“Pastor, my aunt Bernice would like you to visit her this week. There’s something she wants to talk with you about.”
I knew this young deacon’s Aunt Bernice. She was up in years and sickly, and while not a member of our church, she was related to quite a number. I figured with her years and health, she wanted to talk with the minister about getting read to see the Lord.
She did, but not in the way I had expected.
The next afternoon, as we sat in the living room of her small shotgun house, she said, “Pastor, I know I’m saved. I have no doubt about that. I remember being saved. But there’s something else bothering me.”
“Pastor, I haven’t done right by the church.”
She continued, “As a young adult, I got away from the church and quit going. I raised my son without the church and really came to regret it. And now I’m old and can’t even go. But if you’d let me, I’d like to put my membership in and become a member. I’ll pray for you all and send an offering from my monthly check.”
I assured her we would be honored to receive her, and took care of that the next Sunday.
I never forgot her statement—“I haven’t done right by the church”—and have had occasion over the years since to tell her story, then ask my hearers, “Have you done right by the Lord’s church?”
A man in our congregation was dying. On one occasion as I visited in his home, he asked to speak to me privately. I felt it coming: he wanted to confess something that was bothering him before he went to meet the Savior.
I was right.
“Pastor,” he said, “when I was a much younger man, I did some experimentation in my personal life that I’m ashamed of.”
He told the story, then said, “I’ve asked the Lord to forgive me, but it still troubles me. I don’t want to go into eternity with that on the record. Can you help me?”
Have you ever had one of those times when you felt the nearness of the Lord so heavily you could almost reach out and touch Him? That moment was just so.
I said, “My dear brother, the Lord has forgiven you for that sin and all the others. Jesus Christ paid for your sins with His blood.”
He looked at me and said nothing. So I added something I had never said in my entire life to that point.
“I want you to know, I forgive you for your sin.”
At that moment, I knew what it means to be a priest. I was standing in the stead of the Lord Himself for a brief shining instant.
The peace of the Lord washed over him and a few days later, he went to heaven.
I need to make a confession here.
I really wonder about so many people in our pews, whether they are believers or not. I say that not because they don’t come to church and give and worship and do all those things we expect believers to do. There is one big omission that causes me to wonder.
They go into eternity without any thought to getting prepared for that moment with they will face the Judge of the Universe.
They go into their final exams with hardly a thought.
I know church leaders who spent great energy and far too much time in their adult lives fighting against their ministers. They opposed the preacher on everything he tried to do that involved faith and sacrifice. They fought against his authority with the congregation, they undercut his leadership by their snideness, and they repeatedly encouraged the naysayers and dissenters inside the church. And then they died.
They died without confessing and repenting of these grievous wrongs. They went into eternity red-penciled in on the Master’s calendar to give account of what they had done to the Lord’s church (His Body! His Bride!) and to His anointed (the pastor).
How do I know this? Because I was the pastor. Had they repented and wanted forgiveness, they would have told me so.
In my heart of hearts, I forgave each a long time ago. But whether that is sufficient for the Father to remove their names from His appointment calendar, I cannot say.
“Have mercy on them, my Lord,” I frequently pray, knowing that I too will require all the mercy He can send my way when it’s my turn in the dock.
Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel!(Amos 4:12)
Some random thoughts on this issue:
1) We each should keep short accounts with God.
Scripture encourages us not to pile up transgressions without end, but to confess them and receive God’s forgiveness. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sin and cleanse us of all iniquity(I John 1:9).
2) We must not hide behind our eternal salvation.
We all treasure the opening line from the 8th chapter of Romans: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. There may be no better news than the knowledge that in Christ we are saved for eternity and hell is no longer an option for us. That, however, does not mean we will be given a free pass on judgment.
3) There is yet a judgment for all believers.
There is not one word in Scripture that encourages believers to think we will not have an accounting. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment(Matthew 12:36).
We shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ(Romans 14:10).
This, you are probably aware, is what led Bible teachers long ago to decide there must be separate judgments for believers and unbelievers. When Scripture says we will be judged on the basis of our works (Revelation 20:13 among other places), this aligns with the rest of Scripture only if the Great White Throne Judgment is for unbelievers and The Judgment Seat of Christ is the one for believers. That would mean that the eventual destination of each person is decided in advance–by the question, “What will you do with Jesus?”–and the judgment is to determine degrees of reward or punishment.
4. We each would do well to make our final preparations every day of our lives.
I am not suggesting we go around carrying our funeral clothes just in case. Far from it. Nor am I encouraging a morbidity, a funereal attitude about life, or a darkness to our mood. Quite the opposite.
Every day of our lives, God’s children would do well to live so as to be ready when the Father in Heaven calls time.
This means a lot of things–primarily constant obedience and devotion–but it also means always being aware of those in our lives we may have wronged and who need our repentance.
There is no one among us who has not failed friends. There are none righteous among us. Not one. We are all sinners who deserve hell. Thank God, “He has not dealt with us according to our sins nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). “If you Lord should mark iniquities, who would stand?” (Psalm 130:3)
There’s something in your past bothering you? Tell the Lord. Ask Him to forgive the wrong, then ask if He will bring you into contact with the person you offended or hurt or sinned against.
I’ve told on these pages how I prayed that once about a girl I stole money from in the seventh grade. At a reunion of our high school graduating class, there she was. I was delighted to see her and glad to be able to confess what I had done. I insisted she take the $20 bill (which she used to purchase Bibles, she later told me) which was several times what I had taken. When she hesitated, I said, “Take it! I need the peace.” She forgave me and we hugged and I floated out of that meeting.
May I make a suggestion or two on addressing an old wrong?
–don’t make it worse. If the wrong was something unknown to the individual, you may want to get the counsel of some minister before confessing it.
–don’t put it in writing. Do it in person or over the phone. Letters have a way of taking on a life of their own, and outliving all of us.
–in most cases, a general, “I wronged you back there; would you forgive me?” is sufficient.
–you will want to ask the individual specifically to forgive you. “Will you forgive me?” will force them to come to terms with their own role in this.
–as a rule, the confession should be as public (or as private) as the wrong which it addresses.
If you are the one who is receiving the repentance, be prompt to forgive. This will bless you and the other party.
One of these mornings when we arise to greet the day, it will be our final one on earth. The next sunrise should be a celestial one.
Make it a good one. Leave us with no regrets. Arrive there with as little baggage as possible.