The Power of the Cross (Romans 6:1-14)

You have probably seen the bumper sticker that says this: "Christians aren't perfect, they're just forgiven." What do you think about that?

Or maybe you have heard say something like this. I found it on a blog this week, written by a friend:

I am no better than you. I am likely worse. Please keep that in mind as you read my blog. I am a mess. I am arrogant and stupid. I am selfish and pig-headed. I am confident, and yet a total chicken. I am opinionated and rude. I pretend to know stuff, and speak well "on my feet"... but I know very little, I just have the need to sound smart and together and right. I am lazy and forgetful. I am rarely the person I should be, or the person I really want to be, or the person Jesus created me to be. I am a miserable failure in many ways.

What do you think? The underlying message is that Christians aren't better than anybody else, but they have been forgiven.

Well, I can relate. What's more, I like the honesty. Is there anybody here who can't relate? Sure, we're all broken. We are all sinners. We are very aware that although many of us have come to faith in Christ, we continue to struggle and stumble. We're all there, right?

But today I want to suggest that our lack of change is a real problem. Many of the things my friend says are true of me as well. But I want to change. I'm not talking about perfection, but I do want to be transformed and to experience real change. The problem is that some of us are stuck and we're not really being changed.

A Christian shared her faith with someone at work, and used the phrase "being saved." Listen to what happened:

To which my guy replied that he knew lots of people who said that they were saved, and they seemed to keep right on cheating on their taxes, having trouble with their marriages, fighting with their kids, gossiping about other folks in the office, and so on. And he said they also seemed to get catastrophic illnesses and suffer hardship at about the same rate as everybody else. So life with Christ to him seems like just about every other life, and he doesn't see a compelling reason to make the switch.

She told her pastor about it, and her pastor said this:

"The Same." That's what a friend of mine said Christians should have printed on their T-shirts because we divorce, argue, backbite, become serial killers, and get incarcerated at about the same rate as the general population. Statistically, we're indistinguishable. (From Static by Ron Martoia)

I think that many of us would agree with this assessment. We are Christians, but we continue to struggle. We can relate to why somebody would say, "I am no better than you. I am likely worse." We are not surprised by Christians who sin, or for that matter, with our own struggles.

But I wonder if all of this is symptomatic of a deeper issue. We generally understand about forgiveness and the cross. We get that the cross sets us free from guilt. Maybe we're not as good at understanding the other thing that the cross does. It sets us free from sin's guilt, but it also sets us free from sin's power. The cross means that we don't have to stay captive to sin, just the same as we used to be. We don't have to be "The Same."

I think it's a real problem. That's why I want to look at the power of the cross today. What Jesus accomplished at the cross not only sets us free from the guilt of sin, it also sets us free from sin's power. How can we experience this transformation in our lives so that we experience deep, real, and lasting change? How do we get past this situation in which nothing seems to have changed, and we're still battling the same sins as we ever did?

How We Are Changed

To answer the question of how we can be changed by what Christ accomplished at the cross, I would like to look with you at a passage that lays out more clearly than anywhere else how we can be changed.

Let me give you a bit of background. The apostle Paul has been carefully unpacking what the gospel means. He's outlined how we all stand guilty because we have rebelled against God, and he's also described the consequences of our rebellion. Then Paul gives the amazing news: we have been made right before God, and he has given us a righteousness that is not our own. We have been forgiven and are no longer under judgment. "Therefore," he says, "since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1). The cross has taken away our guilt. That's the first part, and we're pretty good at.

But here's the problem. Have you ever deliberately done something wrong, knowing that you could pray for forgiveness? You do it, pray "Lord, please forgive me," then do it again tomorrow, and so on. If the cross only sets us free from the guilt of sin, this is exactly where we are. We're stuck. We can't do anything except to continue sinning, and then praying for forgiveness.

Somebody's said, "God likes to forgive, I like to sin: what a great relationship!" This is the cycle of sin and forgiveness that most of us are caught in. We sin, God forgives, we sin, God forgives, we sin, God forgives, and so on. Is that all that there is to the gospel, or is there more?

According to the apostle Paul, there is more. We are not just forgiven because of the cross, we are changed. The cross has a power to completely change us and set us free from sin's power. How does this work? To find out, look with me at Romans 6. It's one of the most important passages for understanding how we can be transformed.

