[Jesus] told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations. (Luke 24:46-47)
No wonder pastors enjoy preaching. The way to God has been opened and it is through Jesus. Repentance and forgiveness are preached in his name. Your task as a pastor is to present this good news in a way that is beautiful, engaging and persuasive.
Preach what has spoken to your own heart. But it gets even better. Not only do you preach truth that is attractive, you preach truth that has come alive to you amid the ups and downs of your everyday struggles. Preaching includes an implicit contract: the text has reached your own heart, and now you offer it to those you love.
With this in mind, preparation might begin with an email to your congregation. “Please pray for me today. I plan to spend some time working on my sermon on Romans 5. I want the Spirit and the Word to come alive for me.”
Preach the truth about God. You are preaching to people with real problems and needs. Guilt is, indeed, a real problem, forgiveness is a real need. Yet competing with these is a popular myth. It suggests that Jesus is nice. But the father—he is persistently peeved. He is just waiting for us to get out of line so he can vent a little of his wrath. To borrow a biological image, his resting state is one in which he is suspicious that we will sin very soon and he is already upset about it. I mention Romans 5 because it can potentially silence this myth by taking us directly into the character of God. Though the practical living sections of Scripture have their allure, it is here—knowing God truly—that sermons have their impact.
So though Scripture does speak of God’s wrath against sin, it is not the main emphasis. Scripture’s emphasis is that the triune God is inclined, by his very nature, to forgive. That is his resting state. His plan has always been to turn his wrath away from us and onto another, and he does this as an expression of his character rather than a response to our contrition.
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:8-11)
Love comes to sinners. Wrath has been turned away because God—Father, Son and Spirit—want it that way. Sin separates us from God no longer. He has attached himself to us. We cannot argue with the blood of Christ shed for us.
How can we discern whether or not this reality is pressing in and reshaping us? Life under a persnickety god is joyless. Life under the God who has revealed himself most fully in Jesus feels like hope rising and joy is our calling. Perhaps a simple “thank you” will keep us headed in the right direction.
Preaching starts with our own everyday struggles and the Spirit’s lively work in our hearts. Preaching then moves toward other people and their everyday struggles. From there, it always aims to surprise us with the character of God displayed ultimately in Jesus. Here we find that the triune God delights in communion with his people, and he has made the way for that through forgiveness in Jesus.
It seems obvious, but I have never suggested it: if a man has been with a prostitute, it is right for him to ask her forgiveness. Consider this story.
Sex dominated this man’s life. He paid to get into nightclubs where he could meet women, and he paid to be with prostitutes. When he wasn’t strategizing how to have sex, he paid for pornography.
How God gets our attention is a mystery, but he got this man’s attention. A relationship with a gentle, local pastor was one of the means.
With his eyes now opened, this man genuinely wanted to grow. He pulled away from his old lifestyle, though he was occasionally pulled back. All the while, he was open with his pastor and continued the battle. Then, two years after he was spiritually rescued, he had sex with a prostitute. When he told his pastor, one part of the pastor’s counsel was to ask the prostitute’s forgiveness. The pastor suggested that he write a letter, take someone with him, and deliver it to the woman.
The man was stunned. He never heard of such a thing. He certainly couldn’t imagine doing such a thing. For the first time, he told the pastor that he couldn’t follow his counsel, and that seemed to be his final word.
His final word lasted only about an hour. By then he began to see that this was the way to live in the kingdom of Christ. He quickly wrote a letter to her and was ready to deliver it.
There was one small complication. The prostitute was from another country and the letter, if it were to make any sense to her, had to be in her language. So he solicited the help of a man in the congregation who knew that language. In other words, he was willing to go more public with what he did. Though his shame was screaming to stay hidden, he had the letter translated. The next day, first thing, he sought her out.
When he greeted her, he offered a very simple explanation of why he was there and gave her the letter. In it, he had written that the Spirit of God had convicted him, Jesus had forgiven him, but his actions had hurt her too so he wanted to ask her forgiveness.
She read the letter carefully. By the time she was done, a tear was already falling from her face.
She looked up and said, “I forgive you.”
He thanked her.
And she responded, “No, thank you.”
Apologies require us to say something. It could be something as simple as “I’m sorry” or “I shouldn’t have done that to you. Will you forgive me?” All of this is as it should be. But sometimes even wise, appropriate words like these miss a crucial step in the process of reconciliation.
That crucial step is listening. When you apologize, it’s as important to listen as it is to speak.
As a counselor, I have the privilege of witnessing people apologize to one another. It is a sweet mercy when the Holy Spirit burdens a person’s heart with the awareness of personal sin, and the person is moved to ask for forgiveness. The problem is that sometimes the apology comes out sounding like a monologue. There is acknowledgement of wrong, promise of better behavior in the future and lots of detail about what the offender has been learning about God, grace, being forgiven, etc.
