Tag Archives: sin

Giving Attention To…The Most-Forgiven People In The World

I am grateful that my Doctor of Ministry pursuit at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) has me reading some great books … AND I am grateful that some of these books are already familiar to me! One of these familiar books was The PeaceMaker (by Ken Sande, a Reformed elder and Christian attorney). Proving the value of reading good books twice, I came across this phrase last month which I did not recall from my first reading nine years ago. Listen ~ and register an amen (or otherwise): Christians are the most forgiven people in in the world!
If you said and nodded amen, that means you agree ~ and so you regard this as true. Well, is that true?! If you are a Christian (and according to your public professions, most of you are Christians), do you often think of yourself as the most forgiven person? Just as critically, is this how the world thinks about us, that we are and we think we are the most forgiven people in the world … or do they think something else about our self-perception?! Since I am in the mood for great questions (sneaking in three of them already!), I may as well keep on charging ahead. Ask and answer these ones in your personal mental space:
· As part of that most-forgiven club, what is it you are forgiven of/from? There is a hidden, assumed word there, one which we must highlight: sin(s). So the most forgiven people in the world must have been great, low, chief sinners?
· Forgiven … by Whom? Surely not by the self, or by energy or a simple force. Forgiveness must be by a Person; Who?
· Why have you been forgiven? That is, on what basis? Who paid? What price?
· Forgiven … how much? … how often? … how deeply? That is, what does true and full and free forgiveness mean? What does that feel like ~ inside you?!
· Forgiven … for what purpose? Any reason, beyond mere guilt-clearance?
· Are you merely forgiven ~ or are you more-than-forgiven? Is “Forgiven-Sinner” the only label you wear now? Is that your best label? Did Jesus pay for more?
· Consider Bible connections between forgiveness, law, repentance, faith, and grace.
· Is there any Bible relationship between forgiveness and love? How about: God’s love produced your forgiveness which produces your love for God, for His gospel, and for other offenders, even those who have sinned against you? Especially since Jesus Christ put it thus: She who is forgiven much, loves much. And since we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” … is all of this true in your case?
· Does it follow in you (and in most Christians) that the most forgiven people are also the most forgiving people? Would there be evidence for or against this in your own trial?
· And what difference does all of this make concerning assurance of salvation, family and church life, on the job and at school, for your life in the community, in your dealings with this sinful world, and in your Christian witness?

No Broken Windows Here (Holiness to the Core)

I begin with an analogy which, I hope, will make a spiritual point, producing helpful conviction. In the 1970s New York City (NYC) had a deserved reputation for being a center of violent crimes. I recall a book which became a film, The Cross & the Switchblade. This was made into a comic book when I was very young. Its drawings and then the movie truly terrified me. To that youngster, NYC was a den of violence, and I never imagined wanting to visit. NYC was full of illegal drugs, gangs, pornographic theaters, and general anarchy. In the 1960s and 1970s, NYC was the living incarnation of Sodom.

But something has changed! Those of you who are blessed to travel know that NYC today is regarded as a wonderful vacation spot ~ not just Broadway and Times Square. Each borough has its unique personality and appeal. Above all, NYC is safe ~ even if busy, noisy, & bustling. So, what happened? A mayor and a police chief collaborated to ‘change the culture.’ The NYC Police Department began writing tickets for what most people would call ‘minor’ violations, well short of what most folks consider to be real crimes (especially as compared to murders, rapes, and violent robberies). Hefty fines were being levied for breaking windows and spraying graffiti! In fact, even if the violator could not be identified, the building owner had to fix the broken windows and paint over the graffiti quickly.

The message? ‘We are now a law-and-order town, & that goes for all the laws on the books.’ This was actually called the “Broken Windows Policy.”   Early critics were certain this was crazy: ‘I mean, in a world of real limitations ~ with murder as the kind of crime which truly impacts dozens of lives ~ you are going to have officers chasing down graffiti artists?!’ NYC’s answer: “Yes!” And it worked … meaning, not only did the city end up with fewer broken windows and less graffiti, but the law-and-order message bubbled up into the more violent crimes, such that criminals moved out, or shifted their energies into behavior less likely to be apprehended.

I give an important caveat here: “The heart of man is desperately wicked.” We cannot really change a spiritual heart through the writing and enforcing of external laws. There are likely as many wicked people in NYC now as in the past. But something happened to shift NYC from being a murder capital to being a fairly safe city (for its vast size), & we Covenanters do thank the Lord whenever civil governments take seriously their God-given duties to enforce order.

My big and little point here (I do have one!): Think of yourself, like a city. You surely are aware of what you would call the big, problematic, long-term, hard-to-get-rid-of, serious sins in your life. Perhaps you have read books about this or that sin or addiction, that form of spiritual bondage. You may have enlisted a good friend as an accountability partner, confessing this or that episode. Sometimes you have enjoyed a stretch of good behavior (Yeah … victory in Jesus)! But then, it comes roaring back, perhaps worse than before … the seven skinny years eating up the seven fat ones. ‘Woe is me, a weak and carnal Christian, at least concerning this dominant sin. I suppose that I simply will have to bear this cross and wait for Heaven to finally enjoy real peace and purity.’ Wrong!

