March 10, 2013

Happy Are Those Whose Transgression is Forgiven

Passage: Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.


It is not uncommon to hear people talk about the “less fortunate”.  The question I have for you is this; when you hear or speak of the “less fortunate” who, in your mind, are the “fortunate” ones?  We typically use this term in a material sense.  The person who won a lottery would be a fortunate one; perhaps too a person who inherited wealth; maybe even those whose work is compensated such that they can afford to purchase a home or live what we deem a comfortable life.

Permit me a related question; who are the people in life that we consider are “to be congratulated”?  People who achieve things come to mind.  A person may well have an income sufficient for home ownership but it is those who manage their affairs prudently to actually buy a home in which to house themselves that we congratulate.  We congratulate the person who completes a course of study, lands a job promotion, or finds a husband or wife; we congratulate a couple when a child born to them.

The Hebrew word translated “happy” at the beginning of the first two stanzas of Psalm 32 has both of these meanings—“fortunate” and “to be congratulated”.  It is not often that we would link the idea that someone is “fortunate” with the gospel experience of God’s forgiveness of sin or that a person is “to be congratulated” for knowing that the Lord imputes no iniquity to them.  But this is precisely what the Psalmist indicates.  The Psalmist goes so far as to say that knowing your sins forgiven is the key to a happy life. Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

I have read much of what is called the self-help literature.  Most of the advice for a happy or satisfying life is about achievements and relationships and reaching for lofty goals—indeed important things.  Rarely have I seen the idea of knowing your sins forgiven included as even a component for such a life.  Yet it is here that the gospel points us.

1. “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin,” prays the Psalmist.  The implication of the forgiveness announced in the gospel is that we are guilty.  I read of a recent study that explores how people deal with guilt

In this study some volunteers were asked to think and write a short essay about a time they had been mean-spirited or unkind to someone. Others were asked to write about a routine event in their lives. Then they were asked to put their hand in a bucket of water and keep it there as long as possible. Some of the buckets were filled with agonizing ice cold water while others with warm water. Then they were asked to reflect on the pain (if any) they experienced and any feelings of guilt. Researchers found that those that were feeling guilty of an unkind act inflicted upon themselves more pain—that is, they kept their hand in the agonizing ice water for longer than those who had thought and written about a routine event in their lives. The "guilty ones" reported that feeling the pain somewhat alleviated their feelings of guilt.

The Psychological Science study concluded: "Researchers explain that we tend to associate pain with justice, as a form of punishment. So when we're feeling bad about an immoral act we committed, experiencing pain makes us feel like we have rebalanced the scales of justice, and therefore it resolves our guilt."

It may be true that people reach for some sort of self-punishment to resolve the guilt we feel.  However, can punishment or recompense—as important as they may be—fix the harm done by our sinful treatment of one another?  I think of the story of when the tax collector Zacchaeus met Jesus that day in Jericho.  Zacchaeus had gained significant wealth, some of it by fraudulently overcharging people in taxation.  When he experienced the forgiveness of Jesus he paid back four-fold any he had defrauded.  He went beyond the recompense levels set out in the Law of Moses.  Still, as important as recompense is in our practises of justice can recompense undo all the harm done for those defrauded?  Are these things simply a matter of scales that can be rebalanced by our actions?  If we steal is it all fixed simply by returning the stolen property?

The forgiveness held out in the gospel—here in the Psalm and in Jesus parable of the prodigal son—implies that the scales cannot be rebalanced by either punishment or recompense. Forgiveness is required because the only thing that can be done about my sin is to be forgiven of it.

Any discussion of forgiveness, for the believer, begins at the foot of the cross; the cross of Christ ever being the prism though which this is all viewed.  At the cross I am stunned at the price God has paid—Father and Son together—for my forgiveness.  At the same time I am sobered at the depravity in me that necessitated so great a price.  It’s plain that my depravity is oceans deeper than I thought, my heart-condition vastly more serious than I guessed.  After all my theological definitions of sin have been spoken it is clear I still haven’t grasped—will never grasp—what sin means to God.

2.  “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven.”  The Hebrew word translated “transgression” denotes a breaking loose or a turning away from God.  “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6) In this text from Isaiah our turning away from God is described as iniquity.  Many are, at first, surprised by such an idea.  Of all the things I think I may have done wrong this is not among them.  But like the prodigal son in Jesus parable, the realization of the truth that his misery stems from a self-willed turning from the father does not come easily.

In his book Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud identified the tenacious sense of guilt as “the most important problem in the development of civilization.” In fact, he continued, it seems that “the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.”  Freud was notoriously hostile to religion, but, in this one respect, he thought it deserved some grudging credit: The world’s religions “have never overlooked the part played in civilization by a sense of guilt,” which is why they seek “to redeem mankind from this sense of guilt, which they call sin.”  Freud sought to release the patient from guilt’s crushing hold by disarming and setting aside guilt’s moral significance and redesignating it as just another psychological phenomenon.

Whatever one finally thinks of Freud his analysis with respect to guilt seems to me very insightful.  Biblically speaking, we feel guilty because we are.  We have each turned away from that relationship which is life itself.  The resolution according to the Psalmist and Jesus’ parable isn’t to set aside guilt’s moral significance as Freud suggested; the resolution is to acknowledge my sin to God and experience God’s forgiveness of the guilt of my sin.

