Forgiveness of Sins: The Restoration of Our Vocation
Note: These are extended notes from a sermon delivered by Paul at Gateway Church on 25/3/18.
You can listen to the sermon via Apple Podcasts here.
We have been discussing and teaching upon the new life we have in Christ, and placing Christ at the centre. The imagery comes from the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis and takes up Paul’s teaching in the Book of Romans in particular.
This new life we now have in Christ through our salvation is based fundamentally on the forgiveness of sins. And what that means has varied ideas and teaching over many years. This is no small matter, and recent scholarship from NT Wright among others has identified that an incomplete answer to this question promotes a reduced if not domesticised Gospel that has more pagan influence than strict Biblical understanding. So, it is rather a big deal that we understand what Paul is speaking about when he talks about the forgiveness of sins.
The forgiveness of sins must properly, at least initially, be understood in the context of the Bible. What the Scriptures were pointing to. The Bible sets out a narrative story that gives us the explanation. In short, the first sin of course was to agree with the deception of Satan in his representation to Eve about the nature of God by challenging what God said. God put a protective boundary in place by his command. But humanity was given the free will to choose to embrace God or reject God. Consuming the fruit of the knowledge of Good and Evil placed humanity at the centre of the Garden, not God. This sin caused separation between humanity and God and no end of self-determining consequences and harm.
Humanity was designed, as we have discussed, to live from God’s rest, to live in complete faith confidence in God by embracing and participating in His love, His wisdom and empowerment into the assignment that God gave humanity with God at the centre of our life. Relationship with God leads not only to identity as image bearers of God into the world, but also a very clear purpose for our lives. Hence all the commands, all the law and prophets can be summed up with two commands as empowered life teaching: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbour as yourself. This becomes the expression of God’s love and the reality of the Triune God expressed on earth.
The creative design of God was that every person was to live with God from the Tree of eternal life, a metaphor for Christ, to bear God’s image, most clearly identified as the expression of His love into the world functioning as kings and priests. The very first responsibility as a priest was to worship God first. This response of worship as an expression of both identity, relationship and function and was primary. It was the first thing to do. Therefore, both Adam and Eve were to function as both priests and kings carrying God’s kingdom authority into the world to establish God’s order on earth as it is in heaven as image bearers of God’s love.
Established theologians suggest the goal of creation is God revealing who He is. His essence is constituted by perfect love, as we have been teaching, eternally shared between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Bible narrative is clear that God created the world out of His triune love with the goal as Boyd says of “acquiring a people for himself, a people who would participate in and reflect the splendour of his triune love.”
More specifically God’s goal from the dawn of history has been to have a people, a tribe, a church, a bride, who would say “yes” to His love, who would fully receive His love and beautifully, as a radiant bride, reflect this triune love back to himself. This is the context of John 17 and Jesus’s prayer.
By knowing God we would join into His love with the other members of the Godhead and then express that divine love and make God known. Love is the royal command. Many say what about truth? Love is fine but what about God’s truth. The answer is you cannot separate God’s love from His truth, because He is both love and truth and truth is embodied in His love and His love embodied in His truth. To move in God’s love is to move in God’s truth and to move in God’s truth is to move in God’s love.
Back to my point, this relationship and purpose would be fulfilled by humanity living in God, with God at the centre of their thoughts, their very being, entering into His rest, His fullness, functioning as priests and kings, a royal priesthood to bring forward the kingdom of heaven on earth.
If God is doing a sovereign work and as prophesised the winds of change are manifesting it will not be outside of God’s original will expressed in Jesus Christ or counter to His purposes to be accomplished. What is being disrupted is the modern idea of an ineffective, diluted and incomplete Gospel message, where the church is waiting to go to heaven and living with self at the centre in their thinking instead of actively and passionately embracing God at the centre and their true vocation to bring heaven to earth from God’s grace and us embracing God’s triune love.
This is why John 14 that I have taught on previously, lays an important foundation for those who want to move in the greater works that Jesus promised with an oath phrase. The faith that is needed, God’s faith, is found by entering into and participating in the oneness as Jesus did, entering God’s rest, embracing and participating in His love as found in Jesus prayer in John 17. We are not meant to stand apart from God to have His faith or bear His radiant love. We are to fully and completely embrace Him and learn to live as one with Him.
