Thursday, July 31, 2008

Are sins forgiven or held against us?

1. How would you reconcile these verses:

1 Thes. 4:3-6, which says of sexual immorality and improper conduct "The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you." There are also several places where Jesus return is described as a moment when each person will be repaid according to what he has done.

Versus any of the verses describing what seem to be complete forgiveness from God, 1 John 1:9 being an obvious example "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness," or the verse that says "as far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sins from us."

The only verse I'm aware that seems to synthesize the notion that God both forgives sin yet also holds us accountable for sin is in 1 Corinthians 3, where it says that our work will be tested with fire, and if we've built with poor material we will suffer loss, though our souls will be saved.

Do you have any thoughts on this? It seems to be important how I approach this because it has a very different effect on me whether I think about my sins being completely off my record versus thinking that I will be punished for them. For me, each brings about a fairly distinct reaction. I've been focusing on the idea that all our sins were dealt with in Christ, with the corresponding idea that we joyfully follow him. But I'm aware of other approaches where people are encouraged the fear God and not sin (not that I'm saying we don't believe the perspectives are mutually exclusive, but it's a matter of emphasis, I suppose).


Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

A verse comes to mind after reading your post, though it may be from one of the apocryphal Wisdom books, because I have been studying and praying the Jerusalem Bible for over 30 years. It's a fragment that says, "a God of forgiveness for them, in spite of punishing their sins." I'm pretty sure this is in the book, Wisdom of Solomon, or possibly Ecclesiasticus. Notwithstanding, I just want to start out by acknowledging that the idea is there.

It has been endemic in Roman Catholicism and to some extent in Orthodoxy and classical Protestantism (though not as much) to believe that we are forgiven our sins, yet that there is something that is not forgiven, that we are not completely "off the hook" as it were, and that we must make reparation. I think there is some truth to this, but not at all if it is handled in the Roman legalistic manner. When it is, the idea gives rise to such things as the Roman doctrine of "suffering souls in purgatory," or ridiculous speculations like the myth of the toll-houses in some gnostic-leaning Orthodox. Both of these are anti-evangelical and soul-destroying heresies. (Forgive my bluntness, but it's very important to recognize these ideas for what they are.)

When we are forgiven by God, whether we are Jews or Christians or even pagans (for we must acknowledge God’s forgiveness on all people, actually, who truly repent), then we must really be forgiven, and we must stand on that fact, which then becomes one of the bases of our faith. To doubt even a little can have catastrophic results, such as an inability to escape the meshes of particular sins. By doubting, we remain like the ancient Hebrews in Gilgal, going in circles. But forgiveness comes from God as a response to our true and honest repentance. Now, here’s where reparation comes in. Not that we still owe anything to God for His forgiveness, for that is His free gift, especially to His adopted children by grace. But when we truly repent, receive total and true forgiveness, we want to give it away, to extend it, to right those we’ve wronged. This is exemplified in the call of the tax collector who was small of stature and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus. When the Lord came to dine at his home, he declared that he was going to make up for all the stealing and dishonest dealing he’d done. Now, you can see from this that the Lord’s forgiveness of this man’s sins was complete, yet the man himself wanted to do good, anything good, to others, especially those he had wronged. Yet the Lord did not tell him to do it, not directly, but just by being there. And that is how it is for us, don’t you think?

We can bat bible verses around all day if we like, but when it comes right down to brass tacks, either we can believe, as Christians now, that Christ’s work for us includes everything that we ever needed to be considered righteous before God, and then do whatever that belief causes us to do—or, we can imagine somehow that Christ’s work for us is not complete, and that there is something else we must do to prove ourselves worthy, something by our own efforts, worthy of the forgiveness that we say we believe in, and yet don’t fully believe.

So here we are, Kenny, you and me. Where do we stand on this issue? I think you know, brother, where I stand, and I think you know that I know where you stand. We sometimes have to take these thoughts out of the darker regions of our minds and look at them in the light from the outside just to make sure they’re still there, and that they’re real.

And real they are, the most real things that can ever be, because we didn’t make them up. They were planted in us, like seed, when as good ground we received them. And what has been planted in the dark but rich soil of our faith will bring forth in abundance, as the Word declares, in the light, when the Lord comes.

Thanks for your thoughtful post, brother.

kennyching said...

