"From" or "in"?
It's an important distinction especially when it comes to the heart of forgiveness. We are all familiar with the scenario: someone sins against you, it hurts for awhile, but after some time passes you think or say, "It's ok. I've forgiven them in my heart."
Done. Easy. Water under the bridge. They hurt you. Sin happened. But eventually you are able to muster up enough humility and selflessness to be able to come to the point of forgiving them in your heart. How noble your heartfelt actions are.
And how convenient.
No confrontation needed. No difficult conversation. No having to look someone you love in the eye and tell them that they hurt you—indeed sinned against you. No recognition needed on their part that sin has happened. No, it's all taken care of because you are willing to forgive them in your heart. It's so easy, in fact, that not a word needed to be uttered between the sinner and the sinned-against. Forgiveness has been successfully and seamlessly wrought.
In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches about true forgiveness. Too often this chapter is referred to using shorthand that means something like, "Take the steps of 'church discipline' outlined by Jesus to work reconciliation in Matthew 18:15-20." Is gossip happening at work? "Matthew 18." Is your friend complaining to you about an issue they have with someone else? "Matthew 18." Did so-and-so at church go behind your back and smear your reputation? "Matthew 18." This "Matthew 18" language isn't all bad. It's a good reminder that Jesus says, "If your brother sins against you, you go to him and tell him his fault, between you and him alone" (Matt. 18:15). Sin between people must be reconciled between those same people—and no one else.
What's often not asked, however, is why Jesus even gives these steps to take with our brother or sister who has wronged us. It's rather profound that he locates the "steps" in the larger context of who is the greatest in his reign/kingdom. All the way back in verse one, the disciples ask Jesus, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" And to answer their question, he takes a child, places him in the midst of them, and basically says, "This one and people like him are the greatest." That is to say, the neediest, lowliest, most dependent, most straying, utterly foolish, and terribly ignorant ones among you—they are the greatest. Jesus is not teaching about having an innocent, child-like faith. Rather, he's exhorting his disciples to turn—repent and become like children. This means to recognize their true position, which is lowly, humble, needy, unworthy, and completely dependent—regardless of how "great" they think they might be.
Jesus then warns them that these weak, lowly, dependent ones among them are so great that the person who would lead them into folly and sin is actually better off dead at the bottom of the ocean. He goes on to say hyperbolically that if your hand or foot or eye might tempt you to sin (and by correlation, might tempt these weak/great ones to sin), cut it off. Such is the sobering seriousness of sin. Then he uses the example of the single straying sheep. That straying, foolish sheep is so great that the shepherd leaves the 99 to go after it and rejoices when he finds it.
Then we get to the ever-popular "steps". Only after this whole teaching on greatness, then Jesus says, "If your brother sins against you, you go to him and show him his fault." Why does he say this? Because that one is the greatest.
...let me say that again.
That one is the greatest.
That's right. Contrary to every carnal, crusty, Old-Adam proclivity that dwells in the dark recesses of our hearts and minds; contrary to every self-justifying, self-defending argument that we can marshall to show ourselves to be in the right; contrary to every selfish attitude that pridefully waits around for them to come to you; the reality that Jesus proclaims is terrifyingly true: the one who sins against you is actually the greatest; the neediest; the straying one. They are the greatest, and need to be sought after and brought back into the fold. And how does that happen? By simply forgiving them in your heart? Not quite. Rather:
...from your heart...
...for your brother or sister in Christ to hear.
Jesus doesn't tell you to wait until you feel like forgiving your brother before you go to confront him. He doesn't ask you to psychoanalyze the situation to see if your neighbor is deserving of your forgiveness or if they will "really mean it" if and when they say, "I'm sorry." No, your sinning brother is the greatest. Period. And so you go to care for him.
And not only do you go because he is the greatest, but also because you have been so greatly forgiven by your Lord, as the parable of the unmerciful servant illustrates (Matt. 18:23-35). You go because your own great, unpayable debt of sin was forgiven by Jesus. Your Master didn't see your huge debt of sin and sit down with you to figure out a payment plan so that you could work it off (which, in the parable would amount to something in the ballpark of 200,000 years of labor). No, instead he graciously cancelled the whole thing altogether by his shed blood on the cross. And so you go to your brother bearing forgiveness, the source of which is not you, but Christ. You go to show your brother his fault so that you can forgive him, even as you have been greatly forgiven. And yes, the sobering warning is that if you refuse forgiveness to your repentant brother or sister, then you can expect the full debt of your sin to be reinstated by God. After all, to withhold forgiveness from your repentant neighbor—no matter how justified you may think you are to do so—is tantamount to despising the forgiveness given to you by Christ.
