After the Final Amen

Of all the petitions that Jesus taught His disciples to pray, the only one He clarified after the final amen, so to speak, was the request for forgiveness. There’s certainly more that Jesus could have said about the coming of His kingdom; that could have been really helpful for our eschatology. He could have said more about what things are like in heaven and how that would translate here on earth. Instead He followed up on forgiveness.

Not only is forgiveness comparative, the Father forgives as we forgive others, forgiveness is conditional. “For 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). The key word in verse 12 is as, the key word in the clarification is if.

We believe that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. We believe that salvation is through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone. Salvation is not by obedience, including our obedience to forgive others. In fact, if we were actually justified by our forgiving then none of us could be forgiven. The psalmist asked, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” So also, If God should mark our resentment toward those who’ve sinned against us, who could stand?

There must be some way to understand this qualification without seeing it as a way of “practicing our righteousness before other people”; who has ever said, “No wonder God likes me so much, I always forgive”? Yet the condition in verses 14-15 is as easy to shake off as DNA, meaning, we can’t. There is a spiritual reality in place. Sons of the Father act like the Father. If we are not forgiving, what makes us think that we are sons of the Father of forgiveness? If we are not forgiving, what makes us think that He accepts hypocrites?

So, if you don’t or won’t or just can’t forgive, then why do you think you should be forgiven? If that’s the case then you don’t want forgiveness, you want acknowledgement from God that you don’t need it. But that is just what you can’t have.

The “Oh, no!” Conjunction

In the middle of the next petition in the Lord’s Prayer is a small word labeled by some Greek grammarians as the “Oh no!” conjunction. Actually the lexicons and syntax books call it a comparative conjunction, and this comparison cuts the conscience. Other names for this conjunction could be the “Conviction” conjunction, the “Are you serious?” conjunction, or the “Hypocrite’s Log-puller” conjunction.

The prayer Jesus teaches His disciples includes: “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). There are three key words: debts, forgive, and as.

Debt here is more than a financial obligation, it is a relational obligation caused by a wrong. These are debts caused by sin. We do not owe our heavenly Father any money. We owe Him thanks and obedience, but we failed to make all our payments. So we ask the Father to forgive us, to cancel the debt. We’re asking Him daily, just as we do for our bread, to remit the balance.

Even though Jesus hadn’t died yet at this point in His ministry, there is no hint that forgiveness from the Father was in question. Yet the Father is still watching for something.

“Forgive us … as we forgive.” Is it better to be forgiven as we forgive others or is it harder to forgive others as Jesus forgives us (see Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13)? Both seem impossible, the latter because Jesus forgives perfectly and the former because we keep records of wrongs against us perfectly.

The Father forgives us as we forgive:

  • our fussy spouses
  • our unthankful children
  • our overbearing parents
  • our annoying siblings
  • our passive aggressive neighbors

Did the disciples have any follow up on this? Perhaps they did, or Jesus anticipated that they would, since this is the only part of the prayer Jesus returns to when the prayer itself is finished (see verses 14-15). I’ll come back to those addenda next week, but the “Oh No” conjunction should be enough of a mirror to humble us in confession before the Father.

He Has Us Covered

Even if you’ve heard it before, sometimes it’s good to cover the same ground again. When Jesus died on the cross He covered our sins.

Cover is an interesting concept. To cover the bill is not to put your salad plate on top of it, but to pay the full amount. To cover a mistake, at least in a good way and not a cover-up, is to do what it takes to fix the problem.

Cover is a way to speak about atonement as well. David sang so.

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered. (Psalm 32:1)

The Lord covers our guilt, restores us to fellowship with Him, and overcomes many of the consequences of our sin. When Adam and Eve knew that they were naked, the LORD covered them better than they covered themselves. When we knew that we were naked in our filth, the Lord covered us with the righteousness of His own Son.

Even more than that,

For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 5:4–5)

He will cover our mortality with eternal life. The clothing is the life of Jesus Christ. It is mercy to us even as the bread and the cup reminds us of the judgment. So the Lord’s Supper is a sober celebration that He has us covered.

Comparing Kills

Comparing kills. One sure way to kill joy and stir up envy, jealousy, and bitterness is to compare yourself with another, your lot with your neighbors’. God did not make us equal in all ways, nor does He give gifts to His people to the same degree. When we look over the fence, compare piles, and complain that ours is smaller or stinkier, our first mistake is the pride that expects more.

There is, however, another kind of comparing that kills our pride. God commands us to look at this and respond in humility. In Colossians 3:13 Paul writes about how the chosen ones, the holy and beloved of God, should treat one another. We are to put on compassion, kindness, and other Christlike clothes. Then we are to be “bearing with one another, and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.” The sentence isn’t finished yet, but this command goes far enough. It goes so far, actually, that there must be qualifications coming.

We could call the next phrase a qualification, but the qualification removes limits more than it confines. The apostle makes an inspired comparison: “forgiving each other as (“just as” NAS) the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” “As” (καθὼς) is the killer comparative conjunction. Jesus provides more than an example of forgiveness, He sets the standard. If He forgives, we must forgive.

Jesus told a parable in Matthew 18 to the same effect. Peter asked a numerical question and Jesus gave a qualitative answer. Peter asked how many times he needed to forgive and Jesus described a man who started to choke a man who owed him 100 denarii (about three months worth of pay) when he had just been forgiven 10,000 talents (about 200,000 years worth of pay). Mercy should be shown just as mercy was received.

This is one reason why our corporate confession of sin is so important to our corporate life. If we are not struck by the contrast between His holiness and our sinfulness, then we will not be ready to treat one another with mercy and forgiveness by comparison. Such behavior should kill the weeds of pride, self-righteousness, and unrealistic expectations and grow the peaceful fruit of unity in the soil of humility.

