March 4, 2007
11 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.
13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
You’re driving down your local highway in the dead of winter and you see a patch of ice coming up. You grip the wheel and think back to driver’s ed and what Mr. Whatshisname taught you about curve negotiation and threshold braking. You hit the ice and go into a spin. Okay. Do you hit the brakes or not hit the brakes? Do you turn the wheel in the direction of the skid or in a counter-direction? Too late, if you have to think about it, its over. You smash into the guardrail and cave in the front of your car.
You start to think about excuses. Maybe it wasn’t your driving. Those new expensive tires failed to grip the road as they were supposed to. And why did not the highway crews put down sand on the roads as they are supposed to?
But you know none of that matters because the insurance company is going to hang you out to dry. So, a few weeks later, when you go to your mailbox, you are expecting a letter from your extortion company, I mean insurance company, and when you open said letter you are expecting a hefty increase in premium.
But, to your pleasant surprise, the letter says something like this: “We are sorry you had an accident, but we know that accidents happen, so you will not be penalized. We are keeping your premium the same. Just be more careful next time.”
That would be some good news in a bad situation, and that is exactly what many auto insurance companies are doing these days. It is called “accident forgiveness.” It is the hottest marketing tool in the industry. If you have a new policy or a clean driving record for an extended period before any accident in which you were at fault, then that fender bender probably will not cost you a big hit on your insurance bill. As far as the insurance company is concerned, it never happened. You are forgiven this once.
Accidents do happen out there on the road and sometimes we are at fault. It is certainly a relief to receive forgiveness when we probably don’t deserve it. But think about this: If a big impersonal insurance company can offer grace, imagine what kind of grace the Lord God offers when we have a moral crash? We failed to stay on God’s road, and we smashed everything up. And it was our fault. What kind of forgiveness, if any, can we expect from God?
A classic biblical test case can be found in 2 Samuel 11. When King David saw Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop, he began an adulterous affair that would carry him to the darkest depths of sin. He lied, he cheated, he attempted to cover up, and finally, he engineered the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah. David’s life spiraled out of control. His lust clouded his vision to the point that he swerved out of his lane and head-on into oncoming traffic, crashing and destroying his relationship to God.
Today, some folks want to see sin as merely a series of “mistakes” or “accidents” that reflect our human imperfections. Biblically speaking, however, sin is more often about choice. Sins do not happen by “accident.” God provides the Law as a means of defining boundaries, and we choose whether or not to violate those boundaries at our own risk.
But the results of sin are far more serious than just some sort of legal violation of divine law, like speeding or running a red light. Sin puts us under the wrath of God.
There is an old story about the Greek philosopher Bion. Bion embarked upon a voyage on a ship manned by a very dissolute crew. The sailors were always cursing, they drank up all the wine, they made loud, lewd comments about the female passengers. Then a bad storm blew up. In a panic, the sailors began to pray to the gods for salvation, but Bion advised them to keep quiet. He said, “Considering the way you have been living, you are better off if the gods do not know where you are.”
Bion was right. We do not want to meet God in our sins. But we do not have any choice, we are sinners who cannot come to God in any other way than as sinners. We do not need forgiveness for a sin. We need forgiveness for sins. We need a complete new beginning that will bring us into a loving relationship with God.
First we need to get clear about what forgiveness means. In their book, The Faces of Forgiveness, LeRon Shults and Steven Sandage [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2003, 20-25.] identify at least three different ways that we can define it.
One definition is “forensic” or “legal” forgiveness — the kind that your insurance company wants to give you, or the kind that involves having a debt erased. This kind of forgiveness is a “transaction … in which one party agrees not to exact what the law requires.” This kind of forgiveness is situational and may be limited to one incident. Your insurance company forgives your momentary lapse in driving skill, for example, and will not raise your rates — this time. But if you have another accident, if you back into your neighbor’s car the next month, the insurance company is done forgiving, and your premium will go through the roof. Jesus may have taught forgiving “seventy times seven,” but you will find that is not written into your policy. Legal forgiveness is often, is usually, a one-shot deal.
A second definition of forgiveness connects it with a therapeutic benefit. Forgiveness is healthy. Forgiveness in this sense is a process by which the offended party is motivated for personal reasons to forego any vengeance. Forgiveness in this context does not condone the offense or forget about it.
