Broadway Christian Church · Columbia, Missouri
The Worship of God · July 1, 2012
Based on Psalm 30
You drew us up like people who had stumbled into a pit.
You set us free, saved, and healed us.
Weeping may linger with the night, but joy comes with the morning.
You turned our mourning into dancing!
Let us pray:
As you have clothed us with joy, now we give thanks to you forever! Amen.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
World without end. Amen. Amen.
Dear Giving and Gracious God; we come to this place of sanctuary as imperfect beings, vulnerable to sin and susceptible to corruption, and yet you wash us clean. We come with half-filled hearts and questioning souls, and yet you leave us whole.
Lord, we think you for your grace, for without it, we would be empty and undeserving. Thank you for loving us, even in times when we don’t love you back. Thank you for understanding, for patience, for strength, for guidance, and the will to carry on.
We ask that you work through us, work with us, work around us, and work within us. For we recognize that without you, there is no us. Thank you, Creator, for being the song in our hearts, the light in our dark, and the way.
Be with us in your Spirit, as we pray the prayer that your Son, Jesus, taught us…
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
If God Is Forgiving, Why Should I Be Good?
As we continue with our summer sermon series, we have received the question, which for me, is at the very center of the Christian life. It came in exactly as you see it printed as the title of this week’s sermon. “If God is forgiving, why should I be good?”
First, I would like to say thank you to the person who wrote this question, because this question makes a wonderful assumption that I want to point out. It assumes that God is forgiving! Before we go any further, I want you all to see the wonder that is when we make that assumption. I do believe that God does forgive. For everything else I have to say this morning hinges on this point. If you want the full exploration of that question, “Is God forgiving?” I would point you to Miroslav Volf’s seminal work Free of Charge. I wish we had time for me to explore all the points in that assumption, but today we are going to be operating with the assumption that God is forgiving.
So if we take that into account, let us turn our focus to the second part. “Why should I be good?” So it occurred to me that so often we preachers, tend to jump right into these questions and make them really heady and complex (and don’t worry that part comes later). But first, I wanted to see what Broadway’s answer might be to this question. So I did what I thought would show us the most about ourselves. I asked our children. I met with four kids from Broadway and asked them to give me the answer to this question, “Why should I be good?”
Why don’t we take a moment to listen?
Jazzmyn’s answer was, “Because I want my Mommy and Daddy to be happy.”
Emma answered that she wants to be good because, “She wants to play with her toys.”
Adam offered, “Because I like doing it [being good], and I want to get better at it.” And I like to treat other people nice, because then they treat me nice.”
And Kendall came right out and said what I expect is the most common answer, “I like to get rewards…like when I got ice cream after dinner for eating really good.”
First, I want to say thank you to Jazzmyn, Emma, Adam, and Kendall! Didn’t they do really well? And thank you to their families for helping them take part.
I think they just about cover the gambit of ideas. Most of us behave well so that others will like us, that our parents/authority figures (even God) will like us. Or we’re good because we want the rewards that come with good behavior. And on a deeper level, we do it, because we recognize that it feels right, that in doing the right thing, good things become a part of our lives. That when we treat other people nicely, then tend to treat us nicely, too. And sometimes we just do it so that at the end of the day we can enjoy a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream!
These four statements are really pointing out a fundamental part of our question this morning. Each of these smart children offered us something unique and special. Yet all of them hinged around goodness being about fairness and justice. If I’m good, Mommy and Daddy will be happy. If I’m well behaved, then I get to play with my toys. If I treat others nicely, they will treat me nicely. If I finish my plate, I get dessert!
To examine these answers closely, I want to unpack a few parts of them and the question. At face value, these responses set up a moral argument about justice. They all more or less ask about the relationship between God and justice. If we were to ask a few more seasoned members of our congregation, I imagine I would get answers that are more skeptical. I imagine I would get questions about, “If God forgives, does that mean God forgives by suspending the demands of justice?” or as it might be said in seven-year-old language, “You mean I can be bad and still get rewards?”
