“I AM FORGIVEN”
My next-door neighbor has a Harley motorcycle. It has a really nice sound too, unless you want to sleep at four in the morning.
A friend of mine likes the sound of motorcycles too, but he didn’t always like the sound. It wasn’t because they were too loud in the morning—he gets up at 4:00am anyway—but because to him the sound is that of someone leaving.
See, he had a friend who had been a staff member in a major drug-rehabilitation ministry where the boundaries and rules were very strict and violation of those rules exacted a stiff penalty. His friend’s role on the staff was to be the enforcer.
But one day he stop by my friends office and said, “The only reason I’m here is because I didn’t want you to hear it from anyone else. I’ve resigned, because I can’t do it anymore. I’m headed for Key West, and I’m going there to sin. I may never come back. If there is a God, he is going to have to bring me back; and if there isn’t a God, you won’t see me again.”
So my friend watched his friend ride out of the parking lot headed south on his motorcycle. It was a sad sound—the sound of that motorcycle.
He prayed for his friend over the next three months and sometimes discovered tears in his eyes. Then, one day he heard the sound of a motorcycle pulling up outside his office window. His ”prodigal” friend was grinning. “I thought you would want to know,” he said, laughing. “There really is a God and I am back.” (Steve Brown, Three Free Sins, 15.)
I’ve had people ask me many times, “If God were to forgive all of my sin, if he were to love me not as I should be, but as I actually am, then what’s to stop me from deliberately running off the rails?“ That’s very good question. But it’s not only good, it’s also appropriate.
This morning I’m going to answer that question for you. The text we’re going to look at today is, frankly, a long list of do and don’ts, and we need to understand how to read passages like these in the Bible and square them with the reality that every sin that we have already committed, are committing, and will commit have already been dealt with on Calvary.
If you would open your Bibles or just following along with me on the screen, we’re going to be looking at the last paragraph in Ephesians 4.
Ephesians 4:25–32, ESV
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
“Don’t do that, do this,” writes Paul. Stop telling lies, speak truth. Don’t sin by letting anger control you, deal with it before the sun goes down. Don’t steal, don’t slander, but do something good with your hands and your tongue.
Do you realize what Paul is doing here?
For many chapters he’s been unpacking the truth of the gospel, knocking it into us with a big hammer. And here he is saying, “When the gospel has become the music that make your heart sway to and fro, it results in new dance moves. You begin to get on with others in the fellowship of the church differently.”
And… when we come back from our Christmas break we’re going to see him apply the gospel to our other relationships too: husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. But today he’s saying the gospel, the good news, the truth about what God has done for you in Jesus, enables you to get outside of yourself. It enables you to die to selfish ambition, to die to the need to impress, to die to rivalry, to die to personal vanity, to die to being concerned solely with your own affairs. And instead of all of that you find a spirit of humility and honesty and helpfulness welling up within you. You’re able and willing to see from another’s point of view. You’re willing to count others more significant than yourself. (Phil 2:3.)
That’s the effect of the gospel. But how does the gospel do that? My simple answer is: It does it my removing your fear.
Think about this… When we operating full of concern about ourselves, so much so that we lie or steal, that we have a pressure to impress others, to one up others, to make them take notice and give us our due, or we tear them down when they don’t. What is it to be concerned day in and day out with numero uno? That’s fear!
It’s a fear of not being accepted, of not being valued, of not being validated. At the end of the day it’s a fear of not being loved. An this means that all of our sin come back to the identity question: Who Do You Think You Are?
On the shores of Philip Island, in Victoria, Australia, there are thousands upon thousands of fairy penguins. They’re very cute, little birds that are only a foot tall. Every morning the adult penguins head out to sea to catch fish. At the end of the day they return to land to bring back food for their chicks.
If you saw them get from their burrows to the water, you’d laugh. Their burrows are 30 yards from the water’s edge. All of a sudden a group of penguins will take off, waddling as fast as their little legs will carry them up the beach. But then, when they’ve got less than a third of the way to go, they’ll suddenly turn around and waddle back to the water. They wait, then try again. One group makes it, but another performs this strange ritual of turning back. And on it goes, through the dying light of day, until finally the penguins have all crossed the beach and met their chicks in their burrows.
What’s going on? Why the strange stop-start-return ritual? The answer is quite simple. At sea the birds are fast swimmers, able to dive deep. At sea they’re safe from predators such as eagles and hawks and dogs and cats. In their burrows, their safe below ground. But on the open beach they’re vulnerable and exposed. And so, as they cross the beach, the moment they see a shadow or something out of the corner of their eye, they turn back and race for the safety of the water.
