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It was Dr. Leslie Weatherhead who wrote,
"The forgiveness of God, in my opinion, is the most powerful and therapeutic
idea in the world." I agree. It is this lifeline and guideline that comes
to us from the living God--the living God Who delights in forgiving us because
of what His Son did for us!
It was the Son of the living God, Jesus Christ, who turned aside the holy wrath of God against us. Instead of punishment for our sins, we received pardon. Jesus did this by serving as a lightning rod for God's just anger, bringing us instead the electricity of God's forgiveness.
Through the conduits of Word and Sacrament, the gift of FORGIVENESS comes to us from God. As it does, it creates faith and love--the two bands that bond couples together!
Billy Graham Cites Key to a Good
Dr. Billy Graham applied the words of Dr. Weatherhead to holy matrimony when he said, "The key to a good marriage is two good forgivers." There is no finer fuel for high-octane marriages than forgiveness of sins. It provides power for love. It is the driving force behind needed, ongoing reconciliation.
Dr. Martin Luther once remarked, "The forgiveness of sins is the chief part of Christian teaching and I am completely steeped in, and saturated with, the article of the forgiveness of sins." You know, Luther was married. Do you think this man steeped in the teaching of forgiveness was a pretty good hubby?
E. Jane Mall's delightful little book, Kitty My Rib, the beloved name Luther gave his math, gives fascinating insights into the very good marriage of Martin Luther and Katherine von Bora.
The Glue of a Good Marriage
At the center of their marriage was the Bringer of forgiveness of sins, Jesus Christ. It was this gift, forgiveness of sins, that enabled two strong-willed and different personalities, Martin and Katherine, to forgive one another and with that forgiveness, grow in holy love. It was this gift that taught Luther how to validate his wife. Of his domestic engineer he said, "My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus."
Luther's validation engendered appreciation. Shortly after his death, Katherine said, of Luther, "Who would not be sorrowful and mourn for so noble a man as was my dear lord, who served not only one city or a single land but the whole world?. ..this dear and precious man." Evidently, forgiving and loving went hand in hand.
Forgiveness of sins ranks as both our greatest gift and greatest resource. With this gift God makes enemies friends and good friends stronger friends. Through this gift God brought about a change between Himself and the world through what is known as "the happy exchange."
The Happy Exchange!
"The happy exchange" involved God sending His Son to suffer hell that we might have heaven, being forsaken that we might be forgiven, and suffering an eternal death that we might have eternal life.
On a cross for six hours on Good Friday and what Tie accomplished by His perfect life of thirty-three years. Never forget that he did these things for us! He brought about a reconciliation that has power to not only save us from sin, but also help us overcome what otherwise might be labelled "irreconcilable differences." St. Paul describes this good news this way: "But God has done it all when we were His enemies, through Christ He made us His friends and gave us the work of making friends of enemies" (2 Cor. 5:18).
"The Happy Exchange" Produces Happy
Just as the life and death of Christ changed the relationship of the whole world before God, it can change for the better, relationships between spouses. The same God Who "in Christ reconciled the world to Himself by not counting their sins against them" (2 Cor. 5:19) also rescues marriages. In fact, the more couples know through faith that "God is for them," the more they can truly be "for each other"! For it is God's unconditional love and forgiveness that creates the faith and love so desperately needed by beleaguered couples.
A Real-Life Drama
Never was this truth expressed to me more poignantly than in a real-life drama that enlisted my services. It began with a phone call from a desperate, grief-stricken husband. The quivering voice of Frank informed me that his spouse was sexually involved with another man. My ears listened more than my mouth moved. His initial need was a friend to listen.
Eventually, Frank asked me to come to his home later that day. He planned to confront his wife, Kim, with the evidence of her infidelity. Fearing that his anger might lead him to folly, he requested that I come and serve as a go-between. His trembling request was followed by my shaky, "Certainly."
A Familiar Pattern
Neither Kim nor Frank had "darkened the door" of the church for several months. Absence from the lifelines of love contributed to the abandonment of the guidelines of love. Adultery followed idolatry. Love had given way to lust.
Following the phone call with Frank, all kinds of questions began to explode in my mind. Would Kim be smug or sorry when confronted with the evidence? Did Frank drive Kim into this Bermuda-triangle relationship by unloving and uncaring acts? Would there be a violent war with words? If she was sorry, would Frank forgive her? What Word of God would I apply to this modern-day rerun of David and Bathsheba?
The Dominant Note
I felt for both Kim and Frank. They loved their children and were pro-family. Frank, though a good man among men, was given toward making the Law the dominant note in their marriage. Accusation rather than validation was his style. For every good and kind word to build up Kim, he doled out four words to break her down.
