The bonds that at one time held together marriages, families, and friendships have begun to snap - leaving more and more Americans keeping to themselves. We are becoming a nation of loners - unwilling to muster the commitment needed to forge lasting relationships. This sermon sheds the light of the gospel on this growing problem.
by Pastor Douglas Shearer
More and more Americans are loners; we keep to ourselves; we don’t let anyone into our lives – at least not on any kind of a truly intimate basis; nor do we press ourselves into anyone’s else’s life. We keep our distance. And we expect others to keep theirs as well. It’s a characteristic of American life that has become especially pronounced over the last several decades. Illustrations abound:
But that’s all anecdotal. What about hard, statistical evidence? Actually, there’s a lot of that as well.
What does this swelling trend reflect? It reflects alienation. And what, from a Biblical standpoint, is so significant about that? A great deal! The Apostle Paul warns that alienation will characterize the entire generation living at the time of Christ’s Return. Turn with me to 2 Timothy 3:1-4.
But know this, that in the last days perilous (or dangerous) times will come:
For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good,
traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God…
2 Tim. 3:1-4
The kind of person Paul is describing here can’t develop a trusting relationship with anyone; he’s wholly incapable of it - whether it’s with his parents, his spouse, his children, his colleagues, or his neighbors. He has lost the capacity to love. Personal well-being and self-aggrandizement are his primary concerns. “What’s in it for me!” That’s his bottom line. He’s the kind of person who destroys the fabric of community – the kind of person who’s so common today.
And has the church been affected? Of course it has! It’s precisely these kinds of individuals who have been flooding into the church over the last fifteen to twenty years - and they’ve brought their alienation with them, their distrust, their concern for personal well-being, and their exploitative attitudes - attitudes that run amok of love and undermine its very possibility.
But it’s love that Christ demands of his disciples – that he demands of his church. It’s the “new commandment” Jesus announced in John, Chapter Thirteen, verse 34.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
Furthermore, it’s love that should most distinguish a Christian – that should set him apart from the unredeemed. The very next verse, verse 34, tells us exactly that.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
What is it that causes alienation to become so rampant during the Last Days? Matthew 24 – where Jesus describes the Last Days in detail - tells us that it’s sin.
And because lawlessness (anomia) will abound, the love of many will grow cold.
The word lawlessness is not perhaps the best translation here for the Greek word “anomia.” That is indeed its literal meaning; nevertheless, it’s not the best rendering. Why? Because what Jesus is focusing on is not so much a state of mind – which the word “lawlessness” conveys - but, instead, concrete sins – actual offenses. So let’s retranslate Matthew 24:12 to read…
And because offenses will abound, the love of many will grow cold.
Furthermore, it’s also clear that what Jesus has in mind is not so much the sins a person commits, but, rather, the sins he suffers at the hands of others.
Think about it! Whenever sin is inflicted on us – especially on the part of persons we should be able to trust - we become ever more unwilling to put ourselves at risk with others. Isn’t that by and large true? But love always entails risk. Love and risk go hand in hand. Anyone unwilling to put himself at risk with others – anyone who insists on controlling all the relationships that comprise the existential fabric of his life - all for the sake of keeping himself safe from being hurt again – that person is incapable of love. Is it any wonder, then, that whenever and wherever sin abounds, the love of many – meaning the love of most – will grow cold?
And that’s what we face here in America. It’s the obstacle we, as a church, must both address and overcome if indeed we want to keep our love from being eroded – if indeed we want to avoid being numbered among the “many” of Matthew 24:12’s “the love of the many will grow cold.”
How do we do that? The answer is forgiveness. We’ve got to become adept at forgiveness. That’s what the Bible teaches. Forgiveness is the antidote that keeps sin – what Matthew 24:12 calls offenses – from killing love.
I know that the phrase I’ve just used - “adept at forgiveness” - might grate on some of you. Why? Because it seems to give the impression that forgiveness is a technique or a skill. And that’s not how very many Christians have been taught to think of forgiveness. For most Christians, forgiveness is an attitude, a state of mind, not a technique or a skill. To think of forgiveness as a technique or a skill seems almost to demean or belittle it.
