forgiveness

Love and Law by Michael Nichols

This past Sunday, I attended Lifehouse Church. A verse came up that goes something like this -- it's Romans 13:10, by the way: "Love does no harm to its neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." Pretty straightforward, right? I've heard this verse before. I love it, but this time, I read it differently. It says so much, but there are at least two ways in which it can be read. In the past, I've always read it as a definition of how to love -- do this, do that, blah, blah, blah, and you will have hard evidence of love inside you coming out -- and it is perfectly okay for it to be read like that. It has every implication of that... but this is not the only way it can be read.

In the context of Romans 12-15, a much greater force is at work, which can be seen as a huge contrast with the vibe one gets from the beginning of the letter. At first, Paul the apostle begins to speak to the Romans about the judgment they passed on fellow believers who were giving in to sin. Then he talked to them about how the concept of grace and forgiveness works, along with the concept of God's greater plan, for about 11 chapters in all.

By this time, he gotten to something that he always gets to: love. The kicker is, however, is that, unlike the beginning of the chapter, instead of addressing the letter of the law first, which is what the Romans were really pushing, he addresses the law by its relationship to love. Think about those words again: "... whoever loves others has fulfilled the law." (Don't mistuderstand me: doing things in the name of love does not necessarily make those things love.) In other words, he is saying that when you begin to love, you will begin to fulfill the law.

I think that's one of the things that is power behind Christ's forgiveness of the adulteress who was sentenced to death by stoning. He loved her, and even though He did not approve her of her adultery, He did not condemn her, but stood to defend her person, delievered a call-out to the blood-thirsty public, and simply told her to stop doing the things she was doing that caused her to come into condemnation, to stop condemning herself as we all do when we sin, when we reject His love. Never once did He say we couldn't come to Him. Never once did He say we were not loved. Never once did He condemn us. He simply said, "Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me." He really empowered us by telling us to "go and sin no more" because we do all have a choice to love or not to love.

The issue with the adulteress's accusers was that they believed in the law, but they lived without love, and that is what separated them from Christ, in addition to the fact that He was the only one there without sin, who was the only one capable of caasting a stone yet chose against it because it is in His blood to love... and that is the other context in which you can read Romans 13:10 -- not only do you prove your love through fulfilling the law, but the more you learn that you are loved, the more you learn to love, and the more you begin to live out that love and therefore fulfill the law. (It's actually kind of interesting, if you think about it, that Christ is God (John 1), that He came "not to destroy... but to fulfill" the law (Matthew 5), that God is identified by the apostle John as love Himself (1 John), and that "love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:10), so by extension, Jesus not only fulfilled the law through His death and resurrection, but continues to fulfill it through us when we love.)

So the next time you find yourself in condemnation, the next time you find yourself messing up but not meaning to, just remember this if you remember nothing: Jesus loves you. He isn't condemning you, so why should you? He never said we could ever do what He did, live a perfect life, or anything like that, but He did say that we can live a better life if we follow Him. We can't save ourselves. It doesn't ride on our shoulders. Saving us was His cross. Our cross is faith. Faith will teach us to love, and love fulfills the law. :)

Forgiveness -- Part 4 by Michael Nichols

So what does it mean? This almost paradox of forgiveness can wrack your brain at first. We know we don't deserve it, but we know it's good to have, so how can we have it? Well, let's start from the start. The origins of Christianity are  interesting to say the least. We were prophesied about ages ago. Paul talks about this in Romans 9-11. It's odd to take in given that our culture is so vastly different from the Hebrew culture, but if you know just a little about the religion of Judaism, you can start to see the picture a little bit more clearly.

Hebrew faith was established on a sacrificial system. There was a law for just about everything. It's interesting to see, though, that even though there was a law, that was just a part of the text that the Hebrews followed. There was also something called "the prophets," which are certain Hebrew texts that do a couple of things: 1) speak to the culture at that time about something God was going to do with them at that time and 2) speak to anyone who happened to read that text about something to come in the future. I'm thinking about the latter rather than the former.

