Monday, December 19, 2011

The Day of Worship

Editor’s Note: The following is the introduction to a new book by Katekōmen contributor Ryan M. McGraw. The author offers this article as a preview to the material found in his book.



The fourth commandment, or Sabbath day, was not something that I, as a new believer, had given particular attention to. I was shocked when a minister told me that not only should I refrain from my worldly employments on the Sabbath day, but that I should abstain from recreations and conversation that would be lawful on other days. He also taught me that the Sabbath was designed by God to be a day in which the entire time was to be spent in the joyful duties of public and private worship, which is meant to be a foretaste of heaven itself. Since then, after weighing the biblical evidence as to how the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day should be kept, it has proved to the best day of the week and the “market day of the soul,” with exceedingly great and precious promises attached to it.

The distinctive feature of this book is that it demonstrates that the Sabbath was designed to be sanctified for the purposes of worship and that this is the primary factor that should give shape to the practical observance of the Sabbath. There was a time in which Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, and even some Anglicans and Dutch Reformed shared a fundamental unity as to how the Lord’s Day, or Christian Sabbath, should be kept. All of these denominations held in common what is today referred to as the “Puritan” view of the Sabbath. The Westminster Shorter Catechism has set forth this view in these words: “The Sabbath is to be sanctified by an holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days, and by taking up the entire time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy” (Question 61). Today many have dismissed this viewpoint out of hand as unwarranted from Scripture, legalistic, and inconsistent with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even in Reformed churches, most people today have never heard a biblical defense for this position in all its parts.  My purpose in the pages that follow is to present the biblical foundations for the particulars of Sabbath keeping as set forth in the Westminster Standards. The style of the work is “homiletical” and is presented in the familiar style and direct address of a series of sermons.

There are a few recent books on Sabbath keeping that have done an excellent job defending the basic tenets of this position. However, many have read these works and remained unconvinced. This material has resulted from over ten years of study and of interaction with church members. I have sought to approach the issues related to Sabbath keeping in a manner that has satisfied the consciences of many by addressing the biblical foundations for the Westminster position from a different angle than other authors. For this reason, the materials in this work have very little overlap with, for example, the excellent books by Joseph Pipa, Walter Chantry, and Iain Campbell. I have sought to address what I believe to be the primary underlying issues behind the widespread neglect of the Sabbath day.

For this reason, chapter 1 and 2 address the importance of Sabbath keeping in Scripture. I contend that the importance of the question has largely been underestimated by the modern Reformed community. By beginning with the importance of Sabbath keeping in Scripture, I intend to set the tone for the rest of the book by awakening the Church to the importance of the issue so that she may study it with eagerness, a listening ear, and a ready heart.

Chapters 3 and 4 are an attempt to examine the factors that affect the proper interpretation of Isaiah 58:13-14, which is often central to debates over Sabbath keeping. Too often the entire matter stands or falls with the exposition of this passage. Opponents propose alternate interpretations, but it is rare that either side deals with the underlying theological and contextual issues that have determined their conclusions. I have attempted to provide a more comprehensive treatment these two factors with respect to this useful and important passage. At the end of this chapter I have included a section on the role of the Sabbath in the revival and reformation of the Church.

In chapters 5 and 6, I maintain that our aversion to Sabbath keeping is not always an exegetical or theological problem, but a symptom of the greater problem of worldliness that has entered into the Church. The implications and applications of this chapter reach far beyond the Sabbath day and cause us to reflect on the entirety of our Christian lives and how we view the world in which we live.

Chapter 7 then proceeds to establish the practices of Sabbath keeping from a Reformed view of the Law of God. In this chapter, I demonstrate that even if Isaiah 58 had never been written, Sabbath keeping would touch our thoughts, speech, and recreations, as well as our ordinary labor. I have used Jesus and the apostles as models as to how the Law of God should be interpreted and applied in the Christian life. Chapter 8 introduces some miscellaneous practical helps.

The next question that ordinarily arises from the Reformed (and biblical) view of the Law of God is the charge of legalism. In chapter 9, therefore, I examine the nature of legalism, its causes, and remedies. Perhaps it will be surprising to readers that I argue (with the help of Thomas Boston) that the lax views of Sabbath keeping, as well as the rest of the commandments of God, are at times symptomatic of legalistic views of the gospel. I maintain that the Reformed view of the relationship between the Law and the Gospel is largely being lost among Reformed churches at the present day. [Laxity toward] the Sabbath is, once again, the symptom of a broader disease.

The last chapter (chapter 10) presents an a posteriori argument for Sabbath keeping by connecting the Sabbath to the biblical picture of heaven. In rounding out the examination of the Christian Sabbath in this manner, I have hoped to demonstrate that the Westminster or “Puritan” view of the Sabbath is based upon sound exegesis of Scripture, is demanded by a biblical view of the relation to the law and the gospel, and is a consistent expression of how believers ought to view their relation to this world and the world to come.

