Grace and Consequences

popewithmehmetOn May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II entered St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican.   Mehmet Ali Ağca was waiting with a gun. Ağca pulled the trigger. Four bullets hit the pope, and he was rushed to the hospital where he eventually recovered from his wounds. Ağca was immediately taken into custody.

Just after Christmas in 1983, Pope John Paul II entered a cell in an Italian prison. He took Ağca’s hand in his own and looked his would-be assassin in the eye. Then the pope forgave the man that tried to kill him.  The pontiff later said, “What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me, I spoke to him as brother whom I have forgiven, and who has my complete trust.”

That’s an amazing story of grace. As I wrote in posts about grace last Thursday and Friday, grace is undeserved forgiveness. But I recount the story here not just because of the pope’s forgiveness, but because  Mehmet Ali Ağca remained in prison until 2010.

The pope forgave Mehmet Ali Ağca, but there are still consequences for Ağca’s actions.

We hesitate to extend grace, and even doubt that God might be graceful with “some people,” because we fear it is equivalent to letting someone off the hook for the consequences of their actions.

But that is not the case. Even though I know I am forgiven by God for everything I have done or will do, there will still be earthly consequences when I inevitably screw up. That is good for me – I need to learn from my missteps – and for those around me.

As a parent, when my children misbehaved I certainly forgave them. But there were consequences . . . how else would they learn?

When I share the grace I have received from God and forgive someone who does not deserve it and/or has not asked for it, that does not mean that I roll over and invite them to harm me again.

If another person betrays my trust by sharing a confidence, I will (hopefully) forgive them, but may not let them in on anything that I don’t want to be public knowledge.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that we must “Forgive and forget.” To forgive is to extend grace; to forget may be just plain stupid.

Amazingly, it is only GOD who forgives and forgets! (Hebrews 8:12, Isaiah 43:25). How an omniscient God forgets all the times I have fallen short is certainly a mystery, but it is truly a wonderful promise.

This is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so let me close this brief discussion of the distinction between grace and pardon from consequences with a confession on behalf of the church that I serve. I don’t mean the particular congregation, but rather the church of Jesus Christ historically. For many years it was the practice – and unfortunately still is in in some places – that women who were abused were instructed to “forgive and forget” in the name of grace and to preserve the “sanctity of marriage.”

The church has been just plain wrong in those instances. It has confused the meaning of grace. Certainly, at some point and with God’s help women will hopefully be able to release themselves by forgiving their abusers.  But that does not mean that they should have to return to be hurt again and again. The “sanctity of marriage” was already violated by their abusers.

And grace, whether extended by God or by others, does not mean there are no earthly consequences.

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Grace? I Object!

i-objectI have heard all the objections to grace.

I have spoken them myself.

The primary objections are these: It’s too easy! It’s not fair!

I hear them every time I teach or preach about grace. I heard some of them yesterday in response to my post, “Grace Has No ‘If.'”  The funny thing is that almost all the folks who get offended by God’s extravagant grace are folks who are already in the church.

We’ve got to keep out the undesirables, you know. At least until they clean themselves up. (Until they’re really sorry.)

Yeah, that sounds like Jesus . . . Jesus who hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus who pronounced forgiveness before it was asked for – before folks even knew he had the authority to forgive. (See the story of the paralyzed guy brought to Jesus by his friends in Mark 2. The dude never speaks, much less asks for forgiveness.)

We want to impose our broken human concept of forgiveness onto God. But God won’t have it. God proclaims and exclaims GRACE through the cross.

You know, the cross where Jesus died for us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8).

Good Christian folks are scandalized by grace. So we add conditions to God’s gift . . . we add “if’s” to God’s grace.

As if we have that authority!

The biggest if  . . . “You’ve got to ask for forgiveness or God won’t give it to you.”

If that’s the case, then all of us are going to hell.

There is no way that we can ask God’s forgiveness for every way we fall short.

For one thing, we sin so often we’re bound to forget some when we get around to asking for forgiveness.

Also,  because we’re human we are masters of rationalization. We’ll never ask for forgiveness for some things because we’ll never realize we were wrong to do – or not to do – them.

And then there’s the fact that we are bound to get some things wrong about what’s a sin and what isn’t. Different denominations disagree about the rules . . . if our salvation depends on finding the church that gets everything right, then we’re all in trouble because none does (including mine . . . I’m sure I’ll have some “aha” – and “oh crap” – moments in eternity).