Sometimes we are more interested with living by a moral code than taking the effort to genuinely humble our self and embrace God’s love and fullness. To embrace its truth over our orphaned emotions. Whilst that code is a helpful guide, it points us to a relationship with God. The moral code cannot be placed ahead of God or treated as superior to His love. It is lived by embracing His love and embracing Him as life in every thought and every decision we make.
Let me give you a short story to explain. If we are married, and I as a dutiful husband learn every moral code and set about living by it in the marriage so I can be a good husband, is that enough? Is that what God wants from me? I want to be a good husband, so being a good husband is my goal. Again, is that the goal God sets for me? I know every rule that will cause that marriage to prosper and I dutifully engage in those rules. But the question is, “Do I love my wife?” By keeping the rules am I flexible, able to give myself unconditionally? Do I ascribe unsurpassable worth to her by following the rules? I have obeyed the rules but where is my heart? I am a good husband but am I a loving husband? Have I given myself fully to her as love does? I am obedient, but I can be obedient and not in love. This is how Israel behaved towards God and their covenant relationship.
Rules are valuable as they guide us towards love because they come from love, the experience of which is limitless. Love cannot be embraced by simply following rules. Love transcends rules and defines a whole new way of living that the rules coach us towards but can’t realise. The rules guide us towards something and someone greater. God who is love.
Back to my story, love must be embraced by giving all of who I am to my wife. Not just following the rules. When we are at the centre we idolise rules and behaviour. We idolise emotions. We make the relationship about who did what, about who is right according to our own feelings. God dealt with the issue of behaviour and rules by giving us a new heart. A heart that could receive God’s love and express God’s love as a higher standard. To receive God’s truth and respond to God’s truth. The matter of the heart remains still today the heart of the matter.
This is why God writes His precepts and His teaching, His law, which is actually good and founded on His love on our hearts. What is good is actually expressed as God’s triune love. The law is an expression of God’s love, His paternal protection and boundaries for His people in an evil world. The world is evil because of its dysfunctional self-centred ideas that are separated from God’s love.
In the New Testament that needs to be understood through the forgiveness of sins. We are no longer in exile. We are no longer of fallen Adam. We have had our sins forgiven.
God gives us a new heart to place Christ at the centre and to embrace and express His love. Obedience comes out of our love for God not our duty to be morally good. Often our duty to be morally good is based in fear of punishment not the embrace of love. If we move in the way of expressing God’s triune love Paul says we have fulfilled all the righteous requirements of the law. Love is superior to the law and the Torah of the Spirit teaches us to embrace God’s love as truth and then give expression to it so we may have life. Through love we keep the moral law and cause no harm to our neighbour. Purity and holiness cannot be achieved by rules, but through embracing God’s love and mirroring him to others.
What stood in opposition to this relationship and goal was the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil as I have been teaching over the last while. The placing of self at the centre, the effect of being the one who determines what is good and evil, and all knowledge, produces another problem that God deals with all through the Old Testament from Genesis to Jesus: The problem of idolatry.
Indeed, God’s command to Israel, the very first command of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. He is teaching them to bring Him back into the centre and to be their first thought and object of worship and to help them enter into His rest. But they never did. Their fallen hearts meant they were constantly moving between God and the world, with self very much at the centre. They remained in exile and longed for the hope of being delivered from it. This is the centrepiece of Paul’s writing and explaining the forgiveness of sins.
Throughout human history the fingerprints of God were upon them yet they refused to honour him as God or even be thankful for his kindness. Instead they entertained corrupt and foolish thoughts about what God was like. This left them with nothing but misguided hearts, steeped in moral darkness. Although claiming to be super-intelligent, they were in fact shallow fools. For only a fool would trade the unfading splendour of the immortal God to worship the fading image of other humans, idols make to look like people, animals, birds and even creeping reptiles!
