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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
A. W. Chambliss
From The Baptist Preacher, 1846. Part 3 of 3
Part III. The second and last duty of the offended remains to be considered. "If he repent, forgive him."
And what shall we say? Where shall we begin to press this duty? Can any argument be necessary to induce the forgiveness of a repenting brother? One who has deeply felt and deplored his offence? One who has humbly acknowledged his fault? Who has offered every satisfaction in the power of his hands? From this moment, the onus of responsibility is removed from his shoulders to thine own, and devolves upon thee with all its fearful weight. Every principle sacred to Christianity demands his release and absolution—every principle of religion forbids us to longer regard him as an alien. It is not optionary with us, whether we will or will not receive him as a brother. Our own forgiveness and acceptance with God, the fellowship of the Spirit, and the consolation of religion, the hope of heaven, and the bliss of immortality, all hang suspended on this point. Withhold the one, and we forfeit the rest.
The spirit of forgiveness enters into all the essential elements of Christianity, and forms an indispensable part of it. That is a false notion of religion, which fancies one's self forgiven, irrespective of the sentiments and principles which he may still cherish in his heart. Behold, how the apostle sums up the virtues of the Christian character, and in the bonds of indissoluble union connects them together: "Put on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long suffering, forbearing and forgiving one another; if any man have a quarrel against any, even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye." (Col. 3:12, 13) Remark the entire chain, and the absolute dependence of link upon link. How beautiful the cluster! And how inseparably close the connection!
Every ornament to religion—every principle vital to godliness, is here interarticulated, like the joints and members of the human frame, from which no one can be taken away without defacing and deforming the whole symmetry. Who would suppose a beautiful mansion proportioned and completed, with only one of its walls erected? With no less impropriety do we regard our Christianity perfect, while malice and rancor are indulged in the soul. An implacable Christian! It is a contradiction in terms. Bigots there may be, and have been, in all denominations: but an implacable, irreconcilable, unforgiving Christian, is of the same figure of speech, as a godly adulterer, a religious drunkard, or a devout murderer.
Who can possess "bowels of mercies," with an inexorable hatred burning in his heart? Who can perform acts of Christian kindness, while malevolence and rankle in his bosom? Who can indulge "humbleness of mind," when his indomitable haughtiness and pride will not so much as pardon a fault? Can he be clothed upon with meekness, whose spirit heaves with anger, like the sides of a burning volcano? Where is the long Buffeting of that man whom the most paltry offence kindles into an inextinguishable rage and madness? Where are his forbearance and pity—his tender heartedness and compassion, whom no tears of repentance—no ingenuousness of sorrow—no frankness of confession—no reparation of damage, can appease or excite to deeds of forgiveness? "If he repent, thou shalt forgive him."
The exercise of forgiveness is an indispensable prerequisite and qualification for acceptable prayer—the first Christian duty. No Christian, we dare say, can live satisfied without prayer. It is his native element—"it is vital breath." Prayer is the soul's best channel of intercommunication with heaven. The benefits of the atonement—the constant supplies of grace, both for trials and duties—the felicitous superintendence of the divine providence—these are sought and vouchsafed through this channel: and sufficiently endear the heaven-appointed exercise to every pious heart.
Nevertheless, prayer to meet the divine favor must needs be offered in the spirit of universal love. No petition that ascends from the burning elements of strife and bitterness, can reach the ear of divine grace and goodness. "If I regard iniquity in my heart," said the Psalmist, "thou wilt not hear me." (Ps. 66:18) Why went the Pharisee down from the place of prayer unjustified and unblessed? The answer is given in this short phrase, "he thought he was righteous, but despised others." (Luke 18:9) A malignant and contentious spirit awoke the displeasure of God against the most solemn and sacred assemblages of the Jewish nation. "Ye fast for strife and debate, and to fight with the fist of wickedness." (Isa. 55:4) If men are commanded to pray everywhere, they are also to "lift up holy hands, without wrath," first, and then "without doubting." (1 Tim. 2:8)
In that beautiful formulary of prayer, given by our blessed Redeemer, we are taught to say, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors;" (Matt. 6:12) or, as it is expressed by another evangelist, "Forgive us our sins, FOR we also forgive every one that is indebted to us." (Luke 11:4) In the latter of these forms, the Christian is required to say, when he prays in the presence of the heart-searching God, that he has forgiven everyone who hath trespassed against him; and in the former, to ask the divine mercy, only in the measure that he shows mercy to his fellow man.
