Unification News for February 2005
A Forgiving God
by Dan Fefferman
From a sermon given on Feb. 6, 2005, to the Maryland New Hope Family Church.
Is God truly a forgiving God, as most of us like to think? I believe the answer is yes. But I have to admit that the evidence isn't always so clear. I'd like to think about this question with you in three stages: the Old Testament Age, the New Testament Age and the Current Age.
We've seen already that the author of 2 Chronicles teaches that God is a forgiving God. However, in his view, God's forgiveness is not unconditional: "IF, my people humble themselves and repent, THEN I will forgive their sin and heal their land."
There are some passages in the Old Testament that paint a bleaker picture. In our bible study group we've been reading Jeremiah lately. He often portrays God as already having made up His mind. No matter what Judah does, it seems that God is determined to make her suffer for her past sins.
"I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who seek their lives, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. 8 I will devastate this city and make it an object of scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. 9 I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another's flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives.' Jer. 19
It's awful to think that God would make His people eat the flesh of their own sons and daughters, but there you have it, right from Jeremiah's mouth. Some of Jeremiah's prophecies were made during the reign of King Josiah, the King whom the bible calls the best King since David.
"He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left....Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did--with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses." (2 kings 22-24)
Yet despite his good works, Josiah was killed in battle against the Egyptians. The Babylonians then besieged Jerusalem under the reign of his sons. One would think that if Josiah were really as good as the bible says, God would have rewarded him differently. Even Jeremiah, the prophet of doom, admitted:
Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. 7At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; 8If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them." Jer. 18
So we are left with a mystery. God says he will repent of any evil prophecy made against a nation who turns from the evil. The bible calls Josiah the best of the kings, and yet God allowed him to be killed and his nation to be destroyed.
A generation later, in Babylon, the remnant of Judah and Israel had to wonder if there was any hope for them. After all, God had punished Israel because of the sins of their faiths, and in Exodus it says: "I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me." Ex. 20:5
Why even bother to keep the Law then, if God was going to punish the children of those who brought this calamity down to the third and fourth generation? Or to put it in the words of Jeremiah: "The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge."
It was the Prophet Ezekiel who answered such questions, saying it was now the time for Jeremiah's proverb to be set aside: 1. The word of the LORD came to me: 2 "What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: "'The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge'? 3 "As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD , you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. 4 For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son-both alike belong to me. ... 20 The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against himŠ. Ezek. 18.
So, during their Babylonian captivity, the Jews came to learn that each man would be judged based on what he himself had done. God would not judge one's children for the sins of their fathers. God would forgive those who repented of evil, and reward those who lived according to His will. Through prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel and others, Jews came to have hope that they could one day return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. On that foundation, one day soon God would send the messiah, who would complete the restoration of Israel and even bring the whole world into the knowledge of God.
Let's turn now to Jesus and the New Testament Age. In previous sermons, I've spoken about the fact that many of the teachings most Christians think were new with Jesus were not really so new: Love your neighbor as yourself, love God with all your heart, do unto others as you would have them do unto you --- all of these are found in the teachings of the Jewish bible and the pharisaic teachers of Jesus' day such as rabbi Hillel and others.
But I think there was one teaching that Jesus emphasized to a degree that no other prophet before him had done. This is the idea of forgiving and loving others as the key to one's own salvation. Of course, the idea of forgiveness itself was there, as we've seen before. Again and again, the prophets portrayed God as forgiving Israel. He forgave them as a master forgives a servant. He forgave them as a Father forgives a wayward child. He even forgave them as a husband forgives a wayward wife not an easy thing to do.
But Jesus brought this home in way no other prophet had done before. He said: I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. 43"You have heard that it was said, ŒLove your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. Š48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matt 5
In Luke's version he says "be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful." So here we have a new teaching: God forgave and loved those who hurt Him most deeply, and to become sons and daughters of God, we should do likewise. It is in being merciful to others, that we come to resemble God.
The theme of being merciful as God is merciful is developed even further in the Lord's prayer. Mt 6: ŒOur Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us today our daily bread. 12Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. 14For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (A note in the NIV states that the earliest manuscripts skip the traditional "for yours is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen.")