This was an e-mail response I received on this question from one of my pastors:

The first distinction I would made is between temporal judgments and final judgment. Scripture is clear that Christians can and do receive temporal judgments for their sins (James 5:26; 1Cor 11:29-30), however these judgments are loving acts of discipline intended to call wayward sons and daughters back into the arms of their Heavenly Father:

Heb. 12:4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” 7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

The Westminster Confession of Faith is right on when it lists discipline among the blessings that accompany our adoption:

“All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth, in and for his only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have his name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him, as by a father: yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption; and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.” WCF XII (also see WCF XVII.3 and XVIII.4)

In my experience, God’s fatherly discipline most often takes the form of simply letting us go our own sinful way for a time (think prodigal son) so that we might experience the emptiness of our sin, feel its sting, and ultimately be drawn back into the arms of our loving Father. The “warning” passages in scripture such as 1Thes 4:3-6 are best seen in the light of this filial relationship. They are to be taken seriously. They are there to promote our sanctification. They are the loving words of a Father to his sons and daughters.

As for the final judgment, although each person will be judged “according to his works” (Rom 2:6; cf. Matt 16:27; Rev 20:12; Rev 22:12; 2Cor 5:10; 1Cor 3:8; 1Peter 1:17), believers have nothing to fear: there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). The sins and shortcomings of believers will be revealed at the last day but – and this is the important point – they will be revealed as forgiven sins to the glory of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

But why a judgment according to works even though salvation comes through faith in Christ and is never by works? The answer is the intimate connection we see throughout scripture between faith and works. Faith must reveal itself in works, and works, in turn, are the evidence of true faith. As Calvin once put it, “It is faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone” (cf. James 2:26; Galatians 5:6; James 2:18). I find Matthew 25:31-46 to be a pretty helpful passage as I explore these issues. Here the Son of Man has returned in his glory, and is sitting on his throne of judgment. All the nations are gathered before him, and the King now proceeds to separate the “sheep” on his right hand from the “goats” on his left hand. But note that the decision about the final destiny of both sheep and the goats is given first. In the case of the “sheep,” the decision is this: “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” This judgment, in other words, is not an investigation of the lives of the “sheep” to determine whether they have done enough to merit the kingdom prepared for them, but rather a gracious decision about their final destiny which is followed by a public revelation of the reasons why this decision is right and proper. Look at verse 34: all thought of merit is excluded. The “sheep” are called “the blessed of my Father” -- the objects of the Father’s undeserved favor. It is said that they will inherit the kingdom — an inheritance, however, is never earned but is always received as a gift. The kingdom which they are about to inherit is said to have been prepared for them from the foundation of the world — again we see the evidence of the Father’s gracious choice of them from eternity past, a choice based not on merit but on grace alone. Now the king goes on to reveal the reasons why the decision about these “sheep” was right and proper: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, etc.” That the “sheep” did not do these good deeds in order to merit the kingdom is evident from their surprise: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” Their surprise reveals that they were not doing these things in order to merit eternal life, but rather as a spontaneous way of expressing their true devotion to Christ by showing love to Christ’s brothers. Their works were the evidence of their faith. Though even our best works are tainted by sin (Isa 64:6; Rom 3:23; James 3:2) God accepts and celebrates even our tainted displays of love, loyalty, and devotion. Praise Christ!

As for “rewards” in the New Heavens and New, I’m still working that one out myself.

One final thought: God uses a variety of motivations to spur his children on to holy living. Still, the most dominate is simply the gospel itself and the overflow of joy and thankfulness that results from it. We indeed have prayerfully tried to make this the centerpiece of preaching and teaching at Grace. Still, our goal is to strike a biblical balance....a little “fear-of-the-Lord” never hurt anybody.

Hopefully this helped a bit.

Ben said...

You know what your problem is Kenny? It's that you always have these deep thoughts and philosophical quandries that I can't fire off a quick, low-thought response to before returning to work.

kennyching said...

Somehow, Ben, my good friend, that sounds more like your problem than mine :)

That said, I've been having this discussion with numerous people, including at least three seminary trained Christians, and all of them take many paragraphs to address it, and none of them thinks it's an easy question.

Ben said...

I like your pastor's response, actually.

Anonymous said...

Quantum mechanicists tell us light sometimes acts as a particle and sometimes as a wave, and that no physicist really "understands" or has an intuition for how this could be so.

We can barely obey when we think punishment is imminent, and we can barely feel forgiven when we're told we have blanket forgiveness.

So even in those situations when we desperately need to think of sin as fully a "wave" (or as fully a "particle") we're barely up to the task.

Given this, is it reasonable for us to expect a comprehensive view of the situation in which sin and forgiveness have been reduced to simple gears in a tiny machine that can be grasped by our limited minds and spirits?

This reminds me a bit of the free will vs. determinism debate, which may be too "wonderful" for our poor brains. Anyone who thinks he's resolved the paradoxes there may not fully grasp them.

Perhaps grace vs. works, and the Trinity, are two more examples of things too great (and rich?) to be reduced to something we can understand in the way we understand a machine or computer program (if this, then that...).