By Pastor Glenn Pease
Some amazing things have happened to dead people. Frank Hayes was a horse trainer who wanted to be a rider, and even though he was over the hill, one day and owner gave him a chance to ride in the Belmount Park Steeplechase. He would ride Sweet Kiss, and this would likely be his only chance in life to win a race. He rode like a mad man, and led the pack in the 2 mile course for the first mile. In the second mile the favorite began to gain, and in the home stretch they were neck and neck. It was now or never, and both horse and rider gave it all they had, and Sweet Kiss, the 20 to 1 underdog won by a length and a half. Frank Hayes had won the race of his life, but he never knew it, for he had a heart attack, and when he crossed the finish line, he was dead. He won his only race after he was dead.
This victory after death is unusual, but even stranger things have happened to dead people. Thaddeus Stevens, a fiery Civil War Congressional leader from Pennsylvania died at age 76, just two and a half months before the next election. He was a foe of slavery, and so well liked that even though he was dead they left him on the ballot. His opponent made a joke out of voting for a corpse for congress, but he won the election by a great majority. It happened in the Senate too, when Texas Senator John Wilson died two months before the election, but was reelected by 66% of the vote. You can be dead and still make it into the House or the Senate.
The famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee died as a man without a country. He had sent an oath of allegiance to the Constitution to President Johnson, which was a requirement for a special pardon. But it was lost, or misplaced on purpose. He died never regaining his citizenship in the United States. A century later the oath was found, and in 1975 Congress reinstated Lee as an American citizen. He became a citizen a century after he died.
We could go on and on, for there is a vast history of things that happened to people after they were dead, even on this earthly and historical plain of events. The Bible itself has quite a list of examples, with the appearance of Samuel to Saul after his death; the appearing of Moses and Elijah on the Mt. of Transfiguration, and the number of resurrections of the dead with the climax of Christ's resurrection, and His ministry to His disciples before His ascension. The biography of no person is necessarily over just because of death. It is a landmark event in every life, to be sure, but it does not mean the end. For Jesus, death was just the beginning of the universal impact of His life. By His death He purchased the potential redemption of all men. It was only after His death that Jesus could enter heaven as the intercessor for all men.
The majority of the work of Christ has taken place after His death, and though we look back to the cross as the foundation for our forgiveness, we look to the living, resurrected, and reigning Christ for the forgiveness of our sin. Jesus is forgiving us after His death, but the more problematical issue is, does Jesus forgive us after our death? In other words, does death end our biography as far as the experience of forgiveness goes, or can we still be forgiven even after our death?
The reason I am interested in this question is because of an experience Lavonne and I had. We were at a dinner theater, and had a delightful evening of music by Doug Oldham. While we ate and conversed with the ten people at our table, one of the ladies expressed a theological opinion. She felt that if a Christian did not love everyone, and died in that state, they would not be forgiven for their sin, and they would be lost. She was not talking to us at the time, but to others at the table, but we could not help hearing. We were amazed that a Christian woman could come to such a conclusion, and I wondered how many other Christians might have this idea, which makes salvation extremely precarious.
Few, if any, could be saved if they had to be perfectly loving before they died. Paul was still pressing on to this goal when he died, and the poor thief on the cross only had a few minutes to become perfect before he died. It is hard to believe that this man loved those who were crucifying him, yet he entered into the kingdom that very day. Peter was certainly not ready to die in our text, for he thought that after 7 times of forgiving he could cease, and be unforgiving and revengeful. The point I am making is that nobody dies with all of their sin conquered, and so if sin cannot be forgiven after we die, then nobody can be saved.
Moses died under the judgment of God, and he was punished by not being allowed to enter the promised land. But after his death God forgave Moses, and permitted him to enter the promised land, for he came with Elijah to talk to Jesus about his exodus he was to make on the cross. The story of Moses was not over at his death. His experience of God's grace was not cut off by the ending of his life. He went on to greater grace after his death, and he illustrates that God's forgiveness is not just temporal, but it is forever.
The New Testament does not fall below this, but makes it clear that God's grace is greater than all our sin, even the sin we fail to confess, and take with us beyond the grave. The idea that God will not forgive after death became a popular idea in the 4th century. This led to Christians postponing their baptism until they were on their death bed. That way they thought they could die free of all sin, and thus, be assured of salvation. Constantine himself did this. What this does is make salvation dependent upon the cleverness of man, rather than the grace of God. This is a rejection of Christ's teaching that forgiveness is to be unlimited. Before we focus in on our text, where Jesus teaches the concept of unlimited forgiveness, we need to see the stages of progression to reach this ultimate concept.
Harold Bosley in his book A Firm Faith For Today, deals with the four major answers men have given to the question, how shall I react to someone who has injured me? This is the issue that Peter brings before the Lord, and here are the answers of men.
I. THE FIRST ANSWER IS UNLIMITED VENGEANCE.
This is the opposite extreme of the answer of Jesus in our text. The first answer is that of a barbarian who says, injure me and I will destroy you, your family, your tribe, your possessions, and even your sacred places and burial ground. This is the ultimate in pride, for it says, I am a god, and if you injure me, you do not deserve to exist.
In Polynesia the natives use to keep bones and other gruesome objects hanging from their ceiling to keep alive their hatred and bitterness. They fear the passing of time could cause their hatred to wane, and so they keep reminders before them to help them work up a frenzy of hatred for those the seek to destroy. This is the satanic version of do this in remembrance of me. If you keep symbols of your injury before you, you can keep your hate alive, and be ever in a state of vengeance ready to let your wrath fall. There are many illustrations of this throughout history, and unfortunately, they are not limited to non-civilized, and non-Christian peoples. This answer of unlimited vengeance is not obsolete, but is still being applied in our world today.
II. THE SECOND ANSWER IS LIMITED VENGEANCE.
This is the view expressed by, "An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth." You put out my eye, and I respond with equal vengeance by putting out your eye. However you injure me, I retaliate in kind and in similar measure. You break my window and I break yours.
It is an advance over the first response of unlimited vengeance, for there is some degree of control. The problem is, there is never an end to getting even, and so in the long run, the second answer leads to much the same end as the first. Vengeance as a response to injury is just not very productive for either party in a conflict. It never leads to peace, and that is why the Middle East is a perpetual war zone, for this is the answer they chose to follow.
III. THE THIRD ANSWER IS LIMITED FORGIVENESS.
This is the answer that Peter comes to Jesus with in our text. It is a whole new world from the other two, and a vast improvement over them. Peter asked the question, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Then he gives his own answer, hoping it would be confirmed by Christ. His answer was, up to seven times. This was an exceedingly generous attitude in comparison with the theology of his day. Rabbi Haniman said, "He who begs his neighbor for forgiveness must not do so more than three times." Rabbi Jehuda said, "If a man commits an offense, once they forgive him, a second and third also. The fourth time they do not forgive." Three strikes and your out was the standard of the day, and Peter more than doubled it. Peter must have felt he was being super spiritual.
This was the very reasonable and common sense answer. You must be patient with people, and put up with a great deal of their weakness, folly, and hostility, but there comes a point where you say, I have had it, and you blow your stack, and take vengeance. This is where we live. This is common sense living, acceptable to just about everybody. Most would say Peter has gone to far, and after two or three times you should retaliate. But this third answer would get the votes of the vast majority of people, including Christians. It seems reasonable and practical. Nevertheless, Jesus rejects it and gives us His answer.
IV. THE FOURTH ANSWER IS UNLIMITED FORGIVENESS.
Not seven times but seventy seven he says to Peter. The NIV has it as seventy times seven, and both of them mean without limit. When it comes to forgiveness, seven is not a perfect number. It is the wrong number according to Jesus. The issue was not a matter of arithmetic, but of attitude. If your going to keep track until a man offends you seven or seventy seven times, and then let him feel the force of your vengeance, you have not been living with the spirit of forgiveness all along. You are just waiting for the chance to let him have it.
Imagine where any of us would be if God's grace was legalistic, and based on a mathematical formula. As soon as we sinned against him over seven times we would be damned. Or raise it to seventy seven, and there would still be little hope that anyone could get through life under this limit. If God chose answer 3 as His response to offenses, the plan of salvation would be a flop, for nobody could make it. It may be beyond us, but thank God He chose number 4-the way of unlimited forgiveness. The three major holidays that close out our year only have meaning because of this choice. If God's forgiveness was not unlimited, we would have nothing to be thankful for. We would all be under God's wrath. The birth of Christ was the coming of a Savior to save His people from their sins. This would be a hopeless cause unless forgiveness was unlimited. The New Year is a symbol of a fresh start, but it would be meaningless unless all sins of the past could be forgiven.