The first problem of placing self at the centre as in the case of the fall is idolatry. By definition anything that we place ahead and instead of God and give our attention, time, and heart to is an idol. Anything. It can be our job, money, a person, a relationship, a ministry or a child. We can even idolize our own knowledge and righteousness. This is called pride. The consequence of idolatry is that you become like that which you worship, spiritually dull and disempowered. We have made God in our fallen image just as Israel crafted their own idols by hand in their image of what gods may look like. This is the narrative that underpins the early church’s understanding of forgiveness of sin.
This idea of self at the centre means that we choose to worship other things before God and instead of God. Where our heart, focus and affections and thoughts constantly are, that is who and what we are worshipping. With self at the centre we worship worry, anxiety and fear, loss and lack. We ultimately worship our self in doing so. Self-worship finds many expressions of course. The point we come to is this: the first and most fundamental sin is idolatry with self at the centre.
This idolatry leads to the second and corresponding sin of humanity not taking up its vocation as God’s royal priesthood, as kings and priests, fulfilling the assignment that was given to it to bring the whole world under the governmental rule and reign of God’s Kingdom. Yes, failing to step into our calling is a fundamental sin that Jesus blood was shed for. And Israel failed in being the light to the nations and needed to be delivered from that sin. All this underpins Pauls idea of the forgiveness of sins.
This theology is very important in understanding that forgiveness of sins is fundamentally the forgiveness of those sins that separated us from God, undermined our ability to carry our true image of God in our commission and fulfil our vocation as priests and kings and radiate God’s love back to Him and towards each other into the world. It had less to do with breaking the code of the law although that is included naturally enough within the apostolic understanding of forgiveness of sins. Paul says the written law was nailed to the cross. But again, we need to know what that really means for it to give us life in Christ.
The point is that the forgiveness of sins strikes at the very heart of the issue of sin so that the forces that give rise to sin are dealt with and forgiveness flows to not just God’s covenant people but to the whole world who will embrace this truth by faith. This is revolutionary!
We have been set free with Jesus at the centre, to live the life of embracing God’s love and His purposes! Our exile, like Israel’s exile from the Garden and later the promised land is now finished. Nothing can separate us from the love of God! We are brought back into the heart of God! All of us. The whole earth will now become God’s temple and reveal His glory. Hence Paul declares it is God’s love that compels Him onward!
When Jesus came, as the hope of Israel, and our hope too, He did so not just as God, but also as the coming king. He showed us God’s Kingdom was at hand. His assignment was of course to destroy the works of the enemy of which the cross was the ultimate crescendo and work. This work was not passive but revolutionary. The Cross, as NT Wright teaches, is not the story of us being saved to one day to go to heaven. Rather, it is a historical revolution that affects everything in the future history of world that we are now brought into! It has historical cosmic ramifications! The future is now in play. And we have been chosen in God’s love to bring it forward as God’s servants and his royal priesthood.
Let me repeat. Through the forgiveness of sins, man is restored back to relationship with God, their true identity as image bearers of God into the world, and their true vocation, to be priests and kings, a royal priesthood to bring forward the future Kingdom, the eternal Kingdom, into every day affairs that God may be known. In this context, the language used in the modern western church of clergy and laity, and volunteers and lay preachers is inconsistent with our calling! There is no such description or division or understanding to be found in Scripture! The early church did not see things that way at all!
Our salvation is revolutionary. It is not to be watered down, played down, qualified or domesticated. It is powerful and needs to be wholeheartedly embraced with Jesus clearly at the centre of our life. Indeed, Wright contends a lot of what is presented before the church over the last hundred or so years as the Gospel as a modern development is a paganised Platonic interpretation that has undermined its revolutionary power and to my mind failed to bring the church into the reality of the prayer of John 17. In short we have been guilty of preaching a different gospel! A westernised pagan-influenced Gospel. The idea that we one day go to heaven without understanding what forgiveness of sins meant to the early church, leaves us blind if not ignorant to God’s purposes and what He intended by salvation through the Cross to bring us into.
Our salvation not just brings us into eternal life, as I have said, it brings us fairly and squarely into God’s purposes and we both individually and personally have each been given a responsibility to steward this relationship with God and to cause what we have been given by God to increase into the world through our shared vocation as a royal priesthood.