This creates an inherent tension in us and in our theology about what it means to be on the two sides of this discussion. The discussion might go something like this.
On one hand, God is above the law. God has set up the laws and can suspend it whenever God chooses. Justice is the law. God can suspend justice – or, more precisely, suspend the part where God does pronounce the doer as guilty and punishment is applied. But that might effectively gut God’s ability to deal with evil. Basically, to put it in the language we have used today, “Who cares if you are good; here’s some ice cream.” It really takes away from the forgiveness of what God is doing.
The other hand, God is subject to the law. While true that God did establish moral law for creation, moral law is not above God. If it were, God would have to submit to the law, and the law would regulate God’s behavior. The law would then be God’s God, and God would be the law’s servant. But that would rob God of God’s divinity. Basically, “You didn’t do it right. No ice cream ever!”
This leaves us with the concept that maybe there is tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy, or, at least, we perceive it that way. But rather, I want to offer a third way of examining this. And that is that neither is God above moral law, nor below it. Rather, moral law is an expression of God’s very being. And when we look at justice, we see that God is just and, therefore, acts justly. God can’t suspend justice anymore than God can cease being God.
So in forgiving, God doesn’t suspend justice. God does something more than strictly pretending like our guilt doesn’t exist. God does not turn a blind eye to the horrific things that happen in life. No, God condemns evil as evil. God proclaims sin as sin, and then goes about separating us from our sin. This is what we heard from the psalmist in our text.
If God only spared sinners of a just penalty for sin, that wouldn’t change the truth of the sinners’ guilt. Granted it might spare the sinner from the consequences of sin. No ill might befall them, but they would still be an offender. What kind of a God would we have if God were unable to put an end to all transgressions?
Scripture shows us that God doesn’t just say, “I forgive you.” Because fundamentally, forgiveness is not about saying something, not even about speaking it into effect. It’s about doing something. That is the God we have. When God forgave, he transformed the relationship between the divine and us forever. Scripture tells us that while we were still enemies, we were reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord (Romans 5:10). Scripture proclaims that forgiveness ultimately takes place through Christ’s death. That might lead you to the question that most people have been asking for centuries: “How does that exactly work?”
God doesn’t just say that God separates us and just say that you are forgiven. God actually does it through separating our sin from us, in Christ. Christ, who is God, reconciles us to God. It is Christ who died for our sins, that is not only one with God, but also one with humanity. This is where all the things hinge. It is because Christ’s unity with humanity is the very aspect that allows God to separate the sinner and the sin.
Let’s take a closer look at the union with Christ. As an agent of God’s forgivingness, Christ is not just one of many human beings, but is one that allows God to do something very different. But to do that, we have to assert something that Jesus is not. Jesus is not a third party, is not a human third party, who stands between an angry God, who was wronged, and a humanity who did the wronging. And that does not paint a pretty picture.
Let me explain it in a way that might make sense. Let’s say Lia, my almost one-year-old daughter, and I come over to your house. While we are sitting around, I place her on the floor, and she crawls over and pulls herself up on your coffee table, knocking over a valuable antique vase. She breaks it. It shatters across the floor. Now, I can pay for it and compensate for the loss. But I can do very little about the offense.
I can apologize, of course. And if I did, I’d be doing two things. First, I’d do something on my own behalf. I’d signal that I might have contributed to the incident, maybe by not being more careful where I set her down or by not watching her as well as I should have been. I know that part of her breaking a vase is really my responsibility. Second, in apologizing, I’d do something for Lia, too. I would be apologizing on her behalf. Since she is too young to admit any wrongdoing and show remorse for it, I’d have to do that for her.
Now imagine, what happens if we take that kind of picture into the future. What happens to my relationship to the offense and to the people she has offended if she were in her twenties, and if that offense were a violent crime? I could still apologize. I could recognize my share of the responsibility for the incident, though it might be smaller now that she was more than a baby.
