by Rev. Matthew C. Harrison
[Excerpted from A Little Book on Joy (CPH, 2011), pages 4447.]
“I didn’t come to kill you.”
He was an imposing figure. He had an even more imposing reputation. But what he had been known for, well-earned to be sure, was not why I remember him. He had become an ever more devout Missouri Synod Lutheran and regularly shared the good news of Jesus with, and invited to church, people who wouldn’t have given him the time of day had he not been who he had been. This former purveyor of intimidation had become an ambassador of reconciliation. This fact was all the more significant because it was not readily apparent. He was so unassuming, even with his rather imposing stature, that no one who hadn’t come to know him would be aware of his past. Same man, same haunts, same circle of people—but for an ever-deepening, transformative joy of being justified in Christ.
Another man in a nearby community had sinned egregiously against my friend and his family. The former “intimidator” went directly to the man in question, to his very doorstep in fact. The guilty party opened the door and began frantically to plead (with good reason), “Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me!” My friend responded, “I didn’t come to kill you. I came to forgive you.” He wasn’t on a mission of retribution. He was on a mission of reconciliation. “If your neighbor sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15). He hadn’t come to exact justice. He had come as one justified sinner seeking the repentance of and reconciliation with another sinner. The flesh relishes the thought of retribution. The spirit rejoices in reconciliation.
The righteousness of Christ credited by faith is transformative. It reckons us what we are not and cannot be in and of ourselves—perfectly righteous with the righteousness of Jesus. We are reckoned “just.” Then, like a good tree planted, it produces more and more fruit (Matthew 7:17), especially joy, and makes us evermore what we have been freely declared to be—righteous in Christ. Declared forgiven, we cannot but be forgiving. But let’s back up.
St. Paul says that this righteousness was obtained fully by Christ’s cross — “we have now been justified by his blood.” What has been achieved, obtained, and perfected by Christ outside of us, before us, and without us (2,000 years ago on a cross and via a resurrection), is delivered to us and reckoned to us in the word of the Gospel. Because it’s already accomplished, it can’t be achieved by doing anything. The deed is done. That’s why Jesus’ last words were, “It is finished” ( John 19:30). The benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection are received, laid hold of, by faith. Faith simply lays hold of the gift, and even the faith, which receives the gift, is itself all gift. So St. Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:89). . . . When we confront God, he says to us, “I didn’t come to kill you. I came to forgive you.” “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Equipped with such joy . . . we find ourselves freed to act as God himself with our neighbor. “I didn’t come to kill you. I came to forgive you.” Joy! “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:11).