The first eight chapters were originally four long chapters. I have divided them for the purpose of easier reading. If the chapter divisions are disproportionate at time, this is due to the fact that I did not see any other place in which it was natural to divide the chapters. Chapters 9 and 10 have retained their original form.

This work is not designed to be a replacement to the other works mentioned above, but a supplement to them. For this reason, I have attempted to retain brevity by omitting arguments for the fact that the Sabbath is a perpetually binding commandment as well as for the change of the day from the seventh to the first day of the week. If any who read this book are not already convinced of the perpetuity of the Sabbath, then I urge them to begin with the excellent article by B. B. Warfield contained in Appendix I. Appendix II contains my review article of Jay Adam’s Keeping the Sabbath Today. My reason for including this article is that Adams’ book represents a significant attack upon both the principles and practice of Sabbath keeping.

This book is about much more than the Sabbath. If, after reading this book, I have not convinced you that the Sabbath should be sanctified to the Lord as a sacred day of worship, I shall be disappointed. However, if all that I do is convince you that you must set apart the Sabbath for worship, then I have failed of my purpose entirely. This book addresses much more significant issues such as, the kind of obedience required by the gospel, the relation of the believer to an unbelieving world, the relationship between the Law and the gospel, and the focus of our hope of eternal life. It is my prayer that the Lord would use this work to redirect the thoughts of many in these fundamental areas, even if they are not convinced of the Westminster position on the Sabbath.

I believe that my warrant for writing this book is my ordination to the gospel ministry, along with the vows that I have taken to hold back nothing that is helpful from God’s people. I have written this book first and foremost for the congregation to which I minister, as well as for my presbytery. The Lord has continually reminded me that he alone gives or deprives man of knowledge and wisdom. A detailed outline of this book came together rather quickly (even unexpectedly) following a decade of study, yet I have not written a single chapter without having to “fight” for it by wrestling with the Lord long in agonizing prayer. For lack of a better expression, I believe that the Lord “gave” me much of the material in this book as an answer to the prayers of our church. However, I am certain that the corruption that remains in me has marred the material in many ways. Whatever you find this book that is profitable to your soul, may you give all thanks and glory to God for it. May the great Lord of the Sabbath be pleased to use these pages to restore his day to the blessed purposes for which he designed it.

Grace Along Cancer's Dark Road

Paul D. Wolfe. My God is True!: Lessons Learned Along Cancer’s Dark Road. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009. 150pp.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Likely everyone reading this review has either had cancer or knows someone who has had cancer. This is a rare work that presents a realistic view of what it is like to struggle with (and recover from) cancer, written by a man who has received the comforts of a robust biblical and Reformed theology.

Paul Wolfe was only twenty-eight when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was also one month shy of his first wedding anniversary and a student at Westminster Theological Seminary. The book is divided into three sections, having three chapters in each section, with an introduction by Sinclair Ferguson. Each segment begins by telling Wolfe’s story, followed by two chapters of theological and practical reflection. The core of the book consists in a pastorally sensitive treatment of the sovereignty of God, the need to examine the heart in trials, and a sober exhortation to heavenly-mindedness.

A few samples of the spiritual wisdom in this book must suffice for this review. Wolfe notes that he is careful not to speak to people of God’s faithfulness in healing him of his cancer. The reason is that faithfulness implies fulfillment of a promise, whereas God has not promised any individuals that they shall survive cancer or any other illness. Instead, Wolfe tells a story of unmerited grace. This helps us focus more clearly on what God has promised to us: that death shall no longer have victory overt those who are in Christ. By way of illustration, Wolfe tells the story of his mother-in-law, who died after a battle with cancer seven-years after his own struggles. God was no less faithful to her than he was to Wolfe, even though one died and the other lived. They both rested in the same promises and have the same hope of everlasting life (45-46)

Another vital lesson is that Wolfe points to the long-term benefits of the preaching of the Word to prepare us for trials. We know from experience that not every sermon strikes us like a lightning-bolt from heaven. However, what most of us fail to recognize is that the sermons we hear week-by-week may be designed by God to minister to us years down the road (97ff.). This is a much-needed reminder of the necessity of consistently and diligently using the means of grace in the local church.

Lastly, ministry to those who have had cancer should not stop once they are free from the cancer. Even after cancer, people struggle with “presumption” that all will be well because they have already had their fill of suffering, “paralysis” through fear of the future, and “pouting” as a result of the trials that have come through healing (139-143).

This book is not only important to cancer patients, but to the families, friends, and fellow-church members of cancer patients. This book shall provide you with nourishment to sustain you in your trials, as well as insight as to how to minister to those suffering around you.