This theme is driven home again in Matthew 18: Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" 22Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
So Jesus emphasized forgiveness in a way previous prophets and teachers had not done. I think this is because Jesus understood something about God's heart that other prophets had not understood.
Comparing this to a great prophet such as Jeremiah, it's shocking to listen to the way he prayed to God when people turned against him. "Listen to me, O LORD ; hear what my accusers are saying! 20 Should good be repaid with evil? Yet they have dug a pit for me. Š 21 So give their children over to famine; hand them over to the power of the sword. Let their wives be made childless and widows; let their men be put to death, their young men slain by the sword in battle. 22ŠDo not forgive their crimes or blot out their sins from your sight. Let them be overthrown before you; deal with them in the time of your anger." (jer 18)
Compare the spirit of Jeremiah's prayer to the prayer of Jesus on the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:24) Here, I think, is the real difference between Jesus and any prophet or teacher that went before him. More than anyone before, he emphasized that God was a forgiving God. Unlike anyone before, he taught that forgiving and showing mercy to one another is the key to becoming children of God to receiving mercy from Him. And more than anyone before, he himself loved and forgave his enemies at the crucial moment.
That's the good news. But I'm afraid there's some bad news too. Jesus did not teach that God was unconditionally forgiving. In Matthew 18, right after telling Peter that he must forgive seventy-seven times, he tells a parable which concludes that God will NOT show mercy to those who do not show mercy themselves. He also speaks of God as an angry judge or landowner who is quite merciless to those who do not do right. He speaks of God doing such things as casting them into prison, having them whipped, and even casting them into everlasting fire.
Many of us today believe that we are living in what the bible refers to as the Last Days. And once again we find ourselves faced with a quandary. Divine Principle teaches us that ultimately everyone will be saved even Hitler - even Satan.
The sinful world brings humankind sorrow and causes God to grieve.(Gen. 6:6) Would God abandon this world in its present misery? God intended to create a world of goodness and experience from it the utmost joy; yet due to the human Fall, the world came to be filled with sin and sorrow. If this sinful world were to continue forever in its present state, then God would be an impotent and ineffectual God who failed in His creation. Therefore, God will save this sinful world, by all means. To what extent should God save this world? He should save it completely. DP Part 1 Sect 3.2
Yet we also have some sayings from Reverend Moon that lead us to wonder: "The messiah will judge. Once the center is set and determined,
there is no forgiveness. If you have the law, you have to live by the law. However, before the center is set, forgiveness and "re-salvation" are possible." July 1, 1991
Frankly, that is a rather frightening concept that once the center is set and determined, there is no forgiveness. It makes me feel like perhaps it would be better not to establish the center!
But another part of me feels that this simply isn't true. Like any prophet, Reverend Moon emphasizes the importance of obeying God and uses harsh language to emphasize the urgency of the matter. Can we really believe that once the messiah begins to rule, the principle of forgiveness doesn't apply anymore -- that God no longer wants us to love our enemies and that he will no longer forgive us as we forgive others?
Here is a more recent quote from Rev. Moon that paints a different picture: "No caring parent would stand by idly while her child suffers. Hence, it must be impossible for the all-loving God to abandon humanity, His beloved children, to perish eternally. God is absolutely committed to recovering us and the world that He originally envisioned." -- Dec 13, 2004
For me it has always been relatively easy to have confidence to believe in a God of love and forgiveness. Part of this has to do with my own experiences with God. I've touched his heart on several occasions, and in every case what I experienced was love mingled with grief. I've never experienced Him as angry or unforgiving.
Another part of this might have something to do with my own parents. My mother wasn't a religious person, but she was one of the most unselfish and loving persons I've ever known. She really practiced the principle of "living for others," right up to her dying day. She almost never had an unkind word to say about anyone, and always thought the best about people.
With a mother like that, I think it's natural to believe that God is a merciful, loving and forgiving God. So perhaps the conclusion is that we may never know the exact nature of God by studying theology, philosophy or biblical history. But if we have good parents, we are likely to be optimistic about God. And if we are good parents to our own children, they are likely to have a good impression of God too.
Let us conclude with Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
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