I’m preaching about the Ten Commandments this Sunday. There are wildly different interpretations of what just those ten basic rules mean. Just take a look at “Don’t Murder.” Do I violate that one if I kill in self-defense? In war? What if I’m on the “wrong” side of a war? What about abortion? What about abortion in cases of rape or incest or fetal abnormality? Jesus said if you’re angry at someone you’ve broken that commandment. What if I’m angry for a “good” reason?

And on and on.  That’s just one commandment.

If my salvation depends on my asking forgiveness every time I sin, then I darn well better get exactly right what is and isn’t a sin. I never will. Not in this life.

Even if we do our best to ask for forgiveness – and mean it! – for every time for fall short, death will eventually get in the way.

Suppose I’m driving too fast one night and my car slams into a tree. My last word will probably not be a good one. I may even take the Lord’s name in vain.

I don’t believe my salvation is so tenuous that it is threatened by my final, unconfessed exclamation!

My salvation doesn’t depend on me. Thank God.

My salvation depends not on my imperfect faith but on God’s perfect faithfulness.

My salvation depends on God’s grace.

No “If’s” about it.

(Monday I’ll deal with some other objections to grace, including the one that we “Let someone off the hook” when we forgive them unconditionally. But grace is NOT the same as pardon . . . more on that Monday.)

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Grace Has No “If”

grace“I forgive you” is GRACE.

“I forgive you, if . . .” is not.

That’s the conclusion we reached last evening as we talked about grace and forgiveness in our weekly Bible Study. (This fall we’re studying What’s So Amazing About Graceby Philip Yancey.)

When someone has hurt us, it is our human nature to insist on the other person’s contrition before we forgive them. They have to say they’re sorry – and really, really mean it. They have to make things “right.” They have to grovel. Or something. Because we deserve it, by golly!

But if we define grace as the gift of forgiveness, then adding any conditions makes it something other than grace. It’s not a gift if you have to earn it.

Grace means we make the first move. We forgive before it’s asked for and before it’s deserved. We forgive even though it might never be asked for or deserved.

That’s the way God forgives us.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV)

There are no “if’s” to God’s forgiveness. We are saved by grace. Period.

God always makes the first move.

God does not say, “I will forgive you IF you say you’re sorry and really mean it.” Nor does God say, “I will forgive you IF you follow the rules.”

In fact, God does not say, “I will forgive you” at all.

God simply says, “You ARE forgiven.”

That’s the Gospel.

That’s grace.

(Tomorrow, I’ll answer some of the questions and objections I hear when I teach or preach about grace. Stay tuned . . .)

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If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From A Christian Pastor/Parent (Reblogged from John Pavlovitz)

A friend who is the parent of a gay child sent me this link to a post on Pastor John Pavlovitz’s blog. It obviously resonated with them.  I think the post is quite awesome and well worth of sharing:

If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From A Christian Pastor/Parent.

The comments on Pastor Pavlovitz’s post are disheartening; you may not want to read them.  Many excoriate him for basically saying, “I’ll love my children unconditionally.”  You know, sort of like God loves God’s children.

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“. . . in the best possible light”

HyperbolaeDrawnByHalogenLamp Just a quick thought . . .

We deepen division and obliterate even the possibility of relationship when we define those with whom we disagree according to the most extreme proponents and positions of their convictions. What if we stopped awfulizing religions (or lack thereof), political parties and perspectives, genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, nationalities, etc. that are unlike our own, and instead gave those who are different than us, or who hold attitudes and opinions contrary to ours, the same empathetic hearing we desire for ourselves?

“We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” 
- Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment in The Small Catechism.


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A Pastoral Letter to an Abused Woman (Repost)

(I first posted this over two years ago. With the recent attention to Domestic Violence, I thought it was appropriate to repost.  The church should certainly be speaking to issues such as this.  As I say at the end, it was not written to any particular person or situation.)

Dear Child of God,

First, and most important, the abuse is not your fault.  It doesn’t matter what you have done or haven’t done, the abuse is not your fault.

Your abuser’s behavior is HIS responsibility.  HIS sin is between him and God.