Experts tell us that it takes four good
words to cancel every cruel remark we dish out toward others. Frank had the
whole formula backward. He was the accusative case in action. Added to this, he
dispensed the Law in a lawless manner--harshly and severely.
Greasing the Slopes
One sure way to grease the slopes for one's spouse to slide into another person's arms (and bed) is to harp and carp at them all the time. This is the fertilizer the devil and his filthy crew use to make the marital grass look greener elsewhere.
Scripture encourages the dominant note of marriages to be one of nurturing and nourishing (Eph. 5:29), not one of criticism and condemnation. When criticism must be dispensed, gentleness and humility are the watchwords (Gal. 6:1).
Here is a good rule of thumb. Treat the faults of others as graciously as you treat your own. Thomas a' Kempis has said well, "He that well and rightly considers his own works, will find little cause to judge harshly of another." When we, through the Law, see the enormity of our sin and through the Gospel see the surpassing love of Christ's forgiveness, we receive grace to treat others graciously.
The afternoon drive to Frank's house to meet with a traumatized husband and a soon-to-be-traumatized wife went all too quickly. Before I knew it, I was walking up to the front door of Kim's and Frank's home. To my surprise it was open.
Instincts told me to ignore the door bell and enter. As I stepped into the foyer, the sobbing and weeping of an emotionally disheveled couple drew me further. Moving into the next room, a startling sight caught my eyes. Frank had his arms around Kim. No, he was not hurting nor harming her, but holding her...tenderly and sensitively.
On my way over to their home, I had
prepared several short speeches for possible scripts. However, no speeches were
prepared for this scenario. This blessed dilemma had my tongue tied in
Kim and Frank finally sensed my presence. Noticing the astonished look on my face, Frank spoke: "Pastor, I am sorry I did not wait for you to get here. I just could not wait. I decided to confront Kim with the news before you came."
"That's.. .that's okay," I sputtered.
The Awesome Power of Absolution
Pausing for a few moments, Frank proceeded to explain what had happened. With a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes, he spoke humbly from the heart, "I told Kim that if Jesus could forgive me all my sins, I could forgive her of this!"
Frank's awesome words of absolution were words sent from heaven. They stunned me. They broke down Kim's defenses. They melted her heart and moved mine.
Spoken sincerely and simply, Frank's words had a Damascus Road effect upon Kim. The word of forgiveness in Christ's name had turned mourning into a new morning. Forgiveness planted faith and from faith flowed hope.
Frank allowed me to have a few minutes alone with Kim. He sensed that she needed to have a few private moments to speak to her pastor. After brief counsel with Kim, I asked Frank to join her for a moment of prayer and the benediction. Then I urged them, by the mercies of Christ, to attend church the following Sunday. There they would find added help and healing in God's forgiveness to begin putting the past behind them and moving ahead with God's grace.
Returning to my car, I felt like pinching myself to make sure that what I had witnessed was real and not some kind of dream. It was not a dream. It was a miracle.
It was a miracle born as a result of Frank's remarkable and loving confession--a confession born not of flesh and blood, but of the Spirit of God through the forgiveness that Christ brings.
Through the mirror of the Law, the Holy Spirit had enabled Frank to recognize his own sin and how it contributed to driving Kim into another person's arms. Evidently, from the time Frank and I had ended our phone conversation, he had done a lot of soul searching. Through the Word, the Spirit had made him "poor in spirit" that he might "mourn" over his sin and in "meekness" inherit a bit of the earth (Matt. 5:3-5).
Through the mirror to God's heart, the cross, the Holy Spirit enlightened Frank to see the greatness of Christ's love and the gift of love--forgiveness. This gift became the cornerstone of his confession. On this cornerstone, he found footing to stand tall and pardon Kim of her sin as well as admit to Kim his sin.
The Movement of Love
Note well the progression of the confession. It began with God's love in Christ. It moved to the gift of forgiveness of sins. From there faith followed, and a wondrous word of absolution came forth. The hymn writer puts it nicely:
"Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be."
(Hymn 91, Verse 1, Lutheran Worship)
It was the forgiveness of Christ that first thawed Frank's heart and then defrosted Kim's soul. By grace through faith in Christ, forgiveness had come to this hurting household. By God's grace the marriage of Kim and Frank was saved. The doctrine of justification, which is really the doctrine of forgiveness, had rescued, resurrected, and restored another relationship.