Paul makes a surprising statement in verse 2. He's reacting to the way of thinking we just talked about: that because God forgives us, we can sin all that we want. He says in verses 1 and 2: "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?"

Here's the key phrase to understand: "We are those who have died to sin." What does Paul mean by this? He certainly doesn't mean that we aren't tempted by sin, or that we are incapable of sinning. That's not what he means at all. I once heard a preacher say that since he became a Christian, he hadn't struggled with a certain temptation even once. I don't know if he was telling the truth or not, but I know one thing: we do continue to experience temptation. We are still capable of sinning. I don't think that any of us would argue with this.

Here is what Paul means when he says, "We are those who have died to sin." When we became Christians, our relationship to sin changes. It's as dramatic a change as is a change from life to death. We have died - past tense - to sin. Our relationship with sin has changed.

Paul explains exactly how this happened - how our relationship to sin changed so that we're dead to sin - in verses 3-4:

Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

This is pretty deep stuff. It's easy to get sidetracked. Paul is saying that when we become Christians and are baptized, something happens. What exactly happens when we come to faith and are baptized, two events that are always tied together in Scripture? Baptism always takes place right when someone becomes a Christian, not years later.

Here's what Paul means. We are united with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. Through the cross, you are united to the past and the future of Jesus' life. In other words, when Jesus looks at you, he no longer sees your past. He sees Christ's past. He doesn't see your failures and your sins and your brokenness; he sees the righteousness of Jesus Christ. We're forgiven.

Paul also says that we were raised with Christ. Verse 5 says, "If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his." Verses 8-10 say:

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

So here's the power of the cross. When Jesus died, we died along with him. Our spiritual history began at the cross. We were there. In God's sight we were joined to him who actually suffered on it. When Jesus was raised from the dead, we were raised along with him. We are free from the power of sin. You can live a life of obedience now. The power of sin has been terminated once and for all because of what Christ did at the cross.

You may feel like this doesn't apply to you. Here's what you need to know: it doesn't depend on you. All of this, you see, is not about what you have done. It's about what Christ has done. Look at verse 5 again: "If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his." Read that word: certainly. This isn't something that is optional or that only happens sometimes. It doesn't depend on you. This is what God has done for you in Christ.

Tim Keller says, "When we come to Christ, we come with unbelievably small expectations." It's true, isn't it? We rarely grasp what God has done for us in Christ. C.S. Lewis puts it this way in Mere Christianity:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of — throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.

What God is doing in you is no small thing. This is huge. You have died to sin. You are free from its power. Sin no longer has any claims on your life. It's what Augustus Toplady wrote in his famous hymn "Rock of Ages." "Be of sin the double cure: save me from sin's guilt and power."

Live Daily as a New Person

The question is, why don't we live this way? Why do we feel like sin has so much power? This is what is true, but it's not our daily experience. We don't feel like we're dead to sin. It looks like sin has mastery over us. Paul says it's true. How come it doesn't feel like it?

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones gives us a picture that I think might be helpful. Imagine a country in which one group has oppressed another group for centuries. Whenever a member of the enslaved group meets a member of the oppressing group, the member of the oppressing group can order that person around. If they didn't obey, the member of the oppressing group can have him beaten or even killed.

But then a good king comes to power. He decrees freedom for all the slaves. He sets up his soldiers and his police in every town. The oppressed group is free!

But, Lloyd-Jones, that's not all there is to the story. The oppressed group is free. But whenever a member of the enslaved group meets across a member of the oppressing group, having been enslaved for centuries, they tremble and quake. When the members of the oppressing group ordered members of the enslaved group around, they still did it.

The oppressing group didn't have the power to do that anymore. If the group that had been set free had stood up, the oppressing group couldn't have done a thing. But they kept acting like slaves. Although their status had changed, and they were truly free, they hadn't grasped it yet. They hadn't realized. They couldn't live according to it.

Lloyd-Jones concluded his illustration by saying that every Christian in this room is in that condition. We feel like we're still enslaved by sin because we've forgotten who we are. We've forgotten what Christ has done. We have a real status change, but we haven't grasped it. We don't live according to it.

