God’s Law: The Grand Charter of Freedom
The apostle Paul talks frankly of his own past. “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen” ().
Paul’s honest admission is refreshing. He does not pretend that he was always a good person, or always did what was right. He admits that his past was filled with sinful actions, that he did evil. He does not talk of his credential to work as a minister in the present as based on his past good deeds, but on the grace and forgiveness of God.
The apostle’s teaching was consistent with his own experience. Paul based his gospel message on the power of God’s forgiveness. In the heart of his explanation about the gospel, Paul anchors that gospel to the credibility of the Christian as a child of God. This certainty that we are God’s children comes not from our own good performance, but from our reconciliation with God over our past poor performance. It is in our own heartfelt acknowledgment that we have wronged God that we find His forgiveness to reconcile us to Himself. And in the experience of Divine forgiveness, we find that we are blessed.
“To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin” ().
Paul relies on the Psalms to support his declarations, quoting from Psalm 32. The full passage out of which Paul quotes a part describes the joy of being forgiven as follows:
“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile. When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah. For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found” ().
David speaks here about the joy of being innocent with God, of having His smile. But the joy described here is the joy of being pardoned. “Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” My “transgression is forgiven.”
David describes this person as one whose spirit has no guile. Such are honest in their personality and they are honest in their thoughts. They do not defend wrong even when they are the ones who did the wrong. “I acknowledge my sin.” “Mine iniquity have I not hid.”
It is the easiest thing in the world to acknowledge someone else’s wrongs. We do that on a regular basis. We complain against the ministers. We find fault with church administrators. We expose the faults of the government and of our boss at work. Perhaps we even find fault with our spouses, our parents, our children, and our coworkers. We are experts at admitting the faults of everyone else in the world. But David and Paul do not talk of the blessing or the happiness of those that find fault with others. They celebrate those that are honest with the faults in themselves. “I acknowledge my own sin.”
So often we do not even acknowledge our own sin to ourselves. We do not believe that we are wrong. We find someone else to blame. To blame others is, after all, human nature.
When Adam and Eve had to explain their own strange behavior to God, they blamed anyone but themselves. Adam blamed his wife, and his wife blamed the snake. And to a certain extent, they both blamed the Creator.
Job’s friends came to comfort him. We read of great and long speeches that these friends made. The summary of those speeches are an attack on the character of Job. All of his friends accuse him of being guilty of some sin; they just cannot agree on which sin it is. But God states at the beginning and the end of the book of Job that Job is without fault. We cannot agree with Job’s friends that Job is guilty and agree with God that Job is innocent at the same time. Why did the friends add to Job’s sorrow by falsely accusing him? It is human nature to find fault with someone else even when God declares them to be innocent. It is sinful human nature to blame others.
But the story of Job teaches us more. We are blessed by God even when the devil, our spouse, and all of our friends are trying to accuse us and destroy us. Job is described by the Bible as living in great pain and through even greater sorrow. But the attitude of Job throughout his experience is humble and respectful. There is no hatred or bitterness, no blame and hostility. The very attitude that most of us show when life does not go our way is not the attitude of Job while living with worse circumstances than we face. Job was blessed that in the heartache he did not lose his character or serenity.
David says we are blessed when we are forgiven by God. Yet many of the psalms of David express anguish and sorrow. The blessing that David describes is not necessarily prosperity. It is integrity and contentment.
We are all in need of this forgiveness. Paul is careful to talk about the sin of people outside the church and declares that God hates their sins. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (). But then Paul details the sinfulness of people inside the church in the second chapter of Romans. He then concludes that “we have before proved both Jews [church members] and Gentiles [non-church members], that they are all under sin” ( ).
Every person needs God’s forgiveness to be blessed. And when we have His forgiveness then we are blessed, whether we are rich or poor, healthy or sick, praised by men or accused by men.
Yet this blessedness from God that comes from reconciliation with Him does not come to us arbitrarily. There is a work of repentance. David writes, “My sorrow is continually before me. For I will declare mine iniquity; I will be sorry for my sin” (, ). We must admit to ourselves and to God that we have wronged God, that we have injured Him. Only in our honesty with God can we be changed into His children, reconciled to Him.
We often speak about various religious doctrines. We urge ourselves and others to do good, and have a list of good acts that we believe we all ought to do. But there is no salvation in doing good. We are not accepted as God’s child because we force ourselves into carrying out good deeds. We are children of God, when we are “born again” into God’s family, when we are reconciled to God over our past behavior.
God is waiting and longing to be reconciled to us. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” ().
If we are not reconciled to God, it is not because of any failure on His part. “If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things” (, ).
So often we do not even acknowledge our own sin to ourselves. We do not believe that we are wrong.
There is only one thing that separates us from God. We are so used to the thought that many of you have already said in your minds, “sin is the only thing that separates us from God.” But that is trite. In truth, Jesus came and lived among sinners. Sin did not separate us from God, for God came to us in our sin. Moses murdered and still was reconciled to God. David did worse that murder his own friend and was reconciled to God. Paul tried to eradicate Christians before he was reconciled to God. Sin did not separate these great men of old.
Paul explains in the verses we quoted from 1 Timothy, “I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” He as much as says, I was wrong; mistaken but wrong. And this implies that he was honest enough to admit he was wrong and be reconciled to God when he realized his error.
We can talk of the ninth commandment that prohibits dishonesty; do not bear a false witness. But the most important honesty in the world is the honesty with our own hearts and with God. Only as we are honest inside of ourselves can we be honest to those in the world around us.