The preceding review first appeared in New Horizons, April 2010.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What if I Don't Feel Like Forgiving? - Part III in a Series

By Rev. Daniel Wilson

Sometimes, I find driving by the rules of the road tedious and frustrating. Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever been late for an appointment, when it seems that every traffic light is red and there are incompetent drivers at every round-a-bout? In such frustrating moments, I have often felt like ignoring the rules of the road. I felt like blasting straight through the red lights or going the wrong way around the round-a-bouts! But, what would happen if I took such risks? At the very least, I would endanger myself and others on the road, but I could seriously hurt or kill someone! Even if I didn’t hurt anyone, I would be breaking the law, and I don’t think the police would respond kindly to my excuse. “Sorry, officer, I just didn’t feel like stopping…” I don’t believe any law-abiding officer or judge would ever allow my “feelings” as a valid reason for breaking the law.

All of us readily admit that our feelings don’t allow us to steal, speed, or murder. However, I fear we often use our feelings as an acceptable excuse to ignore our duty before God. How many times have you and I neglected private or family Bible reading because we didn’t “feel” like it? We all have been lazy or negligent in spiritual duties at one time or another, but do we really think that the Judge of heaven and earth will just let our disobedience slide because of our feelings? And while breaking the law doesn’t necessarily jeopardise our citizenship in this world (or in God’s kingdom), we will certainly face consequences when we disobey.[1] The same is true when we neglect to do our duty regarding forgiveness: there are consequences, for us and others.

We began this series by defining God’s forgiveness, which helped us define how we are to forgive. Last month, we expanded on that definition to describe the basic practice of forgiveness: from covering in love to confronting our brother. But, what if you don’t feel like forgiving? Is that a valid reason to withhold forgiveness?

It can be very difficult to forgive someone who has sinned against you. Even in relatively small matters, it can be quite hard to let your feelings of frustration, hurt and bitterness go. The more grievous the offense, the more likely you are to question the offender’s repentance and motives. You may feel like making him prove his sincerity. The more grievous the offense, the more people will naturally understand (and excuse) your unwillingness to forgive. In fact, with more grievous offenses, many psychologists and even pastors believe that forgiveness is optional. But as God’s people, we dare not rest on the feelings which come naturally or on what most experts think.[2] Rather, we must look to God’s Word to define our duty and practice regarding forgiveness.

In Luke 17:1-10, Jesus teaches, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” In those words, Jesus sums up the process that we already looked at briefly last time. But, He doesn’t stop there. Jesus proceeds to define what HE means by “if he repents.” He doesn’t explain that we only forgive when we see “true repentance” (which most people define as fruits of repentance, changed actions, true remorse, etc.). No, far from giving such stipulations, Jesus says something radically different, “If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (emphasis mine) Jesus really raises the stakes by putting His instructions in the context of a seven time repeat offender. Even more striking, Jesus says, if he comes back SEVEN times in the same day and SAYS, “I repent,” then we are to forgive him.[3] A person doesn’t have time to sincerely change or show true remorse if he is offending/repenting 7 times in a day. It just isn’t possible. Therefore, we must forgive the one who offends us when he asks, not when he can prove he means it. We must forgive, even when we doubt his sincerity, and trust me, after 4 or 5 times in the same day, we would all definitely doubt an offender’s sincerity!
Now, this does NOT mean that sinners can just commit offenses seven times a day and get away with it because they say, “I repent.” Not at all! This passage is primarily intended to define what God requires of us in forgiveness, not to give excuses to the unrepentant. Many other passages define repentance and consequences for sin. Psalm 51 and Isaiah 55:6-9 define repentance as being a change of the mind, the attitude (emotions), and the will. Biblical repentance involves recognising sin as sin, changing your attitude toward that sin from desire to remorse, and turning from that sin to new obedience in Christ. In Luke 17, Jesus is teaching that we cannot stop to evaluate the quality of one’s repentance before granting forgiveness.

Like many of us, the disciples reacted incredulously to this, saying, “Increase our faith!” They understood what Jesus was saying, and they thought, “We need more faith before we can obey that command.” But, Jesus refused to allow the “not enough faith” argument to stand. Jesus rebuked them by pointing out that it only took faith the size of a mustard seed to uproot trees and throw them into the sea. What Jesus meant was that if you have any faith at all, you can obey His command about forgiveness. He proceeded in verses 7-10 to prove that such forgiveness is our duty before God. There Jesus described the situation of a servant who had been working all day ploughing or looking after sheep. When he came in from the field, the master would never allow the servant to sit down and relax and eat. Instead, the master requires the servant to prepare his food, and then serve it to him. Only after the master has eaten may the servant eat and relax, and he is due no extra thanks or praise for this patient service – he has only done his duty. In fact, to neglect that duty in any way would be sinning against the master. It is easy to simply pass over that account as unimportant, and yet Jesus was pressing His disciples (and us) to understand that our duty is more important than our feelings. Imagine if you were that servant – having to cook for and serve your master after a hard day’s work in the field… every feeling in you would be screaming, “Forget the Master, and serve myself first – I did all the hard work today – I deserve to eat first…” But, the servant’s duty to his master is more important, and that is what Jesus wants us to understand about forgiveness as well. Forgive whether you feel like it or not, because if you refuse, you are sinning against your Master, God.

