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Satan has sometimes infected the church with what we might call “doormat theology.” The logic goes like this: since we, as Christians, are supposed to be loving and forgiving, that means we should, like a doormat, let people walk all over us.
Now it’s true that God has commanded us to give people the benefit of the doubt, to put the best construction on everything. He also commands us to forgive without limit, even as He does for us.
But this doesn’t mean Christians are supposed to be jellyfish. Look at Christ. He was the very incarnation of love, and yet, He could be exceedingly harsh and uncompromising at times. This is because love without boundaries isn’t love, it’s abuse.
God gives us limits because He loves us. To reject boundaries is to reject the One who gave them to us. This is why we sometimes use the word “transgression” for “sin”; to sin is to transgress the limits God sets for us, and we do so to our own detriment.
As Christians, we affirm God’s boundaries, or His Commandments. God’s Law isn’t purely a personal, private matter; it’s universal. God’s Commandments apply to everyone.
One of the reasons God gave His Commandments is to protect us—to discourage us from taking advantage of each other. This is what’s known as the first use of the law, which curbs, or discourages, sin.
We see the first use of the law at work in today’s parable. We heard about a servant who owed his master something like a zillion dollars. There was no way he’d ever be able to repay what he owed, so the master ordered that he be sold, along with his wife, children, and all his possessions.
But the servant begged his master to be patient with him, even making the absurd promise that he’d repay everything. The master had pity on him, released him, and forgave the entire debt.
So what did the servant do? He turned around and found someone who owed him one-six hundred-thousandth of what he’d owed his master and started choking him. When he couldn’t pay him back immediately, he threw him in jail.
The problem is obvious: here we have a guy who opted to torture and jail one of his debtors after being forgiven a debt he could never have repaid. Not only did the wicked servant fail to show mercy and remain patient, he actively harmed his neighbor.
But this servant’s wickedness had nothing to do with the fact that he expected to be repaid. His sin was his lack of mercy and patience.
If you lend somebody money or are a Christian who runs a bank, you aren’t sinning if you expect to be repaid. According to the Seventh Commandment, those who borrow have an obligation to repay their lenders or else they’re stealing.
We should be merciful and patient while requiring others to fulfill their obligations, but the Gospel doesn’t abolish the Law.
How God regards us has nothing to do with our behavior, but how we regard one another has much to do with our behavior. This is what Luther called the two types of righteousness.
There’s the passive righteousness of faith, which determines our standing before God. And then there’s the active righteousness of love, which determines our standing before our neighbor. That is, our relationship with God is based upon what Christ does for us. But our relationship to one another is based, in large part, on our actions.
If you want to graduate from law school, for example, you need to work really hard. If you’re on an interview and answer all the questions by saying you’re a Christian, that won’t go very far in getting you the job. Whether or not you’re a Christian has little to do with knowing how to program a computer or being any good at baseball.
Our righteousness before God is passive. Love and good works do nothing to improve our standing before God. Salvation is 100% His work. All the consequences of sin were borne by Christ in His suffering and death.
But in our relationships with one another, love and hard work is essential. In our relationships, even forgiven sin may have consequences.
If forgiveness always meant setting aside consequences, then students should be given A’s even if they didn’t prepare and got all the answers wrong on the test. It also means we should hire surgeons who couldn’t pass basic anatomy and let anyone with a teaching degree work with children, even if they’re a convicted sex offender.
Another example of this can be seen in family life. A few weeks ago the kids and I were playing. They’re always the good guys, and somehow I always end up getting stuck playing the part of the despicable villain. Isaac’s only two, so he figures what better way to stop the bad guy than to take a chomp out of one of his kidneys?
Now I can forgive Isaac, but since I love him and am a Christian, I have an obligation to correct his sinful impulse. It’s not loving for me to let him run around like a little vampire—not to him, his siblings, or anyone else he victimizes. Of course I love him and forgive him, and it’s precisely because of that fact that I discipline him. Forgiveness and discipline aren’t antithetical.