Perhaps we have frequently uttered this petition: but have we duly pondered its import? Dare we assert to God that we have forgiven those who have wronged us, while we still cherish a latent malice towards them? Or dare we ask the mercy of God, as we show mercy to another, to whom, in reality, we show no mercy? What is the import of such a petition? It is that all the bowels of the divine compassion may be forever closet against us—that instead of smiles, his frowns may rest upon us—instead of blessing, he may consume us with interminable sorrows and wretchedness. Dare we make this prayer in the presence of the Most High? "He shall have judgment without mercy, who hath showed no mercy." "Therefore, when ye stand praying, forgive, that your Father also, which is in heaven, may forgive your trespasses; but if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is heaven forgive your trespasses." (James 2:13; Mark 11:25, 26)
The duty of forgiveness is farther enforced in the scriptures, from the consideration of that mercy which we have already received. This is our Lord's argument, in a parable representing the kingdom of heaven, "I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldst not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?" (Matt. 18:32, 33) Who can think of his own sins, and of the wrath to which they exposed him—who can think of the condescension and mercy of God in their forgiveness, and not feel the kindlings of holy pity move towards an erring brother? How multitudinous were they! HOW they rose over our head, as dark and portentous clouds, whose aggregated particles are without number!
Every breath was polluted with guilt, and every word was contaminated with crime. Through the eye and through the ear its deadly venom was imparted to the soul. We turned not away the eye from seeing, nor the ear from bearing, vanity and lies. Their image was drawn upon the spirit in dark and fearful outlines. Depravity entered into the essential elements of our nature. It beat in the pulse and flowed in the veins. It burnt in lurid glimmerings on the brain, and in flames of consuming wrath upon the heart. "The whole head was sick, and the whole heart was faint." Every imagination of the thoughts of the heart was only evil, and that continually. What is the sin of a brother, compared with the innumerable transgressions which we have committed against God? And has the divine mercy abounded to their pardon? "He forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst him: shouldst not thou also have compassion on thy fellow man, even as the Lord had pity on thee?"
Further, if our sins were actually without number, they were also heinous to the last degree. Their enormity rose with the law of which they were a violation—with the obligations of which they were a contempt—with the person of whom they were an abhorrence—and with the motives which they despised. Beheld, in the light of these reflections, bow do the most aggravated offences of a brother sink into the mere frailties and sinless infirmities of helpless human nature!
What principles subsisting between man and man can be compared with the authoritative law of which our sins were an infraction? What obligations can be imposed by the relations of earth, so solemnly imperative as those devolved upon us as the creatures and beneficiaries of God? What human virtue can claim such inalienable fidelity and love, as that which we have despised in the ineffable purity and beneficence of the deity? Have we trampled all these beneath our feet? And has the boundless compassion of the Father of mercies extended to us a divine pardon?
Tell me, thou pardoned spirit—raised to a princely station from the demerited flames of the hottest hell—tell me whether thou canst refuse forgiveness to a brother, whose sins scarce deserve mention beside thine own? If God forgave thee all that debt because thou desiredst him, shouldst not thou also have compassion on thy fellow man, even as the Lord had pity on thee? "Therefore, be ye kind one to another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hall forgiven you." (Eph. 4:32)
"As God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you!" Here is the rule and measure—the spirit of acceptable forgiveness. It must be real and entire. Forgiveness is not a form of words alone. It is not a mere reprieve—a suspension of the feud—a temporary abatement of the animosity. It is more. It is an act—an important act—the act of absolution and release. It is the relinquishment of present claims—the abolishment of present liabilities—a "blotting out of the handwriting" of charges against the offender. Nor is this a partial act. It extends to the whole debt—both the principal and the interest. The last letter of the offence must be erased. Not an iota can remain. "I forgave thee all that debt," said the Son of God: and thus must we say.
