“If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.”
Psalm 130:4-5 (NASB)
Think back for a moment to the last time someone sinned against you. I mean actually sinned against you, not merely let you down or failed to meet an expectation you had of them. The person offended you in a way that clearly was a violation of God’s objective and equitable commands for how His people are to relate to one another (e.g. Lev. 19:11; Col. 3:9; Heb. 13:4).
How did it make you feel when that happened?
Were you angry? Sad? Hurt? Disappointed? All of the above?
Now, using the aforementioned biblical standard, take a moment to reflect on the last time you sinned against someone else.
How did that make you feel?
Were you angry? Sad? Hurt? Disappointed? None of the above?
I ask those questions because sin is a two-way street.
There is both the offender and the offended.
We may not always think of sin in those dual contexts, especially in situations where we are the offended party. But the truth is the same burden to respond to sin in a Christlike manner applies regardless if we are in the role of villain or victim (Eph. 4:32).
Scan the moral landscape of the evangelical church today and it becomes apparent rather quickly that preaching or teaching about sin is becoming anathema. We’ll readily concede that ‘we all make mistakes.’ After all, ‘nobody’s perfect,’ right? But to suggest that we sin? That’s so. . .so. . . Old Testament, so. . .Moses on Mount Sanai…so…judgmental, ungracious, and, well, mean.
Such a passive and acquiescent approach to the sins we commit is, I believe, a by-product of our collectively treating so casually the fact that we are sinners—violators of God’s law—and not merely mistake-makers (Rom. 3:23).
That said, this commentary isn’t about sin, necessarily. Well, it is but, then, again, it isn’t. It’s actually about forgiveness. But any true understanding of the importance of forgiveness in the life of the Christian, begins with an understanding of the significance of sin, because it is sin that necessitates forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:9).
If no sin has been committed, no forgiveness is warranted.
There is an irony in that, ordinarily, you and I are inclined to view forgiveness primarily in terms of an obligatory gesture that is owed to us by someone who has wronged us.
But there is a flip-side to forgiveness in that we should not view it solely within the context of one’s moral or ethical indebtedness to us, but as Christ did, as a gift, a benefit, a blessing to be volitionally and unreservedly bestowed on those who, like you and me, are wholly undeserving of it (Ps. 103:10; Dan. 9:9; Eph. 1:7; Col. 3:13). As the 19th century preacher and theologian Charles Spurgeon declared,
“You are nothing better than deceitful hypocrites if you harbor in your minds a single unforgiving thought. There are some sins which may be in the heart, and yet you may be saved. But you cannot be saved unless you are forgiving. If we do not choose to forgive, we choose to be damned.”
It is interesting that, as sinners, we often find it difficult to forgive other sinners. One would think, given that universal spiritual nexus, that the very opposite would be the case—that forgiving those who sin against us would be easy or, at least, easier, since we all share a common sin-nature (1 Kin. 8:46a; Ps. 14:3, 53:3; Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:10).
But a primary reason we find forgiveness so arduous an undertaking is that sin is such a fundamentally weighty reality for each of us (Rom. 6:23; 1 Tim. 1:15; 1 Pet. 3:18). After all, it is our sin that cost the Son of God His life (Jn. 3:16; Mk. 15:24-25).
Sin and forgiveness are inextricably connected in that the fact that you and I are sinners is not only a declaration of what we are in terms of our spiritually-depraved condition (Eph. 2:1), but also of the kind of fruit we are capable of bearing as a result of that condition (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 7:18, 24). My favorite Puritan, Thomas Watson, underscored that reality in his excellent book The Doctrine of Repentance, saying,
“Sin is like the usurer who feeds a man with money and then makes him mortgage his land. Sin feeds the sinner with delightful objects and then makes him mortgage his soul. Judas pleased himself with thirty pieces of silver, but they proved deceitful riches. Ask him now how he likes his bargain.”
In the fall of 1995, the Christian band DC Talk released the album Jesus Freak which contained the introspective track What If I Stumble? The chorus that song invites us to soberly consider matters of sin and forgiveness:
“What if I stumble?
What if I fall?
What if I lose my step
and I make fools of us all?
Will the love continue
when my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble?
And what if I fall?”
I mentioned earlier that sin is a two-way street.
So is forgiveness.
For not only when we are sinned against do we have the opportunity to contemplate what forgiveness means, but also when we sin against others. It is in those moments when the roles are reversed, when we’re the ones who have stumbled and fallen, that we’re reminded of the Christlike humility we are obligated and expected to exhibit toward others (Matt. 18:21-22). As Thomas Watson reminds us in The Godly Man’s Picture,
“A humble soul thinks better of others than of himself (Phil. 2:3). A humble man values others at a higher rate than himself, and the reason is because he can see his own heart better than he can another’s. He sees his own corruption and thinks surely it is not so with others; their graces are not so weak as his; their corruptions are not so strong. `Surely’, he thinks, ‘they have better hearts than I.’ A humble Christian studies his own infirmities and another’s excellences and that makes him put a higher value upon others than himself.”
Reflect for a moment on those words from DC Talk.
How will you respond when someone you care about stumbles and falls in their life? When their walk with Christ becomes a crawl? When they let you, or someone else, down by not living up to the expectations you have of them? When they fail to follow through on a commitment they made? When you discover your spouse has been involved in an adulterous relationship? Or when you find out your closest friend has been gossiping about you?
What will be your response?
Will you respond in the flesh or in the Spirit of the One who lives inside of you (Gal. 5:22-23)?
As you consider those questions, consider also these words from Thomas Watson who, in The Art of Divine Contentment, exhorts us to:
“Look upon the unkindness of your friend and mourn for your own unkindness against God. Shall a Christian condemn that in another which he has been too guilty of himself?”
As believers in Jesus Christ, the question is never if you and I will stumble and fall but when and to what extent.
We know that in principle, of course, though perhaps less so in practice.
But forgiving those who have wronged us actually can be a source of God-exalting joy when we understand that the ultimate goal of forgiveness is our sanctification. That is, to be conformed to the image of the One who forgave—and continues to forgive—us who have repeatedly sinned so egregiously against Him (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:7-14).
Humbly in Christ,
The Utter Horror of the Smallest Sins – Tim Challies