“Forgiven Much… Loves Much;
Forgiven Little…Loves Little”
In a blog from earlier this week I shared the comments that I made at a recent Interfaith Conversation about “Betrayal.” As a Christian in that setting I spoke about the necessity and the possibility of forgiveness because of Jesus Christ. And then last Sunday morning in church I heard a sermon about the response of a woman who had been dramatically forgiven (Luke 7:36-50). This message was part of our Easter Sermon Series on the sufficiency of God’s grace in Jesus Christ at the point of our different needs as human beings (The whole series is on line at the church webpage – www.northwaychristian.org).
Each Sunday morning during Eastertide we have been looking at a different Gospel story to see how Jesus Christ touched people at the point of their particular woundedness so that we might better understand and more deeply appreciate how the Gospel is still the power of God to make us whole (Romans 1:16). Believing these needs to be doors through which people can pass into the embrace of God’s grace in Christ, each week at the close of worship we have been left with a challenge to take a good look around our lives for people who share the very same need that we have seen in the Gospel lesson that day, and after identifying who those people are in our hearts, to actually start praying for them intentionally.
Do I know someone who is discouraged?
(Luke 24: 13-35 – The Road to Emmaus).
Do I know someone who is grieving?
(Luke 7:11-17 – The Widow at Nain)
Do I know someone who is questioning?
(John 3:1-10 – Nicodemus by Night)
Do I know someone who is ashamed?
(Luke 7:36-39; 44-49 – The Woman Who Anointed Jesus)
Do I know someone who is desperate?
(Matthew 15:21-28 – The Syro-Phonecian Woman and her Daughter)
Do I know someone who is marginalized?
(Luke 19:1-10 – Zacchaeus)
On Sunday listening to Mark Bender preach about the release of shame experienced by the woman “who was a sinner” (Luke 7:36-39; 44-49 – The Woman Who Anointed Jesus) and the exuberant and extravagant response that she made to Christ because of her experience of having been “forgiven much,” I got to thinking about my own experience of having been forgiven and my own much more characteristically modest expressions of thanks. And I wondered –
Did she “love more” because she had been “forgiven more”?
Do I “love less” because I have been “forgiven less”?
Living with these questions this week has forced me to grapple again with the difference between shame and guilt, and while there is a lively debate about definitions, the usual distinction between shame and guilt is that we feel shame for who we are while we feel guilt for what we do.
I commit sins – defined by the contemporary Stone/Campbell theologian Jack Cottrell as “lawlessness” – “the failure to fulfill God’s law” (I John 3:4) – and this produces feelings of guilt in me. False guilt would be the feelings of condemnation that come from our failure to fulfill the behavioral expectations of others (“heteronomy” – “other lawed or ruled”) and from myself (“autonomy” – “self lawed or ruled”). True guilt would be the feelings of condemnation that come from our failure to fulfill the behavioral expectations of God (“theonomy” – “God lawed or ruled”).
But more than the sins that I am guilty of committing, at a deeper level I know myself to be a sinner. I find that my sins – those specific acts of lawlessness that characterize my life personally, problematic as they are for me, are nevertheless just symptoms of a much deeper condition. Just as a fever, chills and body aches tell me that I’ve got the flu, so my particular sins are telling me that there is a dangerous infection in my soul that is slowly killing me.
It is one of the most famous passages in the spiritual literature of western Christianity. It is St. Augustine’s story from his childhood of stealing pears from a neighbor’s tree (Confessions ~ Book 2). As a sin, it was a miniscule offense. But as a symptom of his deeper malady, stealing those pears was a devastating indictment of who he was, a staggering revelation of his heart of darkness, and I can relate completely.
I feel guilt because I sin. I feel shame because I am a sinner. And the Gospel of Jesus Christ has effectively dealt with both. As we sang right before communion on Sunday morning –
Shackled by a heavy burden, ‘neath a load of guilt and shame.
Then the hand of Jesus touched me, and now I am no longer the same.
So, just exactly what is it that Jesus Christ has done about my guilt and my shame?