We’re often like those penguins. When confronted with challenging situations we find ourselves standing at the water’s edge. We know we’ve got to get across that beach to get back to the burrow, but it can be so terrifying. When we step out of the water and start waddling across the beach we leave our safety zone behind, we’re in no-man’s land where it’s dangerous, uncertain and where we’re vulnerable. When a shadow comes that causes our fears to surface, we fight or take flight to relieve our fears.
The apostle Paul once wrote to his you protégé, Timothy, the following words: “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7).
What is beneath and behind the selfish and self-serving behavior that’s gonna get you marked down on Santa’s naughty list, isn’t a fear that comes from the Lord. It’s actually a fear that come from a lack of rest in the Lord.
When I was 15, my dad taught me to drive a manual transmission. We’d spent hours driving around a new subdivision, which had nothing more than paved roads and lot signs. I was getting the knack of it.
Then, one Saturday afternoon, the whole family had to go on some errand, and my dad asked if I’d like to drive—or, more likely, told me I was driving. We all piled into our brown, wood-paneled, rust-speckled Dodge Aries station wagon, my mother and brothers in the back seat and my dad riding shotgun. And when we hit the main road, my confidence took a trip to Caracas.
It was my first time on a busy road with a manual transmission, and we were puttering and jerking something horrible. Within moments a massive, black pickup truck filled the rearview mirror—my mother told me recently that it was actually a massive Mack truck—his horn screaming for what seemed a century.
Obviously, I wasn’t doing it right, and neither the comments from the peanut gallery nor the blaring pickup were helping. That’s when my dad jumped to my defense—literally.
He unbuckled his seatbelt, rolled down the window, spun around in his seat, hopped onto the windowsill, and gave “hell-on-wheels” an obscene gesture and several choice words. After climbing back in, he simply said, “A little more gas, son. You’re doing fine.”
That’s a father fending off foes. That’s a father removing anxiety and fear. That’s a father endearing his son to himself. That’s grace.
Our heavenly Father isn’t upset that we’re not moving faster, or that we’re puttering and jerking. He doesn’t cuff us on the head, saying, “Can’t you get it right?” Rather, through the cross, he gives hell an obscene gesture, defending and encouraging us: “My kid is driving here—back off!”
When you know you’re Heavenly Father is there like that through every moment of your life you rest, you relax. You don’t freak out over the future you can’t control; you aren’t laid low by you’re failures of faith. You’re simply thankful. And a reciprocal love for your Heavenly Father blossoms. “We love because he first loved us,” said the apostle John (John 4:19).
In our passage today we saw how Paul had a list of behaviors for us to stop. He spoke of anger, and steeling, and tearing other down verbally, and sums it all up saying, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Eph 4:31).
Now think about all of these sins… What’s beneath and behind every single one of them? A deep concern for one’s self, for getting for one’s self, for preserving something for one’s self, for stepping on the necks of another in order to feel better about one’s self. In other words, what’s beneath and behind is a fear that I’m not going to be loved; therefore, I’ve got to love myself at the expense of others. That’s a disproportionate affection for myself.
Once there was an inquisitive wood nymph named Echo. She was so inquisitive that she would engage the god Juno constantly in conversation instead of resting with the other nymphs. So Juno punished her, taking away her ability to ask questions or engage in conversation.
One day Echo was at a pond which she frequented, when a 16-year-old boy came into view. The human saw her and fell in love with her, and she with him. Echo longed to speak with him, but she couldn’t utter the first word, she could only reply with the last words of whomever she was listening to. The boy grew aggravated. He couldn’t understanding why she was being so cryptic.
But then he looked into the pond, and upon seeing himself, immediately fell in love. He was unable to control himself or his new “lover”, for it was simply a reflection of himself. Narcissus then began to weep into the pool, and his tears began to hide the reflection he loved. He said “Goodbye!”, and Echo responded to him “Goodbye!”. The boy, Narcissus, then lay down on the ground, and wept over the lost of his true love, and died.
Perhaps you’ve heard the longer more detailed version of the myth about Echo and Narcissus. If I would have told you the entire story, we’d be here too long. But my summary makes a few things clear: (1) Narcissus’s affection for Echo got pushed aside by a new affection came into view, and (2) when Narcissus found that he couldn’t control and keep his new lover he fell apart, wept, and died.
I want you to really think about this… We’re similar to Narcussus, aren’t we? When the shadow comes over our self-love, when we sense it’s in danger of sinking, we’re overcome with sorrow or find ourselves engaging in a scuffle. All the negative stuff on Paul’s list is a snap shot of the Narcissus within us—the ways we struggle to not lose our best lover.
Our habits of self love, of narcissism, they can’t be displaced by someone—even someone as high and mighty as your mother or the apostle Paul—coming by and saying, “Cut that out! Don’t do that!” Why not? Because our thoughts run like this: “If I don’t love myself, don’t provide for myself, don’t protect myself, don’t procure for myself, who will. If I don’t do it, there will be nothing but a black hole, negative yards, a cheerless vacancy—and I need victory!” If you think like that, then you’d be right.