By our NYC analogy, consider if the big, public, and violent sin (like murder) reads the news and figures that, in your city, little problems like broken windows and some spray paint on the brick walls are okay. Now there are written laws against those violations, but with all the big stuff you must worry about, there really are no energy or cops or resources to devote to those. Thus, the world, the flesh, and the devil know that you are not a law-and-order town. May it never be! May you care about all of God’s law, whether you imagine that your transgressions are big or little, major or minor. My specific targets here are what the author Jerry Bridges calls “respectable sins” (like coveting, gossip, worry, envy, anger, and thanklessness). But who can care about these little, minor, inner sins of the super-spiritual people (which should bother Christian giants like Bridges), when I am worried about the really bad crimes?!

I urge those of you who are struggling against long term sins, who at times gain some victory, but then they come roaring back … to consider other sins, the inner ones, those small exceptions you have been allowing, though they are against the clear law of God. May God give you victory over the big and the little, the external and the internal. And may those of you who are not struggling against particular sins … get busy! We are not in Heaven yet, so there is sanctification still to pursue.

All of this matters for the glory of Christ. This progress is according to the promise of Christ. And this is empowered by God’s grace in Christ.

Ten Mandates of Sanctification … from “Joseph Alone”

In Genesis 39-41 we observe a young man, recently kidnapped and sold away from his home by his flesh-and-blood brothers, transported by cousins into distant Egypt, learning what it means to trust & obey the Lord in a challenging situation!  Make that ~ several challenging situations ~ as God moves Joseph from slave quarters, to the master’s house, to the master’s estate, to the king’s prison, to the king’s palace (second in command of an empire).  Though this part of Joseph’s story has him “alone” (in that he is not interacting with father Jacob & his brothers), Joseph is surely not apart from God, who is always with him.  It is during these twenty years or so that we see illustrated sanctification principles, attitudes for those of us living 3,800 years after this Old Testament “hero” to practice in the midst of our own challenges.