The Mirror of the
Later, I met with Kim and Frank to offer added support. Ongoing encouragement in a fallen world is always necessary. The good news of forgiveness must be spoken to our assurance-needing hearth all the time. Everyday, we need to have our minds massaged by the message that God's forgiveness in Christ is free and full. No sin is too large, no sins are too many, and no conditions must be met to usher in the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ.
It was this last point where Kim and Frank were struggling and stumbling days later when they came to my office. Unwittingly, they were allowing a work they thought they must do, to obscure the great work Christ had done. They needed to understand the crucial distinction between forgiving and forgetting.
Granted, good forgivers tend to be good forgetters. By not dwelling on the past, they can move forward. They don't seek, as one veteran pastor once told me, "to reopen old cow pies." That is a situation where both parties become losers!
Forgiving Equals Forgetting ???
Early in one of the follow-up sessions, Kim and Frank expressed the frustration they carried because they were unable to "forget" the affair. A zillion cues would wing it to the forefront of their minds. Harboring the notion that "failure to forget is just another excuse to fail to forgive," they were miserable.
I cringe at literature which implies that in order to forgive someone, you must delete from your brain all data relating to the past offense that made you its target. Sort of a spiritual shock therapy. This counsel, brought to you by Job's friends, advises that if you have not forgotten, then you have not forgiven.
Correct Gospel Teaching
Correct gospel teaching does two things. It gives God glory and brings poor sinners comfort. The equation that forgiving means mental forgetting does neither, for it fails to properly divide Law and Gospel.
Let's examine this thesis. Is it true that forgiveness and forgetfulness are synonymous buddies? Does anyone really think that Kim and Frank could ever erase the knowledge of this affair from their minds? Short of sheer memory loss, the awareness of the affair could not be edited out of their craniums. The knowledge of the affair would likely go with them to the grave.
At stake here is the idea that forgiveness is contingent upon our forgetfulness. Examining this under the microscope of God's Word, we see the germ of legalism. "Legalism" is a word meaning "salvation by works." Speaking about "salvation by works," Scripture says that it just doesn't work! We are saved by grace alone, Jesus alone, faith alone (Eph. 2:8,9; Gal. 3:10; Acts 16:31).
To assert that to forgive means to forget
is to base forgiveness not only on what Jesus has done, but also on what we
must do; namely, remove mental recollections from our mind. Beloved,
"forgetting" is not a requirement for forgiveness. Forgiveness is a purely 100
percent gift (Rom.
4:24)! No conditions. It's free! Free! Free! Free!
A Closer Look at Scripture
One suspects that this dangerous notion, that forgiveness entails forgetfulness, springs from the misreading of certain passages in Scripture. For example, the Bible does say that God will "no longer remember sins" (Jer. 31:34). Interpreted apart from the rest of Scripture, one could conclude, "If God does not remember sins, then we should not remember them either." Such a conclusion attacks the very nature and promises of God.
Concerning the nature of God, the Bible states that He knows all things (Ps. 139:1-4). To teach that God is prone to a divine lapse in memory is more than precarious. Even after His bodily resurrection from the dead, Jesus cognitively remembered Peter's sinful threefold denial (John 21:15 ff) despite forgiving Him (John 20:22-23; 2 Cor. 5:19).
How then do we line up the verse of Scripture that says of God, "And their sin I will remember no more" (Jer. 31:34) with other portions of Scripture that testify God is all-knowing (Ps. 139:1-4; John 21:17)? We line it up by obtaining a proper understanding of the meaning of the Hebrew word for "remember"--"zachar."
In matters pertaining to God's no longer "remembering" sin, "zachar" does not mean God is intellectually forgetful but that He WILL NOT GET EVEN. He WILL NOT GET EVEN because He GOT EVEN when He made His Son, Jesus, the atonement price for our sin and the sin of the world (1 John 2:1). In other words, He FORGOT our sins when He REMEMBERED that they were nailed on the cross.
Once Kim and Frank understood that "no longer remembering" sins was a matter of NOT GETTING EVEN rather than FORGETTING, they could breathe easier and move ahead without the misplaced weight of the Law on their backs. Through all of this they learned that to forgive means that by the grace of God, one will strive to not bring up the past sins of others.
For good marriages, the good riddance of the score-keeper syndrome is essential. It keeps the lines of communication open. It allows old wounds time to be healed. It is also the way of love. In describing the NOT GETTING EVEN side of love, St. Paul wrote:
"Love has good manners and does not pursue selfish advantage. It is not touchy. IT DOES NOT KEEP ACCOUNT OF EVIL or gloat over the wickedness of other people" (I Cor. 13:5-6 Phillips).
