PREACHER: REV. ADRIAN HALLETT
READINGS: ISAIAH 43:19-28 & COL. 2:6-15
TITLE: ‘THE GOD WHO FORGIVES AND FORGETS’
I remember hearing a story in which a vicar was visiting people in his parish. In one house the person was out, so he put his card through the letterbox with a note on it: “So sorry to have found you out. The vicar”. So worried was she by what the vicar had found out about her, she never went to church again! Guilt does terrible things to people.
Guilt is very destructive…. very damaging….. hard to live with. I read a report of a number of years ago which said that something like 50% of the people in psychiatric wards were there as a result of guilt. Others try and handle guilt in different ways…. some try and blot it out – lose themselves in work (workaholics)…. give themselves no time to think. Others get into role playing, putting on a front to cover over the person they don’t want to be…. the person they are ashamed of. Others try and blot it out through drugs and alcohol. Others will try and handle it by trying various therapies or seek counselling in a desperate attempt to assuage their guilt. Guilt is very very destructive…. it can be like a cancer eating away at us.
Now as Christians, we know that the God we know and worship us the God who forgives…. he alone is able to deal with our problem of guilt. More than that, we know that he is the God who longs to forgive. Just take a note of these scriptures:
Isaiah 43:25. “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own names sake, and remember your sins no more”.
Psalm 86:5. “For you, Lord, are good and ready to forgive and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon you”.
2 Cor.5:19. “That God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation”.
Think about that last scripture – it’s saying: “I want to reconcile you…. I don’t want to hold your sins against you. I want to forgive you your sin.” And we are ambassadors, called to tell others that God is wanting to do this…. that he’s up there, waiting to do this to all who call out to him in repentance and faith. Amazing! Fantastic to have a God like that.!
How tragic it is that people will not turn to the living God who alone is both able and willing to forgive…. who alone is able to lift from them their burden of guilt. Sad though it is, the reality is that unbelievers will stubbornly pursue any other avenue that turn to the living God.
But even more tragic is it when Christians love under a cloud of guilt….. how sad it is when some believers seem unable to believe and accept that God has forgiven them. They perhaps continue to struggle with a particular sin in their lives…. they struggle and fail… they don’t seem to make any progress and then beat themselves up and convince themselves that they are the worst Christian ever…. that God couldn’t possibly go on forgiving them. The result? They too live under that all enveloping cloud of guilt.
That was very much the problem at the Colossian church. We touched on that in our series a few weeks ago, ‘Living the Risen Life’. The Colossian Christians were struggling. Colosse and the surrounding region was a hotbed of pagan religion…. the church was made up of people who had come to Christ from that pagan background.
The church was made up of new, keen, enthusiastic converts…people who wanted to honour their new found Lord and Saviour. But, they struggling… they weren’t progressing as they had hoped , so they were becoming increasingly frustrated and discouraged.
They were struggling because of old habits…. old patterns of behaviour… a habit can be a bit like a cable. A person weaves a thread every day until it becomes a cable – a cable that is impossible to break.
They were struggling because they were living in a non-Christian culture…. surrounded by unbelievers… they were finding it hard to stand out from the crowd…. to swim against the tide…. to oppose the thinking and will of the majority around them.
They were also struggling because they were immature Christians…. new converts with hearts not yet fully consecrated to the Lord. They had accepted Christ, but they were not yet perfect. Sound familiar?!
And, on top of all that, they were struggling because the enemy, Satan, was behind the scenes stirring everything up….. keeping them locked into those old patterns of behaviour…. reinforcing in their minds just how hard it was to be a Christian…. to be different…. to stand out form the crowd…. enticing them to give up, underlining what failures they were: “Call yourself a Christian? Take a look at yourself. Take a look at the mess your life is. Give up.”
That’s why they were vulnerable to the false teachers who came along and said, “You’re struggling. We can help. Your faith in Christ is fine as far as it goes, but it’s not enough – you need more”. So they were advocating Christ plus – Christ plus, monasticism/asceticism/the law/spiritual experiences/philosophy etc. etc.
But Paul says, “no”. That is the whole thrust of his letter to the Colossians. It’s not Christ plus.… it’s not Christ plus anything – it’s Christ alone. He is all you need. You are complete in him. Therefore, you don’t need to be under that all enveloping cloud of guilt. Not only are you complete in him, just look at what kind of Saviour he is… what he has done for you… what he has achieved for you. Why even think of going anywhere else!!
Some things never change. Christians in every age, in every generation struggle and fail. They pick themselves up, try again, fail again and sometimes look for answers outside of Christ….. they become discouraged and then become vulnerable to false teachers. Others just soldier on, and live under that all enveloping cloud of guilt.