It’s not by a force of will that we’re able to turn away from the actions and attitudes that rise up out of self-love and self-concern. Willpower isn’t strong enough to subdue the Narcussus within.
Only by substituting the infatuation with and affection for self with another affection will we know any growth. Your mind must land upon something else. Your desire must be filled with something else. Your affections must be captures by something else. In other words, a new affection must and expel the old affection.
This was the case for Narcissus. His affection for Echo was expelled by a new affection once he saw the image in the pond.
When a person is young they’re excited about chasing their appetites. Then, time passes and the idolization of pleasure gets subdued by a stronger affection, the love of money. And so money gains mastery over their heart. But, then, more time passes, and the young person becomes middle aged and maybe gets drawn into the whirl of local politics. Their affections are getting shaped by trying to change the moral system around them, and, then, another new affection rushes in: the middle aged as become mature and the affection is now for power. What’s driving all of these changes? Affections. One affection is being expelled by another, stronger affection.
My point is this: Your heart isn’t going to give up one affection without that affection being replaced by another strong one. One affection has to be displaced by another.
This happened to me recently. I have to shake my head, for I’m really surprised by this. From birth till about 13-years-old I grew up essentially in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was a Wolverine fan through and through. I even had Michigan wallpaper, bedspread, pillows—my room was decked in maze and blue. But I didn’t go to Michigan for college. I went to a different college, and we didn’t play Michigan in sports so my affections subsided a bit, but not too much. But, then, just last week I get an email that tells me that I’ve been accepted to Northwestern University to study counseling. So, I found myself smiling and being happy about being a Northwestern Wildcat. And I started thinking, who will I cheer for when these Big 10 rivals play each other? Will I cheer for the Wildcats or the Wolverines? My affections have changed; Northwestern accepted me, not Michigan.
One very strong affection has been displaced by another affection. I want you to understand that this is the only way habits of the heart change.
I’m often asked, “Pastor how can I change; how can I get rid of this sin?” And my answer is always the same: one affection must push out the other. The impure affection must really be seen and admitted to. No more excuses; no more justifications; no more comparisons with other. Then, one needs to see and admit a greater and stronger affection. If they don’t have a stronger affection, the old one is gonna stay put.
The love of good has to expel the love of evil. Growth in holiness isn’t about how hard you try square yourself with God: “I’m going to do better at following the law; I’m going to really work at it, then I’ll be good and righteous.” That never works. It just keeps you anchored to your own selfishness, striving for your own glory. It doesn’t release you to live for God’s glory.
The only thing that will ever help grow. The only way to get better—and I think I’ve told you this before—is to actually stop obsessing over getting better. You’re probably hearing that and thinking, “Preacher, You’re crazy!” No, I’m not!
You’ve got stop obsessing over getting better and discover how much God really loves you. For “[t]he only people who get any better are those who know that, if they don’t get any better, God will still love them” (Steve Brown, Approaching God, 150).
You’re probably hearing that and thinking, “Preacher, You’re telling people they can go out and sin.” No, I’m not! “Then, what’s to stop them from going out there and deliberately sinning more” No, it won’t! “But, why not?” you ask.
It won’t because of the affection thing that I’ve been teaching you about. When you really come to learn about God’s love. When it really comes home to you how much you’ve been forgiven, and how much you are gonna be forgiven—when you really get it… when it’s not just ambient noise in the room that is perchance ricocheting off your ear drums. When you really get it in your heart and soul, and believe it’s true, then your heart will have a reflex—you’ll begin to love back. You’ll find a new affection rising within you. And if you screw up—and you will—you’re going to know that because of the gospel of Jesus Christ that you’re still loved, forgiven, and covered in grace. And that reality, that even a habitual sinner like you, like me, will make you fall deeper in love—not with yourself—but with Jesus.
So, do you see … ? One affection will push out another affection. The gospel of God’s love in Jesus Christ, creates love.
Holiness isn’t about your exertion of moral effort. It’s about your falling in love.
You’ve been forgiven, you are forgiven, and you will be forgiven, not because of what you’ve done, are doing, or will do, but because of what the Lord Jesus has done for you.
This is exactly what the apostle Paul is saying. Just look again at how he concludes our passage: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another”—okay Paul, and how?— “as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:32). There it is… Be NEW, because he FORGAVE YOU.
That’s not a duty, that’s a love affair.
Spiritual giants aren’t those who try harder than others; they’re simply those who’ve discovered how deeply forgiven they are. That discovery has altered their affections. Then, one day in a moment of introspection, they glance back over their shoulder and discover all of the ways that they’ve been constrained by love. And they think, “Oh, my… If it weren’t for the Love of God.”
I tell you… It’s happened to me. And if you don’t watch out, it will happen to you too.