Today I was listening to Christian radio after thinking about this text in Matthew regarding the “unforgivable sin” and the speaker, John McArthur, a well-known voice in Bible study said that rejection of Jesus is the unforgivable sin. That is to say, if someone rejects Christ as Savior, then his or her destiny is Hell. Now, this is representative of what his claim was, and it puzzled me and I’ll explain by having you read a passage of scripture that is JESUS’ own words in the Gospel.
Matthew 12:31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
This is puzzling to me because Jesus actually contradicts the notion that those who reject Christ cannot be forgiven…and seems to place more emphasis on a more abstract notion of “blasphemy” or rejection of the Holy Spirit over and above His own treatment. So, if you are scratching your head, then you are in good company because I think this goes against the Evangelical notion that those who believe in the Lord will be saved and those who “believeth not” will be condemned. And this is why context is so important…in any scripture study that we can do! You might notice that our text begins with the word, “Therefore” and so as Mike Cope used to preach, when we see therefore we should stop and ask, “What is that there for?” So, leading up Jesus’ teaching on the unforgivable sin was this…
Matthew 12:22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
When the Pharisees heard it they decided that this could not be the work of the Holy Spirit but the work of the prince of demons. This is a striking judgment…one that is motivated by their need for power and control, enticed by their religious superiority, walled in from any experience of the divine that was outside their theological boundaries. The question that was raised by the people who saw the miracle was asking if Jesus was the Messiah or Son of David…and the Pharisees do not speak against Jesus, but against the power, or empowering force, that makes the miracle possible. Jesus sees into their thoughts and motivations, and provides a lecture correcting their terrible logic and even worse understanding of the spiritual world. Then comes the hammer…
Jesus essentially says, “It is one thing to question who I am and to make claims about my validity…but when you question the very working of God, that being the Holy Spirit, and judge God’s action to be something else, you make an eternal mistake.” It makes you wonder who would have that type of arrogance? Who would place themselves as judge over the actions of God? Well, the Pharisees would…that’s who and that is why Jesus speaks so harshly to them. You see, the unforgivable sin is not the one time rejection of Jesus, because as long as there is breath in our lungs, we can choose to come to Christ. Speaking against Christ was not the issue here, but the issue was making oneself the judge over the Son of God’s action, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The thing that is clear to me is that the unforgivable sin is not something that the faithless commit…because they are ignorant. I’m not suggesting they don’t sin, I’m simply suggesting that the Bible and Jesus do not argue that the lost, or those outside of Christ, act in a way that is beyond the forgiveness of God. Therefore I must also conclude that God forgives many of the sins that some of our more conservative thinkers might see as a challenge to the church's purity. So, who does? Well, whether it is this passage or the warnings in the book of Hebrews and elsewhere, it is the religious person whose righteousness is prized over the Lord God to the point that they become the judge of whether or not God is acting or working in a particular case…those are the ones most at risk of committing the unforgivable sin.
It seems that those who are empowered by the Holy Spirit and in Christ Jesus should be able to see God at work as discern it correctly. And yes, sometimes we miss it due to distraction or apathy or a myriad of other reasons. But that is not the same as a blatant condemnation of something God is doing among us that doesn’t fit our theology or our experience of religion. Let’s be cautious not to misrepresent the one who has been given as a gift to us empowering the work of God in our time, in our world.
I have had a few people approach me about my reactions to an article that has been making it’s way around Social Media. The blog post was by Benjamin Sledge and his title is “Let’s Stop Pretending Christianity is Actually Relevant, Okay?” So, what follows are my insights and reactions to this article…which you can read HERE.
First and foremost, I want to thank Mr. Sledge for his thought provoking blog. There is so much here that is worth considering further, which is what I plan on doing. I must confess that as a minister and preacher, I am having a harder time considering the “practical application” of Biblical texts and it is not because I cannot come up with them, but because I want to give people something they might actually consider being or doing. A fellow minister tweeted a few weeks back that preaching on the Bible is like “giving a book report on a book that no one else has really read.” That has stuck with me as much as Sledge’s remark, “It’s quite strange to expect people to conform to your morals because you quoted a book they don’t read.” I often wonder how Christianity might change if the Bible was taken seriously and read by the people who claim their devotion to it. I also wonder how our study of the Bible would affect our interactions with those who don’t hold to the same belief system that Christians hold.
Don’t mishear my apprehension, I know that there are some Christians who read the Bible and try to take it seriously, but I know many more Christians who would rather assume they know it from childhood memories and one sermon a week than to actually pick it up and read it. So, I say this to reflect some concern as to the level of relevancy the Bible has for Christians before we even begin to look at the larger American culture.
