Grace Culture – the importance of swift repentance and forgiveness

I believe that a grace culture is one where we are quick to seek forgiveness, express sorrow and repentance, to offer forgiveness and to seek reconciliation.  This reflects the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount which is all about what it means to be saturated in God’s love and grace so that we enjoy him, becoming the happy (blessed) people of God.

Quick to put things Right

Here is Jesus speaking in Matthew 5:23-24

“So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you,  leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.”

When we look at these verses, we tend to think in religious terms because of the reference to the Temple and offering sacrifices. So, I have often heard these words used in the context of communion and being right with each other before we share the bread and wine. Well, that certainly seems to be one relevant application, especially given Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11.  However, the focus on ritual may lead us to miss the bigger application. At this stage, it is helpful to remember two things. First of all, that our whole lives are worship and our act of sacrifice (Romans 12).

Secondly, for the Jews, there would have been few things, if anything at all, more important than bringing their sacrifices to the temple. Indeed, given this would have formed part of an annual pilgrimage and that there is nothing to say that the wronged person was present at the temple, the potential for upheaval, leaving the queue, returning home and finding the person may well have meant that the opportunity to sacrifice was missed that year. I have previously compared this to being invited to speak at the Keswick Convention and as you take the stage realising you need to be reconciled with someone back home.

The point is that if our whole lives are sacrificial worship and if there is something that Jesus places ahead of the most important acts of religious worship, then we have no excuse for failing to be quickly reconciled.  I have not got until Sunday and the breaking of bread to sort things out.  Repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation take priority over preparing a sermon, getting to work, enjoying relaxation and rest.  It is that important. The thrust of the message, is that we should go and get right with our brother now.

Quick to forgive

Paul in 2 Corinthians 2 writes:

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.[1]

Some people believe that the person Paul is writing about is the man in 1 Corinthians 5 whom the church have been called to apply discipline to. However, the text does not specify this to be the case and instead of a sexual moral failure, Paul’s focus is on the man’s personal relationship and the sorrow caused to the apostle.  He urges the church, after discipline to exercise forgiveness and compassion. Paul does not even mention whether or not there has been repentance (though I think it right to assume there has been). Forgiveness here includes providing comfort to the person. I assume that comfort is not so much about tissues and hugs as it is about encouraging and counselling the man back into faith and fellowship.

The point is this. Just as when we are in the wrong and need to confess, repent and seek forgiveness, so too when we have been wronged, we should not delay in seeking to resolve things. We should be quick to say “I am sorry” and quick to say “I forgive.”

The need for follow up “comfort” understanding the Biblical implications of that word mean that speedy forgiveness does not mean that we duck our responsibility, through body ministry, to keep challenging, correcting and discipling the person in question.

Why is speed of the essence?

I want to suggest that there are two reasons why we should not delay our apologies or our forgiveness. The first is that sadly, we can use or withhold those words in order to exercise control over others. So long as I continue to refuse an apology, I leave someone wounded. I ensure that they do not experience love and kindness from me.  So long as I refuse to forgive, I choose to hold that person in my debt.

This leads to the second reason. You will remember the story Jesus told of the unforgiving servant. He owed much and was forgiven by the king. He was owed a little and refused to forgive.  As I’ve reflected on the Sermon on the Mount, I’ve been reminded again and again of this incredible parable.  The reason that we keep these short accounts is because we are aware of our own sin and the grace and forgiveness shown to us.

Conclusion

Finally, we have this wonderful example from God himself. This is how he treats us.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
    and his mercy is over all that he has made.”[2]

As we would want to be treated and indeed have been treated, that’s exactly how we should treat others.


[1] 2 Corinthians 2:5-11.

[2] Psalm 145:8-9.

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