Monday, June 22, 2015

Charleston Church Members Display Gospel in Exemplary Act of Forgiveness

The tragedy in Charleston last week, where Dylann Roof opened fire upon the unsuspecting congregation of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, has captured the attention of the media, the church, and Americans in general. Initially, many voices quietly suspected public outrage would ensue, leading to protests and riots because of Roof’s racist motivation behind the attack.

To the astonishment of nearly all, the families showed up at Roof's hearing to make statements of personal forgiveness that would boggle the minds of their hearers and send liberal media pundits into a tailspin, as they witnessed firsthand acts of salt and light. Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition points out two notable responses:
Abe Greenwald, senior editor of Commentarywrites:
The late Christopher Hitchens formulated (and forever repeated) a superficially clever challenge to people of faith: “Find one good or noble thing,” he said, “which cannot be accomplished without religion.” The astonishing rejoinder to Hitchens comes now from the family members of those who were gunned down Wednesday night in Charleston, South Carolina.

Charles C. W. Cooke, an atheist who writes for National Review, tweeted:
I am a non-Christian, and I must say: This is a remarkable advertisement for Christianity.

The watching world is in awe at this response, seeing the families' and church's good deeds and giving glory to God, even if in a somewhat limited way 

Most of my Christian friends are also quick to stand with their godly brothers and sisters in their act of personal forgiveness to the shooter and their use of the opportunity to call the young man to confession, repentance, and faith in Christ. However, a small band of bloggers and pundits have taken issue with their brothers and sisters in this matter, questioning the nature of the forgiveness offered by the families to Dylann Roof. 

What kind of forgiveness?

It would seem that some of these Christians may be having difficulty discerning between different types of forgiveness:

1) personal forgiveness from one individual to another for wrongs done or debts owed,
2) corporate forgiveness within the body of Christ, administered by the officers of the church,
3) civil / judicial forgiveness of wrong doings and debt to society, and
4) ultimate forgiveness of sin/divine judgment, which is through the Lord.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book "Studies on the Sermon on the Mount" states that distinguishing between these different types of forgiveness is crucial to understanding the Christian character and application of the Sermon on the Mount to our own lives. 

While we are commanded individually to forgive others for their offenses against us personally, just as we've been forgiven, we need to remember that personal forgiveness does not automatically equal reconciliation. Reconciliation involves both parties. Reconciliation requires some form of repentance from wrong-doers, which might vary from case to case.

When it comes to the church or the civil government, clearly these entities play a very different role, thus forgiveness on the corporate level and the societal level will look different from what we are called to as individual Christians.  In the case of Dylann Roof, there is not a contradiction between the forgiveness offered by those families on a personal level and the legitimacy of a judge sentencing him to death for the acts that he committed. Personal forgiveness does not erase guilt or consequences. If Dylann Roof were a member of a Christian church and remained unrepentant for his crimes, for his sins, the church has every right to excommunicate him. And of course, just as the families stated, the Lord will hold Dylann Roof accountable for his sins eternally if he does not ultimately confess and repent by giving his life to Christ.

All of these other facts about the church, the government, and God's law toward unbelievers does not negate the fact that we must forgive others. We must not harbor unforgiveness, even toward our enemies. Not only that, but remember that if our brother or sister has an issue WITH US, WE are called to refrain from the Lord's Table. Surely we must not harbor unforgiveness in ourselves.

The Charleston church's victim's families are correct to personally forgive the shooter. In so doing they are truly being salt and light by demonstrating the free offer of grace that they also received when they were lost.

"Forgiving as We Have Been Forgiven"
A few of my friends have quoted Dr. David Murray's blog post in which he insists that we should not forgive those who have not repented. He begins by stating that "God does not forgive those who do not want forgiveness", but by stating this he seems to misunderstand the nature of God's forgiveness and potentially betray an Arminian view of salvation.

From my perspective, it would seem that the idea of God's forgiveness being contingent upon our repentance is an Arminian formulation. For example, the reformed ordo salutis places regeneration before faith and repentance. Additionally, we have the teaching of Paul on God's forgiveness toward us, in many places, such as Romans 5:10 
"While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son" and in Ephesians 2: 
"1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (emphasis mine).
Within a reformed soteriological framework, one might put it this way:
  • Total Depravity--No one wants forgiveness
  • Unconditional Election--God chooses us, regardless of our lack of desire for forgiveness, and our election is unconditional
  • Limited Atonement--God's free offer of forgiveness is accomplished and applied to His elect
  • Irresistible Grace--When God forgives our sins, we are forgiven. Period. Past, present, future. 
  • Perseverance of the Saints--Our salvation does not depend on us seeking forgiveness for every sin.

Strictly from a Biblical and reformed point of view, it is apparent that God's promise of forgiveness is the CAUSE of repentance and that forgiveness is not conditional on our action. 

If our repentance was the only instrument by which people received forgiveness, then we would all stand before the Lord at judgment for unforgiven sins that we do even know we commit. Nor could infants ever be saved because they are unable to understand repentance. It is entirely a work of God. 

Clearly, when we are commanded to forgive others as we have been forgiven, we are not be called to put ourselves in the Judges' seat, making ourselves equivalent to our holy, righteous, perfect Lord. We are being called to extend the type of grace - unmerited favor - that we were offered through Christ. The scriptures state that it is the loving kindness of the Lord that leads to repentance, and so it was with each and every one of us.