For example, someone starts an ugly rumor about you. The rumor is not true, and eventually the person realizes what they have done, and they come to you and ask forgiveness. What are you going to do? Well, the harm has been done to your reputation and you certainly resent that, but if you brood about it, and turn it over and over in your mind, and keep yourself away thinking about it, you are actually just making it worse. It is better for your physical and mental health to forgive it, and get it out of your mind. Say, “Its over. I am done with it.”
Therapeutic forgiveness is about releasing claim over the offender and moving on. This kind of forgiveness, like the legal definition, is also limited. It does not necessarily bring about reconciliation and restoration of a broken relationship. That requires a whole different level of forgiveness, the kind that only God can fully offer.
If you have an older Bible, you might have a note on Psalm 51, that David wrote this psalm after his affair with Bathsheba. This comment was added by some unknown editor, and today most biblical scholars do not accept it. Psalm 51:18 pleads with God to “rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.” That seems to imply that the psalm dates from a time after the destruction of Jerusalem and perhaps during the Babylonian Exile, which would be 500 years after David was King in Jerusalem. But even if that is true, even if David did not actually write the words before us, the heartfelt cry of this psalm certainly reflects his heart in those days after his failure. David was not seeking a mere free pass for a mistake that he made, nor was he just wanting God to withhold righteous anger and judgment while he and God went their separate ways. David was seeking nothing less than a restoration of the most important relationship in his life. He was seeking what Shults and Sandage define as “redemptive” forgiveness.
When David was confronted by the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12, David comes to the heartbreaking realization that his sin was “against the LORD” — a realization echoed in Psalm 51:4. That does not minimize the hurt that he had caused to the other people involved in the situation. He used Bathsheba, or he thought he did. He had Uriah murdered. To say that he has sinned against God does not minimize the harm he has done to people, but it does recognize a basic fact: All sin moves us away from God. The psalm, then, is focused on reconciliation with God, counting on God’s “steadfast love” and “mercy” to restore the relationship (51:1).
Your insurance company may forgive your encounter with that patch of ice, but it does not really forget it. The company files the record, and assures you that next time there will be severe penalties. The psalmist wants much more than that. The Psalmist asks God not just to forget this one incident but to wipe the slate clean altogether.
This is the difference between the “good hands” people and the hand of God: The insurance company offers a limited forgiveness based on your driving record. When God forgives, God shreds the records. The psalmist knows that God knows his record, and it’s not good. So he does not want forgiveness for one sin. He pleads, “blot out my transgressions” (v. 1). He repeatedly asks for cleansing. He wants God’s redemptive forgiveness not for one sin, but for his whole life.
And this is the forgiveness that God wants to give. God’s primary concern is to reconcile the relationship. God is no divine claims adjuster who raises the cost of forgiveness with each new sin, but instead God will “Hide his face from our sins” (v. 9). Our sins are dumped in the circular file and deleted from the database.
But, we still have to deal with the consequences of our actions. Let’s take an example. Say a woman commits a murder. She is tried by the legal system, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Suppose before her execution she realizes the enormity of what she has done. She turns to God with true repentance and seeks forgiveness, and she is forgiven by God. But she still must bear the consequences of her sin, which are execution by the state.
That is an extreme case, but it makes the point. Our sins affect our lives. Friendships that we destroyed might not be restored. Harm that we have done might be permanent. We always must live with the consequences of our sin. That is the bad news. The good news is that our relationship with God is not based on our sins or the results of our sins. God wipes the slate clean and restores our relationship in all of its pristine beauty.
We have to recognize, however, that God does not forgive so we can continue to sin. Redemptive forgiveness is about clearing the way for a relationship where the “joy of [God’s] salvation” removes the desire to sin (v. 12). We receive God’s grace not as a license to sin even more, knowing that we will be forgiven again and again. That is not how it works. Grace and forgiveness are about transformation into a new life where we do not want to sin. Redemptive forgiveness enables us to move in a new direction where sin is not in the driver’s seat of our lives.
During Lent is the perfect time to knock out the dings and dents we have received as the result of our reckless living. It’s a time to humbly place God in the driver’s seat and to work on the disciplines that help us grow in our relationship with God. It is a time for confession, for repentance, for asking God to redeem us. It is also the time to offer God’s redemptive forgiveness to others as we “sing aloud of [God’s] deliverance” in our own lives (v. 14).
God’s grace is not a one-shot deal but an offer of lifelong salvation. That is the best news that any of us have ever had. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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