When a pastor goes around living an openly wicked lifestyle, the congregation shouldn’t say, “Well, we’re Christians, so I guess we should just forgive him and put up with it.” God forbid! Congregations have a biblical mandate to remove such a man from office. Love and Christian faithfulness requires no less.
We ought never deny forgiveness to the penitent, whether they are defrocked pastors, criminals, debtors, pedophiles, terrorists, or even friends and relatives. Repentance and forgiveness are necessary, but they don’t always remove the temporal consequences of sin.
Someone who commits murder can repent, but that doesn’t bring the dead back to life. An adulterer can repent, but repentance isn’t a contraceptive. It’s the opposite of love to allow a known killer to roam the streets or to leave a sex offender alone with your children.
To set aside the law and let the pedophile work with children, or to let the abusive person keep abusing you, or to give money to a lazy person who isn’t willing to work is to fail to distinguish Law and Gospel. It’s to enable their sin, which is the opposite of love. Love requires us to enforce consequences, even as we forgive without limit.
St. Paul says the temporal consequence of being lazy and unwilling to work is that you should go hungry.[i]
The temporal consequence of abuse is that you should go to jail.
The temporal consequence of adultery is that you may become pregnant.
The temporal consequence of betrayal is the destruction of trust.
There is a place for God’s Law in the life of forgiven Christians. Christ did not come to abolish the commandments. When the prophets, the apostles, and Christ Himself spoke words of Law and called sinners to repentance, they weren’t sinning.
Now you might be thinking, didn’t you just quote Jesus last week in your sermon as saying,
“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”?[ii]
That’s true, but we misunderstand this text if we take it to mean Jesus is condoning abuse. Luther says,
“Christ is not telling me to give what I have to any scoundrel that comes along and to deprive my family of it or others who may need it and whom I am obliged to help, and then to suffer want myself and become a burden to others. He is not saying that we should give and lend to everybody, but “to him who begs from us,” that is, to the one who really needs it.”[iii]
What Christ is correcting here is our sinful impulse to retaliate, to seek revenge and withhold forgiveness. He commands us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to seek their good. But if what they’re seeking is sinful, we do not love them when we give it to them. On the contrary, to do that is to enable their sin.
Loving your neighbor doesn’t mean being a doormat. It means not turning a blind eye to sin. That’s the opposite of love. That’s allowing your neighbor to persist along the road to damnation. We shouldn’t fixate on the sins of others since theirs is but a speck by comparison to ours. But after we repent of our sin, we have an obligation to help our neighbor with theirs.
The challenge—and this is where we really struggle—is maintaining a charitable disposition toward those who sin against us, to continue to love and forgive without limit. If we are to err, we ought to err on the side of grace.
“How often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”[iv]
St. Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”[v] And again,
“I… urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”[vi]
Christian love isn’t based on whether or not someone deserves it; certainly your enemies haven’t earned your love. Christian love flows not from my actions or yours, but God’s.
He made you in His very image and counts you more valuable than precious blood of His only-begotten Son. Jesus maintained a charitable disposition toward you, even as your sin was piercing through His flesh and draining the life out of Him.
We love not because of who were are or what we do, but because of whose we are. We love because Christ first loved us.
But you might say, didn’t Jesus allow Himself to be taken advantage of? Didn’t He allow Himself to be abused? So shouldn’t we do likewise?
You should, but only if you have the vocation of Savior of the world. We have been called to imitate Christ, not to be Christ. Remember, it was the desire to be more like God than they should have been which God Adam and Eve into trouble.
The Father allowed His Son to suffer that abuse so that you wouldn’t have to. He’s the scapegoat; He’s your substitute.
“Surely He has borne our sickness and carried our suffering; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”[vii]
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] 2 Thessalonians 3:10
[ii] St. Matthew 5:38–41
[iii] AE 21:117
[iv] St. Matthew 18:21–22
[v] Romans 12:18
[vi] Ephesians 4:1–3
[vii] Isaiah 53:4–5