This is why we don't just forgive others in our hearts, but from our hearts—using words:
Person A: "You sinned against me."
Person B: "I'm sorry, please forgive me."
Person A: "I forgive you."
And when the words are spoken, the deed is done. It's simply how forgiveness is delivered. You don't have the luxury of forgiving your brother or sister wordlessly in your heart. And even if you do forgive them in your heart, how will your brother or sister know it? What good does it do to forgive them in your heart if you never tell them that? No, Jesus exhorts you to forgive your bother or sister from your heart, using words spoken to them.
Does that mean having some hard conversations? Indeed. Does it mean the potential for even more hurt feelings? To be sure. Does it mean that you might even have your own sin exposed to you by your bother or sister? Quite possibly. Does it mean that you have to forsake your self-justifying pride? Absolutely. But consider the even more difficult alternative: the greatest one among you might be left in his sin, maybe even unknowingly, maybe even to his eternal harm. Therefore, as the greatest, he requires your utmost care and attention.
You see, these are more than mere steps to follow in order to get something off of your chest to make yourself feel better, or to weed out the wicked from your midst. They are actually the way that we care for the greatest among us.
So go with words to speak to those brothers and sisters in Christ who have sinned against you. Go, not in haughty pride as if you have got it all together. But go as a fellow foolish one; a simultaneously sinful one. Go in humble concern in order to care for the greatest among you.
Oh, and pray for humility for the time when your brother or sister in Christ does the same to you, and give thanks to God that they loved you enough to do it.
It's a novel idea, I suppose. Enjoy a piece of chocolate, and as a bonus you are encouraged by the positive words printed inside of the shiny foil wrapper. (It's more fun for me, though, to read "Bravely Done" on the underside of a Deschutes bottle cap whose home was formerly perched atop a Black Butte Porter—a brew I pray will be on tap in the New Heavens and New Earth.) Anyway, I was eating one of these delicious Dove chocolates (the dark variety), and I got to thinking about the words printed inside the foil.
I suppose they are rather harmless by themselves; pithy and trite sayings intended to give you a positive perspective on an otherwise ordinary day:
• "Believe in yourself."
• "Live your dreams."
• "Be good to yourself today."
• "Keep moving forward; don't look back."
But what struck me this time, as I placed the last bite of chocolate on my tongue, was how similar these Dove sayings are to many things spoken from pulpits and podiums in the mainline American church.
Listen to many popular "preachers" today and you likely won't be able to go 2 minutes without one of these sayings invading your eardrums. "You have the seeds of greatness on the inside." "There's a champion in you waiting to be discovered." "God's got a big purpose for you, so aim high." "Don't let hard times get you down. Pick yourself up, and tell yourself, 'I'm important. I'm significant. I'm going somewhere.' " "Take hold of all that God has in store for you." Doesn't it seem strange—no, frightening—that there is no qualitative difference between what many "pastors" are preaching from their stages and what a candy company is printing on their wrappers? It struck me as odd that such teachers are unwittingly using Dove candy wrappers as if they are part of Holy Writ. Why is it that so many "pastors" and teachers are taking the liberty of basing entire "sermons" on words that are qualitatively no different than Dove candy wrappers? Maybe I missed the memo, but could someone tell me when these shiny foil candy casings were included in the canon of Scripture?
Oh. They weren't?
Well, that's a relief. Because not only is there the glaring problem that the vast majority of these words contradict Scripture itself; there is also the reality that such words are, at the end of the day, worthless garbage, worthy of the same grave as candy wrappers: the landfill. They don't proclaim any true or lasting hope; just positive, narcissistic thoughts and nice, ego-stroking words that fade almost as quickly as they are heard.
I know. It sounds mean, right? "What's the harm?" some may ask. "Certainly you're not opposed to a little bit of positive thinking. Certainly inspiring words can't hurt. They can brighten a day and bring a smile to our face."
But there's a dirty little secret...
(They aren't true. And they can hurt. Eternally.)
As a pastor, I sit with people in some difficult situations. Terminal cancer. Broken relationships. Sexual confusion. Questions about God's love. Consciences burdened with decades of guilt and recurring sin. With all of these situations, there is conversation that can be had and questions that can be asked so that the law can be properly administered and the healing balm of the Gospel can be applied with care.
And then there's death.
Death's unrelenting presence has this way of shutting us up. It's so powerfully big that it leaves us speechlessly small. Death is not a conversationalist. Death is not swayed by cute, empty, feel-good phrases. Death can see through a pastor's shiny teeth and manicured hair. Death takes the self-esteem, life-lesson bullet points from the sermon, regardless of the eloquence with which they are spoken, and exposes them for the vacuous nonsense that they truly are. Death has this way of shutting us up, and the few words we do speak tremble under his weight.
So, when it comes to the words that we speak in the face of suffering to try and bring true joy and lasting hope, consider the "deathbed test". It works like this: imagine you are sitting at the bedside of a dying person. There's no question that this person will be dead before the week's end, if they even last that long. They are suffering. They are in pain. They have questions about their future. They are worried about their family. Their life is leaving them before your very eyes. And you are there to speak some kind of word that is supposed to bring them comfort. Throw into the mix that they are probably thinking much about their life of sin, and wondering if the cross of Christ is truly as gracious and saving as it sounds. If they are left in that sin, they will spend eternity in hell.
Next, take a saying. Any saying will do. Maybe it's one you heard on the radio. Maybe it's a piece of wisdom you learned from your grandfather. Maybe you read it on a candy wrapper. It could even be a Scripture verse. Take those words and imagine yourself uttering them in that room where death is holding court. If the words that you release into a dying human's ears are actually able to give true and lasting hope in the face of death itself by pointing them outside of themselves to Christ alone, you've probably got a pretty good nugget of truth. It ought to sound something like this:
• "But God showed his own love for us in this: that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8)
• "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 6:23)
• "But Christ has indeed been raised from death, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." (1 Cor. 15:20)
• "The last enemy to be destroyed is death." (1 Cor. 15:26)
• "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live." (John 11:25)
• "God made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, in order that we may become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor. 5:21)
• "We were buried with him, therefore, through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised by the glory of the Father, we, too, may live a new life." (Rom. 6:4)
• "All we, like sheep, have gone astray, each to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Is. 53:6)
• "But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life." (Titus 3:4-7)
(Notice the lack of narcissistic positivism and the focus on Jesus?)
However, if the words you have chosen to speak cause Death to throw back his head and laugh in diabolical delight at the sheer stupidity they contain (e.g. "Never give up." "Believe in yourself." "Keep moving forward; don't look back." "Tomorrow will be a brighter day." "Think positive thoughts."), well, it's probably a good idea never to utter those words again. Anywhere. Ever. Not the deathbed, not the bus stop, not the dinner table. Really. Leave them for the candy companies.
You see, the thing about Dove chocolate wrappers is that, while they may tell us the self-inflating sentiments that we like to hear, they have a less-than desirable destination: the garbage heap. They eventually land amidst slimy banana peels, last week's moldy leftovers, and baby diapers, the contents of which shall remain undisclosed. The words may last for a moment, maybe a day, and then they are crumpled up into a tiny ball, thrown into a wastebasket, and forgotten even before their chocolatey contents traverse your digestive tract. Even worse than their fleetingness, such greeting card sentiments instruct suffering people to find hope in themselves, or in some vague ideas floating in the sky about happiness, positive thinking, flowers, brighter tomorrows, or some such nonsense about God closing doors and opening windows. Such words are completely impotent in the face of daily suffering, in the valley of the death-shadow, and in the guilt-racked corners of the conscience. Is that the kind of garbage theology we ought to be feeding the lambs of Christ, whether in the pew or on the deathbed? The answer is quite simple: no, it isn't.
What should we be feeding them?
We should be feeding them a word that will first point them to their true natural selves: sinners in need of a Savior. We should be feeding them a word which takes seriously their suffering as a result of that sin. We should be feeding them a word that tells them who their Savior is and what he has done to forgive them by his shed blood on the cross and the empty Easter grave. We should be feeding them a word that is so powerful that it slays the wicked father of lies. We should be feeding them a word—the only word—that can stand up to the great enemy of death; a word that defeats death not with positive thinking and and fluffy phrases, but by bursting its bonds with a vacant tomb. I only know of one place to find words like that: Jesus.
Let's leave the garbage theology in the trash where it belongs, and instead proclaim Christ.
It's a popular question asked of pastors. "So, when did you know you were supposed to be a pastor?" I prefer the more realistic, "When did you decide to be a pastor?" But then there's the dreaded, "When did you receive your calling into the ministry?"
If you are a pastor, you may know what potentially comes after that question. The inner struggle. The asker often assumes that every pastor must have had some deep, perhaps melancholiac experience whereby he has been assured that his sole purpose in life is to carry the Gospel to the ends of the world. And so the questioner waits with baited breath, ready to be astonished with a story involving lightning bolts from heaven, the audible and direct voice of God, or some long and involved string of connected events, the likes of which could not possibly have been coincidences, but "could only have been the hand of God". And if you are a pastor who has been asked this question, but whose pastoral plot line is anything but exciting (like mine), then you know that deflated and disappointed look on the questioner's face when such a story does not eloquently pour forth from your lips. "Oh. How nice." or "Good for you." is often the kind reply.
Even as a young pastor, I have been asked this question often. And I would be lying if I said that there isn't a little part of me that wants to try and make my answer a bit more interesting. Because I don't have a grand and exciting story. I grew up in a parsonage fifty yards from the church, my parents taught me the faith from the day I was born, I thought I would sort of like being a pastor, I took Greek in college, ended up in seminary, enjoyed it, graduated, and now—voila! Here I am, send me. Sure, there are more details I could include, but nothing supernatural or hyper spiritual. In short, when this question was posed to me, I was afraid of being boring.
I don't think this is unique to pastors. All of us fallen human beings are constantly searching for importance. We want to have a unique story, different from all others, that our friends and neighbors will look at with fondness, admiration, and maybe even some envy. But the beauty of God's story is its brilliantly consistent mundanity. Ever since the beginning of time, God has used simple words to accomplish his incredible work; words to call creation into existence; words to speak promises into sinners' ears; words to enlist those sinners into his service; words given to his messengers to declare to the world. And then God does the most miraculously mundane thing of all: he sends a word—the Word. The heavens break open with angel song, and for what? A tiny baby in an unknown manger. The King of the Jews takes his place on the throne, not in regal splendor, but naked, beaten, and bloody. His crown is not encrusted with jewels, but with the rubies of blood drops made by the thorns. And in his great mercy, God uses that work of Christ—which looks anything but special and unique—to remove your sin from you as far as the East is from the West.
And here's the beauty: that's the same story for everybody. The cross, proclaimed by means of mundane words, is the only thing that delivers the miracle of saving faith.
So, upon further repentant reflection, I realized that my fear of being boring was really just my sinful pride looking for a way to blossom; to give my ego the wonderfully exhilarating esteem-boosting that it likes; to feed my self-image with the delicious fare of narcissism. Because let's be honest: the pastoral ministry is not all about me or any other pastor. The Christian faith is not about me or any other Christian.
It's all about Jesus.
"So, Pastor, when did you receive your calling into the ministry?"
"The day the bride of Christ handed me a manilla envelope with documents enclosed asking me to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins to them in the name of Jesus."
No lightning bolts. No grand, mystical, meditative, introspective spiritual insights or revelations. No audible voice from heaven or grand visions in the sky. Rather, just some words printed on paper bought on clearance at Staples, stuck in an envelope, and sealed with a secretary's saliva. Almost the epitome of mundane. And yet, therein lies the beauty: that God would use such ordinary means, and that through those means he would enlist sinful men and place upon their lips his incredible, saving, and eternal Gospel.
There is no need to fear the mundane. In fact, it's rather comforting. Because it's not about us anyway.
It's about Jesus.
au•di•blé (/ˈôdəbəl/) adj.: Able to be heard.
a•cous•tic (/əˈko͞ostik/) adj.: Relating to sound or the sense of hearing.
the•ol•o•gy (THēˈäləjē/) n.: God words.