Paul orders us to “walk honestly” ().
Jesus tells us that Christians “are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word [of God], keep it” ().
“Do that which is honest,”. Pray “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” ( ).
Perhaps another example will illustrate the value of this honesty in all circumstances. The story comes down to us of an honest man, faced with the temptation to lie. After Martin Luther had challenged the papal world with 95 reasons to reject the false doctrine of indulgences, the renowned reformer became a hero to some and an enemy to others. Just 500 kilometers southwest of where Luther was, the Count Eberhard of Erbach Im Odenwald was determined to stop him. The Count took a band of his own soldiers and set out on a trip to find Luther and do what no one else was doing—to silence the reformer’s influence. The Count determined to capture his prey while the reformer was visiting the town of Miltenberg, approximately 25 kilometers east of his castle. Arriving in town, the Count took rooms in the Inn for himself and his men and promptly tried to go to sleep in preparation for his work the next morning. He found he could not sleep but ended up listening to the devotions of some pastor in the room next to him. These included reading Psalm 7 and a hymn and a prayer.
The following morning the same person on the other side of the thin wall held another devotional service. The Count again listened and admired. Tears came to this tough man’s eyes as he heard the voice in the next room. Finally, the Count asked the innkeeper to introduce himself to the devoted person whose worship service was so impressive to him.
The count soon greeted the priest in the neighboring room—a middle-sized, thick-set man in his thirties. His face showed energy and gentleness, zeal and love. This pastor was astonished to see before him the Count in his armor, with his sword by his side.
The Count declared, “I come to you, venerable father, to express my gratitude to you for the spiritual encouragement that you prepared for me last night and this morning. And I take this opportunity to ask you cordially to sing one more beautiful song for my comfort.”
Again the Count’s heart was deeply moved. Holding the hand of the priest he said: “Your wonderful songs have put a question in my mouth. What do you think of the new doctrine that is being preached everywhere? You are a God-fearing and intelligent man. I would like to have your advice and instruction.”
The stranger, more than willing to fulfill the desire of the Count, immediately began to explain the Holy Scriptures to him. The Count listened with close attention, interjecting a question or objection now and then, which prolonged the conversation. Finally the innkeeper walked in and said that the Count’s soldiers, who were waiting outside, were becoming impatient.
“Excuse me, venerable father. I must hurry off. I am engaged in a pious work which is pleasing to God and which will certainly have your approval,” the Count explained.
“May I know what you intend to do?”
“Of course. This work is to be done to the honor of God and to the benefit of the holy Church. And for this purpose I need your blessing.”
“Tell me all about it.”
“I left home with my soldiers to make a catch. I am on the lookout for a naughty heretic, and I am sure I will lay hands on him today.”
“Whom do you mean?”
“That insolent Augustinian monk of Wittenberg who lifted up his sacrilegious hand against the representative of the Lord Jesus Christ and against his mother, the holy Church. He is going to travel from here to Heidelberg, as I have been informed.”
“You mean Dr. Martin Luther?”
“Who else could it be but this heretic and teacher of false doctrines who has caused offense and scandal throughout the German Empire?”
“And what do you intend to do with the monk of Wittenberg once you have caught him?”
“I will incarcerate him in my tower or in a safe convent, and my priests will press him so long that he will finally retract his pernicious errors and come out as a repentant sinner.”
“And if he does not meet your commendable desire, but rather persists in his conviction—what then?”
Only as we are honest inside of ourselves can we be honest to others.
“Do you think I am incurring such a heavy expenditure to no purpose—only to find out that he is going to escape? He will not fall into my hands in vain. If he remains stubborn I will send him to Rome—I myself and my soldiers will go with him—and I will deliver him to the Holy Father. If he still holds on to his errors, the Holy Father may condemn him to the stake, treating him as a heretic ought to be treated. Now I must go to do my work, but, venerable father, I cannot go without your blessing. I also ask you to give me your name, so that I can keep it in my memory and in my heart as long as I live. You are the most pious and educated priest that I have ever met.”
The stranger remained silent for a while, only repeating to himself, mentally, these words: “They shall put you out of the synagogues; yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service” (). Then he turned to the Count firmly and decidedly:
“You do not have to trouble yourself any further. The man whom you want to capture is right before you. I am Martin Luther!”
As if struck by a thunder, the Count knelt before the pious man and said:
“You are better than I am. May God, in His grace, forgive me for having thought to harm you.”
Luther smiled and said:
“Stand up, honorable Count, and go your way in peace. He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. By the will of God, you shall see greater wonders than the breaking of bows and the destroying of spears by Him. They will not be able to suppress His word, for the word of the Lord remaineth forever.”
“Venerable sir,” the Count entreated, “I have one more petition which I would like to urge on you. I was greatly edified by your prayers and your songs; and your clear, intelligent, and cordial explanations have enlightened my heart. Come with me to my castle at Erbach. God’s leading has been so wonderful that I wanted to take you there as my prisoner, and now you are taking me there as your prisoner. I am anxious to listen to you still further, as far as your time permits. Come with me so that my wife may receive, through you, the same blessings that I have received.”
The Count continued as an ally of the Reformation and stood by Luther in difficult moments, encouraging his new friend. He was even there in support of Luther when the reformer made his famous speech to the Diet of Worms.
It was perhaps difficult for Martin Luther to be honest at that moment, but that honesty made him a man before God. Like Paul, Luther could speak of being reconciled to God. So, can I. And I pray, so will you.