I’m reminded of somebody I knew very well in one of my previous parishes…. a committed Christian…. very supportive, but whenever he attended one of our prayer meetings, his opening prayer would be along the lines, ‘Lord, I am just a miserable sinner….’. He gave the impression of being locked into what he was before he came to Christ. He gave the impression of being weighed down by guilt, unable to rejoice in the fact that he was a new creation in Christ, fully accepted and forgiven by God. A sinner, yes, but a sinner saved by grace!
This is where our reading from Colossians 2:14 is so helpful…. so powerful. I remember the first time the truth of this parish hit me, many years ago. It just blew my mind! It came about when I was reading a book by William Barclay entitled ‘New Testament Words’. He took 70 key Greek words of the NT and explained their background and application for believers seeking to live out their Christian lives. It my not sound very exciting, but I hope and pray that as I seek to explain what he said in his book on one little Greek word we are going to look at today, it will have a similar effect on you – I hope it will blow your socks off!
Let’s read Colossians 2: 14 again: “Having cancelled the written code, with its regulations that was against us and stood opposed to us. He took it away, nailing it to the cross”. Other bible versions but it like this: “the handwriting of ordinances that was against us”.
Now what that is referring to in Greek culture, is ‘a written agreement acknowledging a debt’…. a certificate of debt… an I.O.U. if you like….’I, Adrian Hallett, owe you £10,000’. |It was a signed confession of a debt. So Paul is using this image from Greek culture to say that your sin and mine have piled up. It’s a debt to God. We owe God…. we have a debt to pay. Note that it is a debt that is ‘against’ us. In other words it is a debt that condemns us….. it’s a debt we cannot pay.
But, and this is where it begins to get exciting. When we are willing to acknowledge that debt as ours….. and when we realise the hopelessness of trying to pay that debt off ourselves…. as soon as we say ‘It’s true’…. as soon as you sign your name on the dotted line and say ‘yes, it’s true, this is my debt’, the moment you sign it and confess it, God cancels it!
Now the question is, how sows god cancel it? Now this is the really exciting bit! Forgive me if I use a couple of Greek words here, I’m not trying to show off – I am no Greek scholar, (although I did pass Greek at Oak Hill Theological College, which if you know me and languages, is a miracle in itself!), but I do know the importance of understanding basic Greek because of the shades of meaning in the varied and rich language that Greek is. As we get to grips with the Greek language we then gain insights into the riches contained in the the theology of the N.T. So, I’m no Greek scholar, but I can read books by those who are. So please, bear with me!
So, how does god cancel this debt of ours? The common Greek word for cancelling a debt was ‘chiazein’…. it means to write the Greek letter ‘chi’… the same shape as a capital X which would mean there would be a large cross put across the document to show the debt had been paid.
But Paul didn’t use that word for a very good theological reason. If you cross a thing out, you can still read the record of the debt. Paul knew God didn’t forgive like that, but that is how some Christians believe that God has cancelled their sin…. crossed it out so that the record can still be seen. God has crossed it out, but that means he could look in his little black book, with our name on it, and see how many times we have committed that same sin over and over again, or what new sin we have been guilty of. He’s up there saying, ‘Oh no, he’s at it again. OK, I’ll cross it out again’, as though God is in some way unwilling and reluctant to forgive…. that he
is some kind of judge keeping a record of our wrongs. Now, if we think like that…. if we really believe that is the way God ‘cancels out the written code against us, then we will never feel truly forgiven or accepted.. If we feel like that, then we will still be riddled with guilt, unable to live out the risen life.
That’s why Paul didn’t use that word ‘chiazein’ – he knew that was not the way God cancels the written ode against us. He says the written code is not crossed out – it’s ‘wiped out’.
In NT times, documents were written on papyrus…. the ink used was made of soot, mixed with gum and diluted with water. The ink had no acid in it so it did not ‘bite’ into the papyrus. It would though, last a very long time and retain its colour, but, if soon after it was written a wet sponge was passed over the papyrus, the writing could be sponged off – like rubbing chalk off a slate. The NT word for this is ‘exaleiphein’ – describing something that is wiped out – the record is gone…. there is no way of recalling it…. it cannot be recovered…. it is obliterated. If we are in Christ, it is gone – for ever!
Many a an or woman can forgive but never really forget the hurt or pain done to him or her. But this passage of scripture makes it clear that God not only forgives, but forgets! He wipes out the memory of the debt. Incredible as it may seem, our gracious and generous God can’t even remember the sins we repent of! He wipes out the written code against us…. we cannot…. we must not, beat ourselves up over our sins and failings.
I was reading something on this theme the other day…. the writer was saying that he is always amazed that so many Christians choose to remember what God has forgotten. He goes on to say, “I used to call it a God complex. Listen, the highest court in the universe is God and if God has forgiven me the only thing that would justify my holding myself guilty of sin is if I am a higher authority than God. If I am not, then I might as well forgive myself”.
Rejoice then, in this glorious liberating truth – our gracious, generous God not only forgives – he forgets. He wipes the slate clean!