Intimately related to the concept of
FORGIVENESS and equally needed in Christian marriage is the Gospel-given
quality known as FORBEARANCE. Spouses need to forbear with one another because
at times they can really be unbearable. In discussing the "bond of peace"
between and among Christians, St. Paul enjoins them to live a life "with all
humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in
love" (Eph. 4:2
FORGIVENESS and FORBEARANCE go hand in hand. The first trait deals with not seeking to get even with someone who has wronged us. The latter virtue is the ability to put up with an individual's shortcomings and peculiarities.
Face it, after the wedding vows new faults have a way of surfacing. Everything from who controls the thermostat to how the socks are folded can become irritants that call for forbearance. Needed is no-fault insurance. Mark Twain was right when he said, "Love is blind, but marriage is a good optometrist." No wonder St. Paul exhorted Ephesian couples to "generously make allowances for each other because you love each other" (Eph. 4:2 Phillips).
I know my mate must put up with plenty of my faults and faux pas. Often, when Jan talks to me, I am wrapped up in a pastoral concern and she must call out repeatedly "earth to Peter, earth to Peter." After 21 years of marriage, I still have the lunkhead habit of putting empty water bottles or milk cartons in the refrigerator. The comedian Seinfeld had me pegged when he said that most "men don't watch television, they just wonder what is on the other channels."
A number of writers around the world and from different eras have recognized the need for forbearance. A French proverb states that "a good husband should be deaf and a good wife blind." Various sages from Martin Luther to Ben Franklin have quipped to the effect, "Before marriage keep both eyes open; after marriage keep only one eye open!"
No Perfect Spouses
All these observations teach the need for forbearance, as well as the need to remember that there are no perfect spouses. If a person is expecting perfection or near perfection from their spouse, then one has a superficial view of sin--one's own, as well as that of one's spouse. Only one Person qualified as a perfect spouse, and He got away! He was Jesus (2 Cor. 5:21). By divine plan He remained single in order that He might single-mindedly go to the cross to provide the forgiveness and love needed to hold together marriages.
There are no utopian unions of man and woman. To expect a perfect marriage is to invite fractured fairy tales. Because each person in the marriage is, as the ancient liturgy sets forth, "a poor miserable sinner," a wellspring of forbearance is always needed.
Forbearance and forgiveness grow wherever God's Word of Law and Gospel guide and gear hearts and homes. Regular reading of God's Word reduces fault-finding in the following manner. If the sin-exposing Law of God is read correctly, then we will see that we, ourselves, have committed an astronomical number of sins (Matt. 18:23). Such a realization will keep an honest and humble person from saddling the high horse of pride and plowing over his spouse. John Ruskin has said, "Pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes."
Augustus Toplady, the author of "Rock of Ages, Cleft for me," once estimated that by the time a person reaches the age 20, they have committed a whopping 630,000,000 sins against God. Actually, it is impossible to keep a tally of sin, for as Luther says, "We sin in all we do!" When one considers that all sin is as serious as the one it offends, and that it is always "spitting in God's face" (Num. 12:14). sin is never a minor matter.
Once I asked one of my eighth-grade catechetical students, "How often do. you think that God forgives us?" Dawn's answer was, "Googolplexes!" Her answer was terrific on two accounts. One, the word "googolplex" describes well the enormity of our sin, for googolplex is a term which signifies I with 100 zeroes behind it. Two, in the dictionary the word "googolplexes" comes just before the word "gospel." The Gospel is the good news that though we sin against God "googolplexes" of times, He declares us, because of His dear Son, "not guilty," "forgiven," "justified" (Rom. 4:5).
While it is the Law of God that can knock a
rough rider off his or her high horse, it is the Gospel that enables us to ride
into the Holy City on a donkey with humility and gentleness (Matt. 21:5). In light of
the good news that for Jesus' sake God drives away sin "as far as the east is
from the west" (Ps.
103:12), Christian couples find grace to forgive and forbear. Through the
Gospel couples can find strength to, like God, put sin behind their back (Is. 38:17).
A Look at Luke!
Intimately connected to forgiveness is love. We see this in the story of Jesus and the sinful woman (Luke 7:36-50). Here Jesus declares a woman with a notorious past forgiven! By freely forgiving her, He places her in a right relationship with God (justification).
This good news made her a new creature. Full of joy and love, she served the Savior with gladness. All of this moved Jesus to say of her, "That is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; as a result, she loved much. But he who has little forgiven, loves little" (Free Translation, Luke 7:47). In short, where the appreciation of forgiveness of sin is Tom Thumb-like, love will be Lilliputian-like.