However heinous may have been the crime—however aggravated the circumstances of its commission—however possible that it may be repeated, the moment it is forgiven, that moment it is buried, and completely buried. Nothing short of this is pardon. He that pretends to forgiveness, while a private rancor—a secret jealousy—a latent coldness and reserve, are cherished in his heart, more than was wont before the offence was committed—needs to farther investigate his character, and perform his work anew. It is not thus that God for Christ's sake forgives sin, nor is it thus that we must forgive. "If ye, from your hearts, forgive not every one his brother his trespasses, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses." (Matt. 18:35)
Forgiveness must be final. Thus, "God for Christ's sake bath forgiven you." "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us." They are cast into the deep sea; nor will they ever be called up to remembrance to our detriment. Like the moment, which is past to return no more; so, the sins which are blotted out, are never to be recalled. No subsequent offence can revive those which were once pardoned. With equal propriety may the liquidated debts of past years come into the settlement of present accounts, as that crimes once forgiven should be brought into the adjustment of future difficulties.
Grant that his repentance was insincere and that it was only a pretext to another and more nefarious offence—grant that his subsequent conduct may require his expulsion from the church of God, and from the society of the faithful. That is his own fault, and let him bear the responsibility. His repentance—real or pretended—was accepted, and in consideration thereof, we forgave, and must forgive. This forever puts a terminus to that difficulty; nor may we ever revive it. We may not mention the past to his detriment, nor permit it to influence any part of our conduct towards him. It may not so much as give credibility to reports that may thereafter circulate to his prejudice. His character, as a good or bad man, must stand or fall alone upon the subsequent acts of his life. What else is that forgiveness which consists in "restoring" the transgressor to that place from which by transgression he fell? What else is that forgiveness which "God for Christ's sake bath extended to us?" Nor yet is this all.
Forgiveness must be cheerful. Thus, "God for Christ's sake bath forgiven you." God does nothing with hesitancy and reluctance: and least of all, does he extend pardon with grudging hands. The smiles which accompany the divine mercy, give to it a principal sweetness. The virtue of condescension and pity is heightened by the pleasure which is manifested in the deed. Compassion is a priceless jewel, in willing and delighted hands: but a fulsome and obnoxious thing, when accompanied with complaints and apparent paint.
"Show mercy with cheerfulness," is a divine requisition, (Rom. 12:8) and without cheerfulness, there is no beauty in it, that one should desire it. To forgive an offence is magnanimous; and the magnanimity of the deed is increased by the greatness of the crime, and the sovereign readiness and pleasure with which we pass it by. It is Godlike to meet a "prodigal son "—a reckless adversary—a malignant enemy—a foul asperser—a wily chicaner—with open arms, and extend to him a prompt and hearty forgiveness. Thus we "return good for evil,"—thus we "suffer long and are kind."—thus we "heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord shall reward thee." (Rom. 25:22) "If he repent, thou shalt forgive him."
"As God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you!" Here is the rule and spirit of acceptable conduct towards a repenting brother. We oppose it to those who profess to forgive, but are nevertheless unwilling, for the present, to fellowship the offender. He must be restored to our fellowship. "Let him be to thee as an heathen man and a publican,"—when? After he shall have turned, saying, "I repent?" After he shall have deplored his offence—confessed his fault—and rendered every satisfaction in the power of his hands? No, verily. Had he refused to hear thee—and refused to hear them whom thou broughtest with thee—and refused to hear the church—then he should have been to thee as "an heathen man and a publican."