Nevertheless, regardless of how foreign and how strange it may seem, the Bible does indeed teach that forgiveness is a skill; that forgiveness is a technique. It’s not that forgiveness isn’t also a state of mind; but before it’s a state of mind, it’s first and foremost a skill - a skill we must carefully learn and become adept at applying.
Forgiveness protects love on two different and quite distinct levels:
Let’s begin at the first level – where we use forgiveness to protect ourselves from the bitterness a sin committed against us produces if we leave it untreated. Turn with me to Mark 11:25.
And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.
What I want you to take note of right off the bat is that there are three parties mentioned here in verse 25:
But the transaction that’s being described here is only between you (the offended party) and God. The offending party is not part of the actual transaction described here. He’s mentioned, but he plays no role whatsoever. Can you see that?
What does “forgiveness” mean here in Mark 11:25? The word “forgiveness” translates the Greek word “aphiemi” - which actually means “to release.” Release from what? Here it means “release from wrath.” Jesus is telling us here that if anyone sins against us, we’re under a sovereign obligation to release that person from our wrath – meaning we’re to let go of our lust for vengeance. And if we don’t – if we refuse – we put ourselves in a state of sin.
And why does God want us to let go of our wrath – to let go of our lust for vengeance? It’s because vengeance belongs to God. Turn with me to Romans 12:19.
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.
Vengeance is poisonous to human beings. It twists and perverts anyone who harbors it. We have all known persons who have been sinned against terribly, but have failed to let go of the anger it has produced in them. And regardless of how much we may sympathize with the pain they’ve suffered, they eventually collapse under the weight of all that anger – and they often become, tragically, a carbon copy of the very person or persons who have sinned against them. That’s how sin is passed down from one generation to the next. Angry, vengeful parents raise angry, vengeful children.
Turn with me to Hebrews 12:15 – where we’re warned explicitly to keep our hearts free of bitterness.
...looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled.
Bitterness is nothing more than anger that has been left to fester. Any time we let anger fester in our hearts, it produces bitterness – and, eventually, that bitterness defiles us - and not just us, but everyone who’s near and dear to us – our wives and children, our brothers and sisters, our friends - everyone. Bitterness kills love. Love can’t take root in a heart defiled by bitterness.
What’s the best way of making sure you’ve forgiven someone who has sinned against you – of knowing for certain that you’ve released him from your wrath? It’s to pray for him. That’s the very advice Jesus gives in Luke 6:28.
…bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you.
If you can’t bless those who have cursed you, if you can’t pray for those who have sinned against you, the chances are pretty good you haven’t let go of your wrath - of your lust for vengeance; consequently, it’s all but certain that the poison of bitterness is at work in your heart even though you may not sense its presence. And if left unchecked, it will eventually kill your capacity to love – and you will find yourself numbered among the “many” mentioned in Matthew 24:12’s “the love of the many will grow cold.”
Now, turn with me to Luke 17:3.
Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.
Do you see how different Luke 17:3 is from Mark 11:25. In Mark 11:25, the transaction is between you and God. To be sure, the person who has sinned against you is mentioned, but no role is assigned to him in the transaction that’s taking place. Furthermore, the forgiveness God calls upon you to grant is clearly unconditional – meaning you’re to grant it with no consideration given to the response on the part of the person who has sinned against you. Finally, the forgiveness at issue here is “release from wrath.” Once again, it’s important to keep in mind what forgiveness means. It means “to release” – and in Mark 11:25 it means “release from wrath.”
But the transaction that takes place in Luke 17:3 is not between you and God; it’s between you and the person who has offended you. It’s certainly true that God is watching over the transaction, but he has assigned himself no direct role in it. Furthermore, the nature of the forgiveness is different. In Luke 17:3, it’s not release from wrath that’s at issue, it’s release from alienation – meaning restoration to fellowship. Moreover, unlike Mark 11:25, the forgiveness in Luke 17:3 is not unconditional, it’s conditional. You’re to forgive the person who has sinned against you – meaning restore him or her to fellowship – only if he or she repents. Finally, the forgiveness that’s being described in Mark 11:25 is meant to protect you from becoming bitter - while the forgiveness that’s being described here in Luke 17:3 is meant to restore a broken relationship and achieve reconciliation.