That's why the first real command is this passage is given in verse 11. "In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus." The word count is an accounting term, and it's in present tense. You don't lack any resources. You have everything you need. You just need to count what God has given you and live in light of that reality.

Thelma and Victor Hayes struck it rich. In August of 2005, the Canadian couple won more than $7 million (Canadian) in the lottery.

There are a few additional facts that make the story interesting. According to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission, Thelma and Victor are one of the oldest couples ever to win such a large jackpot. At the time they won, the Hayes' had been married 63 years, and both of them were 89-years-old.

During a televised interview, Thelma and Victor were asked the typical question, "What are you going to do with the money?" The couple responded that, at this stage in life, they were unlikely to become "giddy high spenders." In fact, they intended to remain in the retirement home where they lived.

While her husband planned on buying a Lincoln Town Car, Thelma's personal shopping list contained only one item. She told reporters, "I'm getting a new pair of nylons."

How could someone win a fortune and change nothing but her nylons? In the same way, how can we who have been set free from the guilt and power of sin not live out what Christ accomplished at the cross?

Look with me at verses 12-14:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.

Verse 14 says, "Sin shall no longer be your master." You can read this as a command, but you'd be reading it wrong. It's not a command; it's a promise. Sin shall no longer be your master. It's not allowed. You are free from the power of sin.

That, my friends, is the power of the cross. The next time you see a bumper sticker that says, "Christians aren't perfect, they're just forgiven," or the next time you feel like you'll always be the same, remember that you are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus, because you have been united with him in his death and resurrection. Count on it, and live in light of that reality.

Real Life Community (1 Peter 4:7-11)

Albert Einstein once said, "Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler." There is a power that comes from being simple in the right way, as Einstein said: by being as simple as possible, but not any simpler. That's what we've been trying to do these past few weeks as we've looked at the church and asked, "If you make it as simple as possible, what is the one thing that really matters as a church?"

The one thing that really matters, of course, is that we love one another. Jesus said, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34-35). The last night that he was alive, he demonstrated this priority in his actions, his words, and his prayers. Scripture is clear that if we succeed at everything else but fail at loving each other, we've failed. It's over for us. But if we really love each other, this will be powerful evidence that we are disciples and that the gospel is true.

In other words, when we love one another in the church, we become evidence that the gospel is true. This is far more powerful evidence than arguments or books.

Imagine trying to explain the game of baseball to someone who has never seen a baseball field. You try to explain the pitcher's mound and the diamond and the outfield and the catcher. It would be far easier to explain all of this if you could take this person to an actual field, and walk around pointing to the diamond and the mound as you explain it.

Now imagine explaining the gospel to someone who has never heard of Jesus before. It is far easier to take a person to a group of people who are living the gospel, practicing love and forgiveness and trust, and explain to them what the gospel is like as you look at people who are living it, rather than giving them abstract principles about the gospel. We have the potential of living as the concrete expression of the gospel, so that people can point to us as evidence that the gospel is true - but only if we love each other. Jesus said that the world will know that we are his followers if we love one another.

So my question today is: what does it look like in reality? Maybe you've had the experience of going to McDonalds and looking at the pictures of what you're going to get on the menu. The hamburgers look amazing. Have you ever compared what you get with what's in the picture? I don't recommend it. The hamburger in the picture isn't real. It was real at one point, but somebody took a lot of time to make it look absolutely perfect. Then they sprayed it with stuff to make it look better in the picture. Then they adjusted the lighting, paid a professional to take its picture, and then airbrushed it in the lab. The hamburger you get at the counter was thrown together by a kid in the back and looks nothing like what's in the picture.

We could talk about the airbrushed picture of community, the ideal. As we close this series, though, I want to be more real than that. What does it look like in real life? How does it work in a church like Richview with real people and real life?

To answer this, I want to look with you at some real-life churches who faced the challenge of building real community in a real-life challenging situation. There is nothing theoretical in what we're about to look at.

Peter, a disciple of Christ, wrote this letter to churches in the area we would call Turkey today. If you read Peter's whole letter, you discover that the churches he's writing to were experiencing persecution. In other words, Peter is writing to churches that are experiencing stress. This is not some ideal community in perfect circumstances in someone's imagination. These are real people facing real challenges, and Peter addresses how they can truly love each other in this context.