In the right context, these are wonderful things to hear. But when you do all the talking while apologizing to someone you’ve hurt, you run an extremely high chance of actually further wounding the person. You see, godly sorrow is not only aware that it has wronged someone, it also seeks to understand the specific, personal damage it has caused. The only way to do this is to ask how your sin has impacted the other person.
If you are in a situation where you need to seek someone’s forgiveness, allow me to make a few suggestions:
“I would really like to understand what this has been like for you. I can only imagine that when I _______, you felt _______. Living with the experience of ______ must have been really ________. But I know that’s probably not the half of it. Maybe that’s not even in the ballpark. Would you help me understand how what I’ve done has impacted you so I can be truly sorry for the real effects of how I hurt you and learn to change?”
“That makes sense. I can see why that would be really hard. I have never thought about it that way. I am so sorry for putting you in that position/putting you through that/doing something that made you feel _____, etc.”
Apologies are hard under the best of circumstances. What I’m suggesting makes them harder still. Yet we must listen and be willing to hear how we have hurt another person. In order to do that without collapsing in despair or flying into a defensive rage, we must cling tenaciously to the forgiveness we have been granted from the One we have grieved most deeply. Only when we taste his mercy, despite how horribly our sin impacted him on the cross, can we own the impact of our failure on others and drown our defensiveness and despair in the ocean of Jesus’ grace.
(1) If it is hard for you to imagine what the person may feel, ask a friend what it would be like to deal with the sins you’ve committed. At the very least, this will help prepare you for the emotional impact of hearing yourself as the bad guy in someone else’s story.
There aren’t many books that walk you through the question: What should I do when I am planning to sin again? All Scripture, of course, is about this question because we all know we will sin again, but there are two patterns that are especially precarious.
1. Confess—then ignore. A couple indulges in premarital sex and feels guilty. They confess it to the Lord, and promise God and each other, never to do it again. But it happens again, and then again. By the third time they are not quite sure how to proceed. They still might feel a little horrible, but why bother confessing something that you know you will do again? They know that making guilty promises doesn’t work and, by this point, they admit that such promises are lies anyway. They expect to do it again. Better just to let this phase run its course, they conclude. Marriage might come soon, or maybe the sin will gradually die out. Then they can re-engage with God.
2. Confess—try—feel really bad—be hopeless—try to ignore. This is a slight variation on the first and takes a little longer to spiritually quarantine the recurring sin so that no one messes with it anymore. For example, someone might not be planning his next descent into porn, but he has done little to interrupt that descent such as share his internet activity with an accountability partner. He can confess his next nine falls (leaps?) into porn, but once it gets to double digits he starts to wonder, what’s the use? Then this sector of life gradually closes to divine activity, though those bad feelings never quite go away.
Either way, God is marginalized, sin wins by way of our denial and complacency.
Ask for Help
These patterns demand action. They kill our souls and our souls will not heal themselves over time. To the contrary, we need spiritual intervention. The most obvious intervention is to go public. Sin is like mushrooms and other things that flourish in the dark. So bring it to the light and confess it to another person. If we can confess something to the Lord but not to a mere human, our confession is suspect. Go public.
There are risks. Perhaps the person we tell will then tell others, or much worse, do nothing at all. But we must not talk ourselves out of a wise course of action because there may be unwanted consequences.
Two Approaches: Grace or Law
When we ask for help with these patterns, we will likely hear one of two approaches: grace or law. A trusted pastor told me to preach grace until a person took sin lightly, then preach the law.
Grace proclaims the kindness, forgiveness and forbearance of the Lord. It invites and accepts. It asks: “How can you continue to sin in light of God’s love now revealed in Jesus Christ? You must not know he loves you. How can you be either hopeless or committed to sin when the Holy Spirit has been given to you?”
The grace of God woos us. It is Christ’s love that compels us into godly action (2 Cor. 5:14). It is his grace that teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness (Titus 2:12).
The law takes the many pieces of the character of God and reassembles them in the form of commands: “Thou shalt . . .” and “thou shalt not . . .” Without them, we are clueless about how to imitate him. Without them, we forget that everyday life is lived before God and our instincts are treasonous.
The law has urgency—“today” (Heb. 3:15). It warns. It asks, “Is there no fear of the Lord? Is following Jesus reserved only for those times when there is a coincidental meeting between your desires and his?” It is the fear of the Lord that compels us to live righteously. We belong to him. He has all authority.
Which Way Do You Lean?
As we have opportunities to apply these two approaches to our own recalcitrance and offer them to others, how do we lean? Toward grace or law?
Words and meanings matter on this one. There are many different uses of the law: the law reveals the character of God, restrains sin, exposes sin—showing us our need for Jesus—and teaches how to live. None of these are opposed to grace but are expressions of it. Yet another use of the law is found in Romans and Galatians where the law is short-hand for a Spirit-less system that looks to our own actions for personal righteousness. This use of the law—called works-righteousness or legalism—is opposed to grace and the gospel.