Do you see now what I meant when I said that forgiveness is not just a state of mind or an attitude, it’s a technique - a technique we’ve all got to learn and apply. It’s a skill we’ve got to master.
Let’s look again now at Luke 17:3.
Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.
There are several more important points you need to take note of: I want you to notice that Luke 17:3, like Mark 11:25, is put in the form of a command. If your brother sins against you, you must rebuke him. There’s no option here. God leaves you with no choice. If you fail to rebuke him, you put yourself in a state of sin. Think about that carefully - and don’t try to rationalize your way around it.
Not many years ago, a woman came to see me about a person she believed had sinned against her. She was very troubled about the offense – to the point of being almost fixated on it. I asked, “Have you confronted her with your accusation?” She said, “No.” I asked “Why not?” Her reply sent me reeling: “If she were really spiritual, she’d know her offense - without any need on my part to explain it to her; and she’d come to me and repent of it. The fact that she hasn’t proves she’s not spiritual; consequently any attempt on my part to point out her offense will fall on deaf ears.” I’m always amazed at how such nonsense can be packaged up to look so profoundly spiritual. Let’s look again at Luke 17:3.
Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.
How much clearer can God make his intention? “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him...” God isn’t telling you to wait on your brother, he’s telling you to go to him. Why do we insist upon affixing our own addenda to God’s clear commands?
It’s also important to note that your rebuke must stay focused on a specific, concrete offense. Do you see that in Luke 17:3? “If your brother offends you…” It’s a specific offense that should prompt your rebuke. You’re not permitted to “go cosmic” – to call into question his or her entire personality. It’s not character, as such, that’s at issue here; it’s a specific, concrete sin.
The word that’s translated “rebuke” means “make your case” – “prove your point.” It doesn’t mean “to rail.” If your rebuke degenerates into railing, that’s a pretty good indication that you aren’t yet walking in obedience to Mark 11:25 – which, as you should remember, tells you to forsake all thought of vengeance.
Furthermore, you’re to go alone to the person who has sinned against you. How do I know? Because Matthew 18:15, which is merely an elaboration of Luke 17:3, tells me so.
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
You’re not permitted to take anyone with you – unless you feel yourself to be in some kind of real danger. And then that person should stand off at a distance - and should not interfere with your rebuke or take your side. He’s not part of the transaction.
Both Luke 17:3 and Matthew 18:15 leave little doubt that the rebuke should be face to face – not through a letter or an e-mail or even a telephone call. The word “go” in Luke 17:3 and the clause “go and tell him his fault” in Matthew 18:15 make that conclusion painfully obvious. Letters are a “cop-out” – and provide no means for an honest face to face exchange. All too often a letter amounts to little more than “rail and run” or “gritch and ditch.” Let me be just as clear as I possibly can: a letter is a compromise the weak of faith habitually resort to - and it’s not countenanced by scripture.
If the person who sinned against you repents, you’re obligated to forgive him – meaning restore him or her to your fellowship. And, once again, there’s no option here. It’s put in the form of a command, “…if he repents, forgive him” – meaning restore him to fellowship – no more stiff arming him – no more holding him at a distance.
But what if he doesn’t repent? Luke 17:3 doesn’t address that possibility; but Matthew 18:15–17 does – which is why I said earlier that Matthew 18:15-17 is an elaboration of Luke 17:3. If he doesn’t repent, you’re still not permitted to drop your attempt at reconciliation. Jesus doesn’t allow you to leave it at that. Let’s say he “turns the tables” on you, or he walks away from your rebuke, or he gets all huffy. If so, break off your rebuke and go gather a few witnesses. That’s the meaning of Matthew 18:16.