But my apology could not fulfill the second function. I could no longer admit the wrongdoing for her, and I couldn’t bear its consequences in her place. It is now hers alone to bear, she must be the one to make the apology, and she must deal with the consequences for the wrongdoing. I, as her parent and as much as I might want to, cannot assume moral liability. Even if I were able to, when I could just pay for the vase, I can’t actually transfer that moral liability.
Now let’s apply that same logic to Christ’s death. It does not make sense to view Christ as a third-party substitute in the way that I, as a parent, tried to substitute me for Lia. In Christ’s death, the Apostle Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “One has died for all, therefore all have died.” He didn’t say, “One has died, therefore, no one should die.”
He wrote that we can’t have Jesus as just a straight substitute. He doesn’t do that. But what Paul says is that Christ’s death doesn’t just replace our death. In fact, it enacts it. Because of Christ’s humanity and because of Christ’s divinity, Christ becomes the one who dies where all have died. Not as a third party, not as a strict substitute, but as a part of the death of Christ, God and humanity – both the wronged and the wronger – are united. They are reconciled.
So back to our question of, “How does God separate us from our sin?” The answer is simple and yet profound: The sinner has actually died with Christ. Death separates the doer from the deed. But if we were to stop the story here, it wouldn’t really be good news. You might be a free person from our sin, but you would also be a dead person.
But we know the story continues, that Easter follows Good Friday, and the Christ who died is the Christ who rose again. And the one who died as a sinner with Christ is then raised with Christ to the resurrection. We live this action each time a baptized person emerges from the waters, a new self, raised with Christ, leaving behind all their sins.
So, when God says that God forgives, when God enacts forgiveness, God does not pull some magical lever to forgive humanity of its sins. We don’t have a God who just looks the other way. We have a God who unites with us, removing our transgressions from us as far as the East is from the West. Our transgressions, which seem permanently stuck to us, God gently removes without harming us and takes us to a place that neither we nor anybody else could ever reach.
God puts our wrongdoing aside, as Isaiah says, “It places the sin behind God’s back. God looks at us, the wrongdoers, and doesn’t see our wrongdoing because one can’t see what’s behind one’s back.” Or as it says elsewhere in Isaiah, “God sweeps away our sins like mist. At the dawn of a new day, the landscape of our soul is enveloped in the cold, thick, wet mist of our nightly failings. But then the sun of God’s forgiveness comes up, burns off the mist, and all we see is the spectacular beauty of day, the brightness of the shining sun dancing across the water, touching us as sun’s countless rays.
God, in Jesus Christ, removes our transgressions from us, and places them as far away as the East is from the West.
But it doesn’t just end there. Forgiveness doesn’t only work from God’s side alone. God separates us from our transgressions, but we must also recognize that we are set free. Forgiveness doesn’t just create a change in one party, but leaves both parties changed.
Yesterday, I went to see the new Pixar movie Brave, and I don’t want to give away all the details, but when you go see it, and you’re watching the closing sequence, you see a mother and daughter embraced seeking mutual forgiveness. Notice that the moment finally comes when both parties have been changed. (OK. I’ve said too much. Just go see it. It’s even better than my sermon on forgiveness.)
So to close today, I want to close with a quote from Tyler Knott, that some of you may have seen floating around Facebook. It’s simply this, “Oh what we could be, if we stopped carrying the remains of who we were.”
So if God is forgiving, why should we be good? Because God has already separated your sins from you, and placed them as far away from you as the East is from the West. That sounds like a very good reason to me.
Will you pray with me?
Gracious God, forgiving God, loving God, who steps into humanity, that does the unthinkable, the unmanageable, that holds up your divine justice and also offers us forgiveness, which we don’t deserve. Help us to embrace the psalmist’s message, this morning and this week. Help it transform our lives. Help us act as if our sins are removed from us and placed as far away as the East is from the West. For you are an amazing God, who can do unthinkable things, in unimaginable and unexpected ways. All this we offer through the name of the One who showed us that way forward, Jesus Christ, our Lord. And all God’s people say… Amen.
So, go forth, this week, into the world knowing that you are forgiven, that your sins have been separated from you as far as the East is from the West. That’s a pretty long way away. Go forth with the grace of God, the love of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.