Firstly, I think about how Jesus said that He didn't come to "destroy the law, but to fulfill it." So that meant that there was something that the Hebrews were missing. Paul doesn't really talk about how Jesus fulfills "the law" here, but he does mention some things that "the prophets" said, namely about the true identity of "Israel" in the greater purpose of salvation.

The Old Testament (everything the Hebrews wrote before the birth of Jesus) is filled to the maximum with stories of how the descendants of Abraham strayed from the Lord then followed Him, then strayed then followed again. It's not an unfamiliar pattern. We've all been guilty of that at some point and would be lying if we denied it. We should not, however, expect any less as a consequence of this pattern than a redirection of attention.

This is what God did with Israel. Did He ignore them, forsake them, condemn them? No way, but He certainly didn't force them into subservience! He more or less just... expanded. Israel went through periods of idolatry and rigid law. Inevitably the latter won, and they devoted themselves to righteousness by the law. After all, the law is what they had. It stood firm through the desert, through the idolatry. It had been faithful, but had they been faithful? No. They had been legal, and it became a problem.

A person can only go so far by their own means. Sure, effort is great! The scriptures say that God is a fan of us trying to be more like Him, but this effect is not achieved by works alone. Eventually, everyone gets tired. Everyone has their breaking point, their Achilles heel, that one thing that will bring them down no matter what, but God is stronger that your strongest weakness -- pretty sure that's a quote, but I'm not sure who said it first.

After several periods of forced migration by external powers, the idolatry and evil that Israel seemed so keen on began to subside, replaced by a more strict adherence to the law of the land, but it wasn't in the sense that they wanted to obey it, but out of a sense of not repeating history by being "good enough," which is impossible because none of us are perfect, and furthermore drove the nation into a very discriminatory and caste-like mode of religion, which is what happens when man believes he is perfect when he is not, when he exalts himself to a state of mind that is higher than his state of heart. By buying into a belief that salvation can be earned, they made these words relevant:

Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

That is how forgiveness takes root. It is there for free. You only have to call on Him. It may be difficult at first, but if there is anyone out there and still with us whom we can trust, it's Jesus. Make an effort to trust, and trust Him with your efforts. Abraham had no tangible basis by which to listen to the voice that told him to search for a land that was promised to him for generations upon generations, yet he did it because he trusted. The promise that he was given was a promise of something greater. Not only was that promise fulfilled, but it continues to be fulfilled and one day will be completed when we reach the "promised land" of heaven. Through the Spirit which dwells in us by faith, our efforts are given new life. We're never going to perfect, but we will always be forgiven, and we will always be growing, led by the best of the best, the king of kings.

It was in God's plan all along for salvation to be for more than just one culture. "Israel" isn't just a country or a heritage or a culture or a religion: Israel is a choice, a faith, forgiveness, grace. It was meant for everyone, but the only way for Israel to turn back to the way of living by faith and not by self-righteousness was to see the offer of grace and forgiveness come to others. It was Paul's wish as well that they would come back to the way of faith, and the only way that it could happen is through envy. The kicker there is that nobody -- and I mean NOBODY -- is required to envy because grace is a free gift from a God who doesn't speak the language of discrimination against color, heritage, gender -- NOTHING.

That's the beauty of it. We're all in this together. This world and its promises are not permanent, and that can be seen in our governments, in our cultures, in our choices, in our coinage, and in our caskets. If you have a chance to make someone's day better, do it. If someone needs defending, do it. Love. Love. Love. Love like Jesus loved. Knowing how fleeting life is, why not give it away? Why not share it? There is so much love inside a heart, be it buried, be it on the surface, be it both. It was meant to leave the body, and that's why I feel like a shaken soda bottle when I'm not singing, when I'm not with my friends, when I'm not working, when I'm not making new friends, when I'm not going to new places, learning new things, learning from old things... I'm simply saying that EVERYTHING is a chance to love the way Jesus loved and tell someone about the love He has for us -- and yes, He still has it because my God is NOT dead: He is 100% ALIVE. I don't know if you, readers, trust Jesus or even believe Jesus, and making you believe isn't in my modus operundi, but I encourage you regardless of your faith to take this in and ask yourself, "Who is Jesus, how does this all work, and is this worth believing?" You won't be disappointed. :)