You might reply, “Ok, I see your point, but what about situations of rape and incest? Surely Jesus would make exceptions for extreme situations, right?” You may even be thinking, “Requiring forgiveness in cases of abuse/rape is belittling the seriousness of the situation!” It is never good to belittle sin, and that is why such replies are so dangerous. For they misunderstand the danger and implications of sinfully withholding forgiveness. We must not lose the Biblical perspective; God’s perspective is more important than our personal preference. In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches that it is not the seriousness of the sin committed against you that is most important; rather, it is more important to understand the seriousness of your sin before God and the seriousness of the sin of withholding forgiveness!

In Matthew 18, we find the parable of the unmerciful servant. There, Jesus describes a king’s servant who owed his master 10,000 talents. The king forgave this debt, but then the unmerciful servant went and refused to forgive the debt of a fellow servant which was only a hundred denarii. When the king heard about it, he was furious and handed that servant over to the jailers (literally torturers) until he paid back all he owed. And Jesus concluded that parable with these words, “This is how My heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” There are a few important elements to this story, which we must understand. Firstly, Jesus is speaking to the disciples and speaking about servants of the king – so, He is talking about what our heavenly Father will do to believers if they refuse to forgive. Secondly, the margins of your Bible probably say that the comparison of debts is millions to a few dollars. That is a correct scale between the two amounts, but it belittles the smaller debt.[4] The average wage for a day’s labour was one denarii. This means that the 100 denarii was not a small debt. It was roughly 1/3 of a year’s income. If the average modern worker makes $30-$45,000 a year, then we are talking about a debt of $10-15,000. That is no small debt. That is a debt big enough to hurt quite a bit. So, Jesus doesn’t intend to belittle the offense committed by the second servant. He only intends to direct us to understand the enormous debt that God has forgiven us, and how His forgiveness should lead us to show that same mercy to others! They may not deserve to be forgiven, but neither do you! Furthermore, by refusing to forgive, the unmerciful servant (the original offended party in this case) becomes the abuser by choking and imprisoning his fellow servant! In this, Jesus proves the necessity for believers to dutifully forgive, lest they be handed over to the torturers until they pay their own debt.[5] Jesus is not being harsh in these verses; rather, He is warning us that refusing to biblically forgive leads to the tortorous prison of bitterness. All who are injured by grievous sin need this truth of Jesus to set them free (both offenders and offended). We need to understand that we become the offending party when we refuse to have a forgiving spirit, and that deadly unmerciful sin will harm us spiritually, emotionally and possibly even physically.

Jesus teaches that God requires forgiveness. We must cover offenses in love, or confront the offender in love – either way, God requires that we graciously offer to pardon those who sin against us, and to pursue reconciliation as far as it depends upon us. Since God’s forgiveness is a promise and not a feeling, we can obey Him even when everything in us is screaming otherwise. Far from being a harsh requirement, God desires to see both sinners and those sinned against delivered from the bondage of sin, bitterness and fear. The peace and joy of God cannot be separated from His view of forgiveness. It is much like being tempted by some object of lust/covetousness. That object is so appealing, and nearly everything in us is calling for us to indulge our craving. But God commands us to reject those feelings and emotions. Instead we must recognise that the house of the wayward woman leads to death and that covetousness kills.[6] God’s perspective may go against the grain at times, but His way saves from the certain pain, suffering and death that sin always brings! Likewise, we must understand that while it is immensely appealing to withhold forgiveness, that sin will bring more pain and suffering to you than God’s way of forgiveness. It ultimately comes down to a matter of trust. Who do you trust more? You and your emotions and preferences? Or the infinite, eternal God, whose thoughts are light-years above yours?[7]

In this brief series, we have defined forgiveness and wrestled with many aspects of this very difficult topic. However, we have not covered every possible angle. Lord willing, in a few months, I plan to write one more article in a question and answer format to fill in the remaining gaps. Perhaps, you still have unanswered questions. If so, please write me an e-mail, and I will do my best to either answer you personally or address your question in the final article. Until then, I commend two worthwhile books to you: Chris Brauns’ book Unpacking Forgiveness, and Jay Adams’ From Forgiven to Forgiving. May God sanctify us to reflect His mercy in Christ by the way we forgive others!


[1] God gave the law to prevent such consequences. In fact, God gave His redeemed people the Law so that through serving Him, it might go well with them in the land He gave them (Deuteronomy 6:1-3, 17-18).
[2] John 8:31-47, 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, and Ephesians 2:1-10 clarify that what comes naturally to mankind is not honouring to God.
[3] The number seven is the biblical number of perfection. So, we aren’t given permission to withhold forgiveness the 8th time a person commits the same offense. In fact, I believe Jesus’ answer in Matthew 18:21-22 was in response to this very discussion.
[4] A talent was 6,000 times bigger than a denarii. So, a talent would be about 19 years labour, which means that 10,000 talents would be essentially an infinite debt!
[5] Read Chris Brauns’ helpful treatment of this in his book: Unpacking Forgiveness, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 119-128.
[6] Proverbs 5,6,7 and Romans 7.
[7] Isaiah 55:8-9.