  1. Faithful in little; faithful in much.  Joseph had three “jobs” during this part of his life, and in each of them, God had him “start low” … and yet, after showing skill and excellence in the little matters, he was given more responsibility and opportunity.  This fits with what Jesus said in Matthew 25:21, in His parable of the talents (the ten, the five, & the one):  “Well done good and faithful servant.  You were faithful with a few things.  I give you charge of many.”  Paul elaborates on the heart attitude under this pursuit of excellence.  Colossians 3:22-25 ~ “Work as unto the Lord.  It is the Lord Christ you serve.”  A spoiled generation wants the fruits of success at the beginning (characterized by debt lifestyle & general dissatisfaction with “life at the bottom”), but this worldly and greedy spirit is not of Christ.
  2. Speaking the truth when it is easy, and when it is hard.  In Genesis 40:12-19, the prison dreamers want to know what their futures hold, and Joseph is clear and honest with both.  In Ephesians 4:15, one way we grow up into Christ our Head is by speaking the truth in love.  In the Old Testament, there were two kinds of prophets:  false ones made good livings at the palace by telling kings what they wanted to hear (the ultimate “yes-men”), while faithful prophets told the truth and sometimes ended up at the bottom of a well, or worse.  We see the same division among New Testament preachers (some killed for saying the hard but essential things, others enriching themselves by scratching ears just so).  Granted, it is always fun to bear good news, but an important part of our message pertains to judgment.  As Eli said to Samuel, the young prophet:  Don’t hold back; tell me everything!
  3. Regard all sin as rebellion against God.  In Genesis 39:9, Joseph exclaims to the wife of his master Potiphar (who is trying to seduce him):  “How can I do this great evil and sin against God?!”  In Acts 5:4, according to Peter, Ananias lied not to men but to God (even though it is clear that he lied to Peter as well).  In David’s famous confession (Psalm 51), the psalmist laments to God:  “Against Thee only I have sinned.”  In most cases, our sins are a combined offense against God & man, but the godly, growing disciple of Jesus is disturbed in the first place with what his sin (or in Joseph’s case, his opportunity to sin) would imply about his relationship with God.  Loyalty to man is not enough.  Ultimately, we live “Coram Deo” (before the face of God).  Ironically, yet just what we’d expect, Potiphar’s wife had dozens of gods, but she seemed unconcerned about offending any of them through her actions.
  4. Flee from temptation.  Again, Joseph is the classic exemplar of this principle, as he did literally what all of us must do literally, spiritually, emotionally, computerly, I-Phonally (however the temptation to sin is coming at you):  Basically, put distance between yourself and the sensations which are luring you to sin.  Joseph did the right thing, whether or not the temptation to be with Potiphar’s wife was getting to him.  Paul writes to the church in licentious Corinth:  Flee immorality … and flee from idolatry.  Then to young pastor Timothy:  Flee from greed, love of money, and youthful lusts.  Flee instead toward righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness.  Pursue them; even persecute them (that is the kind of intensity you must apply as you chase them down)!  1 Corinthians 6:18; 10:14; 1 Timothy 6:10-11; 2 Tim. 2:22.  There are some very strong verbs at play here:  fly from, escape as a fugitive.  Sin’s nature, understand, is to get our attention, attract us, allure us, break down all arguments against full participation, then entrap us, leading to bondage.
  5. Store up for the day of adversity (Genesis 41:33ff).  We are not told that God gave this specific plan to Joseph (how the Egyptians should put back 20% of the harvests in the years of plenty), but the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.  In Proverbs 6:6-8 we are challenged to consider the ant, who diligently plows and plants today in order to have a harvest later.  Some call this powerful, unpopular habit “delayed gratification.”  A strange parable Jesus told in Luke 16 about a shrewd (unethical) manager has one simple point:  “Plan ahead!”  Certainly, this is a challenging balance for Christians to maintain, as we are called to live by faith, to not be worried about tomorrow, to be generous toward the needy, and yet prepare ourselves for the possible future trials.  For those of us who lack wisdom in this vast area, I am glad to know where we may get it (James 1:5)!
  6. Give all glory to God (Genesis 40:8; 41:16,51,52).  Joseph credits God alone as he seeks to encourage the downcast prisoners, to take in Pharaoh’s praise, and to name his two boys.  Peter, John, & Paul did well in this also:  We are only men!  These deeds were accomplished in the name of Jesus.  Herod, you may recall, did not return glory to God!  Humanly speaking, Joseph overcame much and exhibited strong character; the temptation facing him as his story began to take a comedic upturn might have been:  “After all that undeserved suffering, it is about time that I get some recognition!”  No, for Joseph, all glory was directed to his God.  For Joseph, Yahweh would be his portion, not the false praises of man.
  7. Spreading the blessing around.  In Genesis 39:5, we see no hint in Joseph of resentment toward his captors.  Part of the Abrahamic Covenant is that God blesses those who bless us.  We see this in the Jacob/Laban relationship while they were living together; the world that visited wise King Solomon was blessed through that interaction.  The Christian is to be like a preserving, savoring, flavoring salt in/for his world, and we are to actively pray and work for the blessing of the places where we live (even places like Babylon).  Well, it is a fine thing to say that this kind of thing will happen.  It is even better to rejoice when it happens, to marvel at God’s power to use us in this way, to pray for more examples of this means of God’s grace to the world, and to intentionally bless our neighbors (even enemies) as we are able.
  8. Facial counseling!  In Genesis 40:6-7, Joseph notices much by observing the faces of his fellow prisoners.  At a minimum, this is because Joseph cares to look!  We see God doing a similar thing in Genesis 4:6, concerning Cain.  Mark 6:34 tells us of the compassion of Jesus, who perceived the multitudes as sheep without a shepherd.  Those of us who are called to care and to keep cannot let “the job” replace God and people.  Care for and about the one.  Consider the many other Egyptian prisoners Joseph may have encouraged during his years of managing that place.  As a man of God, it would have mattered very little to him if that ministry “paid off” in the end by improving Joseph’s lot.  He was concerned for others.
  9. Upholding the just cause.  Again, this requires a careful balance.  In Genesis 40:14-15 we find Joseph speaking up on behalf of his own just cause when he is given opportunity.  It is clear that Joseph does not believe he deserves to be in prison, and he wants to be released soon!  Some will say that this episode of speaking up for himself did not work, for Joseph remained a forgotten prisoner for two more years; but it did work later when the butler remembered!  Paul on several occasions utilized the fact of his Roman citizenship rights to avoid beatings, to appeal to Caesar, and to minister in Rome.  See, a Christian does not want to be abused!  It is good to speak up for justice, whether the episode of injustice you are protesting is harming yourself or others.  We must balance with God’s wisdom the charge to “turn the other cheek” with being part of the just and righteous solution.
  10. Getting over it (or It’s okay to be happy).  Genesis 41:50-52 depicts Joseph forgetting, rejoicing, and moving on.  We are only halfway through this grand story; Joseph does not know about the happy family reunion still to come.  Through the careful and faithful naming of his sons (Manasseh and EphraimGod helps me to forget my previous troubles and Fruitfulness in a land of affliction) we understand that it is good to enjoy what we can of our half-finished stories.  Ecclesiastes 3:11-14 memorably informs that, by God’s design, there is a time for everything (some of these “everythings” are sad or hard), and yet we can be happy, and do good as we live.  Many find it hard to give up their bitterness, but it is a big part of pressing on and it is essential for those who want to grow to be more like Jesus Christ.

So in sum, we see that Joseph was not alone during these decades in Egypt; God was with him.  Let us follow Joseph as he followed Christ!  Even more, see King Jesus (the Prince of peace) ordering all these circumstances for the well-being and secure future of all His people.