Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
July 2, 2023
You can’t give what you don’t have. If you are to be merciful, you must first receive mercy. Many misunderstand Jesus’ words, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful,” to mean that you must prove yourself merciful before God can be merciful to you. You must abstain from judging before God withholds judgment from you. You must forgive before God forgives you. But this way of thinking is backward. Jesus is not instructing us on how to become God’s children. He is instructing God’s children on how to behave like God’s children.
If God won’t be merciful to you until you are merciful to others, then to be merciful like God means to withhold forgiveness from others until they have earned it. But that is not what Jesus says. Jesus tells God’s children to be merciful even as their Father is merciful. Their Father sends His Son to die for the ungodly, while they are still sinners (Romans 5:6-8). What’s more, you cannot be merciful unless you have received mercy. You cannot behave like your Father until He first makes you His child! Jesus says, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44a) So, before you can bear good fruit, you need to be made into a good tree. Before you can behave like a son of your Father, you must first become a son. As a child of Adam, you sin like Adam. It is only when you become a child of God that you live like God.
You know that you are not saved by your own works. You are justified by grace through faith when you believe that your sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by His death made satisfaction for your sins. So, your justification before God does not depend on your works whatsoever. Yet, when you are justified before God, you will do good works. When you are justified, that is, declared righteous by God, you are also regenerated. To be regenerated means that the Holy Spirit has enlivened your new self to walk with God. You cannot separate being declared righteous by God and having the desire to do God’s will. To have justifying faith means that you have put to death the old Adam in you, and you now live after the image of Christ.
Jesus tells us several stories to illustrate this. In Luke 7, when a Pharisee judges Jesus for letting a sinful woman wash His feet, Jesus tells the story of two debtors, one who owed a little and another who owed a lot. The money lender forgave them both. Which one, Jesus asked, would love him more? Obviously the one who had been forgiven the greater debt. So also, God’s children love, because God first loved them. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells the story of a servant who was forgiven an astronomical debt by his master, but afterward demanded a smaller debt be paid to him by a fellow servant, and when he couldn’t pay, the ungrateful servant threw him in jail. The master then threw the ungrateful servant in prison. Did the master wait until the servant forgave before he forgave him? No. The master forgave the man before he had shown any mercy. Yet, when the servant refused to forgive, the master’s grace was taken away from him, because the servant proved himself to be ungrateful.
We do not earn our forgiveness by forgiving others. We forgive, because we have been forgiven by God. St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Yet, this forgiveness can only be received through faith. If you have saving faith, then you are born again as a child of God and are being regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Jesus says that if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses, because such refusal to forgive is a sign of a dead faith, which does not trust in Christ.
So, if we are to be imitators of our Father who is in heaven, what is our Father like? How does God show mercy? God reconciled Himself to us while we were His enemies (Romans 5). Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Father demonstrates this love for one’s enemy by praying for those who crucified Him from the cross! God is merciful to those who do not deserve mercy. He forgives those who deserve to be condemned. He gives to those who have not worked for it. Jesus tells us that our heavenly Father is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. And Jesus says as sons of the Most High, you should do the same.
And here lies the difficulty. Jesus is not telling you to love just your friends and family. He’s not telling you to be kind only to those whom you choose to spend time with. He is telling you to be kind and tenderhearted toward even your enemies. What good is it if you love those who love you? Even unbelievers do the same. But your Father in heaven loved the world when it hated Him, so you are called to love those who may not return your love.
It is important for you to recognize that your works of love do not earn your salvation. Only the innocent suffering and death and the precious blood of Christ Jesus has won your salvation. Nothing else could have. And it would be blasphemous to say that Christ’s passion for your sins was insufficient to win your salvation. Christ’s blood is greater than all your trespasses. Jesus’ death surpasses the wages of the world’s sins. Yet, Jesus does teach of a reward in addition to eternal salvation that is given to those who show mercy. Our Lutheran Confessions explain it this way in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, “We teach that good works are meritorious—not for the forgiveness of sins, grace, or justification (for we obtain these only by faith) but for other physical and spiritual rewards in this life and in that which is to come, as Paul says (1 Cor. 3:8), ‘Each shall receive his wages according to his labor.’ Therefore there will be different rewards for different labors.” (Ap. IV. 194).
