Monday, November 21, 2011

Seek Judgment but also Forgive

If we are supposed to forgive our enemies, how do we explain this:

• When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Rev. 6:9-10)

How can the holy martyrs of God cry out for vengeance? Shouldn’t they instead be crying out for the forgiveness of their persecutors? Let’s not be too quick to dismiss this cry for vengeance as just an Old Testament sentiment – something that the God of the New Testament had wisely repented of. God’s judgments – His righteous requirements – are deeply woven into the fabric of even the NT:

• See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? (Hebrews 12:25)

Justice remains an enduring concern of God. He instituted the justice system to punish injustice, calling the courts “God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).

The Agent of mercy – Jesus Christ Himself – even instituted judgment within His church. After church “due process” had been exercised, the unrepentant member was to suffer the judgment of excommunication (Matthew 18). In addition to this, when Christ returns,

• Destruction will come on them [the unrepentant] suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thes. 5:3)

With these examples of the holiness of God’s judgments, how can we fault the martyred saints for clamoring for judgment? But if they are a normative example for us, what happens to “forgive as you have been forgiven?”

Perhaps judgment and forgiveness can coexist together? While God had forgiven King David for his grievous sins involving Bathsheba and her husband Uriah, who David killed, David also had to endure the just punishment of his God. Evidently, punishment can coincide with forgiveness! Likewise, although we are to pray for all and to maintain an attitude of forgiveness, we are also to pursue justice – judgment and punishment – through the proper channels.

Paul required us to forgive and “bless” our enemies and to not seek revenge, because God had put in place another institution – the criminal justice system – whose role it was to exercise the “wrath” of God (Romans 12:14-21; 13:1-4). The justice system in its role to deliver justice frees us up to show mercy. God’s love and forgiveness didn’t eliminate the necessity for judgment. The evildoer would receive a taste of both – blessing and curse, the mercy of God and the severity of God. The two are partners.

Christians are often confused by this. They feel that if we bless and pray for the offender, we shouldn’t bring criminal charges against them. They wrongly think that we have to choose one alternative or the other. This misunderstanding might imprudently enable the abuser to go free and abuse again, bringing contempt upon the church because of our foolishness. Instead, we can personally forgive and pray for the offender and pursue justice at the same time.

We even find a similar principle among the congregation of believers. Although we must pray even for our enemies – and this includes our brothers in Christ – Jesus taught that a tangible and complete forgiveness, entailing restoration, requires repentance:

• "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him." (Luke 17:3-4)

No repentance, no restoration! This same principle also applies to excommunication. There could only be restoration when the excommunicated person repented (Matthew 18:15). Nevertheless, Jesus taught us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). However, “love” clearly isn’t the same thing as receiving the offender into fellowship. We should pray for our lying friend who ruined our reputation, but we shouldn’t invite them back home until they have confessed and repented. Loving can be tough and even punitive.

There is nothing unholy about pursuing justice as long as it is pursued in a proper manner. If this is the case, there is nothing wrong with praying that God should right the wrongs. Nevertheless, mercy must take precedence over justice, as James wrote:

• Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:13)

How then do we pray? Pray that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. His will sometimes requires judgment. However, with a forgiving heart, pray, before all else, for mercy. Forgive as you have been forgiven. But as the sinner cannot partake of God’s forgiveness until they repent, the excommunicated brother should not experience restoration – the full measure of forgiveness – until he too repents.

So pray for God’s wrath, but even more so, pray for mercy and forgiveness.

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