Forgiveness and consequence

A few months ago I wrote about ethics under the banner of “Love” – essentially saying that if we love our neighbour, our resultant action will be ethical behaviour. This kind of behaviour, in turn, holds many promises, for example in Proverbs 3:1-2 we read “My child, never forget the things I have taught you. Store my commands in your heart. If you do this, you will live many years, and your life will be satisfying.”

Despite this, consistent ethical behaviour seems to be the exception rather than the rule. How often do you hear about people who refuse to do business with Christians? We seem to have a reputation for not being able to act ethically and follow through on commitments or obligations. To come up with an exact reason for this will be speculation, but I will venture that at least part of the reason for this is that Christians do understand the concept of forgiveness very well, but they struggle with the concept of consequence. In many ways, these two concepts are exact opposites. Let me explain:

We have all sinned (Romans 3:23), and the consequences of sin is death (Romans 6:23). However, Jesus died on the cross so that all who believe in Him may experience forgiveness of their sins and everlasting life (John 3:16).

There are two points to consider: The first is that when our sins were forgiven by Jesus taking the punishment for our sins, the consequences of our action did not disappear – someone else – Jesus Christ – bore them on our behalf. Again, this is easy to put into very plain context regarding our everyday life. If I have a debt that I am not paying for whatever reason and the creditor writes off the debt, it does not disappear, but the creditor suffers the consequences by giving up these resources and he (or her) and his family then suffer instead of the debtor. I have often heard Christians use the term that “God has provided” in cases like these. This is very far removed from the truth. The truth is that someone else suffered the consequences of my unethical behaviour.

This leads into the next point to consider: The forgiveness of our sins have both an eternal and temporal value, but we must be able to distinguish between the two. From an eternal point of view, the consequence of sin is eternal damnation and death. God forgave our sins on the basis of what Jesus did on the cross and therefore, on judgment day, will see us as perfect and holy before Him. However, the forgiveness of our sins also has a temporal (or “this-worldly”) value. This is when we are forgiven by those we have hurt, or when we forgive those who hurt us. Chip Ingram compares this to a “reset button” in a computer game. We can start over – which is of course an invaluable tool in our everyday lives and business, as long as it does not get abused.

Unfortunately this is where the Christian community get it so wrong so often. Some expect forgiveness for every sinful action and then never face the consequences. When these eventually do catch up with them, it is seen as an attack from Satan. Others, on the other hand, allow people to walk over them, living a life of forgiveness, but thereby not holding others accountable for their actions. The result of this is that you continuously suffer the consequences of other people’s unethical behaviour – and then you “spiritualise” this and continue to suffer in silence, but denying others the privilege of facing their own consequences and growing in the process.

While there are many Bible texts that will encourage you to “turn the other cheek”, and to practice forgiveness, there is a huge difference between forgiving someone on the one hand and not allowing the other person the privilege to learn from the consequences of his or her actions.

Paul summarises this concept very well when he advises the church in Corinth not “to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people” (! Corinthians 5:11).

Let us commit this week to know the difference between forgiveness and suffering consequences, but in the process not forget that love should govern our every action (1 Corinthians 13).

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