This gives me hope, because we too are real people facing real challenges. We are not some ideal community. We are real people who disappoint each other and who face some challenging circumstances. So the question is: in real life circumstances, with real life people, what does it look like?

Well, Peter tells us. Let's read it together. It's found in 1 Peter 4:7-11:

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms. If you speak, you should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If you serve, you should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Here's what I want to do with this text. I want this text to function as a kind of a vision of what Richview could look like as we develop as a community. I want to begin by looking at the big picture, which makes community possible, and then look at the specific instructions that Peter gives for how a group like us can become a true community. Then I want to look at what we can do to make this a reality.

This is a vision of what we could become as a church. It isn't the airbrushed ideal. This is real-life stuff of what we could become. But before we can follow his instructions, it's important, I think, that we see the big picture.

The Big Picture

So here's the big picture. Peter doesn't just say, "Act this way." he gives us a theological framework for how we are to act. We've already seen in previous weeks that the gospel is the basis for our community. The only way that we can love one another as Jesus commands is through is work at the cross. Peter gives us two other big picture items which frame our becoming a real life community of believers.

So here's the big picture. First, verse 7 says, "The end of all things is near." Have you ever been at home not doing what you're supposed to be doing when you hear a car in the driveway? Somebody returns home, and you go, "Oh man, I had better do what I am supposed to be doing before they walk in the door." It's exactly that dynamic that Peter talks about.

Peter says, "The end of all things is near." Look back at verse 5: "But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead." It reminds me of another passage, from James 5:8-9:

You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near. Don't grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

Here is the big picture, and the motivation for becoming a real life community: because the Judge is standing at the door, and because we are about to be judged for how well we have loved one another. The picture of the coming judgment is a powerful motivator for us to love one another as Jesus has commanded us.

Now think about this for a minute. When we think of the day of judgment, if we think of it at all, we think about giving account for our individual lives, don't we? But there's a sense in which we will not only have to give account for our individual lives, but we will also have to give account as a church. One day, those of us who are part of Richview will have to give account for the type of church that we have been. Peter gives us the picture of Jesus standing at the door, and of having to give account to God at the judgment.

It's easy for us to dismiss what Peter says about the end being near, because it's two thousand years later and Christ still hasn't returned, and we still haven't had to give account. From a biblical perspective, though, Peter was exactly right. Biblically, the entire period in between the resurrection of Jesus and the second coming are referred to as "the last days." All the major events in God's plan have occurred. Now all things are ready for Christ to return and to rule. Therefore, in light of his imminent return, work your way backwards and be the type of community you're supposed to be today.

The other big picture concept is found in verse 11:

If you speak, you should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If you serve, you should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

If you go back to the baseball analogy again, it's important to understand the end game. What is the goal when you're playing baseball? If you think that the object of baseball is to keep the uniforms clean - and some baseball moms have thought this! - then you'll never dive for a ball, or slide into second base. If you think the object of baseball is to socialize with the other team, you'll play the game differently. If you think the goal of baseball is to win the game, and you buy in, you will do everything possible - even to the point of discomfort and injury - to win the game. Players have played with major injuries, with the help of painkillers, to win the game.

Peter says that the end game of the church is that God gets the glory and power for ever and ever. In other words, the end game of the church is the glory of God. That is why we exist. We don't exist to keep the uniforms clean for to socialize or to enjoy church. We exist to bring God glory. The minute that we think we exist for our own comfort or convenience, we've missed the point.

Put this together, and you have the big picture. The end of all things is near. We will soon give account to Jesus for how we live out our fellowship in the gospel. We exist not for our own comfort or convenience or for our ease, but for God's glory.

Given this big picture, what does community look like in real life?

Community in Real Life

Peter gives a list of seemingly unrelated commands in verses 7 to 11. Lists are some of the hardest parts of the Bible to preach or to apply. It's easy to come up with a laundry list of commands: "Wash the car, buy milk, pick up the kids, and peel the potatoes." What's hard is pulling together the essence of the seemingly unrelated commands.