 

Thanks for reading, again. Like I've said before, I'm no theologian, but I am human, and I can only say what I've seen and heard. If there is anything I haven't made clear, or if you have questions about what I believe, why it's so important to me, feel free to comment or email, and do the same if you simply have something to say. I always welcome both old and new friends. Until next time. :)

Forgiveness -- Part 2 by Michael Nichols

The nitty-gritty of Romans truly starts in Chapter 6, where Paul poses a few very interesting questions:

  • "[If more grace comes to those who have been in more sin,] shall we continue sinning so that grace may increase?"
  • "Shall we sin because we are not under the law, but under grace?"
  • "[If the law makes us aware of sin to the extent that we give into sin,] is the law sinful?"
  • "[If that giving into sin bring us death when the law was meant for life,] did that which is good, then, become death to [him]?"

Now, I'm neither a theologian nor a Bible scholar by any stretch of the imagination. I'm just some guy reading this and seeing certain things pop out at me. I don't know much about the structure of the Roman church, or anything about where it went from there. I do, however, know that Paul seems to be throwing out a ton of questions to them, which leads me to ask, "Why? Were these questions relevant to them in some way?"

These questions seem to have a sort of progression, a sequence of figuring out how this "grace" thing actually works. Humor me for just a moment. If you were figuring out that there was a way to escape the threat of death, would you take it? I mean, it's really a rhetorical question, if you think about it. Of course you would. The whole premise of sin is that it brings destruction wherever it goes. The victims hurt, and eventually, that hurt ripples back to the criminal, even if it takes a long time. In answering that first question of whether we should continue sinning to bring about more grace, he answered, and I paraphrase this, basically, "Heck to the no," explaining to his audience that when they were baptized, it was a way of showing that they had died to sin. How does someone who is dead continue living in the body he was in? Is it even possible? He explains that we are not under the law, but under grace, which is when he asks his second question (see list), and swiftly says, "No way!" yet again! He comes back to drive the that, not only are dead to sin, but that sin itself is a murderer, and ends up killing us anyway, so why should we be a slave to it? We are now free to live, unafraid of what sin once did to us because it no longer had a hold on us, but we have a hold on it through Jesus!

Then, it gets even weirder. So the law was made to show us what is good, right? But in doing so, the law also shows us what is wrong, everything we should do... and that's when we start to question it. Our failure to believe in our own inevitable demise gives us the wiggle room to chase things we shouldn't. We don't like to believe in limitations. We like to think that we can handle anything and everything life throws at us, and that was true before the fall because we had it made. We weren't alone, separated from each other and God. Everything was unified, unbroken, complete. God rested from His work because it was done. He didn't need to do anything else in the slightest. It was over. Then, when we were told to avert death by not eating the "forbidden fruit," that was when sin crept in through Satan in the serpent -- wow, that's some alliteration for ya. In the same way, temptations creep into our thoughts daily. We imagine passing boundaries that aren't ours to cross. So it isn't really the law itself that is evil, but it is our own nature of pushing the envelope that brings us to places of hurt and loss.

That is the whole purpose of death to sin. If we choose to die to it, we then cannot die from it. It's not like we have no choice. That was the whole purpose of Jesus' death and resurrection, and also what makes the aforementioned imagery of baptism (buried with Christ, raised to new life) so vivid. Because of that, we now have a choice. We are no longer slaves! We have been liberated! The door is open wide to run through, but He's not going to drag us through it. Light always shines from a distance. It has to radiate in order to get to where it's going. Light can lead, but it is not in it's nature to forcefully pull things to itself (which is why this isn't a perfect analogy, because God DOES pull us to Him, but not in a forced way).