The Biblical Practice of Forgiveness - Part II in a Series

By Rev. Daniel Wilson

There you are, sitting in church, when you see that person coming over to talk to you. You know who I mean: that former friend who offended you a couple of months ago. He made that rude comment to you and NEVER apologised or said sorry or anything! Well, here he comes… and what do you know, he wants your help with a project he is working on around his house. He is acting as if nothing happened at all! Oh, the arrogance of some people! You politely (but somewhat coldly) reply that you are simply too busy to help him out. You know you have some free time, but you tell yourself that your time would be better spent with your family and your real friends. Over time, that person gets the message and stops bothering you, and you both learn to politely avoid one another at church functions. You both rationalise that you aren’t bitter or anything; you just aren’t as “close” as you once were. And in this way, Satan successfully drives a wedge between two brothers/sisters in Christ to the harm of many in the church – perhaps for generations to come.

Last time, we began this series by looking for God’s definition of forgiveness in His Word. In Ephesians 4:31-32 (and Colossians 3:13), God calls believers to forgive each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven us. As Christians, we know a good bit about how God has forgiven us in Christ. We know that while we were still His enemies, God loved us and sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross for our sins. We know that God offers forgiveness and salvation to ALL His enemies – none of whom deserve it! And we rejoice that God saves all those who repent of their sins and receive His gift of forgiveness through faith in Christ. God’s forgiveness shapes our understanding of human forgiveness, which we defined last time, as follows:

Forgiveness is a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.[1]

Now, to some of you, that definition is about as clear as mud. So, think of it this way: Forgiveness is essentially an attitude that leads to action. We graciously offer forgiveness to all who offend us; promising to actually forgive those who repent. And our forgiveness is a four-fold promise not to bring the matter up again to yourself, to others, or to the offender – nor will you use it against them.

But wait a moment … Does this mean that I have to wait until someone repents before I can forgive him? What if I knew he didn’t mean to do it? Or, what if he now lives far away, or is even dead? There are many situations where someone might not have repented, and yet I want to forgive him and move on with my life… Are you saying that I can’t? No, I am not saying that. Rather, this is where God’s teaching on “covering in love” is so important.  Repeatedly in Proverbs, God gives principles of conflict resolution. Gossip and a vindictive spirit flow from hatred, but love covers sin and keeps offenses quiet (see Proverbs 10:12; 17:9). As Peter says in I Peter 4:8, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Paul expands on this principle in I Corinthians 13,

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (emphasis mine)

In these Scriptures, God is teaching us HOW we show the love of Christ to our neighbour. We love by overlooking small offenses. We love by not getting angry easily. We love by refusing to gossip about the offenses of others. We love by not keeping records of the sins of our friends and family. Covering over offenses in love is the fundamental expression of the attitude of forgiveness. If you have a heart willing to forgive all those who offend you, then you will cover many offenses in love. But recognise this: “covering an offense in love” means that you are making the same four-fold promise as forgiveness! You are promising to shove that offense under the blanket of love, never to bring it up again to yourself, to others, or to the offender – nor will you use it against them! It is very easy to tell yourself that you are covering an offense in love, when in reality, you are actually just writing it down on a ledger in your mind. And then you pull it out at the next fight or disagreement as a trump card, “Remember when you did this…?!” But God says that love keeps no record of wrongs. If you choose to cover or forgive some offense, make sure you truly throw the blanket of love over the whole incident.

However, what do you do when you try to cover an offense in love, but the memories of that incident just keep coming back to mind? Perhaps, you tried to overlook some rude comment a friend made, but you just can’t seem to help being upset about it. Whenever a particular incident continues to “throw off the covers” of love, you need to resolve it according to Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 and Luke 17.[2] Keep in mind that the offense may not clearly be sin; it might just be your perception of another’s attitude or actions. But if you simply cannot keep the matter covered in your mind, then you must deal with it God’s way.

Jesus gave us the most basic principle of resolving these sorts of conflicts in Luke 17:3b, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.[3] Matthew 18:15-17 explains this more extensively, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” The goal of confronting your brother is not to get even. It is not to rub his nose in his error. Jesus tells us to show our brother his fault, in a private way, in order to win him back as a friend. Furthermore, you rebuke him with the intention of forgiving him as soon as he repents.  Remember that you should have already tried to cover the offense in love. Therefore, your tone and words must reflect your desire to cover this offense under the blanket of loving forgiveness. Many minor disputes have been made worse by harsh words, when a soft answer would have led to reconciliation.

Did the situation described at the beginning of this article sound familiar? Perhaps that describes one or more of your relationships. How do you change those situations? Or, do you need to change them? In Romans 12:18 the Apostle Paul gives us this instruction, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men (emphasis mine). God went to great lengths to make peace with us in Christ. And His love constrains us to show that same love as we seek to live at peace with others. Biblical repentance and forgiveness is God’s appointed process for restoring broken relationships.  As far as it depends on you, don’t leave problems unresolved and relationships cold or distant. Simply put, you need to decide whether you should cover that past offense in love, or whether you should still go and speak to the other person about it. Either way, you may need to ask for forgiveness for the way you acted.

