect law and order is not because we are citizens of the United States. It’s because we are citizens of Christ’s Kingdom and these are the things Jesus commanded us to do (Romans 13:1-10). I pay my taxes not because I’m an American, but because I am a follower of Jesus in America. Jesus told me to pay taxes to whatever kingdom of this world I live in. I pray not only for our leaders, but also for leaders everywhere. Jesus died for Obama, Mitt, and Newt just as much as He did for Bin Laden. In our prayers for America’s troops we, as followers of Jesus, should be praying for Al Qaeda’s troops as well. What we should be praying for is peace and the salvation of everyone, regardless of whether they are America’s enemies or not. As a follower of Jesus, I am to love my enemies, realizing that my enemy isn’t the flesh and blood before me. They have been influenced by the real enemy and I should endeavor to counter influence them through the revelation of nonviolent love and forgiveness (Luke 23:34). This is the whole story of the Cross. This is what it means to take up the Cross, not simply as our message, but as our way of life.

In addition to this, as a side note that is different but related, let me add, that my allegiance to God’s Kingdom also doesn’t mean that I can just trash the earth while I am here. As followers of Jesus, we are called to return to our original stewardship of this earth. Some embrace this truth and feel, “this world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.” Yes, Jesus’s Kingdom is not of this world, but this world is the territory Christ came to establish His Reign in through the revelation of radical, other-centered, self-sacrificial love. This is the territory that the “meek” will inherit (Matthew 5:5).

Jesus called us, as His followers, to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, to give God the things that are God’s, and to always keep those two separate from each other, the former always held as subservient to the latter.

When I began to see this, I was faced with some deeply profound questions. You see, on one level, I love American history. I love Democracy. I love the Declaration of Independence and what it stands for. I resonate with the philosophies of American forefathers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. But none of this belongs to the Kingdom of Jesus.

Which do I see myself as first and foremost: an American or a follower of Jesus? How does a holiday (July 4th) that celebrates American followers of Jesus killing British followers of Jesus qualify as a great Christian holiday (as claimed by the recent The American Patriot’s Bible from Thomas Nelson Publishers) rather than a holiday that followers of Jesus should mourn? What if I can’t be both an American and a follower of Jesus? Would I be willing to be an “alien” here in my beloved country? Am I more invested in my identity as an American than as a follower of Jesus? And finally, would I give up being an American for Jesus?

When did Jesus ever concern Himself with how Caesar ran Rome? America at its best is not the Kingdom of God. There is no such thing as a nation that wields the power of sword that looks like Jesus. As a follower of Jesus, I have to look at all of this with eyes wide open. “Christian” means “one who looks like Jesus.” Some good may have been done throughout history by the America. Some of our laws may have been originally based on a Judeo-Christian influence. But in our treatment of others, from Native Americans, through African American slaves, all the way down to our foreign policies of today, we have never been a nation that looked like Jesus. We have never been a very “Christian” nation. Manifest destiny more closely resembles a pagan paradigm than the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. I’m thankful for a country that asks my opinion. I have to realize at the same time that I may improve, in my opinion, how this earthly kingdom operates when I vote, but I can only participate in advancing the Kingdom of God as I seek to humbly, self sacrificially SERVE the world around me. Caesar and God are not the same.

Whether you see eye to eye with me on any of this or not at all, at the very least it’s something to think about.

Keep loving like the sun shines and like the rain falls. Keep building the Kingdom.

I love you guys,

Herb

 

Would You Give Up Being An American for Jesus? Part 1 of 2

The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them. So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor. They questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But He detected their trickery and said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people; and being amazed at His answer, they became silent. —Luke 20:19-26This week, I’d like to begin a two-part eSight. There are two sections of the above passage that have been impressed upon my heart recently, especially in light of the political environment heating up again here in the United States. If you are not a resident of the U.S., just apply it the best way you can in your own country. The two phrases I want to address are “deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor” and Jesus’ words, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” We’ll cover the latter next week and discuss the former here.

I don’t know if this jumps out at anyone else, but I see a striking parallel in the desires of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and what many Christians desire today. What I mean by this is, on the whole (and praise God for the few exceptions), it seems to me that within Evangelical Christianity here in America there is an ever-increasing dependence on the “rule and authority” of the “governors” of our day as the means through which religious agendas are enforced. To a degree, this is the very same “method” those who claimed to be God’s people used back then, but the irony is that God’s people were seeking to use the rule and authority of the governors against God Himself. (What terrible blindness.)

But let’s back up a bit and look at this from the ground up. Let’s take a brief look at two passages.

