If you’ve been in church long enough, you might have seen the worst of someone’s unrepentant sin get them kicked out, cast out, excommunicated or “handed over to Satan so their flesh might die and their soul might live.” Maybe, you’ve been the one cast out or you quietly “pumped a fist” (at least in your head), happy to see someone, “get what they deserve.” This casting out may have even been a leader or a pastor who fell into grave misconduct. Whatever the case and however it’s done within the local church body, once judgement rightly falls, and the person, now confronted and broken by their sin, repents, what next?
Is there a timetable for ultimate restoration? Is there a clock that counts down before we can offer a return to the fold? It seems that no matter the person or position, we try to put some kind of stipulation on someone’s return. We want to ask a series of question to determine if they are really sorry or repentant. We might even want to see some physical manifestation of repentance. Something that shows us, they “really mean it!”
A man can’t possibly be repentant after only one day, right?
Sure, I know Zacchaeus, that crooked tax collector only needed one visit with Jesus, but look what he did in that one day. He not only repented, but returned what he took and then some! Clearly, here was a man demonstrating his repentance.
Well, I mean yeah, there was that thief on the cross, but it wasn’t like he could just jump down and prove it. He was about to die.
Yes, I know. The woman caught in adultery. Still, Jesus did tell her not to sin anymore. That’s like telling her to prove it, right?
The prodigal son? Well, first of all it’s just a parable. It didn’t really happen and second, he wanted to earn back his father’s confidence, but the father wouldn’t let him. Even more, the father’s reckless act of grace made his other son angry!
These are all good bible stories, some are even true stories, but this is the real world now, and this person did something dirty and sinful. We have to be sure his repentance is real.
Do we? Is that really our job?
Every story that I mentioned was soaked in God’s grace. They are no stipulations-no bar to reach for. There is only acceptance, mercy, forgiveness and newness of life when someone very aware of their sins are confronted with God’s grace. What I’ve seen as of late across social media, and among other places, saddens me. I have seen old sins brought up and new baseless charges thrown around like grenades with no concern for the aftermath of the explosion. It’s as if we are changing the rules because we don’t like what we see. Whatever the position of a person within in a church, before God, they are either forgiven or they are not. That forgiveness is not based on their next life steps. It’s based upon a Son who bled and died for them. We don’t and can’t determine the “true repentance” of anyone. Even our own repentance is tainted enough with sin to make us want to cry out to God asking, “and this too Lord, and this too!”
So what is our job as the church body in all of this if it’s not to make sure someone is really repenting enough? Well ...nothing really. If someone after a year, a month, a week, or a day is broken enough by their sin and repents, then the best we should muster on his or her behalf is a hearty HALLELUJAH! Do we use wisdom in guidance and love from this point on? Sure. But not to control or to make sure the repentance is, “really real.” We do it to help build off of that repentance, spurring them on in faith.
I’ve been the guy who’s apologized more than once for the same sin, kicking myself in the fact that I know I hated sinning in that way each time. I’ve been the guy whose apology was thought of as not truly worthy because I made the same mistake and probably hadn’t really been truly repentant. If I’m honest, I didn’t even deserve the first chance to apologize and repent, but none of us do.
But that’s what Grace does.
Grace first gives us something we don’t deserve. Both sons in the story of the prodigal were forgiven before a word was spoken. You can see this in the father’s actions to love and unite his family. Jesus had already decided to walk into a shady tax collector’s home before one movement of Zacchaeus, who simply climbed a tree just for a glimpse. Jesus had forgiveness, not just for the woman caught in adultery, but for every man who filled their hands with stones. Jesus could have rightly laid low every one of them along with the adulterous woman. But he didn’t. Do we need grace to know we sinned? No. The law will do that well enough, but its grace that encourages us to step out from the condemnation of our actions into the freedom found in God’s love.
Grace hurts and sometimes even tears at the one giving it, when the one who you’re given grace and forgiveness to screws up again and again. I’ve seen this in recent events, from pastors desperate to be a help to broken and shattered lives, and then burned by that desperation to help, still unwilling to change methods because of the grace given him by God through Christ. The best example of this is in our own Savior, when the Grace of God drove him to a cross on our behalf. And it’s that cross we turn to again and again, as we often have to bend our knee before it regularly because of our sinful transgressions.
So what do we do? Do we sit there with a slide rule, trying to calculate if someone’s got enough work in the ledger to be in the black again? No. God has one plumb line, faith in Christ. A faith that he gives to us. By that faith, we can throw out the ledger or say every line is filled with Christ’s perfect works, pick one. The point is there is only one thing left to do when someone broken repents and is restored; shout hallelujah and love him or her.
A theological misfit landing in the area of Lutheranism, Dominick has come to deeply appreciate the truth of scripture as defined by the distinction between Law and Gospel. He has found freedom in knowing that Christ is his substitute on even his worst days. He has been for the course of his church life everything from chair-stacker to men's ministry leader. He is blessed with a wonderful wife and two great young men, which he can say without a doubt, he doesn't deserve. He counts among his favorite things: Star Trek, classic superhero comics, movies, Yankees and yes, he admits to it, the Knicks. He enjoys a good conversation and good food. Finally, he is grateful for the opportunity to share the message of God's Grace among all these great teachers, pastors and theologians and hopes he doesn't mess up big time. But then again, that's what grace is for, right?