We Live in a Society…
The way our Society (the World) is structured, even if we personally forgive everything a brother or sister has done to us, even if God Himself forgives a sin, Society demands punishment. And Society tends to get its way. Its laws still require the death of someone like the Apostle Paul, a former murderer of Christians. And if not death, imprisonment for life or some significant portion of it.
So I need to ask, if God forgives a sin, why must a debtor—or in Society’s terminology, a criminal—pay a debt to the World? From Imperial Rome to our governments now, the World claims legal rights over all of us, believer in Christ or not. So if someone like Paul turned to Christ today, Society (the World, our Governments) would insist he still pay his debt to it for the murders he committed. There is no freedom from the penalty for sin in secular Society.
…But We’re Not Really Part of It
But there’s a grand difference between secular Society and us, the holy Church. We are holy. That means we’re set apart: though we are located physically in the World, we’re not ideologically part of it. Jesus prayed for us:
“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world. Set them apart in the truth; your word is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.” (John 17:15-18 NET)
Because our ideology is the Word of God, there will always be this kind of separation from the World until the Kingdom of God has spread over all the Earth. This means, then, that there’ll be disparate ways of life between Society and Church, including customs, fashions, trends, and laws. And we can see secular Society already has its own: in particular, its own laws. It’ll claim to have derived its justice from “Judeo-Christian principles.” It’ll cite Mosaic Law and even a thousand years of tradition. But the World does not understand justice and forgiveness as Jesus taught it.
Returning to the story of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35, we see justice pictured this way: our King forgave us everything, so we should forgive a brother everything in the same way. And so long as someone loves Jesus as Christ, Lord, and Savior, he’s a brother to us. So forget what payment Society demands: we, the Church, should forgive.
You see, Society still follows the old law of Eye for an Eye, Life for a Life (see pt. 1), calling punishment for sin true justice. But we know that only God knows what true justice is. In His Wisdom, he sent His Son to die in the place of debtors. How is that even any kind of justice, though? Yet it is justice. And it’s His forgiveness and His love. And He’s satisfied now, despite our never being able to pay our debt to Him. So what right does Society have to demand payment?
Or, closer to home, what right do Christians have to demand Society receive payment?
Or, right at my doorstep, what right do I have to demand a brother pay me what he owes me?
“Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’” (Matthew 18:32-33 NLT)
I think the Church would do well to remember those verses. But remember this one, too:
“God is pleased when, conscious of his will, you patiently endure unjust treatment.” (1 Peter 2:19 NLT)
Mosaic Punishments Today
The World doesn’t agree with Gospel justice. Neither does some of the Church which practices Mosaic punishments today, carrying them out in full agreement with Society. So believers who turn from sin may still see persecution. Because in practice, if not in doctrine, the World is superior to the Church since its laws overshadow us. And throughout history, we have participated in punishing those Society considers irredeemable, despite God declaring those people holy, clean, and just upon their repentance.
Consider back when sodomy (aka homosexual acts) was illegal in Society. Even if a homosexual were repentant like the ones in the Corinthian Church, throughout history much of the Church would still hate, suspect, and even ostracize him. And the person would still be punished by Society. But as the sex acts have become legal in the World, the Church has softened its attitude toward homosexuals in general.
But why did the Church have to wait on cues from the World? Why couldn’t we forgive former homosexuals among us in the first place? Why should a burning red mark stay on a believer’s forehead forever that he was once a homosexual—or a murderer, adulterer, sorcerer, etc.—and therefore forevermore be an unforgivable, punishable, second-class Christian?
I believe the Church forgot Who has the power of forgiveness and power of punishment: not Society, but God. And the same God commanded us, His Church, to forgive, not carry out vengeance for sin. Therefore, at least within the Church, Mosaic punishments should be obsolete. They’re simply unjust now, despite the sin itself still being wrong. And I believe it’s our job to convince Society, the World, of that truth. Because we, the Church, are a light for the World (Matthew 5:14). We change it; it shouldn’t change us.