No one “deserves” to be hit or used sexually or even verbally assaulted.  Nowhere in the Bible are husbands, boyfriends, or anyone else given a mandate or permission to abuse you.  You do not deserve to be hurt.

Which is why the first thing to do is . . .


If you are being abused by your boyfriend, terminate the relationship NOW.  Get out.  Get away.  Get safe.

Of course he promises that things will be different once you are married.  Of course he promises to change.  Of course he tells you that if YOU would just change then he could stop hitting/belittling/raping you.

Run the other way!  You CAN do better.  God loves you and wants better for you.  No matter what your experience may have been, not every man is an abuser.  Marriage is a sacred bond instituted by God.  Do you want to base that bond on an abusive relationship?  Do you want to bring children into the world with someone who is abusive?  Get out of that relationship and don’t look back!

But what if you are an abused wife?  What if you have already entered into that sacred bond?

My counsel is the same.  Get safe.  If that means going away, leave.  You know better than anyone if it is possible to be safe in your present situation.  If you’re not safe where you are – and a realistic evaluation will probably  tell you that you’re not – then go to a friend’s house, go to a relative’s home, go to a shelter.  Or better yet, get him to go live somewhere else for a while if you can.

Get safe.  Get out if you need to.  Not necessarily out of the marriage – not yet – but get out of the place or situation where your abuser can continue to hurt you.

Now, there are those who will throw bits and pieces of Scripture at you trying to convince you that God desires you to stay in the place where you are being abused.  “God has you there for a reason,” they will say.  Or, “There are only two Scriptural reasons for ending a marriage, and abuse is not one of them.”  These folks often have the best of intentions and are usually simply misguided.

“God hates divorce,” they will say.  Yes, that is a direct quote from Scripture . . . and I agree, that is indeed what it says in Malachi: “God hates divorce.”

But God loves YOU more than God hates divorce.  How can I say that with assurance?  Because I know that God loves you with a love that is INFINITE.  God loves you so much that God sent God’s only Son into the world to die for you.  Jesus died so that you could have new life RIGHT NOW.  He died so that you could look forward to eternal life with Him.

Jesus died because He loves YOU.

God loves you with a love that is without limits.  Certainly, if your marriage ends because of your husband’s abuse, God will grieve for that.  But God hasn’t, and God won’t, stop loving you.  God won’t stop renewing you. God won’t stop forgiving you.

A God who loves you that much does not want you to be abused.

Yes, marriage is sacred.  But that sacredness has already been violated – by your abuser.

Throughout history one of the sins of the human institution that is the church has been to use Biblical directives to excuse men who are abusers.  The church has told women who are being abused that they must stay with their husband no matter what because, after all, he’s the head of the household.

How sad.

The Bible directs husbands to love their wives as Christ loves His church.  Christ’s love is, above all, sacrificial.  An abusive husband is displaying the opposite of Christ’s love – rather than absorbing pain on your behalf (sacrificial love) he is inflicting that pain (abusive “love”).

And the truth is, the Bible calls on husbands and wives to submit to each other.

By his abuse, your husband has broken the promises he made to you on your wedding day.  He promised to love you, to cherish you, to take care of you.  It is he who has been unfaithful – unfaithful to the promises he made to you, and unfaithful to the promises he made TO GOD.

Some will say, “But what about forgiveness?”  Well, certainly we are all called to forgive those who hurt us.  Sometimes that takes a very long time.  But, God does not require you to be a doormat . . . or a punching bag.  Forgiveness is not the same as opening yourself up to be hurt again.

Forgiveness is also not the same as letting someone off the hook for the consequences of their behavior.

The primary consequence needs to be your getting yourself safe.

If you have kids, then it is exponentially more important to get to safety.  “He doesn’t abuse them,” you say, “It’s only me.”  But how long before the same ticking time bomb that showers you with shrapnel detonates with your children?  Even if your children are not being physically abused, it is at least emotionally abusive for them to live in a situation where mom is being hurt by dad.

What are your children learning?  What are they going to take into their own relationships and into their own marriages?  Is your little girl learning that “love” means being abused?  Is your little boy learning that men are supposed to hurt women?

Jesus taught and demonstrated how much He loves children, and He warned about harming them.  Get them to safety!