So the point of forgiveness (grace) isn't really to ignore the past or that the nature of sin itself is to tear things apart or to place blame on the law, which is what I inferred from how Paul spoke to the Romans. The point is not to ignore it, but to kill it when we die to ourselves and are resurrected by the power of Jesus' resurrection -- it's a chance to leave the past behind and start fresh, and that chance is always there for all of us.

The parasite we call sin can only feed on the living flesh, but the resurrection we receive here on earth, unlike the one to come, is one in the Spirit. That's where the war begins. I'll talk about in PART 3.

In the mean time, watch this video by Meredith Andrews!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-KX3WIMq0Y

Forgiveness -- Part 1 by Michael Nichols

Four posts ago, I said some stuff about the power of Christ's forgiveness, promising to go somewhere with that, so given that I'd prefer to be a man who follows through when he speaks, let's begin. :) I'm sure I've touched on the topic before, but I've never really delved into it much. Well, I guess it reflects upon how much I think about it on the day-to-day. It's not like I can really ever forget forgiveness. My biggest issue is probably the active clinging to it.

If you ever have the chance or interest, read Romans 6. Matter of fact, read the entire letter. It's basically all about the concept of forgiveness and how it ties in through the ages. Paul goes as far back as showing how forgiveness was promised both to Israel and to the Gentiles. He also breaks down the interaction between sin, the law, and grace (which we can call "forgiveness" for the purposes of this post).

Synopsis:

  • CHAPTER 1: the fall of man to his own lusts
  • CHAPTER 2: believers who judge each other for their failures, and the introduction of law
  • CHAPTER 3: the introduction of righteousness through faith
  • CHAPTER 4: the example of Abraham's righteousness through faith
  • CHAPTER 5: peace, and new life through Christ opposing death through Adam
  • CHAPTER 6: the beginning of the grace-versus-sin conflict

I'll stop there because that's where the problems start to come, where Paul begins challenging the Romans through their way of thinking. He begins to give a clear description of how exactly it is that grace works, what that means for sin, and goes on about it for several chapters.

Before I end this post, though, let me set the stage for the next one. So far, Paul has reiterated to the Romans what they already knew about the fall of man to sin, using that to call out some people that the Romans were dealing with at the time, people who were being judgmental about the same sins they themselves were committing (probably not the whole of the community, but anyway). It's from there that he shows them what to do about it. He goes through the way that the law was introduced with the intent of it being for the heart, but explains how we tend to think of it as something we hide behind, using it as a shell to hide our evil nature behind, and that this nature is universal. We have all been corrupted by selfish ambitions. Through faith, though, we are drawn back to Him. It's nothing to gloat about because it doesn't automatically make us righteous, but it counts for something in God's eyes. Faith is the thing that keeps us hanging onto Him. Paul explains how Abraham was given a chance demonstrate it by offering his son, the one God promised. His faith that God would not make him give up his son, and his faithfulness to come to the brink of the offering, prepared to do whatever God asked, was counted as righteousness, and God sent an angel to stop the sacrifice before it was completed -- I'm sure Abraham was grateful. It's by this same sort of faith that the power of sin and death is broken in us, as though Jesus' death on the cross and resurrection rippled forward through time to break them.

Sounds great, right?

Simple enough, right?

Right.

But it can be hard to wrap one's head around it -- I really mean it can be hard for me to wrap my head around it, especially given the fact that I am human, just like every other human, and I sin and have my issues just as every other human. Sometimes, we can fall short in our understanding, and sometimes, we can try to take advantage of grace in a bad way, not that this is possible, but that isn't really the point. There are so many facets to grace that we often fall short of understanding, accepting, and giving, I think that's what Paul might have been getting at when he spoke with the Romans, and maybe that's what God is trying to impress on me all these centuries later.

But that was just the first less-than-half of the letter. There's so much more to it. I'm getting to it, but I'm gonna break this up into several blog posts, so if you're interested, stay tuned. I think it's pretty cool, and worth the read -- Romans, I mean. :P