3.  Dr. Wilfred M. McClay teaches at the University of Tennessee.  In his 2011 essay The Moral Economy of Guilt he makes an astute observation about the current cultural regard of victim status.  He asks, how can one account for the rise of the extraordinary prestige of victims, as a category, in the contemporary world?   “The explanation,” he writes, “is traceable to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution, to discharge one’s moral burden....  Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or to identification with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted and one’s innocence affirmed.”

The gospel announces that the burden of sin has been placed on another; God has discharged our guilt in himself through the death of the Son.  By faith we are forgiven—there remains no need to find substitute means in order to shift guilt.  Each Sunday we include a prayer of confession in our worship; it is evident as we enter the presence of God his holiness reveals that we have fallen short.  The assurance of pardon is spoken because our forgiveness has been secured in the Son.

We trust God for what we cannot do for ourselves.  He has done this for us.  On the one hand this never means anything goes—to confess sin is to purpose to turn from it.  On the other had we can know the freedom of heart that forgiveness brings because our life is hid in Christ.  Very often the person we most urgently need to forgive is ourselves. And since all forgiveness is difficult, then to forgive ourselves may be the most difficult of all.

If we say we can’t forgive ourselves then we want to flagellate ourselves in order to atone for our sin.  Jesus invites us to believe the gospel. The Father ever seeks to welcome us home. The heart of the gospel is this: atonement has already been made for us. We neither dismiss it nor add to it. We simply trust it. There is a peace that passes all understanding; it is found in relationship with Jesus Christ.

4.  For the believer, God’s forgiveness of my sin becomes the ground for the forgiveness of others.  The two are bound together in the prayer our Lord taught us; “forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us.” Our understanding of forgiving ourselves and others unfolds from the cross; the light that the cross sheds will ever be the illumination by which we see everything else concerning forgiveness.

In some quarters much is being made of the health benefits of forgiveness. One news article cited research which indicated that students who procrastinated in studying for an exam—but forgave themselves for doing so—procrastinated less and got a higher grade on a subsequent exam.  Books bearing such titles as Forgiveness: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Get On with Your Life, and Choosing Forgiveness: Your Journey to Freedom, and Forgiveness: The Greatest Healer of All are predicated on forgiveness as a healthy choice.  Dr. Frederic Luskin, director and cofounder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project declares that “forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.”

I don’t mean to disparage these writings in a blanket way.  Indeed the Psalmist says knowing your sins forgiven is a happy thing.  Forgiving others helps us find antidote to the poison of harbouring bitterness in our hearts. The book of Proverbs (15:13) accurately notes, “a happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit.”  However, this modern literature—unlike the Biblical—champions a different emphasis.  In the new dispensation, forgiveness is all about the forgiver and his or her well-being. The motivation for forgiving isn’t because you have been forgiven but because it accords you come kind of personal power.  We often hear Dr Luskin quote “Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge.”

This is not the forgiveness proffered in the gospel; forgiveness isn’t a weapon we wield for getting even.  Please note that we are never asked by God to generate forgiveness of others out of our own resources; we are simply asked not to impede God’s forgiveness from flowing through us and spilling over onto others. We don’t have to generate water in order for it to irrigate what is parched and render it fruitful; all we have to do is not put a crimp in the hose.   All that matters is that we not impede the forgiveness which God has poured upon us and which he intends to course through us and spill over out of us onto others.

When it comes to forgiving others I remind you of some things said from this pulpit before. Forgiveness does not mean that the offence we are called to forgive is slight. It is not the same as saying, “It’s no big deal.”

It does not mean that the offence is excused. To forgive is not to excuse. We excuse what is excusable. What is not excusable, will never be excusable, is also never excused. It can only be forgiven. To forgive is never a shorthand version of, “Oh, it doesn’t matter.” To forgive is to say it matters unspeakably.

Forgiveness does not mean that the person we forgive we regard as a diamond in the rough, good-at-heart. Forgiveness means that the person we forgive we regard as depraved in heart. After all, this is what God’s forgiveness means about you and me.

Forgiveness does not mean that the person we must forgive we must also trust. Many people whom we forgive we shall never be able to trust. The only people we should trust are those who show themselves trustworthy. Forgiveness does mean, however, that the person we can’t trust we shall nonetheless not hate, not abuse, not exploit; we shall not plot revenge against him or bear him any ill-will of any sort.

5.  “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2) Then, as now, many people feel that Jesus is way too forgiving; that the gospel lets people off the hook who should never be let off.

Jesus’ welcome of sinners is never to be equated with romanticizing sin.  Jesus romanticized nothing: not poverty, not sickness, not criminality, certainly not sin or sinners. Nevertheless, he always welcomed sinners. He neither congratulated sin romantically nor condoned sin as inconsequential. At the same time, however, he always received sinners as the people for whom he had been sent.

In the parable he told in answer to the grumbling over forgiveness he spoke of the elder brother who was also invited to join in the celebration.  The question that Jesus left unanswered was did the elder brother go in to the feast.  Would these grumblers join the celebration?

Much of the grumbling over God’s generous provision of forgiveness is born of calculation.  Such calculation both presupposes shallowness and promotes shallowness. It presupposes shallowness in that I plainly think that sin is something I can calculate or measure like sugar or flour or milk. Calculation promotes shallowness in that it confirms over and over the shallowness I began with.

Friends, there is a deep mystery here that is beyond calculation.  As we stand at the cross we cannot compute the price being paid for the forgiveness of sin.  We are invited to trust God that it is done.  The question is will we trust the father and join him in the celebration.

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.