Well, forgiveness is how Jesus Christ has dealt with my guilt. Without fully explaining it, the New Testament nevertheless declares as part of its core message that “Christ died for our sins” (I Corinthians 15:3). In the Gospel tradition of the institution of the Lord’s Supper – the memorial ritual of Christ’s death – the interpretive meaning of the cross is clearly couched in the language of forgiveness (“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” – Matthew 26:28). In recent years there has been a rather vigorous debate about the utility of what are known as “atonement theories,” especially the one that is known as the “penal substitutionary” theory of atonement. This is the one that most directly connects the dots between Christ’s death and the forgiveness of sins. And while the current reassessment has helpfully tidied-up some of the cruder expressions of this interpretation of the meaning of the cross, it has not removed it from the church’s imagination or vocabulary. Just listen to the prayers being prayed at the Lord’s Table on any given Sunday morning, or pay attention to the words that are being sung in the communion hymn. The forgiveness of sins is not the only thing that the cross of Christ is about, but it’s minimally one of the things, and some of us would even argue that it’s still the main thing. Two foundational essays about the cross of Christ and the forgiveness of sins that I highly value are –
Richard Mouw – “Getting to the Crux of Calvary” – Christianity Today – June 4, 2012 http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/may/getting-to-the-crux-of-calvary.html
Tim Keller – “Serving Each Other through Forgiveness and Reconciliation”
And regeneration is how Jesus Christ has dealt with my shame. Because shame has to do with who I am as a person, when who I am as a person has been fundamentally changed then the source of my shame has been removed, and this kind of change is precisely what the Gospel of Jesus Christ promises (John 3:1-7; Titus 3:5-6; I Peter 1:3-5; Ezekiel 36:26-27).
One of the Gospel hymns that we love to sing but rarely ponder is “Amazing Grace.”
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.
The trend in many churches these days has been to rewrite that “wretch like me” line. It just doesn’t play very well in a culture of self-esteem where everybody gets a participation trophy. But when the day finally comes when it fully dawns on us that we are in fact “naked” and that we have expended tremendous amounts of energy throughout our lives trying to hide ourselves from God, from others and even from ourselves (Genesis 3:8-13), that uncomfortable “wretch” designation will begin to feel like a much better fit to our shame, especially in the past tense as this classic hymn puts it. You see, as Christians we sing “Amazing Grace” from the vantage point of the change that the Gospel has already effected in us – “lost” but now “found,” “blind” but now “seeing,” “dead” but now “alive” (Luke 15). Its premise is what baptism by immersion (another Gospel ordinance with forgiveness as its content – Acts 2:38) dramatizes – the death and burial of the old self, and the raising of the new self to a different kind of existence (Romans 6:1-14; 2 Corinthians 5:11-21). I strongly recommend that people who are thinking about Christian baptism spend some prayerful time in Colossians chapter 3:1-17 to better understand and more deeply appreciate the very real and substantial inward change that it outwardly and visibly signals. Changed people change the world, and that change begins in your heart by faith.
Thomas Erskine (1788 – 1870), a Scottish lay theologian wrote – “In the New Testament, religion is grace and ethics is gratitude.” In other words, what God does for us in Jesus Christ is the basis of everything that we do in response, and among the things that God has done for us in Jesus Christ is removing the guilt of our sin through forgiveness and the shame of being a sinner through regeneration. The passionate response of the woman in Luke 7:36-50 to Jesus Christ was the consequence of her personal experience of grace. She “loved much” because she knew that she had been “forgiven much.” So what does our response say about us? Do we “love little” because we have forgotten just how much God has done for us in Jesus Christ, or perhaps because we have never fully experienced it? The pattern of our worship attendance and the passion of our worship participation are pretty good gauges on our grasp of the Gospel.
The woman of Luke 7 has challenged me this week to get back in touch with where my journey of faith first began, to better appreciate the provision of forgiveness that I have received and to more fully live into the regeneration that I have experienced. Saved by grace I intend to be more thoroughly grateful. DBS+