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The Relation of Severity to Pardon
I. There is a great confusion of thought on the subject of retribution. It is supposed that when a man suffers for his fault it indicates that God is angry with him. The notion is that God may forgive him after suffering his penalty, but that the receiving of the penalty implies Divine displeasure. The Psalmist's view is just the opposite. He says that in dealing with His people God forgave first and punished afterwards. 'Thou wast a God that forgavest them, though Thou tookest vengeance of their doings.' The idea seems to be that when God forgives a man, part of his forgiveness consists in the reparation of his wrong.
II. You will observe that God's vengeance is here said to fall on acts not on persons. The more I love a wrongdoer and the more perfectly I forgive his wrong, the more shall I be eager to have it counteracted, expiated. If I have a son whose fast living has involved him in deep debt, my enmity to the debt will only be increased by my reconciliation to himself. If I had cast him off, I might wash my hands of his disgrace. But, as I have received him back, his disgrace pains me, revolts me. I appropriate it as in part my own. I feel that his creditors lie at my door. I feel by the very love I bear him that his deed has left a stain upon my own garment which both in his interest and mine must be rubbed out. The debt must be paid if possible with his cooperation, certainly with his consent. The blotting out of the debt is my paternal vengeance upon his deed, and it comes from the very heart of my fatherhood. It is the voice not of my anger, but of my love. It is the product of my pardon, the ground of my forgiveness, the result of my recognition, the retribution would never have been desired by me unless the song had first sounded in my soul, 'This my son was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found'.
III. Lord, let me not faint when my deed is rebuked by Thee; let me not say I am rejected of heaven'. I plant a tree of evil and ask Thy pardon: by and by the tempest comes and tears it down. Shall I say it is Thy vengeance upon me? Nay; it is only Thy vengeance upon my tree. The tearing down of my structure is itself the sign or my pardon. If Thou hadst loved me less, Thou wouldst have let it stand. It is not Thine anger but Thy love that demands atonement. After spiritual death is passed the judgment comes. Teach me that the judgment is a sign of life, not death. In my chastisement let me read Thy charity. In my correction let me recognize Thy Christ. In my retribution let me detect Thy radiance. In my pain let me feel Thy pity. In my forfeiture let me behold Thy favour. In my remorse let me discern Thy reconciliation. In the sharpness of my visitation let me hail the shining of Thy visage. There is no proof of Thy Fatherhood like the scourging of my sin.
G. Matheson, Messages of Hope, p. 105.
Pardon with Punishment
Pardon and retribution are ever united: they spring from one source of holy love, and they ought to become to us the occasions of solemn and thankful praise.
I. Forgiveness is, at bottom, the undisturbed communication of the Love of God to sinful men. We are far too apt to think that God pardons men in the fashion in which the sovereign pardons a culprit who has been sentenced to be hanged. There need be neither pity on the one side nor penitence on the other. Such inadequate notions of the Divine forgiveness arise, among other reasons, because so many of us have false notions of the true punishment of sin. And still further the true idea of forgiveness is to be found, not in the region of law only, but in the region of love and fatherhood. The forgiveness of God is over and over again set forth in Scripture as being a father's forgiveness. The blessing of forgiveness is not fully comprehended when it is thought of as shutting some outward hell or the quenching of its flames. It goes much deeper than this, and means the untroubled communion of love and delight between the reconciled father and the repentant child.
II. But still further, this being so, let me remind you that such pardon does necessarily sweep away the one true penalty of sin. What is the penalty of sin? 'The wages of sin is death.' What is death? The wrenching away of a dependent soul from God. How is that penalty ended? When the soul is united in the threefold bond of trust, love, and obedience. The communication of the love is the barring of the hell.
III. Then there comes a third thought, viz. the one which is most prominently expressed in the text, that the pardoning mercy of God leaves many penalties unremoved. Forgiveness and punishment both come from the same source, and generally go together. There is an aspect in which it is true that the very greatness of the previous sin may become the occasion for the loftiest devotion and the lowliest trust in a pardoned man. The effects may be so modified as to contribute to the depth and power of his Christian character. But even when the grace of God so modifies them, they remain. And though in some sense it be true that pardon is better than innocence, the converse is true, that innocence is better than pardon.