When we do look at American culture, I think this article assumes an emerging correlation between the pagan Roman culture of the first century and the current American culture. This assumption exposes a division in the larger Christian landscape. I know Christians who hold to an understanding of American history and cultural development that claims the United States is a Christian nation, founded by Christian principles, and held together by Christian leaders. Yet, Sledge represents a growing group of Christians who point out that the United States has strikingly familiar parallels to Greco-Roman rule and culture, and has been that way from its conception. Perhaps a truce might be had if we acknowledge that regardless of our bent in regard to history, American culture is growing more pagan and Roman cultural practices, as described by Sledge in his article, are taking precedent over the teachings of Scripture.
Let me try to supply four observations from the article that I believe need to be addressed and corrected if the church is to be Attractive to the culture once again:
1. The relevancy of the church is found in our actions and not in our doctrines.
Ok, so before you pick up your stones to drag me out in the street, what I am claiming is that the church has high-level doctrines like God, Christ, God as creator, Humanity as the beloved creation, the Holy Spirit…etc. And the church has low-level doctrines that have developed between denominations and lead to our unique identities as sects and tribes. So often, we take our lower-level doctrines and try to show the larger culture why our distinctiveness needs to be appreciated and followed…we lead with low-level doctrines. In contrast, it is the higher-level doctrines that produce within us the ability to love, serve, give, and extend hospitality. So, as the church leaders teach us about life as a ______________ (insert denomination here)…as opposed to life as a ________________ (insert hated denomination here…the culture around us scratches their heads and continues to be lost. To seek the lost, we need to actually DO - love, give, serve, and invite - and it is the sum of these qualities found in a group of Christians taking Jesus’ life seriously that becomes attractive to others.
2. We have replaced the pursuit of faithfulness with the pursuit of fame.
Why must we use social media for every little concern we have? I must agree with Sledge that Christians on social media during an election year is one of the most Kingdom destroying activity I have ever witnessed in the American culture. It doesn’t matter who your candidate is, what side of the isle your on (if your even in the chamber), some one is going to represent Christ in a way that makes you go…WHAT!?!? But that isn’t all…what about our Christian celebrities that people flock to go hear speak at the colleges and non-profit events? I mean, what’s better than a super Christian with mega-bucks? I’ll tell you, a widow who has lost her husband and continues to visit the sick, reach out to young mothers, and attend worship services even though she doesn’t know what the internet is….because she continues to be faithful. Sledge says that churches have become bigger, but that doesn’t mean they have become better…I experience the pull and tug between being a famous minister or a faithful minister. I didn’t use an and/or there because I have a hard time understanding what a famous and faithful minister really would look like. I really wonder if anyone can really be famous and faithful…It almost seems to much for us to handle. But I do know this, my neighbor doesn’t really care how famous I am, but she does care about the respect I give her and the conversations we have…What does faithfulness look like, well, it starts by being present and paying attention to others. The famous are often absent and self-focused. Our culture needs more faithfulness.
3. In making God accessible to the peoples, we have displaced God’s holiness.
We can dress God up in skinny jeans, hand him (or her) a guitar, and request Oceans (a good song) as much as we want. But God resists being our friend and pal because God is not as we are…God’s ways are different…God’s thoughts are different…and God as the Holy One refuses relevancy to some degree. Some groups of Christians have synchronized with culture by placing persons and our lives at the center (or top) of our priorities and then they ask God to provide something good or grand for us to entertain and maybe adopt as our way of life. God is a counselor in our efforts to self-help, and this notion of God should be foreign to the Christian experience and is completely unheard of in the text of Scripture. God is Holy, and we are to live a life that is relevant to God and whether God is relevant to us depends upon our choices to put God at the center of our lives and view God as top priority. If God became less of a friend and more of a…well, God…the great “I AM” of the Old Testament who cannot be controlled or manipulated, then we would do as God wants and the life of service to God by loving and serving other would flow out of this attitude adjustment.
4. In prioritizing education through the pursuit of knowledge, we have forgotten to teach the discipline of discernment.
When I went to seminary to study ministry and theology, in my very first class I was handed a book entitled, “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.” It was a brief book that I could make much more brief—the book told us to shut-up! Yeah, not that way but basically the book assumed that we would be gathering all of this knowledge and would learn new things and the author made a point to suggest that take the time to discern what was appropriate for us to pass along and what we should think about a little more before putting it out there. I think that I am smarter than the generations of old, that is I am more well read and have a more well-rounded education. I can look anything up on the internet and learn to do anything on YouTube. We know a lot…but I think we have a hard time discerning…between sources of information…between socially appropriate outlets…between private and public arenas…and so forth. I agree with Sledge that Christians need to halt the relenting pursuit of being right in favor of a pursuit of doing right.