The Wide-ranging Dimensions of Forgiveness
The wide-ranging dimensions of the gift of forgiveness of sins, a gift from God which creates faith and love, affirms the power of this gift. It is a gift that resurrected Frank's and Kim's marriage from the ash heaps. It is a gift from Christ through the Church that can renew any marriage. It is an awesome gift because behind the gift stands the towering cross on which the Lord of love, Jesus Christ, was crucified for the sins of the world (John 1:29).
The impulses married couples need for truly loving each other find their origin in the gift of "forgiveness of sins." It is not a gift given in isolation. Connected to it are all the gifts of heaven: God's grace, the Holy Spirit, Christ's merits, justification, life, reconciliation, and salvation.
Since the treasures of heaven are linked to
this grand gift, FORGIVENESS OF SINS, how vital it is that we are embraced by
it continually and not sporadically. So that the love in our marriage might not
dry up but well up, we need to recall how God dispenses this gift. To this end;
the continuing significance of our baptism should not be overlooked. Many
Christians forget, says Luther, that "Baptism is in force all through life,
even until death, yes...even to the Last Day."
Daily Repentance Stirs the Mighty Waters of Baptism
In the gift of forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit stirs the waters of our baptism. As He stirs the waters through daily repentance, He drowns the Old Adam and brings to the surface our New Adam. It is the New Adam, the creature of love, who daily rises to build the marriage (Eph. 4:22ff).
Beneath the keyboard of my computer are the words of Luther's Morning and Evening prayers. These prayers of repentance prod me to see my constant need to repent! Through repentance the Spirit stirs the waters of Holy Baptism with God's "yes" in Jesus Who accepts the sinner!
When Luther declared in the first of his 95 Theses that "the whole life of the Christian was to be a continual repentance," this was beautiful baptism language. It was a call to that blessed daily death called "Baptism." In Baptism we are brought into union with Christ (Rom. 6:3). It is this union which can feed the marriage union. By daily repentance of our sins, we stake to the cross the arch enemy of any marriage, our sinful nature.
Troubled Marriages--Little Repentance
Over the years I have observed that troubled marriages invariably are short on apologies and weak in the realm of personal repentance. Hard-to-live-with spouses find it extra hard to apologize to their partners, because they are not in the healthy habit of apologizing to God. It is too bad that movie Tommyrot makes matters worse by dispensing sonic-debris statements such as, "Love means that you never have to say you're sorry!" That may apply to Jesus, but it certainly does not apply to us sinners.
The Super Supper
In addition to the gift of Baptism, God has given the Church another lifeline of love:
Two thousand years ago on Maundy Thursday,
the night on which He was betrayed, Jesus instituted this meal (Matt. 26:17). It was a
new Passover meal. God's ancient Passover was a rich, redemptive supper. It
celebrated the Lord's deliverance of the Children of Israel from Egypt's bonds
of slavery. It marked God's angel of death passing over the sins of the
firstborn in every household where blood covered the doorposts of their
domiciles (Ex. 11).
A Meal to Help us Love
The new Passover meal, the Lord's Supper, is a meal that enables couples to live in love and peace through the forgiveness of sins that Jesus Christ brings (Matt. 26:28). It is superior to the old Passover. The old offered the blood of bulls, rams, and lambs. The new offers the very body and blood of Christ. The old pointed to the Gospel. The new is the Gospel. The old brought life-giving Passover blessings to the firstborn of God's Israel. The new brings life-giving Passover blessings to all who are properly instructed and receive it in faith.
Upon proper instruction, Christians partake of the true body and blood of the Selfless One, Jesus Christ (Matt. 26:28). The Early Christian Church in Africa referred to the Lord's Supper simply and sublimely as "LIFE." They realized that this meal, like baptism, offered the treasures from heaven.
At the beginning of this chapter, we quoted Dr. Billy Graham, who said, "The key to a good marriage is two good forgivers." To find the house for this key, one need only look to the household of faith, the Church. Through the Church, Christ has instituted a special office. It is known as the OFFICE OF THE KEYS. Our Small Catechism defines this Office:
The OFFICE OF THE KEYS is that special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.
The Biblical basis for the Office of the Keys is throughout the Scriptures, but especially in John 20:22-23. In this passage we see the extraordinary commission authorized by Jesus for the Church "to forgive sins!" The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of forgiveness. In Baptism, in the Lord's Supper, and in the proclamation of the Gospel, the key to heaven and the key to good marriages is distributed--FORGIVENESS OF SINS. By this, the Church lives and couples love. Lifelines and loveliness together!
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