But if he will not hear you, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
The witnesses aren’t necessarily being called to attest to the truth of your accusation – your rebuke - but to merely make sure that the person you’re rebuking is giving you a fair and respectful hearing.
But what if the result is the same? What if he continues to stiff arm you? Or turn the tables on you? Or, once again, he gets all huffy and threatening? Quite understandably, you might want to drop your attempt at reconciliation at this point; but it’s a sin to do so. There’s yet one more step you’re obligated to take. That’s the whole point of Matthew 18:17.
And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
If, at this point, he still refuses to give you a fair and respectful hearing, you can at last legitimately abandon your efforts to achieve reconciliation.
But that’s not the end of it; there’s still more I want you to take note of: let’s look again at Luke 17:3.
What if the person you’re rebuking says he repents, but you’re not convinced he’s telling the truth? Are you left with no alternative but to restore him to your fellowship - regardless of your doubts? The answer is “No.” You’re allowed to test his repentance – using, however, the one and only means the Bible provides for such a test: restitution.
All sin is a form of robbery.
If you take fifty dollars from my wallet and later tell me you’re sorry and ask for my forgiveness, but you refuse to give me back my fifty dollars, I have every right to doubt your repentance; and, therefore, I’m under no obligation to forgive you.
If you slander my reputation and then later tell me you’re sorry and ask for my forgiveness, but you refuse to restore my reputation to those who overhead your slanderous remarks, I have every right to doubt your repentance; and, therefore, I’m under no obligation to forgive you.
Do you get the point? Restitution proves repentance. No other test of repentance is provided for in the Bible. I’m not permitted to look into your eyes and find repentance there. I’m not permitted to look for repentance in the sound of your voice and find it there. I’m not permitted to psychoanalyze you or to assess the condition of your heart. All I’m permitted to do is ask for restitution – ask you to make right what your sin has stolen from me. And if you do that, I’m required to lend credibility to your repentance and grant you forgiveness.
I know of a person who for years refused to forgive someone – despite a restitution that went far beyond what was called for. And what was her excuse? Again and again she’d say, “I have no word yet from the Lord.” That kind of subjectivity is too easily perverted. And, what’s more to the point, the Bible doesn’t allow for it. It’s just more nonsense packaged up in “spiritual” wrapping.
Forgiveness isn’t that easy, is it? It’s not just a state of mind or an attitude. It’s a complex technique; it’s a difficult skill that requires a lot of careful study and diligent application. But it’s a skill we’ve got to master here at New Hope – that is, if we’re really serious about keeping love alive – if we’re really serious about not finding ourselves numbered among the “many” of Matthew 24:12 – “…and because offenses shall abound, the love of many will grow cold.”
I said at the very beginning of my sermon this morning that the problem with love is that it entangles us in the lives of others. It produces a lot of sticky filaments that bind our hearts to others. And, in so doing, it puts us in a terrible state of risk and emotional dependency. I’m reminded of Henry Higgen’s lament in My Fair Lady – when, much to Henry’s dismay, he finds himself falling in love with Liza Doolittle - and he sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Do you remember the words?
I’ve grown accustomed to her face,
She almost makes the day begin,
I’ve grown accustomed to the tune she whistles night and noon,
Her smiles, her frowns, her ups, her downs,
Are second nature to me now,
Like breathing out and breathing in.
I was serenely independent and content before we met,
Surely I could always be that way again and yet,
I’ve grown accustomed to her looks, accustomed to her voice, accustomed to her face.
Love entangles us, doesn’t it? It forces us to give up our independence - and exposes us to profound risk. But it’s a risk Christ wants us to play all the way out. It’s what being a Christian is all about. It’s what sets us apart. It’s what authenticates our witness to the unredeemed. So, let’s learn how to forgive - because knowing how to forgive is what sustains love over the long run. It’s what keeps love alive and vibrant. Let’s not be counted among the “many” of Matthew 24:12: “And because sin will abound, the love of many will grow cold.” Let’s light the lamp of our testimony with all the love that God can put in our hearts - so that we can let it shine out to a generation that desperately needs to see it.
May God bless all of you as you take up this heroic task.