This is what Jesus means when he says that the poor widow gave more with her two mites than the wealthy gave with their expensive offerings (Luke 21:1-4). The poor widow’s reward is greater, because she gave all she had to live on. The way our Father rewards us for the mercy we give cannot be measured by any human measurement. Rather, we know from our Father’s character that he rewards more profusely than we possibly deserve. Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” How this measuring back will materialize is up to God’s good and gracious will, whether in this life or the next or both.
What that measure looks like in the next life is best left to God’s discretion than our imagination, yet we can see the measure God uses even in this life! Those who forgive instead of condemning enjoy a good conscience here on earth. Those who are generous and give rarely lack for anything, but are provided richly by God and are freer from anxiety than those who scrounge and are stingy.
Jesus tells us of these rewards, so that we will be free from anxiety. You don’t fear the judgment of others when you refrain from judging others. It costs you nothing to forgive others their trespasses against you. And your physical possessions are all given to you by God! There is nothing you can give that God can’t give more back to you.
Yet, the primary reason Jesus tells us to be merciful, forgive, and give is so that we will have a constant sign in our lives of God’s mercy toward us. Every time you forgive what another has done against you, you confess the forgiveness God has showered on you and on the whole earth. When Christ Jesus shed His blood on the cross, He washed away all guilt; your sin and the sin of your neighbor. When you forgive him who sinned against you, you confess that that blood has not runout. There is yet more forgiveness. And that forgiveness is for you too!
Yet, how do we deal with sin? What does it mean to judge not? Should we refuse to say that anything is wrong and to affirm others in their lifestyles, even if their activities are contrary to God’s Word? Do we just forgive unconditionally, even when others are not sorry and continue in their sins?
First, there is a big difference between saying murder is wrong and falsely accusing your neighbor of murder. There is a difference between saying adultery is wrong and accusing your neighbor of adultery. Jesus did not abolish the Law. We are still to hold to the Ten Commandments and call sin, sin. Yet, we are not to pass judgment on others and accuse them of sin and condemn them when we have no authority to do so or the evidence. How many reputations have been hastily destroyed, because people have jumped to conclusions, passed judgment, and condemned others for things they did not even do? This is why Luther exhorts us in the Catechism on the Eighth Commandment to explain everything in the kindest way.
Yet, this does not mean that we should always look the other way at every sin. Scripture has given us a way to deal with sin. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells us that if your brother sins against you, tell him his fault between you and him alone to try to gain your brother. If he doesn’t listen, then bring witnesses, and then finally bring him to the church, which will withhold forgiveness as long as he does not repent. If your neighbor sins against you privately, deal with it privately first. If you think you see a crime or sin, deal with it according to your station in life. If you are a father or mother who witnesses your child doing wrong, you are obligated to discipline your child. A police officer or judge likewise must deal with crimes in the civil realm. And pastors too must confront public sin. If you are in a position of authority to deal with wrongdoing, you must deal with it. If you are not in a position of authority, then you should notify the proper authorities depending on the situation. And in cases of public sin and false teaching, Jesus tells us that we all should mark and avoid false teachers and judge with right judgment (Matthew 7:15; John 7:24).
So, Jesus does not make a blanket statement to never judge under any circumstance. Rather, Jesus tells you not to pass judgment on others when you do not have the authority to do so. And when you do have the authority, you should judge rightly, using evidence and witnesses before you pass a judgment.
In fact, Jesus gives us an example of right judgment in this lesson. If you see a speck in your brother’s eye, first remove the plank out of your own eye before you can see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. Jesus here teaches us not to ignore sin, but to approach sin properly. Our goal is always for those who are caught in sin to repent and find forgiveness in Christ. So, you must first consider your own sins worse than your neighbor’s. It is your sin, not your neighbor’s, which will drag you to hell. If you do not see the danger of your own sin and your own need to repent and to be forgiven by God, then how can you help your neighbor with his sin? That would be like a blind man leading a blind man! But when your eye has been made clear by repenting of your own sin and receiving forgiveness from Christ alone, then you will see clearly to lead your brother to Christ.
Jesus’ command to be merciful, to forgive, to withhold judgment, and to give is simply His command to all God’s children to proclaim the Gospel in their everyday lives. You are God’s children through faith in God’s mercy toward you. You behave as God’s children when you show that mercy toward others. May our Father in heaven enable us to show mercy here on earth to His glory and to our eternal benefit. Amen.