Practically, if you decide to cover the offense in love, you could say something like this, “Mike, a long time ago I got upset about something you said to me. Since then, I have decided that it wasn’t such a big deal. But, for a long time, I have sinfully held a grudge against you. I allowed my sinful reaction to affect our friendship. Will you please forgive me for the way I reacted?” Or, if you believe the offense still needs to be confronted, then you must preface your confrontation with your own confession of sin. “Alice, I need to ask your forgiveness for not coming to you about this sooner. I was offended by something you said to me back in April. I should have come and spoken to you about it then, but I didn’t. I have sinfully let that offense harm our friendship ever since. Will you please forgive me?” At that point, most friends will either know or will ask which comment was so offensive. And you can work matters out from there.

Now, some of you might be objecting in your mind, “No! I don’t have to go to them. They sinned against me. I know the Bible too, and Matthew 5 says that the offender has to come to me!” But that is the beauty of God’s commands! If believers obey Matthew 5:23 and Matthew 18:15, then the offender and the offended should meet each other halfway – both going to talk to the other. The reason Jesus spends so much more time explaining that the offended must go speak to his brother, is because the offender may not know he has done anything wrong! He may have said or done something without thinking it was offensive. One of my professors had a great saying to explain this concept: He who has the sore toes goes, because he is the one who always knows. If someone has “stepped on your toes” in some way, he may not know it. But the one with flat toes certainly knows. Therefore, he is the one who must cover the offense in love, or if that is not possible, he must go, confront his friend, and seek reconciliation.

If your friend doesn’t listen to you, you should let the situation and emotions cool down a bit and try again later. If he still does not listen to you, then you should choose one or two wise friends (that you both respect) to help you seek reconciliation. If possible, it is best to avoid choosing office-bearers at this point, in order to avoid escalating the conflict. The one or two friends’ job is not to side with you. They are to evaluate the entire situation. If you are in the wrong, they should tell you, so that you can go and repent to your brother. The witnesses are there to explain to you both where you are wrong and to help you reconcile. If you can’t resolve the matter at this point, then you may need to take it to the elders of the church for resolution. Much more could be said about this part of Matthew 18, but that would be better reserved for a series on church discipline. 

Last time, we defined God’s forgiveness, which helped us define how we are to forgive. This time, we have expanded on that definition to describe the basic practice of forgiveness: from covering in love to confronting our brother. But, what if you don’t feel like forgiving? What if your brother “repents,” but you doubt their sincerity? What actually is biblical repentance? We hope to address these matters next time.


[1] Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 55.
[2] Jay Adams, From Forgiven to Forgiving, (Merrick, NY: Calvary Press, 1994), 34-35.
[3] We will deal more extensively with Luke 17:1-10 in the next article.

God's Definition of Forgiveness - Part I in a Series

By Rev. Daniel Wilson

Forgiveness?! What does that word mean? You hear so much about this word in Christian circles, and yet so much of what you hear is contradictory! There are so many different ideas and questions out there about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t: Is it a promise or a feeling? Do I forgive for my good or the good of the person who sinned against me? Is forgiveness conditional or unconditional? How are we to know which ideas are true and which are not? The only infallible rule for defining matters of faith and practice is the all-sufficient Word of God. Therefore, to define forgiveness, we have to ask: how does God define forgiveness in His Word?

In the New Testament, there are three words translated as “forgiveness.” [1] As we look at how these words are used in Scripture, they give us the background meaning for forgiveness. Biblical forgiveness involves “letting go” of bitterness or revenge and “graciously giving” pardon to those who ask. This is, by no means, a full definition. To develop a full definition, we need to look at specific instances of how these words are used. With so many references to forgiveness in the Bible, one has to ask: Where do we start? We know that we must interpret Scripture with Scripture – So, the best thing to do is to begin with the clearest teaching on forgiveness and work our way to the more obscure and difficult passages. So, let’s begin with God’s clearest statement about how we are to forgive:

31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Ephesians 4:31-32 (emphasis mine, see Col. 3:13)

In this passage, Paul uses a word for forgiveness that includes the idea of “giving graciously” or giving something which isn’t deserved. So, God is commanding us to forgive others in a tender-hearted way (even when that forgiveness isn’t deserved) “just as God in Christ also has forgiven” us. This is probably the most important text for explaining forgiveness! Here, God is clearly aligning our forgiveness with His. God offers forgiveness of sin to all men everywhere who repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38, 3:18-21, 17:30-31). There are two parts to God’s forgiveness: (1) the attitude and offer of forgiveness through the Gospel, which is preached to all nations; and (2) the gracious forgiveness of all those who actually repent and believe in Christ for salvation. Likewise, our forgiveness is defined by those same two elements. First, we are to be tender-hearted in attitude – willing to forgive all those who offend or sin against us. Second, we are to actually forgive those who repent and come asking for forgiveness.