Unlimited forgiveness is the foundation for all our holidays, and for our joys in everyday. Let's apply this truth to the original question that got me pursuing this issue-can we experience victory after death? That is, can we be forgiven of sin even after we have died, and entered the presence of Christ? Consider this issue on a human level. If someone dies who has offended you, it is folly to think you can go on the rest of your life filled with hatred and hostility toward them. Their death does not change the fact that you must forgive them. It won't do them any good, but it will do you great good. Death does not change the fact that forgiveness is required.
Imagine all the forgiveness that needed to take place between Christians who died in the Civil War. Do you think heaven will be a place of battle? If not, the saints will have to forgive one another after death. There are numerous other conflicts of Christians in history which will need to be dealt with in heaven. If men have to forgive after death, certainly God will. Jesus died for all sin, even the sin that we are not conscious of, and the sin that we will carry to the grave. His forgiveness is not limited to time, but will be a forever experience. There are no end to the struggles of people wondering how to forgive others for abuse and neglect. These issues will need resolving in heaven, and the forgiveness of God will be a part of the resolution.
I cannot conceive that my Savior's grace will cease at death, and that my defense attorney will drop me as a client after a life time of interceding for me at the throne of God. To me it is absurd to think that if I die with sin in my life, that sin will become an unforgivable sin, and my defense attorney will forsake me just when I need him the most. If Christ does not forgive me after I die, then all sin is unforgivable, for everyone will die with some sin. If Jesus said there is only one sin that will not be forgiven, then all other sins will be forgiven, not only in this life, but in the life to come. If this was not the case, a Christian could be shouting in anger as a car comes over the curb and crashes into him, and kills him instantly. He never had time to confess that sin of anger. He may have been looking at his neighbors car with envy, just as he was killed. If these sins are not forgiven after he dies, then anger and envy are unforgivable sins. This means salvation by grace is thrown out, and salvation is totally dependent upon man's state of worthiness, and not upon the finished work of Christ.
It is no wonder that many Christians fear to die if they feel that death could catch them before some sin was forgiven, and rob them of their salvation. If we believe Christ, we need never fear that death can somehow trip us up, and leave us eternally unforgiven. Christ forgiveness is not limited one iota by death. Many Christians will experience victories after death over sins of which they were not even aware. There is life after death because there is forgiveness after death. If this was not so, and we must be sinless at the time of death, then salvation is no longer by grace, but by works.
This can be misunderstood, and that is why the issue becomes obscured. It can lead people to think they can be saved after death, and this is heresy. The forgiveness after death is of believers who need a full and final cleansing to be glorified and fit for heaven. This has nothing to do with those who have never received Christ. Death does become a cut off point for them. If one does not have a Savior at the time of death, there is no provision for one after death. The rich man in hell had no forgiveness after death. Gavin McLeod, the captain for many years on the Love Boat, shared about how he went to Ted Knight before he died of cancer, and of how he shared Christ with him. He was ready to respond to the Gospel and receive Christ. We rejoiced that God led him to go when he did, for to die without the Savior is to die without hope.
Forgiveness, in the sense of salvation, must take place in this life. Had the repentant thief, who heard Jesus say, this day thou shall be with me in paradise, not turned to Jesus in faith, there is no reason to believe he would have gotten to paradise anyway, for this would lead to no distinction between him and the other thief. The point is, he had to be saved before he died, but the fact is, he had a great many sins he did not confess, and after he was dead he experienced a full cleansing and glorification. That thief experienced his greatest victory after he died, for only then did he experience the joy, peace, and love that comes with full forgiveness of his sinful life.
In our text, Jesus is more concerned about the power of forgiveness in the here and now. If we can trust Him to take care of the forgiveness after death, then we can focus on the business where we can make a difference, and that is the forgiveness of people now. The parable Jesus told makes it clear, everybody needs forgiveness, and everybody needs to be forgiving. Forgiveness is a power we have in common with God. We can forgive those who offend us, hurt us, and defy our will. Because we have the capacity to forgive, we have the responsibility to forgive. God expects us to be like Him in this way, and demands that we exercise this gift He has given us.
The goal of God is not just to make us forgiven sinners, but to make us forgiving sinners. Forgiveness is a major aspect of being a Christlike person. Jesus made it a point of the prayer He taught. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Then He said, after the Lord's Prayer in Matt. 6:14-15, "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." May God help us to recognize that forgiveness is forever, and that we must be forgivers now to enjoy the fullness of God's blessing.
O man, forgive thy mortal foe,
Nor ever strike him blow for blow,
For all the souls on earth that live,
To be forgiven must forgive.
Forgive him seventy times and seven,
For all the blessed souls in heaven
Are both forgivers and forgiven.