“And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24 -27)

What I want you to note in this passage is the distinction Jesus makes between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom He came to establish. One is what Jesus called “power over,” while the other is what we could call “power under.” The kings of this world use their power over their subjects to govern them. We are called to be citizens of a kingdom that comes under people and seeks humbly to serve even its enemies. I can already hear some of you saying, “But kingdoms can’t be run that way!” And I agree that the kingdoms of this world cannot. But the kingdom Christ has called us to help establish and be a part of can. The tragedy is when those who claim to represent Christ’s kingdom use the method that the kingdoms of this world use rather than that of the kingdom of Jesus.

Let me contrast these two methods a bit further with a second passage.

“And behold, one of those who were with Jesus reached and drew out his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:51-52)

It’s not simply a choice between Caesar or God; it’s a choice between using the power of the sword or the power of the cross. The power of the sword is a violent, “power over” kind of power. The power of the cross is a humble, non-violent, turn-the-other-cheek, serve others, “power under” kind of power. This is a power that supports people and loves them, desiring simply to serve them. Jesus provides great wisdom regarding the futility of the power of the sword here, too. Violence always escalates, and those who live by the sword will eventually die by it as well; this is evidenced throughout human history. In contrast to this is Jesus’ call for His followers to embrace non-violence. We see this call expressed with stark clarity in Matthew 5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-29. I’d like to encourage you this week to take the time to thoughtfully read through these passages. What makes them so powerful is the backdrop against which Jesus spoke these words. God’s people were being ruled by a Pagan power and everything about Rome, including its lack of morality, was an offense to Jesus’ Jewish audience. In fact, they were looking for a Messiah who would simply wield the power of the sword more effectively and deliver them from this Pagan rule. When their Messiah did appear, it wasn’t just any Messiah; this was God who came and called them to lay down the power of the sword and instead embrace a life of love. Wow! How did they respond? They were so invested in the power of the sword that they turned and used this power on God Himself.

But for those who embraced it, it was this laying down of the sword, this love that gave such power to the movement of Jesus’ followers of the first century. How did it all change? How did we get from the first century to the amalgamation of 21st century modern evangelical American Christianity?

It all changed on October 28, 312 A.D., when Constantine defeated his rival to become sole ruler of the Roman Empire. What makes this event relevant to Christianity is that Constantine attributed his victory to his newfound deity, Jesus Christ. He allegedly received a vision just prior to the battle that promised him victory if his soldiers marched with the sign of Christ on their shields. It was the first time in history that the name of Jesus was associated with the nationalistic, violent power of the sword. After this precedent was set, however, it would not be the last time such an association was made. Eusebius, Augustine, and other church leaders interpreted Constantine’s vision and the consolidation of power that his victory engendered to be from God. The power of the sword was used for centuries to crush Christianity’s enemies; today we look back on is a long history of the church executing heretics, Jews, Muslims, and witches.

It would be wise for those of us who desire to be Jesus’ followers to remember that the way of Jesus is the way of sacrificial love, not coercive force. The ever-growing desire within American Christianity to influence state and federal government to enforce our own beliefs and moral convictions should be a wake-up call. Only when we have lost the power of love (the power of the cross) to influence our society do we seek to use the power of the sword.

Someone recently asked me, “So are we just to let our society go to hell in a handbasket?” I want to be clear. None of this means we should do nothing; it simply means that we should choose to influence our society by setting in motion non-violent, humble, self-sacrificial, service-oriented, other-centered love. Having had love awakened in us through the revelation of God’s love for us, we endeavor to awaken love in those around us by allowing ourselves to be a conduit of God’s radical love for them, too!

Jesus and the authors of the Gospels identified the quest for political and nationalistic power to be a temptation of Satan (Luke 4:7-7). It’s the wrong direction for Christianity to take.

I pray that these words put down deep roots. We’ll continue next week with “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Keep living in love and building the Kingdom. Lay down the sword, fellow follower of Jesus, and embrace not just the message of the cross, but the way of the cross as well.

I love you guys.

I’ll see you next week.