But what now remains in the power of his hand, whereby to regain thy favor? What beside his offence intercepted thy fellowship? That was the only bar to thy communion—the middle wall of partition between thee. Hast thou forgiven it? That act was the extinguishment of the debt—the removal of the impediment. If it was anything less than this, it was nothing—then forgiveness is no more forgiveness. What if the church of God were to act upon this principle, and still refuse to fellowship those whom she might forgive the violation of any of her rules and measures? What if the divine mercy were to refuse fellowship with the Father, and with his Son, Jesus Christ, to those whom it nevertheless pardoned? Where were the advantages of mercy, that one should desire it? Say not that thou hast forgiven him whom thou wilt not restore to thy fellowship.
"As God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you!" Here is the rule and spirit of acceptable conduct towards a repenting brother. We oppose it, again, to those who profess to forgive, but are nevertheless unwilling, for the present, to confide in the offender. He must be restored to our confidence. "Him that is weak receive ye, but not to doubtful disputation," is a maxim that applies with peculiar emphasis to the present case. His offence was the only bar to thy confidence—the middle wall of partition between thee? Hast thou forgiven it? That act was the obliteration of the difficulty—the annihilation of the obstacle. If it was anything less than this, it was nothing—then forgiveness is no more forgiveness. What if thy brethren—the church of the living God—were to pardon thy offences, but still regard thee with jealousy and dread? What if the divine mercy were to pardon thy sins, but still hold thee in suspicion and doubt? Where were the desirableness of mercy, that one should seek it? Say not thou hast forgiven him whom still thou beholdest with distrust and jealousy.
"As God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you!" Here is the rule and spirit of acceptable conduct towards a repenting brother. We oppose it, finally, to those who profess to forgive, but are nevertheless unwilling to replace their love upon the offender. He must be restored to our love. "I beseech you," said St. Paul, in the case of a notorious offence lamented and forgiven, "I beseech you, that ye would confirm your love toward him." (2 Cor. 2:8) What remains to prevent it? His crime was the only bar to thy love—the middle wall of partition between thee. Hast thou forgiven it? That act was the extinction of the barrier—the everlasting destruction of the hindrance. If it was anything less than this, it was nothing—then forgiveness is no more forgiveness.
What if thy brethren—the church of the living God—were to pardon thy faults, but still withhold their affections from thee? What if the divine mercy were to forgive thy trespasses, and yet shut up the fountains of his love and goodness from thee? Where were the great excellencies of mercy, that one should desire it? Say not thou hast forgiven him whom thou dost not and wilt not love. These two, forgiveness and love, stand inseparable in the argument of the apostle. "Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you. Be ye, therefore, followers of God, as dear children, and walk in love, as Christ also bath loved us, and bath given himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God, for a sweet smelling savor." "Brethren, if any man be overtaken in a fault, ye that are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness: considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted." (Eph. 4:31, 32; 5:1, 2; Gal. 6:1)
My brethren, "be at peace among yourselves." By the consolations of Christianity—by the unity of the faith—by the valedictory prayer of the Son of God, that "you should be one, even as he and his Father are one,"—we pray you, "be at peace among yourselves." What is there in the turbid waters of strife and confusion—of bickering and animosity—of babblings and contention—that we should prefer to the placid streams of harmony and love? "I protest before God, my conscience also bearing me witness that I stand in jeopardy of you every hour." "For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and division, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?" (1 Cor. 3:3)
What worse than this could be anticipated of men of the world, who have never heard of Jesus?—men of the world, who make no pretensions to the peaceful religion of Christ?—men of the world, who are led captive in the chains of Satan, and yield a willing and submissive servitude to the lusts that war in their members? What worse than this could be anticipated from those who have nothing in common, save a heart deceitful above all things and desperately wicked?
But all ye are brethren, called unto peace—ye are brethren, redeemed with the blood of peace—ye are brethren, quickened and renewed by the spirit of peace—ye are brethren, the servants of the prince of peace—all ye are brethren, journeying to the abode of everlasting peace. By all these considerations, we pray you "be at peace among yourselves." "If there be any consolation in Christ—if any comfort of love—if any fellowship of the spirit—if any bowels and mercies—fulfil ye my joy, that ye he like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” (Phil. 2:1-3)
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen!