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June 8, 2005

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father-Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

“I haven't lost that many balls in two days in my whole life.”

That's what my father said as we finished the eighteenth hole on the second day of our two-day golf trip to Galena, Illinois, earlier this week. We played two different courses, both of which are now littered with many of our Nikes and Titleists. The courses are nestled into hills and carved out of forests, and the woods and tall grass that make both courses beautiful also make them treacherous. Challenging.


That's a good word for them, unforgiving. There is little margin for error. A slight hitch in your backswing that opens your club face a fraction will send your drives sailing into a stand of hundred-year-old trees and thick undergrowth. Swing just a little too hard when you putt and your ball will roll past the hole and off the hard, fast greens. Fairway shots hit just slightly off line can ricochet off exposed rock and into bunkers or water hazards. Some courses forgive mistakes with wide fairways, few hazards, short rough, and slow greens. On the courses Dad and I played in Galena, slight mistakes land you in deep woods.

I'm not a good golfer. I play just a few times a year. I don't spend hours between rounds honing my swing. (I don't even spend minutes…) If it's possible to have a three-digit handicap, I probably do. I now understand, after playing these courses - after being played by them - why golfers like me are called “hackers”. I should have carried a machete instead of a nine-iron.

There is a tendency among human beings, I think, to see God as sort of like the golf courses I played this week. Tough. Hard. Unforgiving. We sometimes think of him as offering little margin for error, waiting eagerly to answer our every mistake with catastrophic judgment. He has marked out a course for us to follow, we tend to think, and that the slightest deviation from that course lands us in deep woods.

Well, that's accurate.

At least it's partially accurate. There are only Ten Commandments, not eighteen, but you get the drift. “You shall not do these things….” “You shall do these things….” Very specific. Little gray area, little room for discussion or deviation. “The wages of sin is death,” the Bible unflinchingly tells us. “The soul that sins shall die.” Next question.

And that's the problem, isn't it? Because if life had a handicap, most of us would have three-figure ones. We've all sinned. We've all acted against God's commandments. We've all done what we knew was wrong. Maybe it was in the heat of the moment. Maybe it was planned and calculated. Either way, there it is. No excuses are valid, no rationalizations work. We've sinned against God and we deserve whatever we get.

Only we don't. We don't deserve what we get, because what we get is grace. I received some on my golf trip. I was playing with my Dad, so I got mulligans. I'd hit a tee shot wide to the right, and he'd say, “Hit another one.” I gave him one or two as well (though he needed far fewer than I did). It was like that bad shot had never happened. It didn't count against me. Oh, I definitely hit the shots, but they didn't show up in the final tally.

God does the same for us, except it's not as easy for him. He can't just pretend our sins didn't happen; sin is far too serious for that. He can't just not count it against us. So he sent Jesus into the world. Or he came into the world as Jesus. Somehow, it's true either way. Jesus came and died as “the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” as John puts it. Something had to be done with our sins, and what God did with them was to place them on Jesus and then allow him to die for them. The sins were punished, but Jesus accepted the punishment and grace was offered to us.

Sin is a serious thing, and not to be taken lightly. It is to be ruthlessly exposed in our lives and avoided. “I write this to you so that you will not sin,” says John. But then immediately he remembers human nature: “But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father-Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” Not only did Jesus die to be our atoning sacrifice, he rose again and lives as our advocate. Like he did with Matthew at his tax booth, Peter on the seashore, Zaccheus in his mansion, the paralytic lowered through the roof, the unnamed woman at Simon's feast, even those who crucified him on Calvary, he goes before the Father and secures grace for us. We don't just receive grace once; we receive it time and again. We have been given the gift of a margin for error.

Don't take that lightly. Don't treat that grace as inconsequential. Don't say, as Oscar Wilde is supposed to have, that “God loves to forgive sin and I love to sin. Really, the world is admirably arranged.” That grace you receive through Jesus every time you fail should light a fire of gratitude in your heart that nothing can extinguish. It should call us to love and devotion and faithfulness and service. It should cause us to hand over our hearts and our volition to the One who died to secure grace for us. It should awaken in us a love for the One who loved us that much.

Some of you have spent much of your lives beating yourself up for every sin. You've limped along with no certainty that God loves you and accepts you. I wouldn't want you to take your sins lightly. But I want to say to you that because of what Jesus has done, I can offer you absolute certainty that you're forgiven. That certainty lies in you putting your trust in him. Be baptized, if you haven't been, as a sign of the end of your old life and the beginning of a new one with Jesus. Repent of ongoing sins, if you need to, and receive the assurance that in Christ they are forgiven. Or just give yourself a small break. Trust that Christ is in the presence of God, asking, “Father, forgive him.” And trust that God is graciously and without hesitation doing just that.

Trust that your God is certainly NOT unforgiving.


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