I believe that Peter isn't just listing random commands, but that he's getting at something. Listen to what he says again:

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms. If you speak, you should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If you serve, you should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Peter says that in light of Jesus' soon return and the upcoming judgment, and in light of our purpose as a church, this is how we are to act. But what binds these commands together? Why these commands and not others?

I don't know what you think, but I'd like to take a guess. The one thing that all of these commands seem to have in common is that they are about how we relate together within the church. This is how the church is to act as we relate to each other. A failure to do anything that he commands here will lead to a failure of community. On the other hand, if we do the things that he lists here, it will lead to greater community. These seemingly unrelated commands are about life together as God's people, in context of the end and God's glory as our goal.

In other words, this list gives us a bit of practical help. Instead of saying, "Just be loving to one another," Peter gives us four very practical things we can do to develop community within the church. These aren't unrelated commands. These are four very practical steps that we can take to develop community at Richview.

Let's look at how we're doing at each one.

Think straight - "Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray." Peter says that we're supposed to maintain cool and balanced heads, to exercise self control and moderation. We think about and evaluate situations maturely and correctly. Eugene Peterson puts it this way: "Take nothing for granted. Stay wide-awake." The way we'll know we've done this is if we're praying together. When God's people are praying, it's evidence that they have their heads screwed on straight.

A good, clear mind is the best foundation for prayer. When we believe that the end of history is near, and that we exist for God's glory, it will energize our prayer life and lead to a special focus.

So here's my challenge: what can you do to develop an alert and sober mind that is the foundation for praying that we will develop a church that loves one another and glorifies God? Prayer is essential for this to happen. Peter tells us to take whatever steps are necessary to get to this point of praying.

Love - Second, Peter says in verse 8, "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins." This is obviously important. Love is the "above all" virtue. It's a perennial solution to the problems we face as a community of Christians. Love is not an optional extra, but a central part of the faith.

Peter says, "Above all, love each other deeply." The picture he uses is what was used in Peter's day of athletes straining as they tried to win the game. Peter's saying, don't slack off when it comes to love. Love one another strenuously. Again, Peterson translates it, "Love each other as if your life depended on it." If you think it takes work to love some people, you're right. But Peter says that we are to do the work necessary, to strain ourselves and do whatever it takes to love one another.

The idea is not that we develop feelings, although feelings are nice. The idea is that we work hard at acting in love. The way we'll know that we are loving is when we experience what Peter describes: "love covers over a multitude of sins." Have you ever been in a situation in which every word is viewed with suspicion, every action is liable to misunderstanding? That's the opposite of what Peter is talking about. When we love each other, offenses will happen, but they will be overlooked and forgotten because we love each other. We will relate to each other in an atmosphere of grace.

So here's the command: not to feel a certain way about others, but to act in love so that you treat others with grace. Work hard at it. Do it strenuously, not half-heartedly. Love each other deeply.

Show hospitality - Third, Peter says, "Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling." In those days, Christians would often travel. There weren't networks of decent hotels, and hotels were known for immorality. That's why it was important to be willing to entertain strangers, to have them in your homes. One of the qualifications for church leaders was that you had to be hospitable.

I love the touch of reality in this command: "without grumbling." I can picture the whispers: "How long is she going to stay?" "Can you believe his appetite?" Hospitality can be an exasperating task. It comes at a price.

Today, it's not so much about a lack of good hotels, but hospitality, or entertaining strangers, is more needed than ever. Take a look around you. Do you see any strangers? One of the things I hear a lot now is, "I don't know who everyone is at Richview." One of the best ways to fix that is to be hospitable. Hospitality has a cost. It will be exasperated at times. You may even feel like grumbling. But Peter says, "Be hospitable." At the very least, invite someone you don't know to Swiss Chalet. Even better, open your home to strangers so they won't be strangers any more. Be hospitable.

Finally, share the gifts God has given us - Verse 10 says, "Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms." Peter then gives two examples of spiritual gifts: speaking and serving. Peter says that God has entrusted something to each of us that the whole body needs. Listen to that again: God has entrusted something to you that the entire church needs. Peter says, "Use what God has given you for the benefit of others. They need it!"

The picture he gives is that of a steward. A steward was responsible for managing someone else's property, distributing wages and food to its members. It is sort of like the payroll company that our church has hired. The church pays the payroll company, then the payroll company is supposed to take that money and pay each of the staff and the government. Imagine if the church paid the payroll company, and the payroll company said, "No, we've decided not to pay the employees this month. Something else came up."