Let me be clear, I’m not telling you that you should necessarily jump directly to divorce.  No.  Get safe, then perhaps by the grace of God your husband will repent.  Perhaps he will make the complete change of heart and mind God desires him to make.  Certainly pray for him.

But do not even consider reuniting until he has taken concrete steps and made tangible changes.  One such step is a spiritual commitment demonstrated through action.  Another is counseling.  Why counseling?  Can’t God change him?  Certainly, but God works through human means all the time.  Someone who has a physical illness needs both prayer AND medical treatment.  An abuser needs both prayer AND counseling.

Make sure that YOU get spiritual support – and counseling – as well.  This is also vital for your children.

The unfortunate truth is that your husband may not choose to change. He may continue to push away the forgiveness and new life that God offers.  You cannot control that.  Ultimately, the best available option may be termination of the marriage.  That is sad, that is a tragedy, but because we live in a fallen, sinful world sometimes there is not a “good” option, only the best of unfortunate, imperfect options.

No, divorce is not God’s intention.  But it is not “the unforgivable sin.”  It is a tragic reality in our sinful world where two sinners (we’re all sinners!) come together in a sacred union.

Thank God we live by Grace, not by Law!

Never forget that God loves you.  God loves you not matter who you are, no matter what you have done.   You are forever God’s child, and, like any loving parent, God does not desire that God’s daughter be abused.

Christ’s peace,

Pastor Dave

(I did not write this letter to any particular person, but I hope it might be some comfort to those in an abusive situation.  I would appreciate feedback, including suggestions for improvement.)

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Convert Them or Kill Them!

phil-robertson-hannityOn Sean Hannity’s Fox “News” show the other night, they were talking about ISIS. That’s certainly an important topic – ISIS is destabilizing the Middle East, killing and torturing people indiscriminately, and doing their best to drag the US back into combat in Iraq.

So the Hannity show needed someone to address the ISIS crisis. I can imagine the production meeting:

PRODUCER ONE: “Who can we get that’s an expert in Middle East policy? Someone who understands the political realities, and also has a grasp of Islam and its various sects?”

PRODUCER TWO: “How about a State Department official? Or a scholar?”

PRODUCER ONE: “Maybe . . .”

HANNITY: “How about a guy who makes duck calls?”

BOTH PRODUCERS TOGETHER (obsequiously): “Brilliant!”

So Phil Robertson was invited to hold forth on ISIS. He brought his Bible.  (“I never leave home without my Bible and my woman, Hannity.”)  He quoted Scripture, pingponging around the New Testament in a display of prooftexting that made my head spin.  Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, it’s just not how my particular tradition uses the Bible (because we believe things like context are important).

He presented himself as a minister who was speaking for Christians and maybe even for God.

And then he said, “I’m just saying, either convert them or kill them. One or the other.”

Here’s my question . . . is that really much different than ISIS telling Christians in Iraq, “Convert to Islam or die”?

Some might say the difference is that ISIS has brutally carried out its ultimatum. But while the duck call-guy is not personally threatening anyone, he is advocating on a national “news” show that the most powerful armed forces in the world “convert them or kill them.”

There is no doubt that ISIS is an organization that does brutal, despicable, evil things.  I’m not smart enough to know the best way to deal with ISIS. I am thankful that we have people who are qualified to make those decisions.

But “Convert them or kill them” cannot be our mission. Not as a country, and not as Christians.

It’s not the job of the government, or the armed forces, to convert anybody.  Maybe “killing them” is the only effective way to deal with ISIS, but the goal is not to convert them, but to stop them. That may mean getting them to surrender or retreat or laying down their arms.  Duck-guy’s strategy would be to keep bombing and shooting until they say they love Jesus.

And sure, Christians are commanded by Jesus to spread the good news. But Jesus never even hinted that we should kill people who don’t convert.  Christians have done that kind of stuff in the past – in the Crusades, in the Inquisition, and so on – and I thought we all agreed that “convert or kill” was not an acceptable evangelism strategy.

Here’s the bottom line – lots of Christians are critical of Muslims who don’t repudiate Muslim extremists. We need to get our own house in order, and distance ourselves from Christian extremism like “convert them or kill them.”  If we don’t, then the extremist voices of hate will continue to shape how Christianity and Christians – and Jesus – are viewed by unChristians.

(You can watch the interview, or read a transcript, at the Fox “News” website here.)


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