This was reinforced by Jesus in His parables of the Kingdom. The theme of many parables was of course that the king had come and had given something to his people. He had given them something of value and He had given them a trust. He went away and He would return. When He returned, He would ask for an account of how the person stewarded what had been given to them.
Before I take you to the parables of the Talents as such an example I need to comment on a few things.
First, it is important to understand that God has brought us together as His tribe, and as a tribe, a community of believers, through one heart and one mind, to achieve God’s purposes on earth together. That is our primary purpose.
As I have said individuals find and give expression to their true identity in relationships and in community, a tribe, a people that they belong to and identify with. This is crucial to developing bonds of covenant loyalty and commitment and to be able to fully embrace and reveal God’s love, authority and power.
God’s love is crucial in this because Paul by this revelation teaches that whatever you do, no matter how amazing and supernatural and powerful it may seem or mystical it may seem, if it is not done with God’s love in your heart, it is just stuff, you are a “look at me” noise, a clanging cymbal. Your stuff has no eternal value and no value to the Kingdom. The modern charismatic church is meant to sound like a symphony, a colour of sounds in agreement expressing the theme of God’s love, not an out of key rock band with an over enthusiastic drummer who plays way too much of the cymbals or too much cow bell!
Second, within each tribe every person is valuable and needed to not only develop the strength of the tribe and spiritual development and maturity, but to serve others in the tribe, to play their part and encourage others to play their part. In this we are never called volunteers. This is what we are each called to do. We are called sons, daughters, kings, priests and servants. We are not royal volunteers like we are members of the local Rotary club. Everyone is a servant of God in His house and from His house to fulfil God’s purposes. This is something to very proud of and humbled by. To sense the absolute privilege of- because all of heaven does! That you are God’s royalty on earth with a clear purpose and vocation for your life has earthly and eternal realities and consequences.
God is very clear about this as was Jesus in his parable teaching.
When the many leave it to the few to fulfil this vocation we are not developing as a tribe or as a people what the new life of Jesus leads us to establish. Whilst there are developmental periods towards being a participant, and changing our thinking from worldly thinking to God’s thinking, it is essential that every believer understands what the forgiveness of sins means for them and our calling as part of our salvation: Not to go on sinning at this fundamental level. As I alluded to and few have ever discussed this, but Jesus clearly teaches on it, it is a foundational sin of humanity not to choose to serve God’s purposes with your life now your sins are forgiven and you are no longer in exile from God.
Of course, you get to choose because of your free will. God’s love and free will work as one. But by your faith you have chosen to let go of your old life and its pursuits to embrace your new-life with Jesus at the centre and God’s purposes in mind. Your salvation by the forgiveness of sins has brought you by faith into God’s purposes and His will for your life.
To help you make a Godly choice or a choice based on God’s love through the forgiveness of sins, in Jesus, you need to remind yourself the life of self at the centre is dead. We are to put off that old life. It is an action of your will. We are to put on our new life in Christ. That too is an action of our will. You can’t put on Christ and then not serve God in His vocation for you. Through the forgiveness of sins, the life of idolatry is dead and both self at the centre in idolatry and not fulfilling God’s vocation as the foundational sins of all sin revealed in our failure to meet the moral code have been forgiven.
Therefore, every believer through their salvation is brought into the calling and responsibility of living the Christ life and bringing forward the future Kingdom into the present, and to take up their vocation or calling as a king and priest as part of a royal priesthood. Our eternal rewards depend upon laying hold of this understanding.
Those functional responsibilities are worship, by placing God first in every decision, giving thanks to Him, giving praise to Him, knowing His words, obeying His words to bring forward God’s life, His image and likeness and the spiritual authority of the Kingdom into our life and world, prayer, including intercession for others, and to rule over darkness, not giving ourselves to it! The Holy Spirit is actually empowering us to undertake these very things! This is God’s will for us that a renewed mind discovers.
When we choose not to live in this functional space and vocation the tribe’s ability to penetrate darkness and break open regions for Jesus becomes weakened. When self remains at the centre we unfortunately fail to see the importance of this vocation or calling. Unfortunately, we have engaged in modern ideas and modern practices in the church that are not conducive to living empowered lives and seeing the spiritual authority and power of God move upon the foundation of His love and union. And I am of the firm belief when we come back to what God is doing and always been doing our lives are dramatically empowered. Perhaps this is what God is stirring up with the winds of change?
