Today's Epistle gives us a subtle hint that Advent is not far off. Paul wrote in Philippians 1:6, “being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” This “day of Jesus Christ,” of course, is the great day when He shall come again to judge the living and the dead. The expression echoes the Old Testament prophetic expression, “Day of the LORD,” when God and man together will get to the bottom line. Once again, Paul is saying that Jesus is LORD, and the consummation of history belongs to Him.
But this text encompasses not only the end but also the beginning, “He who hath begun a good work in you.” That “good work” is God's work, the work of our salvation, in which lost sinners are made over into glorified saints. Note that Paul surely does not say, “the work which you have begun,” or “the work in which you co-operate with God.” Salvation is God's act, God's gift, God's achievement, God's glory, pure and simple, from start to finish.
When did this great work begin? It is tempting to suppose this “good work” of God commenced when we first knew Christ or began to believe on Him as Lord and Saviour. But God always has the initiative, the priority; as Genesis says, “In the beginning God!” That is as true in our salvation as in our creation. As the hymn says, “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew, He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking Me.” St John was more blunt: “We love, because He first loved us.”
This initiative is beautifully displayed at the Font, when small infants, incapable of conscious faith, unable to make any save the most selfish decisions, not knowing even the name of Jesus, are baptized in the name of the Triune God. This is the sacrament of regeneration, when we pray that God will grant to the infant “that which by nature he cannot have.” In that sacrament God truly gives a second birth and new life in His new creation.
Between that earliest beginning in the simple sacrament of Holy Baptism, and the great “Day of Jesus Christ,” there lies a long growth for every Christian soul. The markers along this pilgrimage route are conscious faith and repentance, union with Christ, forgiveness of sins, adoption into the family of God, spiritual growth, internal renovation, progress in holiness, separation from sin, restoration of God's image within us, increasing Christ-like-ness. To assist us in this journey God provides the “means of grace” in the reading and study of His Word, in the Holy Communion and all the sacraments, the worship of His Church and fellowship of His people.
The Christian is a work in progress. But Paul was deeply confident of the final outcome for the Philippians. Would he be equally confident of the final outcome for us? LKW
Today's reading from Matthew's Gospel deals with the matter of forgiveness. It involves a long parable which illustrates the familiar petition from the Lord's Prayer, given in Matthew as “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” but in Luke as “forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” (The familiar liturgical form, “Forgive us our trespasses,” is only a paraphrase.)
The petition briefly and the parable at length state with perfect clarity the correlation between God's forgiveness of the debt we owe Him (a debt which can only be satisfied by the blood of God's own Son) and the offenses we have suffered from others. As God has shown mercy and forgiveness to us, Christians likewise are bound to show similar mercy and forgiveness. Christians may never seek revenge on those who have wronged us, may never practice spite, and may never hold grudges. Such behavior is truly natural for us because our nature is sinful. But the Christian is a man or woman who is controlled not by nature but by super-nature. We live not according to our old fallen state but by grace and the new nature God has given us.
But sad to say, we commonly distort this noble, beautiful, and painful vision of Christian behavior. We must take great heed to our spiritual condition whenever we say, “You should be more forgiving,” or “He should not feel that way.” The requirement of forgiveness is no rule for us to apply to others! If Bill injures John's home, family, or fortune, it is not for Steve to tell John, “You ought not hold that grudge.” When we fall into that moral trap, we are probably failing to practice forgiveness ourselves. As the Gospel has been secularized and diluted, the principle of forgiveness has become warped and judgmental. We all know many Steves who will sit in judgment on John without knowing the full story of what Bill has done.
Forgiveness also must never become the mask for moral indifference. Our Lord does not ask us (on the contrary, He forbids us!) to engage in sloppy moral judgments. We are never to stand idly by when others are being harmed or when evil itself goes on a rampage. When the Nazis were slaughtering the Jews and numerous others with them, there were many sentimental folk, who considered themselves to be excellent Christians, who urged a “forgiving” attitude toward the Nazis. Who would presume to “forgive” an abortionist?
When we see (and we are under judgment if we fail to see) the public harmed by the bad behavior of our leaders, our duty is not to forgive but to confront and to remove. The rule of forgiveness is no license for moral compromise or surrender to evil. LKW