If, as some may claim, we are supposed to forgive in exactly the same way that Jesus (the holy, perfect, righteous one) forgave us, then we would be required to die on a cross. And sometimes forgiveness feels like a death. Certainly, for the victims of the Charleston shooting, their act of forgiveness toward the offenses they've suffered requires a type of death to their notions of self that transcends human nature. But ultimately, only Jesus could die to pay for our sin. Only God can forgive the offense of sin, because sin ultimately is against Him alone - not us.

We must not skip over Jesus's words, such as in Matthew 6:15, when He states: "But if you do not forgive others their debts, your Father will not forgive your debts." and again in Matthew 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." 

We must not ignore the teaching of Paul when he writes, 
·         "Don't let the sun go down on your wrath" [Ephesians 4:26] 
·         Paul told the believers in Corinth to forgive so they would not give Satan an advantage. When we don’t forgive, we give Satan a foothold in our lives and in the Body of Christ.
In Romans 12, we are called to leave room for the wrath of God (see more below).

·      Jesus commands us in Matthew 18 to forgive seven times seventy times, then goes on to describe someone who refused to forgive. It says he was delivered “to the tormentors” (v. 34). When we refuse to forgive, we may start to experience spiritual, emotional, and even physical consequences of holding bitterness in our hearts.

I wonder how many ways we are being disobedient to the Lord when we try to justify ourselves in unforgiveness? We as reformed Christians should be the last to resist the Lord's commands to forgive others. It is ultimately to our own detriment and does nothing good for the other person to personally begrudge them their offense. In fact, the scripture says it is the Lord's loving kindness led us to repentance. We are called to forgive the offense that was done to us personally - their debts/their trespasses against us, plain and simple. In this way, the church in Charleston serves as an example to all of us as to one such way we can embody Christian character to a lost and dying world. To be salt and light in a dark and deteriorating world.

Practically speaking

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, we cannot dismiss the consequences of their sin (which is up to the church and the government) or ultimately forgive their sin (which is falls to God alone), but we can point them to our Savior who has granted us the grace that we freely offer them. I have seen the Lord use Christian obedience in such acts of forgiveness in countless ways in my life and those of others.

One of the ways I've ministered to those outside the church is in the area of mentoring and discipling women recovering from a background drug and alcoholic problems. Many of them have come from the streets and incredibly dark and desperate places. They often end up getting help from 12-step programs before they can even contemplate attending or a joining a church. There has been countless speculation as to why 12-step communities seem to help more folks in the early phases of their recovery. In my work with these women, I've come to believe that it is the emphasis that is placed on forgiveness of perceived wrongs, letting go of resentments, placing full trust in God’s sovereignty in all situations, and seeking reconciliation with others whenever possible.

As I've worked with many of these women (and some men), I've found that once the drink or drug is left alone, they are plagued by resentments: well-nurse grudges against perceived wrongs (many of which are actually quite grievous and many of which are decades old with wounds as fresh as if they happened yesterday). All too frequently, the man or woman who struggles relentlessly to quit their life-threatening habit altogether finds the pain of their tangled, muddled past relationships far worse to cope with than their blackouts and hangovers. Most 12-step programs tend to help people by focusing them on overcoming their own underlying fear, insecurity, and pride -- root sins that continue to keep them in bondage to these past harms. One of the cliches is that the word “resentment” comes from words “re" and "sentiment” which means to re-feel the pain, over and over and over. By not knowing how to forgive others, people create an internal nightmare for themselves.

As a Christian, I’m able to help these women more than others because I understand that forgiveness is difficult and that we don’t just pretend that the wrong doesn’t’ exist or pretend that it doesn't hurt. As a Christian, I first understand that sin exists and ultimately must be dealt with by God. I can trust that the wrath of God WILL be executed either on someone who will never come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior through eternal damnation, or that it has been executed on Christ Himself on the cross and applied to the person, if they are saved. In either case, I know that the wrath of God will suffice to repay the person for their sin.

Update: Saying all of this is not meant in anyway to oversimplify the process that people go through to forgive others from the heart. Sometimes the process can take significant time and should provide space and time for mourning and grief. The process is not a blanket statement or like waving a magic wand. In additional to proper mourning and grief it typically requires a significant work of mortification of self-seeking, fear of man, worldly attachments, insecurity, and pride - just to name a few. Don't let anyone tell you that forgiveness is an easy thing! The kind of forgiveness that we witnessed in Charleston is only possible by the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit in a blood-bought believer. The watching world is amazed by the visible display of the Gospel being lived out so boldly by Christians who know what they believe and why they believe it. May this be true of all us!

In the meantime, as we travel through this world, we can chose to forgive personal offenses, regardless of the other person’s eternal state and regardless of the person’s consequences. Consequences may dictate incarceration or the death penalty for another citizen, such as Dylann Roof, based on the offense. Consequences might also mean excommunication for a church member, such as an abusive spouse, if they are unrepentant. Forgiving people their personal offenses against us doesn't proclaim reconciliation or cheap grace, as some fear.  Therefore, let us be clear that these are just a few of the distinctions we need to consider when thinking about individual, corporate, societal, and eternal forgiveness. 

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