That's exactly what it's like with us. God has entrusted each of us with something that the whole church needs. When we don't share it, we've taken something that God intended for everyone's benefit and kept it to ourselves. That's called stealing. Peter says, "Use what God has given you, which is different from what he's given everyone else, for the benefit of the entire church." We administer it, but it isn't ours. We are responsible, though, for how it is used.

Now put this all together. What does a church community look like that takes the gospel seriously? They pray, they act with love and grace, they show hospitality, and they share whatever God has given them. What will Richview look like when we take the gospel seriously and live out God's command to love one another? We will pray. We will create an atmosphere of grace. We will open up our homes to each other, even to strangers among us. And we will use what God has given us for the benefit of the whole body.

This is what it looks like in real life. None of this is hard to understand. The only question today is, will we do it? If we fail to do these things, we won't have community. If we do these things, we will be ready to meet the Judge who is standing at the door, and we will bring glory to God for ever and ever.

Here's what I'd like you to do. Look at this list and ask what you will have to do to make this happen. Then let's pray and commit to being doers, not just hearers, of God's Word. I'm going to give you a minute to look at these commands, and then lead us in a prayer of commitment as we ask God what we have to do differently, so we can live out God's commands for his glory.

Forgiveness (Colossians 3:11-15)

I'm going to make a couple of bold assumptions this morning. My first assumption is that you have somebody that you need to forgive. My guess is that every single person here has been hurt or wronged by somebody else, and that you have been hurt. I've rarely found a person who has said that forgiveness is an irrelevant topic. We all need to forgive because we have all been hurt. Am I right? Everybody has somebody they need to forgive.

I'm making another assumption this morning, and it's that all of us want to forgive. We don't always feel like it. When something happens and we've been hurt, the last thing we feel like doing is to forgive. But most of us, deep down, realize that refusing to forgive is not a good option. We really do want to forgive if we could figure out how.

For some of us, it's for selfish reasons. I think it's Anne Lamott who said, "Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die." Not forgiving is toxic. It kills us. A psychiatrist has said that if he could teach a third of his patients to forgive, to let go of their anger, almost all of the problems he is treating them for would go away. So some of us want to forgive because we don't want the damage that not forgiving causes in our lives.

But the real reason why we want to forgive is much deeper and more profound. Regardless of whether or not forgiveness benefits us in any way, we need to forgive because God commands it. It's a theme that comes up over and over again in Scripture. We read a passage this morning in which Jesus told Peter to forgive without limits. Another time, Jesus said: "If you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matthew 6:14-15). Forgiveness is a sign that we have been forgiven, and a refusal to forgive is evidence that we have never been forgiven by God. Forgiven people forgive.

We also want to forgive because it's so crucial for our church. Loving each other, we've discovered, is the one thing that really matters. It's what Jesus demonstrated by his example. It's what he commanded and prayed for. It's what will validate our authenticity as followers of Jesus Christ. Andrew Murray said:

When the world sees a church from which selfishness is banished, then it will acknowledge the divine mission of Christ because he has wrought such a wonder, a community of men [and women] who truly and heartily love one another.

So I'm assuming that we all have someone to forgive, and that we all would like to be able to forgive. But I don't want to leave this as a theoretical issue. At the end of the service today you will be given an olive branch. An olive branch is a symbol of peace. We're going to look at God's Word today on how to forgive other people. Your assignment this week is to take this olive branch home with you as a symbol of the forgiveness that we are all called to offer each other. You may be called upon to physically offer the olive branch to someone else as a token of forgiveness.

Before we do this, though, we need help from God. How can we become the type of church where we forgive each other? To answer this question, I'd like to look at Paul's letter to the Colossians. Join with me as we read Colossians 3:11-15.

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

How do we forgive? You could spend weeks exploring what Paul says in this passage. Today, though, I'd like to suggest three things we can do as we move towards being a church that practices forgiveness. The three things are this:

  • Understand who we are
  • Base your forgiveness on what Christ has done
  • Act! (with the Spirit's help)

Let's take each one of these and explore how we can become a forgiving church.