As helpful as those two parts of forgiveness are, we are still left with the same question: What actually is “forgiveness”? Is it a feeling, some form of emotion, a sense of duty, a decision or what? Again, Ephesians 4:32 tells us: “forgive as God in Christ forgave you.” How did God forgive us in Christ? For those who repent and believe in Christ, God has removed their sin and promises to never hold it against us because of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. There are a few things we must point out. First, God’s grace is not free; it was purchased for God’s elect by Christ’s obedience, specifically His suffering and death on the cross. 

Second, God’s removal of our sin and guilt (His forgiveness) is conditioned upon our repentance and faith in Christ. Third, once God has removed the burden of our sin, He promises to remember it no more and releases us from the moral obligation to suffer in Hell forever (Romans 8:1-2; Heb.10:17).

However, before we proceed further, we must recognize one more thing. We know, by biblical example, that God doesn’t necessarily remove all consequences of sin when He forgives. In 2 Samuel 12, we have the story of Nathan confronting King David about his murder of Uriah and sin with Bathsheba. In vs.13-14, David repents, and Nathan replies, “The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die.” How can God say in one breath “your sin has been taken away” and yet in the very next, give grievous consequences? Did God take away David’s sin or not!? Yes, He did. But, “if He no longer holds the sin against the forgiven, then why are there still consequences? The answer is that God disciplines His own not for the purpose of punishing them, but for His glory and for their joy in the future.”[2] As Hebrews 12 explains, “For those whom the Lord loves, He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives… God deals with you as sons… He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness.” In other words, God disciplined David to sanctify him and draw him closer to God Himself.

Through these various passages of Scripture, we see God’s forgiveness defined as: A commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously all those who repent and believe in Christ so that they are reconciled to Him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences in this life.[3] This definition of God’s forgiveness then lays the foundation for how we understand Christian forgiveness. 
Christians are thereby called to have a gracious attitude which offers forgiveness/pardon to all those who offend us. It is this tender-hearted attitude which prevents bitterness and resentment (Eph.4:31-32). Just as God’s offer of forgiveness is extended to His enemies who don’t deserve a second chance, so we must offer forgiveness to those who have sinned against us – even when we don’t think they deserve it! Our forgiveness is graciously offered to ALL who sin against us.[4]

Christians must also make that commitment that God makes to us. He promises to pardon us and to remember our sins no more (Heb.10:17). Likewise, when we forgive, we are making a four-fold promise:

                “I will not dwell on this incident.”
                “I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.”
                “I will not talk to others about this incident.”
                “I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.”[5]

In these four promises, we are committing to remove the burden of sin just as God has forgiven us. Since we are not God, we cannot remove the eternal consequences for sin, but we can remove the burden of sin. We do so by refusing to dwell on that particular offense (which leads to disruption in the relationship) and by refusing to bring it up to the offender or others (which would lead to disruption in the offender’s relationship with others). In other words, we are promising not to remember the matter, in such a way, that we seek the offender’s harm. While forgiveness does not eliminate all consequences for the offender, the offended person’s attitude should not be one of saying, “I’m gonna make him/her pay.” Rather, just as God often gives us consequences to restore us and bring us closer to Himself, so, earthly consequences complete the restoration started by forgiveness (these consequences are not arbitrary or personally invented; they must be based on principles from God’s Word, which we may explore further in later articles).

From these principles we can derive a definition for forgiveness, it is: A commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.[6] This is a good definition from which to work, and serves as a foundation for looking at the more obscure Bible passages on forgiveness.

I know that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of this topic. There are probably many more questions that have flooded your mind as you read this article, but don’t worry, we will address a lot more in future articles. For instance, in later articles I will answer the questions: Does every offense need to be confronted and forgiven? Do I have to wait until someone repents in order to forgive them? Doesn’t conditional forgiveness lead to bitterness? Didn’t Jesus forgive unconditionally on the cross? Aren’t we told to forgive everyone? Do I have to forgive if they aren’t truly repentant? Who can judge repentance? Isn’t it hypocritical to forgive when I don’t feel like it? And many more…

If I have whet your appetite for this topic, and you find yourself not wanting to wait for future articles, then allow me to recommend a great resource. You may have noted it already from the footnotes, but I have found Chris Braun’s book Unpacking Forgiveness to be very helpful. Pastor Brauns addresses the painful and deep implications of God’s view of forgiveness. He doesn’t shy away from looking into the application of Scripture to situations of rape, murder, molestation and violent crime. If you don’t already have this book, I highly recommend it for every church library and for every family in the church. It is a book which you will turn to again and again for helpful advice and biblical comfort. It will serve as a scriptural guide through the often troubled waters of forgiveness and conflict resolution. May God be glorified as we, His people, forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us!