With one use of the law, grace and law are companions. With the other, they are enemies. I am using the law as a companion of grace. Instead of opting for either grace or law, we could say that the law is embedded in the larger grace of God.
So what we are really asking is this: As a result of God’s manifold grace to us, do we woo or warn? The matter of intentional and planned sin does not force us to choose grace or law. Instead, both grace and law reveal the character of God, and we want access to the range of God’s character as we woo or warn. With all the persuasive love we can possibly offer, with pleading, we consider both the kindness and sternness of God (Rom. 11:22).
We will all sin again, of that we can be sure. When we do, we ask forgiveness of both the Lord and those who were wronged. Then some hand-to-hand combat against sin is probably in order along with some public planning to either stand firm or run when there is another assault. All of this is both preceded and followed by our rest in forgiveness of sin secured by Jesus. Rest is spiritual, complacency sinful.
Of all the names for God, “Father” is the most important. Yes, the Lord is King, and when you sense that life is out of control you are certainly comforted to know that he has kingly authority and control, but Father is better. When Jesus revealed the Kingdom of Heaven to us he taught a radical new way to pray—“Our Father…”
But while some people hear father and think intimacy, affection, mercy, compassion, home and rest, others cringe. For them father means anger, rage, lies, violence and rejection. Their earthly fathers have poisoned the name. As a result, they distance themselves from the Father and opt for the gentler members of the Trinity.
Time to protest
Understandable? Yes. If you grimace every time you say or hear the name father, why put yourself through that torture? But hold on. If this describes you, you are closing your ears to some of the sweetest music in Scripture! Don’t allow it! Don’t allow anyone to poison something so good!
A long, slow protest
Slow and steady is the way to go. In this case it means to set your heart on knowing the true Father as he reveals himself throughout Scripture, and especially how his character is most fully revealed in his Son.
Notice that though the name Father is implied throughout the Old Testament, it is explicit and prominent in the New Testament. The contrast between the two suggests that the New Testament writers, following Jesus’ example, were moving into territory that would have been considered a bit audacious at the time. They had gone from Yahweh, which was a name that the Israelites thought should not even be spoken, to Father, which is personal, intimate, and spoken in every prayer. Your goal is to share in their excitement, even if the process takes time.
So begin by gathering some favorite passages.
And [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’…” (Luke 15:11-12)
This story about the prodigal son must be on your list because the father’s patience, kindness and enduring love, all on display to a rascal, are enough to dispel any confusion about the character of your heavenly Father. This is how you let the New Testament writers endow the name Father with new meaning.
And a blitzkrieg
But sometimes the slow and steady method of dislodging contaminated names must be supplemented by something more aggressive. Perhaps there are times when you hear stories of our Father in heaven as mere information rather than God’s words to you. One way to avoid this is to yell out a hearty “Amen!” to every reading of the prodigal son. “Yes, Father, I believe this!” This is one way to get nasty with distorted images of the Father.
The other is to confess them. When in doubt, repent. This is good advice, especially when you feel stuck. Confess that you are viewing God in an ungodly way. This, after all, is idolatry.
You are being controlled by a creature more than the Creator.
You have taken the face of your human father and fit that mask on God. This is another way of making God in your own image.
You have exchanged the Holy One for the profane.
This could be perceived as heaping on guilt when you already feel condemned and shamed, but the intent is exactly the opposite. The intent is to remind you of how powerful confession is. It’s saying to God: “Yikes, what am I doing? I am allowing lies to infect my knowledge of my true Father. Father, forgive me. Please open my eyes to who you are, and please keep them open.” Such prayers can bring relief from Satan’s devices and disrupt the status quo like nothing else.
Fight to take back the name
So take a look at where you are. Are you stuck, confused, avoiding the Father, and controlled by someone other than God? If you find yourself in this place, know this: time alone will not heal it and passivity is not an option. Instead you need to go on the offensive. Confess when you need to and pray that you will hear what Scripture teaches about God the Father. Fight to take back the name.
Andrew Ray sits down with Dr. David Powlison and Cecelia Bernhardt to discuss how we can lovingly help a friend to face the reality of his sins.
Help! My Spouse Committed Adultery: First Steps for Dealing with Betrayal
Your spouse was unfaithful. Those four words don’t do justice to the horror and pain you are experiencing. Betrayal takes your emotions all over the map. One moment you are burning with rage, next you are overwhelmed with fear, and then you just feel numb. These are all normal responses to the horror of betrayal.
Winston Smith is a faculty member at CCEF. He holds an MDiv degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. He has been counseling for twenty years and is the author of Marriage Matters: Extraordinary Change through Ordinary Moments.