Understand Who We Are

The first action we can take as a church is to understand who exactly we are. This has a negative and a positive side in this passage. Let's start by looking at the negative.

The negative part is the assumption in this passage that we are going to have a need for forgiveness within the church. Paul is writing to the church in Colossae. As far as we know, he wasn't writing to address any particular relational problem in the church. It's more of a theological book. But Paul just assumes that being part of a church community means that we will have to learn how to bear with each other and forgive. He just assumes that from time to time we're going to have grievances with each other, and we'll need to learn how to forgive. There is no ideal church in which everybody gets along. If you are part of a church, you will need to learn forgiveness. That, according to Paul, is reality.

Late last summer, I was at the point where I had to do some forgiving, and so did other people with me. My first inclination was to run to another church, thinking that would take care of the problem. Paul gives us all a reality check. You can't just run to another church. There is no such thing as a church anywhere in which there are no grievances. We're going to have to learn how to forgive in any church. This is the negative part of understanding who we are. We'll always need to know how to forgive as long as we're part of a church.

If you find that discouraging, you need to hear the positive side of who Paul says we are. He says in verse 11: "Christ is all and is in all." We are part of the only community of people anywhere for whom it is true that Christ is in every member. When you need to forgive, never forget that Christ is in you, and that Christ is in the life of the brother or sister you need to forgive. The church is the only community of people for whom this is true. Christ is all and is in all.

Paul goes on in verse 12: "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved..." These are packed words. We are chosen by God. We aren't here by chance. We are holy through what Christ has accomplished for us. We are dearly loved by God. But there's even more here than meets the eye. These are all words that had previously been used for God's chosen people, the nation of Israel. Paul is saying that if you are part of the church, then you are the people of God in this world. You are the ones God has chosen to be his representatives. You are the heir of all of his promises. That's why forgiveness is so important.

Then in verse 15 Paul says, "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace." Put this all together and ask, "Who are we, and how does this help us forgive?" The answer is that we are broken people who will occasionally run into grievances and hurts within the church. We can just assume that it's going to happen. But we have Jesus Christ. We are God's people. And he has called us to peace, to live as a church under his rule and resources. We will hurt each other, but he has given us everything we need to handle it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was German pastor and part of the resistance movement against Hitler. Listen to who he said we are within the church:

Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter, or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.

"We belong to one another," he says, "only through and in Jesus Christ." This is what makes it possible for the differences to be obliterated between Gentile and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free. Christ is all, and is in all. If grievances come up, it will split us apart if our unity is based on anything else but Christ. If our unity and fellowship is based on age or gender or race or musical tastes, our fellowship will not survive grievances and hurts. But Paul says that it is based on so much more. It is based on Christ.

The first step toward forgiveness is to understand who we are in Christ. We will hurt each other, but our fellowship is in Christ. He has given us everything that we need to make it through whatever happens.

So look around you this morning. Who do you see? I hope as you look around, you're under no false pretenses. These are people who will probably cause you grievances in the future if they haven't already. It's inevitable. But these are also people in whom Christ is present. They are part of the body that God has called together here in unity. Despite our differences, we are called to be one, and our fellowship is based on Christ. Forgiving each other means that we understand all this about each other.

Base Your Forgiveness on What Christ Has Done

That's who we are. Negative: we are people who will hurt each other. Positive: Christ is all and is in all. He has called us, and our fellowship and unity is based on him.

Here's the second thing that I want to pull out of this today. Our forgiveness has to be based on something. When my kids fight, I often make them forgive each other or else. In that case, their forgiveness is based on fear of consequences.

When we run into grievances which each other, we could try to base our forgiveness on a number of things. We could base it on the fact that our kids play together and we have to get along. We could base it on a desire to be nice. We could base our forgiveness on willpower, or that if we don't get along a pastor or deacon will come along and confront us. We could base our efforts to forgive on any of these things, but we'd be doomed in our efforts to forgive. It would never work. None of these is a strong enough basis to overcome the hurts of the past and to bring about real reconciliation and forgiveness.

But none of these things are the basis for the forgiveness we are to practice in the church. Paul gives us the basis for our forgiveness at the end of verse 13: "Forgive as the Lord forgave you." This phrase gives us both the extent and the basis of how we are to forgive others.