IV. Pardoning love so modifies the punishment that it becomes an occasion for solemn thankfulness. The outward act remaining the same, its whole aspect to us, the objects of it, is changed, when we think of it as flowing from the same love which pardons. The stroke has now ceased to be a mere natural result of our evil. We see that it is no sign of anger, but of love. Whatever painful consequences of past sin may still linger about our lives, or haunt our hearts, we may be sure of two things about them all that they come from Forgiving Mercy, that they come for our profit. The stroke of condemnation will never fall upon our pardoned hearts. That it may not the loving strokes of His discipline must needs accompany the embrace of His forgiveness.
Forgiveness Mingled with Judgment
Mercy and judgment must be harmonized. A magnanimous pardon worthy of God's Fatherhood and a scrupulous honour for law worthy of the Judge of all worlds, must meet together in God's providential government. We sometimes assume that forgiveness and judgment exclude each other, and that the climax of clemency is to release from pain rather than to produce sympathy with righteousness. But that is unscriptural and untrue. The forgiven suffer sometimes even beyond the average lot of their fellows. Many reasons can be assigned for this intimate association between judgment and forgiveness.
I. God joins pardon with impressive correction to guard us against mean utilitarian views of grace, and to train us into a true appreciation of the inwardness of His saving work. In the beginning of a soul's return to God it is often moved by selfish, superficial fear. The unhappy effects that follow after sin stir up loathing, trepidation, mental distress, outward amendment and prayer. But these initial motives are intended to be temporary and transitional only, and that man has not tasted the deepest secret of forgiveness who looks upon the grace as mere security against the portentous suffering in which the Divine wrath manifests itself.
II. Our surviving imperfections require that the forgiveness of the past shall be associated with a rigid judgment of its lapses. The fact that we look upon our oft-repeated delinquencies as trivial in their import shows that we need an admonitory discipline of sternness as well as a generous and compassionate absolution. Again and again are we tempted to a presumption which would pervert the grace of God. And the more closely God takes us to His favour and friendship the more urgent is the necessity for the providential lesson.
III. This union of judgment and mercy in the Divine dealings with us is designed to show that the law of retributive righteousness never ceases to operate in our lives. It is immanent as God Himself, for the law is the form assumed by His personal activity. Our deceitful hearts tempt us to imagine that the government which frees us from condemnation must be weak, shifty, vacillating in its foundation principles. In the dawning hours of our release from fear moods arise when we incline to think that grace is some clever surreptitious process to disburden us from our bonds and obligations, and following upon that we fall into an unconfessed and inarticulate antinomianism.
IV. This association of judgment and mercy makes the public declaration of Divine forgiveness possible. Escape must not be too easy for the man who is liable to fall away and repeat his offences. As private citizens even we can hold no relation with the man who seeks to shirk the just pain and penalty of his transgression. We might be suspected of condoning delinquencies, and when those delinquencies are felonious, to do so might carry with it serious consequences.
V. These chastisements are intended to illuminate the character of God, and to give an assuring insight into the dispositions of those upon whom they fall. Although infinite love associates itself with infinite holiness, that holiness is exacting to the last degree. It is no light thing to come short of Divine glory. Not only does the Divine government compel a judicial reckoning with the lapses of God's people, but something in the Divine character likewise insists upon it. He who experiences no inward quickening cannot be absolved from condemnation, and to that inward quickening temporal chastisements are contributory.
T. G. Selby, The God of the Frail, p. 54.
References. XCIX. 8. Expositor (1st Series), vol. ix. p 150. XCIX. International Critical Commentary, vol. ii. p. 308. C. 2. Spurgeon, Evening by Evening, p. 9. C. 5. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxi. No. 1265. C. International Critical Commentary, vol. ii. p. 310. Song of Solomon 1:0 . H. Alford, Quebec Chapel Sermons, vol. ii. p. 107.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Psalms 99". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany