Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Forgive Us

There once was a boy that was quizzed by his father about the sermon he had just heard. "What was the preacher talking about?"
"He was preaching about sin," the boy replied.
"What did he say about it?" asked his dad.
"He was against it," the boy answered.

The fifth petition is "Forgive us our sins (or debts)." Sin is not pleasant or popular, but we ignore it to our peril. If we don't deal with our own sin it will swallow us up. Go wrong here, and everything else is warped. Make light of sin and you make light of God's holiness and his love. Jesus came and gave his life to deal with our sin.

David dealt forthrightly with his sin and expressed great grief at having disobeyed God by his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of Uriah:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
(Psalm 51:1-5)

In this short passage there are three words about sin, three about forgiveness, and three about God's grace. The word "sin" conveys the idea of failing to hit the target or of coming short. The word "iniquity" means a distorting, a bending out of shape. The word "transgression" involves a willful rebellion, of knowing that a thing is wrong but doing it anyway.

The three words that teach about forgiveness show us what God must do to deal with sin: "blot out...wash away...cleanse." These words come from the ceremonial system, where they refer to rites that allow a person to come safely into God's presence. They focus on the inner condition that the ceremony points to. Sin makes us unclean and unfit to enter the presence of God. Forgiveness comes at a cost. A sacrifice must be made. God provided the sacrifice by sending his Son to die in our place.

The three words that show us the riches of God's grace "mercy, unfailing love and compassion." Mercy is unmerited favor. Unfailing love (perhaps the richest word in the whole Bible--hesed) speaks of God's covenant commitment to do as he promises no matter what. Compassion reminds us of God's passionate and ever-flowing love.

Sin is an ongoing concern of the Christian life. Question: Why do we need to pray for forgiveness? Answer: Because we keep on sinning! Sin is a debt we owe God. Every failure to perform renders us culpable. As the Prayer Book puts it: "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done..." Sin is a failure to meet our obligations.

If we don't realize why Jesus came into this world as a man and why we need him as our Savior, then we haven't yet considered the greatness of the weight of our sin. It is a cancer, a parasite that will undo us unless it is removed. The greatness of our sin shows us the greatness of our Savior. Through his life and death he rescued us from sin's penalty. We are no longer under condemnation. Through his Spirit we are being rescued from sin's power. We are no longer under sin's dominion. Through his resurrection we will one day be rescued from sin's presence. We will no longer sin!

This petition not only reconciles us to God, but is meant to reconcile us to one another: "Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors." There is clearly a link between the two. Jesus presses the truth home by adding, "If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15).

This brings up several questions. Is forgiveness conditional? Do we extend forgiveness to the repentant only? Is there a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation? One thing is abundantly clear--there must never be on our part an unwillingness to forgive. Whatever obstacles there may be on the part of the offender in receiving forgiveness--we, on our part, must always be ready to forgive.

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