First, the extent. "Forgive us as the Lord forgave you." How much should we forgive others? Well, how much do you want the Lord to forgive you? Do you want the Lord to forgive you partially or completely? To the extent that God has forgiven us, to that same extent we are to forgive others.

How much has Christ forgiven us? He has offered us forgiveness of the highest order. He initiated forgiveness before we had ever confessed to him. He forgave us freely. Psalm 103 says that he:

...forgives all your sins...
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:3, 8-12)

That's the extent to which we're called to forgive others.

It's also the basis of how we forgive others. "Forgive us as the Lord forgave you." Christ's mighty work of reconciliation is the basis on which we are able to forgive others. God's forgiveness is underneath ours. It creates and supports our ability to forgive.

Miroslav Volf said, "Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners." He's write. When someone offends us, we go, "Liar! Evil! How dare they!" We label them and hire them and "exclude them from the community of humans." When we fail, we say we're complicated. There's something powerful that happens when we see those who've wounded us the same as we see ourselves: as a community of sinners who are in need of forgiveness and who have been forgiven as Christ. We are able to forgive each other because Christ has forgiven us.

I don't know who needs forgiving in your life. To forgive them based on your own willpower or any other basis is impossible. But it is possible to forgive them, because people who have been forgiven are able to forgive others. We base our forgiveness on the forgiveness that Christ has offered us.

Act (With the Spirit's Help)

So here we go. When understand who we are in Christ, and base our forgiveness on Christ, we'll be able to act. Paul says:

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)

Remember last week? We want to get rid of all this stuff - anger, rage, malice, slander, and so on - and put on clothes like forgiveness. Paul says it's possible, because Christ has provided us with these new clothes. All we have to do is to put on what Christ has already provided for us.

Some of the virtues here overlap with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians. The Spirit is producing these virtues in our lives. With his help, we can begin to act in ways consistent with the new nature and forgive those who have hurt us.

I want to point out two terms in verse 13. One is to "bear with each other." This means to put up with each other even when they fail us or act differently than we expect. We're called to put up with each other. We're also called to forgive. Forgive is based on the root word for grace. Bearing covers present and future offenses. Forgiving covers past offenses. We're to forgive each other for the past and put up with each other in the present.

Now listen. If you don't hear anything else this morning, this is what you need to hear. The only way to become a community of grace and forgiveness is if we understand who we are in Christ, and what he has done for us at the cross. That's critical. If you ever get to the point where you can't forgive, then you have to go back to the beginning. Can I forgive you? No. Okay. Then let's go back and remember who we are in Christ Jesus. Okay, now I remember. Christ is all and is in all. We are God's chosen people, holy, and deeply loved. Okay, got it. Now I need to remember what Christ has done for us at the cross. Okay, Now I remember. Maybe now I can begin the process of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is never easy and it isn't always fast. The only way that we at Richview can become this community of grace and forgiveness is if we're crystal clear on who we are, and what Christ has done for us. Then we can clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bear with and forgive each other, and love each other. It all goes back to knowing who we are and what Christ has done for us.

The Importance

John Piper says:

The greatest risk we face as a church in these days is not that we may lose an organ, or that we may lose money, or that we may lose members, or that we may lose staff, or that we may lose reputation. The greatest risk is that we may lose heaven. Because one way to lose heaven is to hold fast to an unforgiving spirit and so prove that we have never been indwelt by the Spirit of Christ...

The greatest risk that we face as a church is that we won't do this. God has given us everything that we need to forgive. We all have someone to forgive, don't we? We all want to forgive, for our own good and for God's glory. You feel like you can't forgive, and you're right. But when you see who we really are, who Christ has made us, and when you base your forgiveness on the forgiveness that Christ has offered you, you are ready to act with his help.

We're going to watch a DVD. When you leave today you will receive an olive branch. The idea is that we all have some forgiving to do. It won't be easy. If you're not ready to give the olive branch to someone, maybe you can keep it somewhere as a reminder to keep going over who we are in Christ, and what he has done for us.

But when you're ready, it would be a beautiful thing to see olive branches exchanged, and forgiveness being offered, as we live out the grace that God has poured out on our lives.