Had an interesting FB exchange with friends Kevin and Laura Kowalchuk recently around a meme I’d posted that was borrowed from Brian Zahnd featuring this quote: “In all of the evangelistic sermons in the Book of Acts, none of them makes an appeal to afterlife issues. If you cannot preach the gospel without an appeal to afterlife issues (heaven and hell), you cannot preach the gospel like the Apostles.”
The comment thread brought this response from Kevin: “But in Acts 2 Peter preaches about Jesus ascending to the Father (in Heaven) and also about repentance and the forgiveness of sins. In fact just about every sermon in Acts mentions the forgiveness of sins. So if Heaven doesn’t matter or is not implied, then why must sins be forgiven? If it is ‘sins’ against fellow man, then why is God emphasized?”
Kevin’s larger point is that the Gospel of Jesus, when preached like the Apostles, does necessarily include the forgiveness of sin, and both our work on earth as well as our reward in heaven. Taking inspiration from that little exchange, let me share my own thoughts a bit more as they reflect upon an important Biblical parable of Jesus that may clarify both the Zahnd and Kowalchuk points. It’s the parable of the sinful woman with the alabaster jar (see Luke 7:36-48).
The key verse in this parable is when Jesus says to Simon, his Pharisee host, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” From this, we find a sometimes surprising answer to the question of Why Forgiveness? Or, concerning Christ’s forgiveness as offered not from the cross or even requiring his crucifixion but in relation to this sinful woman who loved him, a question of why does God forgive sin at all?
I believe there are three possible answers. I’ll gladly receive your comments as you consider each one on its own merits.
1. Forgiveness is the highest measure of love. There can be no forgiveness without love, and no love without forgiveness.
2. Forgiveness releases us here on earth from the bondage of our judgmental anger. It carries a high value where human health is concerned. Prolonged anger is like prolonged hypertension (high blood pressure) in our human bodies. Forgiveness of sins, not just sinners, is a necessary tonic for our temple (where God’s Holy Spirit resides within our souls). Whoever said, “love the sinner and hate the sin” (hint, it wasn’t St. Paul and it isn’t in the Bible) had little regard for human health. I much prefer the biblical prescription to NOT let the sun go down on our anger. See also Matthew 5:21-16.
3. Forgiveness, at least according to Jesus (in case that should matter to any Christians), is reciprocal. It is relational. Not only so in heaven but here on earth. Per Jesus, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, your Father will not forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15. Also, ”From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Luke 12:48.
Taking into account the prayer of our Lord Jesus calling for God’s Kingdom not only in heaven but here on earth, his connection of forgiveness on earth and heaven as co-equals (see Matthew 18:18), and his famous parable of the unmerciful servant that followed (see Matthew 18:21-35), it would be hard for me as a Pastor to ever preach ANY kind of heavenly salvation that was not rooted here and now in our earthly acts of forgiveness and grace. Grace never shared (on earth) is grace never accepted (for salvation) to begin with.
Which places us right back in that room alongside Jesus, Simon the Pharisee, and the young woman with the alabaster jar.