[1] For those with Bible Software, here are the 3 words so that you can study how they are used in the NT. 
(1) Aphiemi (afihmi) has the meaning of “to let go” or “to allow/leave alone.” This is translated “forgive” in the sense of forgiving or leaving a debt or sins alone. 1/3 of 143 times it is used for forgiveness in NT; notable examples: Matt. 6:12-15, 18:21-35, 1 John 1:9. (2) Aphesis (afesij) is a derivative from the first word aphiemi, but it is used almost exclusively for forgiveness (16x out of 17x). Ex: Acts 2:38, 5:3, 13:38-39, Heb. 9:22. (3) Charizomai (carizomai) means to “graciously or freely give” (I Cor.2:12, Gal. 3:18, Phil.1:29) or more often it means “to forgive debt/sin” (Eph.4:32, Col.3:13).
[2] Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 49.
[3] Ibid, 51.
[4] In later articles, I will explain further how this attitude leads us to cover some offenses in love by addressing some of these passages: Proverbs 10:12, 17:9; 1Cor. 13:4-7; 1Peter 4:8.
[5] Ken Sande, The Peacemaker (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 209.
[6] Brauns, 55.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fashion, Form and Faith

Jeff Pollard, Christian Modesty and the Public Undressing of America. San Antonio: The Vision Forum, Inc., 2005. 74 pages.
Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw
One of the women in our congregation picked up this small book at a national Women in the Church Conference for the Presbyterian Church in America. I suppose that there are many books that may be considered “must-reading.” This book, however, is one of those rare volumes that may threaten to turn your thinking upside-down on the subject that it addresses. It is my hope and prayer that it does, since Pollard challenges practices that have become ordinary, not only in the world, but in the Church.
What makes this little book so powerful is that it takes most of the subjective element away from defining standards of dress that are pleasing to God. This does not mean that the author argues for one style of clothing for every time and every place. It also does not mean that he provides a list of modern attire that is acceptable, and another list of attire that is not. He has not idealized any age in the history of the world as a standard. The true strength of this book is that, rather than taking the practical effects or temptations presented by various styles of clothing as his point of departure, he begins by demonstrating from Scripture that from the day that clothing was invented by God, He designed it to conceal human bodies rather than reveal them. The terms used in Scripture demonstrate that God has always clothed his people from the neck to the knees.
Every great book that deals with biblical ethics does not provide an exhaustive list of applications, but it gives us clearly established principles that provide the criteria that is necessary for critical thinking. Because he has done this, in the first chapter the author has noted the fact that some shall consider his work “legalistic,” while others shall consider it to be too vague. Both of these accusations reflect a shallow perspective on Christian ethics that negates thought. One option requires no thinking at all, and the other requires someone else to do all of your thinking for you.
In addition to his strong biblical arguments, Pollard provides invaluable historical evidence (particularly in chapter 5) to the effect that clothing manufacturers, along with the entertainment industry, have intentionally eroded the remnants of a once-biblical standard of modest dress. He has not rested his arguments upon the historical evidence, but upon the Scriptures. Nevertheless, it is eye-opening to uncover the philosophy that lies behind these changes. It should not surprise us that the philosophy that has shaped the modern fashion and entertainment industries are anti-Christian. We live in a world that is under the sway of the Evil One (1 Jn. 5:19). If anything is widely accepted in a sinful society, we should assume that there is something wrong with it. In this case, something is dreadfully wrong.
The primary issue that Pollard has placed a discomforting focus upon is the issue of swimwear. The conclusions of his book are not limited to the issue of swimwear, but the author has used this single issue in order to illustrate what is at root a basically unbiblical attitude towards clothing in general. By the end of the book, he has addressed matters related to style, clothing that accentuates the form, and most importantly, proper motives for selecting clothing that honors God. It is a strange anomaly in our society that a woman may walk down the street in her underwear and be arrested, yet she may walk onto the beach in “clothing” that is almost identical to her underwear, and it is considered “normal” (and if you take refuge in the “modest” one-piece suit, Pollard shall not let you escape either).
I must warn you that although the position presented in this book has always been associated with biblical Christianity, it is about as common in the modern Church as the great doctrine of justification by faith alone was when Martin Luther was born. My challenge to you is to read this book, to pray over its contents, and to digest it. It is easy to dismiss arguments simply because they are used to criticize practices that no one questions. It is easy to dismiss a position with terms such as, “strict,” “legalistic,” “old fashioned,” or “impractical.”  It is one thing to vilify someone or something with labels (which our society loves to do). It is another thing entirely to demonstrate that the Scriptures that have been misunderstood in the attempt to establish a position.
Pollard’s biblical evidence is a force to be reckoned with. The subject matter in this book is too important to dismiss, ignore, or left to collect dust upon a shelf. We should neither be afraid nor surprised by the fact that the Scriptures often require us to adopt radically different beliefs and practices than those that have been integrated into every level of our society. After all, we are Christians. Christians have no right to submit themselves to any other master than the Lord Jesus Christ. Like the apostle Paul, we must remind ourselves that if we still seek to please men, we cannot be bondservants of Christ (Gal. 1:10).