Jesus said if we pray anything in His name He will do it for us. This requires us to pray according to not only God’s character (love) but His will (purposes and promises). Whilst God answers our prayers on a personal level and that is important, the context in which Jesus spoke was to invite the disciples to pray how he prayed to the Father, that He prayed in a way where heaven and earth, Father in heaven and Son on earth came into perfect alignment and the Kingdom broke in to set people free, heal them and cause the future Kingdom to be made manifest in the darkness. Hence we need to pray in the name of Jesus, not simply as a tag on the end of prayer, but with God’s heart, His love, bearing His likeness and to fulfil His purposes and His promises on earth as they already are in Christ in heaven. We are not permitted to pray one way and live another.
So, let me get back to the parable.
The principle of stewardship is found in the very way God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden to work it, to tend to it, and to expand its borders. The Garden was not a small place. It was significant. It was the very first temple from which the later tabernacle and its designs would become a microcosm.
Part of their stewardship was to exercise their commission and establish God’s delegated authority in and around their life. They had been given everything they needed to bring increase. That is the position we are now in because of forgiveness of sins and our return from exile from the Garden.
The increase depended on them stewarding what God had given them. To protect, to guard, to cause to increase. What was central to their priestly and kingly function was the central idea of trust and responsibility with accountability- stewardship. We do not own the earth and what is in it. God does. We are trustees, not owners. And as trustees we get to use and invest what belongs to God for the increase of His kingdom through the fulfilment of his promises.
Now in the parable this relates to what is uniquely given to us in different measure based on our ability to handle it according to God’s foreknowledge of each of us. And the parable shows God knows us. There are things he gives us in common. That is the parable of the minas, and there are things he gives us uniquely. That is the parable of the talents. Although the parables relate to money, they can speak of money, but the point is one of stewardship, being faithful and trustworthy to invest what we have to cause increase, i.e. step into our vocation and commission and to bring growth of the Kingdom.
These parables relate to the Kingdom of heaven and what I have just been speaking about. We notice that a trust was given. A trust came with an expectation of stewardship, to work, protect and cause increase through what was given- just as in the Garden.
Every believer stands in the same position of Adam in the Garden before the fall. We have a vocation that calls in a trust with a responsibility. We are to do that from God’s rest. For who God calls he anoints and equips. As you will see what works against this vocation is fear.
Fear does not come from God. This fear also brings a wrong view of the owner, brings comparison towards others who have more, ideas of self and what is valuable and violates the fundamental trust given. Hence the servant is identified as wicked and lazy. He has sinned by his failure to invest towards others for the benefit of the owner what has been entrusted to him. We also see that eternal rewards are linked to this. This is the foundational sin rooted in the forgiveness of sins. We are set free from this response driven by self to take up the example of the other two faithful servants.
Let’s turn to the parable of the Talents, and for the purpose of the story note both the response from the servant who had least and the response from Jesus. As you hear the story, remember that Jesus came for the forgiveness of sins by becoming Sin and taking sin to the grave. He took death to death. He desires for you to enter into a new life, a new relationship with the God head and to fulfil your vocation: to be a good and faithful servant. He does not want you to despair in your doing good to bring forward the Kingdom, but He makes it plain there is both reward and judgment, a giving of an account, to Him.
Again, heaven’s kingdom realm is like the wealthy man who went on a long journey and summoned all his trusted servants and assigned his financial management over them. Before he left on his journey he entrusted a bag of five thousand gold coins to one of his servants, to another a bag of two thousand gold coins and to the third a bag of one thousand gold coins, each according to his ability to manage.
The one entrusted with five thousand gold coins immediately went out and traded with the money and he doubled the investment. In the same way, the one entrusted with two thousand gold coins traded with the sum and likewise doubled his investment. But the one who had been entrusted with one thousand gold coins dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.
After much time had passed, the master returned to settle accounts with his servants. The one who was entrusted with five thousand gold coins came and brought ten thousand, saying, “See, I have doubled your money.” Commending his servant, the master replied, “You have done well, and proven yourself to be my loyal and trustworthy servant, Because, you have been a faithful steward to manage a small sum, now will I put you in charge of much, much more. You will experience the delight of your master, who will say to you, “Come celebrate with me.”