Music is meant to be heard. In fact, you might say that if it's not heard, it's not actually music. You can own heaps of sheet music; little solid and hollow dots occupying some lines on a dog-eared, coffee-stained page. But until it actually enters time and space through the pulsing strings of a violin or the vocal chords of a soprano, it isn't music and can't be fully enjoyed. If the notes on the page aren't given voice and ushered into the airwaves by an instrument, then they are useless; they are not doing what they were given to do.
The apostle Paul speaks about the acoustic nature of the Christian faith in Romans 10:13-17:
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (ESV)
Notice the progression (in reverse): sent ones preach the word of Christ; preached-to ones hear the word of Christ; hearing ones believe the word of Christ; with the result that believing ones call upon the name of the Lord. For "faith comes from hearing." That's what the Gospel was given to do: to be preached and heard.
When I teach these verses, I like to sum it up as follows: "The word of the Gospel: if it ain't spoken, it ain't heard, and it don't work." (For whatever reason, terrible grammar makes these kinds of things stick.) Faith—that external gift, unmerited by works, by which we are objectively declared "righteous" in God's sight (Romans 4)--that faith comes by hearing the word of Christ. So if that word is not spoken, how can it be heard, and therefore, how can it do its work? If it is not ushered into the airwaves by someone speaking it, how can it do its work of giving faith?
Answer: it can't. If it ain't spoken, it ain't heard, and it don't work.
Martin Luther puts it far more eloquently in his Large Catechism: "...for where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Ghost who creates, calls, and gathers the Christian Church, without which no one can come to Christ the Lord" (LC, Part 2, Article III, 45).
Jesus himself highlighted this acoustic reality in Luke 24:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49, ESV)
It seems that such an understanding of the work and word of God should bring us much comfort. First, it is an external word. It does not ask me (as much misguided Christianity does) to look to myself, my situation, and my experiences to know whether or not God is for me. Instead it comes to me from outside of myself and invades my eardrums (whether I like it or not). This is comforting precisely because the promises of God stand firm regardless of my feelings on the matter. Even when life sucks. Even when suffering wins. And especially when I look within and see nothing but a black and wicked heart that wants nothing more than to serve its sinful self (Matthew 15). In all of those situations, the external word of Christ stands unmoved by my experiences and my sin. Therefore, because it is external to me, it is also objective. I can't deny that a word of Christ has been spoken into my eardrums. To be sure, any given person might deny the content of that word. But once it's released into the airwaves, I can't deny that it was spoken. No, the promise of Christ relentlessly stands as the place for me to return to constantly in repentant faith.
This actually gives the Church clarity concerning what she ought to be about: proclaiming into eardrums the very word through which the Holy Spirit works and which God has promised will not return to him empty. We are all acoustic theologians. That Gospel is, after all, a message that only Christ's bride possesses to proclaim. Therefore all that we do and say is subsumed under the banner of Christ's cross and his empty grave proclaimed, and that for the forgiveness of sinners. So, the Gospel is not buying homeless people food. It's not serving soup at a warming center. It's not building houses for the less fortunate. It's not rescuing stray dogs and cats. It's not living an environmentally aware lifestyle as a steward of the earth. It's not making sure people live moral and upright lives by being a 'good example'. It's not funding cures for cancer or lobbying for this or that legislation. While all of these things are good and worthwhile, they are not the Gospel. We do not "preach the Gospel always and when necessary use words" (St. Francis of Assisi). This is impossible. Why?
Because the Gospel is precisely acoustic God-words.
Words about Christ who was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Words spoken physically into time and space. Words that vibrate airwaves and bounce off of sinners' eardrums. Words that till the crusty soil of our hearts. Words that proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47). And if those words ain't spoken, they ain't heard, and they don't work. But when they are spoken, take heart. For it is through those acoustic words, spoken from sinners' lips, that God miraculously delivers his saving goods.
Incredible, that God would join his word to the mundane stuff of his creation; not only to sound waves that echo off of our eardrums, but also to water that washes over our skin and to bread and wine that place into our mouths the very body and blood of Christ. Yes, God uses that powerful, Word-laced, promise-laden stuff to deliver his external, objective goods of salvation and forgiveness.
Yes, even to sinners like us.
The Gospel of Christ in a world full of white noise.
Rev. Dan Suelzle is the campus pastor of Wittenberg Lutheran Chapel in Grand Forks, North Dakota.