Herb

 

RIP “Hitch”

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure — pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return. —Luke 6.37,38This past December while spending the holidays with my extended family, many of whom are current or retired university professors and teachers, the online responses of many Christians to the death of Christopher Hitchens on December 15, 2011, were painfully brought to my attention. The one that takes the cake though was Bryan Fischer’s. Fischer gained notoriety among many in 2004 when he founded the Keep the Commandments Coalition, whose purpose was to work to keep a monument of the Ten Commandments in Julia Davis Park in Boise, Idaho. I want to be careful not to disparage Fischer here. Each of us is coming from our own set of dysfunctions and life tragedies. And we must not forget that God gave up all for Fischer, which says to me that, in God’s eyes, Fischer (and Hitch too) are of inestimable worth. However, Fischer’s public response to Hitch’s death is a classic example of the spirit I wish to address in this week’s eSight. If you can stomach it, you can find Fischer’s comments on YouTube, but the line that has gotten so much publicity is, “If Hitchens is in Hell right now, he’s there because God loves him.” The question I was asked by my family was, “How does eternally tormenting someone for not believing in your existence and standing up for the abuse of people in the name of religion a byproduct of being loved by some Supreme Being?”

I have to admit that I too was severely saddened. I believe that, if any are lost at last, it will be because God honors their freedom of choice. No loving God would find any joy in someone being forced to be with him. However, as I shared with my family, I do not share a belief in Christianity’s traditional definition of Hell. I do not think it’s a secret that at RHM we hold the belief that if any are lost in the end, we find more evidence in the scriptures that suggests these will simply be “as if they never were” (Obadiah 1:16) rather than the Middle Ages idea of eternal torment. (See the presentation Love’s Eternal Flame on our website for more information on this.) But this is a tangent.

What I want to focus our attention on this week is the spirit in which Christianity ? praise God for the few exceptions ? is currently responding to its “enemies.” Take a quick look at Jesus’ words in the sixth chapter of Luke:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure — pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return (Luke 6.37,38; it would be good to read the entire chapter).

What Jesus is saying is that, regardless of the manner in which you relate to others, they will respond to you in kind. Turn Jesus’ words around and look at what He is actually saying. If you are judgmental, others will be judgmental of YOU! If you possess a spirit of condemnation toward those who are not like you, they will also condemn YOU! If you feel that you are morally superior to them, they will respond by feeling that they are intellectually superior to YOU! Whatever you set in motion toward others will come back on YOURSELF! As I look at the overview of history since Jesus ? and I will be the first to admit that this may be a tad oversimplified ? Christianity has not always followed the teachings of Jesus. We carry His name, but our actions don’t resemble His, especially when it comes to those who do not believe what we do.

I think that Voltaire’s famous statement in his critique of Christianity is applicable here: “Of all religions, Christianity is without a doubt the one that should inspire tolerance most, although, up to now, the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.”

What I want you to consider this week is the following questions:

Could the philosophies of our day ? the naturalistic worldview, the neo-atheism, the evolutionary philosophy that rejects even a hint at any intelligent design, post-modern secularism ? could these possibly exist because of our own embracing of an inaccurate picture of God and portraying that to the world through our failure to follow Jesus’ teachings on love in the way that we relate to others? The church of the Middle Ages was so antithetical to the God that Jesus revealed that, today, all of these philosophies, in my estimation, are simply the backlash, the response of honest people who want to have nothing to do with a god who is the kind of person that Christian history has portrayed Him to be. Some of you may be saying, “Ok, fine, but that was those Catholics back then. We are Protestants!” But are we, as American Protestants, innocent? Are we really that different? Haven’t we, too, embraced a very different picture of God, for the most part, as American Christians than what, in my opinion, Jesus actually taught? Are we, too, in our own way, failing to embrace the picture of God that Jesus came to reveal? Are we, too, failing to relate to those who believe differently from us with the same radical, self sacrificial, other centered love that Jesus died to teach us?

When I read Hitch’s work, yes, I see the hostility and anger, the controversial bluntness, but I also see someone who was wounded just like the rest of us. What I also notice is that many of the reasons for which Hitch rejected a belief in God were the very misplaced values that Jesus Himself also opposed, and Jesus was God. This makes me stop and simply say that there is a possibility that Hitch was closer to the Kingdom in some of his opinions and thinking than many of us are willing to admit. If what Jesus taught has any bearing, then we, too, have a moral responsibility to oppose the tyrannical representation of God, but I will add that our opposition must be done in the way that Jesus taught us. We must overcome evil with good, violence with love, anger with peace. It may take God a millennium to help Hitch sort out the difference between the religious abuses of this earth’s history and the truth about His character of love, but in the end, everyone, Hitch included, will be faced with one decision and one decision only. Do they want to live not a life of religion but a life of love (Ephesians 5:1,2)? When all the ugliness has been stripped away, when God and His beauty are actually seen, we may be surprised by whom we actually spend eternity as neighbors to.

During this new year, may we strive to love more like Jesus.

“Therefore mimic God, as children who are loved, and live the life of love . . .” (Ephesians 5:1,2)

Happy New Year to each of you!

Keep building the Kingdom.

I love you guys,

Herb