I’m sure there is more I could have thought about, but I think the relevancy of Christianity is dependent on the relevancy the faith finds in the hearts and lives of Christian people. Which brings this to me and to you…are we part of the 70% who are culturally Christian or are we going to be the smaller group characterized by love, grace, and acceptance who live the life of Jesus?
Something came along my news feed the other day proclaiming that Matthew 18:20 is one of five of the most misused verses in the New Testament by ministers. Yet, I’m not sure my father misused the passage given his particular bent that if the Bible says, and I believe it, than that settles it. Also, this verse was used as an encouragement for many evening services in which a majority of the congregation would choose not to congregate. It reads this way:
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I among them.
It is the anthem of small church gatherings everywhere. This verse out of the Gospel reminds us that the size of the gathering doesn’t matter, and that Christ is indeed with his followers regardless of the number. However, to truly read the Bible as God’s Word and strive to take it seriously, we must consider the context of Jesus’ saying here. I other words, does this verse truly apply to evening services of the church in which only a few choose to attend?
To answer this question, we must expand our quotation to the entire passage that is broken out as a paragraph for us by those who have translated and put together our bibles. Therefore, we will look at Matthew 18:15-20:
15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. 19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
Immediately, we should see that this instruction from Matthew really has very little to do with church events, and much more to do with church community…that is relationships among believers. It starts off…”If another believer sins against you…” and then proceeds to lay out a plan of action. We will get to the plan in a minute, but what needs to be stressed is that when a plan of action is carried out, there will be believers who will not agree with the action taken. Yet, Jesus makes a really strong statement that we must not only understand, but use it as a barometer for what is appropriate and godly for believers to engage in. Jesus says that there is a direct correlation between what is permitted and forbidden in the church, and what is permitted and forbidden in heaven. Jesus clarifies that with a serious, “I tell you the truth.” The encouragement comes to those who are trying to restore the person back to the congregation…Jesus tells them that once these steps have been taken and there has been pain, prayer, and pastoring; The end result may or may not be to the liking of the group, but Jesus is there among them.
So when times get rough and people hurt each other and it makes an impact on the church, Jesus is there is the agreement and efforts of those who have come together to help a believer in Jesus live the Christian, or heavenly Kingdom, life. Now, As far as we have come, there is a message of grace to the leaders of the church and the victims of the offense…Jesus is there with them. One of the things that must be stressed is that that dignity and harmony of the church is prioritized over the individual in sin. Jesus message is clear, persons fall into sin, but the church must be a community that confronts sin and loves these persons back to the life of righteousness. With that point made, there is a message of grace for those who would be the offender in this scenario.
If you have sinned against a fellow believer, that believer is not given license to gossip or spread information about you…that person is to come to you and tell you what has happened. If that doesn’t resolve the problem, then they gather some of your friends to talk with you regarding the sin, notice that these friends serve as witnesses and not a firing squad. They listen to both sides of the dispute and provide counsel as to how this might be resolved. If that fails, then the whole church gathers to hear the dispute and if the matter is still unresolved, then someone could get removed from the community of believers because the last thing the church wants is a sinner who is unwilling to confess and humble themselves in the guidance and protection of the church. So, the message of grace is twofold in this plan of action; first, a person who has a problem with you is never grounds for your dismissal from the church because of arbitrary drama or hasty reaction and second, at any point there is a confession of sin then the matter is resolved because that is what Jesus asks of us is to simply own our sin.
You can imagine that those who are caught up in the middle of such disputes will question there actions and even begin to wonder about there prayers…because relationships in the church are sticky at times, and even brothers and sisters can have deep seated anger and resentment. That is why Jesus reminds those in the thick of things that He is there with them and that in their agreement they will find a pathway back to the Kingdom of God…a place where every citizen belongs, and a place that deserves our best efforts to be peacefully in community with each other.
So while I do not think that this verse applied directly to the small church crowds and should not be used as a slogan for a church group who is small thinking that they are doing the right thing by hosting small numbers. Jesus is in the large numbers too… I do think that this can be an encouragement for those who are motivated to help others in their discipleship, especially within a culture that puts much more emphasis on individual fulfillment than it does community engagement. The Kingdom of God is a church community, not an idealized individual progress plan. That can be found in other religions, but not the one Christ died for…Christ died for a group, not so he would be fulfilled, but so we together might find fulfillment through him in having a true and real relationship with God. So, where a few gather in the name of Jesus, God is present!
I was struck, probably by a strong dose of reality, the other day reading through this Psalm. It speaks of the entirety of forgiveness and a life lived in complete relationship with the Lord. It is a Psalm of David, but a song springing up from what event I wondered? What led to such confidence in God? What led to the outpouring of true and authentic confession and “complete honesty” as David says it in the verses below?
