By Scott Keith –
“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
Screw that! I’d rather live in my sanctimony and self-righteousness. To “forgive as Christ forgave,” I’d have to stop holding on to all my resentments. My wife would no longer daily piss me off. Instead, I’d have to be tenderhearted to her. Blah!! Instead of letting my kids and even my coworkers know that they annoy the crap out of me every day, I’d have to “be kind” to them. Who wants that?
It is much easier to live in my ivory tower and condemn those around me for committing sins I would never even think of committing. Liars, adulterers, murders, and douchebags alike would all stop feeling the helpful critique of my scornful eye. How will they ever realize they are so much worse than me if I stop telling them? How will they know there is a price to pay for their particular brand of sin unless I tell them? This world and the church for that matter might fall into utter chaos if we are all kind to one another.
The Apostle Paul obviously got this one wrong. He must not have understood what we are all up against here in this modern world; how bad people are, pagans, Christians, and even pastors alike. If he had, he would remind us that it is our scorn for sinners which is useful. Furthermore, I don’t think he understood that often it is our pastors who lead us astray by their misplaced words and their evil deeds. Will bad preachers ever get better if I remove my scorn for their preaching? Will those who have done evil and sinned greatly ever be brought back into the fold without my condemnation?
Hell, why would we even want people like that back in the fold? So what they have confessed? So what they have repented? So what, these sinners have been absolved? Did Paul realize the kind of evil they might perpetrate? Even Christians? In my opinion, he must not have. He couldn’t have seen how bad it was going to get. In our world, people even abuse their positions!
So, what could he have meant by this seemingly misguided turn of phrase? The truth is, when read in context, this verse is the culmination of a list of exhortations given by the Apostle Paul to the faithful, some of which I have listed below (please excuse my love of the KJV):
“That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another. Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil. Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth. Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”
There are some keys here, I think, for understanding the final verse. The whole thing seems to be a list of stuff to “put off,” that we, as a whole, rarely, if ever, “put off,” like: lying, getting angry, stealing, corrupt communication (gossiping?), grieving the Holy Spirit (forsaking the Word or my faith given and sustained by the power of the Spirit in Word and Sacrament, or the Preacher who gives it to me?), bitterness, clamoring (I’m a big clamorer), and malice. Sheesh that is a long list. So those are the things to avoid, and I assume they are to be avoided in thought, word, and deed.
But the stuff that I am to avoid has always been easier for me than the things I need to be and do, like being kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving. These are where my real failures lie. I am not kind though I ought to be. I am not tenderhearted as my loved ones want me to be. I do not forgive though I am called to be. Crap! I suck! I fail! I am, how we say it, “a poor miserable sinner.”
So what now? Well, I skipped the first part and jumped right to the list, as all sanctimonious believers are apt to do. Paul first says: “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.”
Put off the old; God has created (declared into existence) the new which is in Christ alone. The old man cannot, will not, and does not seek after his neighbor’s good. The new man who is in Christ is free to do just that. The old man is not free; he is bound to the consequences of his sinful nature. He is damned by God, apart from Christ. But the new man, in Christ, lives freely for the sake of Christ. He “puts off,” and “puts on,” because Christ has stood in his stead, in my place. Christ has set Himself over me.
And on account of He who saves sinners like me, I hear his words afresh. Be kind to one another. Seek to serve your neighbors who lie, cheat, fornicate, and steal––if not in deed, in heart and mind––with the Gospel of Christ. Reach out to them, for they stand in Christ’s righteousness as I do. They are unworthy servants as I am. They confess to being “poor miserable sinners,” as I do. They, too, if they are in Christ, are forgiven as I am.
Kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness are what Christ has shown them, and what I am now free to show them as well. After all, He shows those affections to me before he asks me to show them, freely, to my neighbor.
Seeing that my friend Donavon Riley posted this verse recently on Facebook obviously caused me great consternation. All I could ask myself was: What do I do with my failures when it comes to this verse? I have only one answer. Put off the old man––the old Adam––and put on the new man who is Christ, my Lord. Live in the only path where life is found, in the daily forgiveness that is Christ Jesus. In Christ, and only in Him, I am free to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving to all my sinful neighbors and minister grace unto my hearers; even my wife, children, coworkers, and pastors.
Soli Deo Gloria!