Then the one who was entrusted with two thousand gold coins came in and said, “See, my master, I have doubled what you have entrusted to me.” Commending his servant, the master replied, “You have done well, and proven yourself to be my loyal and trustworthy servant. Because you were faithful to manage a small sum, now I will put you in charge of much, much more. You will experience the delight of your master, who will say to you, “come celebrate with me!”
Then the one who had been entrusted with one thousand gold coins came to the master and said, “Look sir. I know you are a hard man to please and you’re a shrewd and ruthless businessman who grows rich on the backs of others.” I was afraid of you, so I went and hid your money and buried it in the ground. But here it is- take it its yours.”
Angered by what he heard, the master said to him, “You’re an untrustworthy and lazy servant! If you knew I was a shrewd ad ruthless businessman who always makes profit, why didn’t you deposit my money in a bank. Then I would have received it all back with interest when I returned. But because you were unfaithful, I will take the one thousand gold coins and give them to the one who has ten thousand. For the one who has will be given more, until he overflows with abundance. The one with hardly anything, even what little he has will be taken from him. Then the master said to his other servants, “Now throw that good-for nothing servant far away from me in outer darkness, where there will be the great misery and anguish!”
Of course, Jesus is the master. The money is the abilities, anointing and callings in being a servant, which every believer is and has, and our common calling to invest what we have been given to bring forward the increase of the Kingdom of heaven until Jesus returns. This is why we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We are not the centre of the Gospel, God is. Any idea of a self-centred or a self-serving Gospel must be refocused on what forgiveness of sins really means and what it represents for us today.
There is no getting away from this parable and the others that relate to patient waiting, serving and being faithful and trustworthy with what we have been entrusted with.
The servant who was given least, carried an inconsistent approach towards his master. He not only had the wrong perception of who he was, but he operated out of fear. This is a classic contrast between those living in Christ entering into God’s love and knowing him and those who stand at a distance from God, even obeying the moral codes, but do not know Him and move in fear, so the little they have been given they do nothing with. Even if we have what is insignificant compared to others we are called to use it for the advancement of the Kingdom of heaven.
It is not acceptable even if we only have a little to invest or offer in our talents to do nothing. We cannot compete or compare. What God has given to us He knows we can manage and expects us to manage it in a faithful and trustworthy manner to bring increase of His Kingdom. Our sins have been forgiven for us to do this. Serving diligently is a natural response of us embracing and participating in God’s love and our new life. Perfect love casts our all fear. We are willing to invest the little we have to cause Christ’s finished work to increase. And we will have both a present and eternal reward available to us as a result.
We can see how the idea of being saved and one day going to heaven, and choosing to live by God’s moral laws instead of entering into the depth and participation of His love and the forgiveness of sins provides for runs counter to the teaching of Jesus and the principle that we are all children of God, all his family, all priests and kings, all servants of what has been entrusted to us and apostolic teaching. The church as participants in God’s love need to come back to their true vocation as a royal priesthood.
We do have to start removing some faulty thinking and unravel some of the traditional ideas we have inherited as the church that simply are inconsistent to what the Scriptures point to. We must stop majoring on the minor things and start coming back to the new life in Christ, with a real spirit empowered resolve and God’s purposes in mind. And when we do this, the famous Psalm comes into the play.
Keep trusting in the Lord and do what is right in his eyes. Fix your heart on the promises of God (Jesus) and you will be secure feasting on his faithfulness.
Make God the utmost delight and pleasure in your life and he will provide for you what you desire the most.
Give God the right to direct your life and as you trust him along the way you’ll find he pulled it off perfectly!
The forgiveness of sins places God back at the centre so that you will perfectly come into His calling for your life, that you will enter into the vocation God has anointed and equipped you for. As we learn to serve God and live from His love and life He gives us the desires of our heart.
The forgiveness of sins is revolutionary! Don’t water it down. Don’t go back to old ways. Embrace the new life as a servant of God, a priest and King moving into the world to make Him known. You are God’s royalty into the world!
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