James Gray seems to agree with Jewish tradition that this Psalm, “Is thought to have been written after his sin with Bathsheba (you can read that in 2 Sam. 11-12). He has been brought to repentance for that sin and forgiven (David is said to have written Psalm 51 in his repentance for that sin), and now is praising God for that forgiveness, and telling what led up to it.” Christian Worker’s Commentary
Here are David’s words:
1 Oh, what joy for those
whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
2 Yes, what joy for those
whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty!
3 When I refused to confess my sin,
my body wasted away,
and I groaned all day long.
4 Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Interlude
5 Finally, I confessed all my sins to you
and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.”
And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. (Selah)
6 Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time,
that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment.
7 For you are my hiding place;
you protect me from trouble.
You surround me with songs of victory. (Selah)
8 The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life.
I will advise you and watch over you.
9 Do not be like a senseless horse or mule
that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”
10 Many sorrows come to the wicked,
but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the Lord.
11 So rejoice in the Lord and be glad, all you who obey him!
Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!
I think what struck me about this Psalm was that when God is confronted with the reality of our sin, God doesn’t react like we expect him to react. God forgives, puts it out of sight, clears our guilt, protects us from trouble, gives us victory, and refreshes us in His unfailing love.
Because of the shame and guilt of sin, perhaps what we have been taught about sin, and many other factors…we often think that we have to rationalize our sin away or spend energy trying to hide it. Just focus on our strengths and eventually the weaknesses will be untraceable. Maybe we could even spend more time taking the focus off of “me” and start helping “them” live a better life. David is not the first or last leader who fell for this one…ministers, pastors, elders, bishops, and deacons beware of this. (I am too aware of the hiddenness and secrecy of sin in the lives of our most beloved church leaders.) So, conceal it and don’t feel it in the words of “Frozen” Don’t let them in, don’t let them see…be the good person you always have to be…
Yep, and there we are frozen to God’s work and our growth because like David we are wasting away and groaning, our strength being evaporated like water in the summer heat. If you find yourself in this picture, then understand a few truths about God:
God knows we sin, and God knows the effects of our sin and that is why at an excruciating personal cost Jesus was sent to live the life we are incapable of living and die the righteous death that we could never die.
God forgives sin through Jesus, and that forgiveness is complete and absolute for those who live in gratitude of this reality (Listen to David’s thankfulness above!)
The only power sin has in our lives is the power we give to it by pretending we are perfect and not taking advantage of the avenues provided to us through repentance and confession.
Christians are not perfect people, we are people who trust God’s promises and run to God for forgiveness, protection, and unfailing love.
Churches and faith communities must reflect these things and practice deep faith in God. If you find yourself among a group of people and leaders who say, “I’m sorry” and understand the supreme reign of Jesus Christ, then count yourself blessed!
Finally, this concluding thought from the Psalm of David, and if true in his heart than how much more true for those in Christ Jesus our Lord. “So rejoice in the Lord and be glad, all you who obey him! Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!”
The other night I attended my daughters holiday music concert. She sang in the second grade chorus, but there were other groups including strings, band, and fifth grade chorus and choir. You know, if I’m candid with you I have to say that I have attended better concerts. Some of the performance was lackluster; notes were missed, entrances were shaky, and then there were young musicians playing stringed instruments…need I say more.
Yet, it is hard to compare unequal things even though we do it often. These kids were prepared to give it their best. They practiced and took instruments home. They learn hand motions and sign language to go along with their songs. And they were so joyful and proud of their efforts. What I liked was at the end of the concert, everyone stood up and gave the children a standing ovation. I joined in that, proud of my daughter and the kids who had put in the time and effort to do their best.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes we think we are being applauded for our performance when we are actually being applauded for our effort. I realize that if I live for the applause of God, I am sure not hoping he compares me to others that are better than I am. If I could supply him with a list of persons who I think might make good comparisons, then we could perhaps go down this path. (Like trying to establish the price of the house you’re buying by looking at the worst prices in the neighborhood!)
God, please don’t compare to Jesus, or the martyrs, or some of the saints who have sacrificed so much to follow you! But what I want to assert is that God’s applause isn’t beckoned by perfection of performance, if that was the case then he would not recognize our achievements at all. You see, even the greatest achievements of the church and God’s people are still imperfect outcomes done by an imperfect people. I do believe God recognizes effort, however, and that is why God is so pleased and happy with us. When we give God “with all of our,” then he is proud of us. The Bible says to Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. We need to practice and take the performance of this verse seriously, because Jesus prioritized it as the number one command. But even when our performance is dissonant and the wrong notes are played, it is the effort that God sees and it is the effort that God applauds.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.