Sometimes I read about the Israelites and wonder how they could have been in the wilderness for forty years. On one page they are crossing the Red Sea on dry land. I turn the page and they are worshiping a golden calf. Did they forget what it was like to see dry ground on the bottom of the sea? Or Jonah who was in the belly of a fish begging for his life. Then I turn the page and he is complaining to God for having mercy on the Ninevites. Was the mercy he was shown all that different? Ugly things happen when I forget.
Another story I have been thinking about this week is the story of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35. The servant was brought before the Master to pay a huge debt. It would have taken him 20,000 years of wages to pay it off! He doesn’t even dare to ask for the debt to be forgiven. He begs for more time to pay off the debt! But it is impossible! This time you don’t even have to turn the page. A few sentences later he forgets the mercy he has been given, and attacks a fellow servant who owes him 100 days wages. He throws this servant into prison until he can pay off the debt. His forgetfulness cost him dearly because when the Master found out how poorly he had treated his fellow servant, he put the wicked servant in prison until he could repay the debt.
When I believed the gospel, I was instantly, completely forgiven and completely justified. Forgiveness means that God has forgiven every sin I have ever committed. It also means that every sin I will commit will also be forgiven (I John 1:9). Christ’s blood stands as the payment for those sins. He paid the debt that I owed, and the debt was forgiven.
The Bible often talks about this amazing exchange in banking terms. I must admit that I have bounced a few checks in my lifetime. With those bounced checks, come fees and fines and penalties. Sometimes if I go to the bank and beg, those fees are forgiven. I do not owe them. The bank chooses to forget that they ever existed, and I won’t have to pay for those transgressions. When I believe the gospel, God chooses to forgive my sins and not hold me accountable to pay the debt. He is the picture of the Master in the parable who releases the servant from the debt.
The moment I believed, I was also justified. When something is justified, it is “made right.” There are many ways that I try to justify myself and my sin. I make excuses; I blame it one someone else; I lower the standard so I can meet it. This is self-justification. However when I believe in the work of the cross and the power of Christ’s blood, I am justified before God. According to the heavenly records of bookkeeping, I have been “made right” before God. This may sound a lot like forgiveness, but justification gives us something that forgiveness does not: righteousness. Not only has Jesus taken on himself the penalty for my sin, he has also given all of his righteousness to me. We often remember the first part of the exchange and forget the second. This means that when God looks at my record of good deeds and sin, he does not see my sin or my good deeds. He sees the perfect, unblemished righteousness of Christ. This righteousness has been given to me on the basis of faith, not heritage, not position, not good works. This is really good news!
If forgiveness is forgiving the fees and fines, justification takes it one step further. Let’s say I go to the bank to beg for forgiveness of the fees from my overdrafts. Justification means that the banker comes back to me and tells me that Oprah and I now share a bank account. All of Oprah’s money has been given into my account. So now my transgressions are not just forgiven, my account has been changed. It will always be in good standing with plenty of money (assuming Oprah doesn’t go broke). The great news of the gospel is that Christ’s righteousness now shows up in my account. What did I do to make that happen? I believed.
But often I forget and ugly things happen. The Ice Queen in me takes it upon herself to be right. It is her job to convince everyone that she is righteous. Somehow I begin to think that I was forgiven and justified because I deserved to be. After all, I was a good kid, a pastor’s kid who has gone to church all her life. I’ve never done anything that bad like some people I know. This is what happens when I forget the depth of my sin compared to God’s perfect standard. I begin to work really hard because I have deceived myself. I think that my debt is small and that I could work it off if I just tried harder. This desire to prove that I am right or good enough drives me to perfectionism and control. Because I forget what I have been forgiven, I have no compassion or mercy for others around me. I begrudge God his generosity toward others because they don’t deserve it. They haven’t worked for their forgiveness the way I have. I am full of demanding judgement and a long list of expectations for everyone around me. After all, I am the Queen!
However the Princess remembers her status: forgiven and justified. She doesn’t have to prove to everyone that she is right because her King Father sees her as perfect. She knows that she didn’t deserve to be forgiven and justified, yet humbly and graciously accepts that she is. She knows that her status is not based on her beauty or her talent or her good deeds. She is secure and knows that her status as a Princess will never be revoked. She has compassion and mercy for those around her because she remembers that she used to be a slave, but now she is royalty by God’s great mercy. She is generous toward others because her Father is generous. She doesn’t need to judge others because she trusts the King to be the judge.
That is how I want to live…but then I forget…