Glad to Forgive and Fellowship

In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the younger son despised his father by asking for his inheritance early, then he dishonored his father by squandering the family money and the family name. After the cash ran out and he was eating the pig slop, Jesus said “he came to himself” (verse 17), headed home, and hoped that he could work for his dad as a hired servant.

We affirm his repentance. We endorse the son’s remorse. We approve the son’s confession when he said, “I have sinned against heaven and before you” (verses 18 and 21). The son knew that, even if his father showed mercy, he was no longer worthy to be treated as a son but only as a servant. We relate to this true view of sin.

We don’t relate to this true view of the Father. The greater “scandal” was the father’s grace, his compassionate reception and celebration over the son’s return. Was the son’s sin huge and horrific? Was his confession absolutely necessary? Of course. But the father didn’t want to be proven right as much as he wanted the relationship restored. He ran and embraced and kissed his son. He called for the best robe, a ring, and shoes. He threw a party, a feast for renewed fellowship.

The Pharisees and scribes (verse 2) listening to the parable related to a holy God. They hated that God was glad to forgive and fellowship with sinners.

How do you view the heavenly Father’s response to your confession? Do you see Him disappointed that you blew it again, reluctantly letting you return as a hired servant? Or does He run to receive you? Only one of those reactions is good news. The Father declares that we were lost and now we’re found, because He loves His children. He’s glad to have us back.

A Call to Gospel Ministry – Now

When I began pursuing a call to gospel ministry, and even as I started studying gospel theology and pastoral responsibility, I did not realize how much more was required than faithful proclamation of the gospel message on Sundays and at funerals. There are a thousand and one ways to get exegesis and theology wrong. The temptations for a preacher to compromise or remain silent are legion. But proclaiming the gospel with accuracy, boldness, and constancy is not as difficult as also ministering the gospel through dying, forgiving, and hoping.

Around and since my ordination, I’ve developed a few convictions about personal pastoral practice. A call to gospel ministry requires (at least) sacrificial service and suffering, reconciling and peace-making travail, and consuming, happy confidence in God’s promises.

Dying

A preacher’s work extends beyond the sacred desk (the pulpit) and beyond his study desk (in private). A preacher works with people, not merely at people or for people, and they often cause him pain. The preacher is called to model the gospel in a life of death.

Maybe some day I’ll write out posts for a few messages I taught from 2 Corinthians 4, but in summary, the privilege of gospel ministry includes slaving for others. Service is gospel work. Jesus didn’t come to be served but to serve. Those who would lead like Jesus must be servants. So Paul said, “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”

The privilege of gospel ministry also involves suffering. That, too, is gospel work. Jesus gave His life for us. Those who would lead like Jesus must also die. Paul said not only that he was brought to the breaking point over and over, but also that death was at work in him (which means that ministry is a dying life). He wrote:

[we are] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

In Colossians 1:24 he wrote that “in [his] flesh” he was “filling up what [was] lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” Like Paul, a pastor’s death isn’t redemptive, but it is illustrative of Christ and the gospel. We proclaim a message of death and resurrection from a platform of dying.

Forgiving

A preacher doing the work of an evangelist preaches forgiveness. First and foremost he implores men, “be reconciled to God.” The gospel, Jesus’ substitutionary punishment taking, enables God to be righteous and forgive our unrighteousness. Vertical forgiveness restores relationship between God and repentant rebels. That is the powerful work of the gospel.

Horizontal forgiveness is secondary but it is not less relevant. In fact, because restored relationships between men and other men are only possible due to Christ’s work on the cross, we devalue the gospel to the degree that we don’t insist and work for sinners to be reconciled to each other. Pastors are called to preach, counsel, and mediate reconciliation. They must also model forgiveness.

We prove nothing about the value or power of the gospel if we only love those who follow our lead, who compliment our sermons, and who rewrite their mental theology as soon as we speak. We’re not in the wrong place if there are others who hurt us. We’re in a better place to show how fantastic forgiveness looks.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, all Christians are called to put on tender hearts like Christ, forgiving each other as Christ forgave us. Those called to gospel ministry work to equip others to practice forgiveness for the sake of Body unity. Practicing personal forgiveness builds the platform for preaching. Shepherds should be out on the Forgiveness Front as examples to the flock.

Hoping

Preachers preach the “best” good news; none have a more hopeful message than those in the gospel ministry. And yet, it’s a short downhill slide into discouragement and pessimism. We see dead men everywhere. Many of the spiritually living men we’re around struggle with doubt and disobedience. We counsel broken people in broken relationships. We work against the flow in a fallen world and our efforts often appear futile. Plus, last week’s offering was low, again.

Thing is, the gospel doesn’t require good circumstances for its effect. In fact, the gospel presupposes problems, problems that are above every preacher’s pay grade. It is good news precisely because things are bad. The gospel makes alive! The gospel grows! The gospel sanctifies! The gospel heals! Because of the gospel promises, no ministry death is wasted. Fruit will be yielded in due season and our resurrection cannot be concealed. We can serve, suffer, die, and forgive with indulgence.

Yes, we’ll be burdened when we see sin in ourselves and in our flocks. Suffering is called suffering for a reason. But we have been born again to a living hope! Of all the things people observe of gospel ministers, humble and explosive hope should be obvious. It’s an area in which I’m working to make progress.

Throwing around the word “gospel” is ironically faddish. It has emerged as a cover for all kinds of “evangelical” activity. But we shouldn’t let those who don’t appreciate the call define the call. I’ll admit that my understanding was not then what it is now. The call to gospel ministry is much bigger and more comprehensive and costly and applicable than I realized. I anticipate it only intensifies from here, and I’m looking forward to it.