The Positive Power of Forgiveness: “I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins”
June 13, 2004
If you know a bit about church history, you know that before Martin Luther became the father of the Protestant Reformation, he was a Catholic priest. As part of his training, he spent years studying Greek, Hebrew, Latin, the church fathers, and the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. By all accounts, he was brilliant, devout, and very devoted to his studies. But his soul was deeply troubled. Burdened with the haunting sense that his sins were not forgiven, he felt that God’s judgment hung over him like a heavy weight he could not lift. Being a priest only made matters worse. No matter what he did, he never felt the assurance that his sins were forgiven. In desperation, he went to Rome, hoping to find answers, but he came away even deeper in despair.
Several years later, while studying the book of Romans, he encountered the phrase, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). Slowly his eyes were opened and he saw clearly that God forgives us, not because of anything we do, but solely on the basis of what Jesus did for us when he died on the cross and rose from the dead. He called that truth the gate to heaven. So it is not surprising that Luther said that the phrase, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” was the most important article in the Apostles’ Creed. He wrote, “If that is not true, what does it matter whether God is almighty or Jesus Christ was born and died and rose again? It is because these things have a bearing upon my forgiveness that they are important to me.”
We need to see the great practical importance of believing in “the forgiveness of sins.” Before we look at what this phrase means, I want to make two general observations: First, we are near the end of the creed. After today, there are only two phrases left—”I believe in the resurrection of the body,” and “I believe in life everlasting.” Second, our phrase for today summarizes the entire Christian life. That’s amazing when you think about how the creed is constructed. I started preaching through the creed in January. We spent a month on God the Father, several months on Jesus Christ, and then a week on the Holy Spirit. After that came three weeks on the nature of the church. But when we come to the realm of the Christian life, it’s all summed up in seven words: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” The Apostles’ Creed is a God-centered statement of the Christian faith. I’ve spent six months preaching basic Bible doctrine to you—nearly all of it about God himself. When we finally get to the Christian life, the creed sums it up with this one phrase—”the forgiveness of sins.” That’s certainly not how we think about things today. Go to any Christian bookstore and you’ll see a small shelf called “Bible Doctrine” or “Theology,” and then you’ll see a huge section called “The Christian Life.” There you will find books on prayer, growing in faith, enduring hard times, spiritual gifts, spiritual growth, overcoming temptation, sharing your faith, and growing in holiness. Then there are books on marriage, books for men, books for women, books on the family, raising children, overcoming addiction, forgiving others, spiritual warfare, singleness, sex, health, the purpose-driven life, and the end times, to name only a few. To us the Christian life is all about these different categories. But the creed takes the whole Christian life and boils it down to this one essential thing: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” As if to say, “If your sins are forgiven, everything else is just details. And if your sins are not forgiven, nothing else really matters.”
I find that a liberating way to look at the Christian life. It’s simple, clear and direct. So let me ask you a question that I will ask again at the end of this message: Are your sins forgiven and do you know it?
Let’s talk about that for a moment. I’d like to ask and answer three questions about forgiveness in this message. We will focus on Psalm 130:3-4 to help us answer these three questions. (My thanks to Scott Hoezee of Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI for many of the insights in this sermon).
1) Why do we need forgiveness?
Verse 3 says, “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” Novelist Franz Kafka wrote in his diary that the problem with modern people is that we feel like sinners, yet independent of guilt. We sense that something is amiss in our lives, something is wrong. We live in a society that tells us to get rid of guilt by getting rid of the rules that make us feel guilty. So we do our best to ignore pesky things like the Ten Commandments. All those “Thou shalt nots” make us nervous. And why not? Guilt comes when you break the rules and you know it. So the best way to get rid of guilt is to get rid of the rules—or so we think. We do away with the rules, but the rules won’t go away because they weren’t written by man in the first place. It’s as if they are written in indelible ink. Even when you try to erase them, the image keeps coming back. So we cheat and steal and lust and sleep around. We mock God by killing the unborn and trying to redefine marriage to fit our own twisted desires.
But the rules don’t change! You can’t get rid of guilt by pretending the rules aren’t there anymore. When God makes the rules, he doesn’t ask for our opinion. God has spoken—and he did not stutter. “Thou shalt not” still means “Thou shalt not.” Even so we feel like we can ignore the rules and get away with it. That perfectly describes life in Oak Park. Last Monday night the village trustees voted to oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment that would limit marriage to a man and a woman. In Oak Park we’re against limiting marriage to one man and one woman because we’re liberated, we’re hip, we’re in tune with the times. We’re progressive. On matters of sexual freedom, we’ve been on the cutting edge of societal evolution for a long time. The trustees also voted to name June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. We already know the truth about homosexuality because God has revealed the truth in his Word. The trustees cannot change the truth any more than they can cancel the law of gravity.
But that’s only one illustration of the larger trend. In today’s society, if we don’t like a rule, we vote it down or we simply say, “I’m going to do whatever I want to do and no one can stop me.” So we make up the rules as we go along. And true moral guilt goes out the window. But it’s never as simple as that. After we’ve changed the rules so we can do what we want, we still aren’t happy. We’ve relativized the rules, normalized guilt, but still something is wrong. Despair, shame, restlessness, dissatisfaction are rampant. Kafka was right—we feel like sinners, but independent of guilt. We know something is wrong with us, but we don’t know what, and we don’t know how to fix it.
Psalm 130 points us in the right direction. This psalm has a long history in the Christian tradition. It’s called De Profundis—a Latin phrase that means “Out of the depths,” taken from verse 1, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” The whole psalm teaches us that we will never fix ourselves because we lack the inner resources to solve our own problems. That flies in the face of Oprah and Dr. Phil and a host of other self-help gurus who say that the answer is within us. The Bible says the opposite is true: The problem is within us. The answer lies outside of us. As long as you think you can solve your own problems, you can only get worse. When you finally say, “Lord, please help me. I can’t do it on my own,” then you’re a good candidate for salvation.
So why don’t we confess our sins and find the forgiveness we need? We fear punishment. We’re afraid that if we own up to our own stupidity, the Lord will send us straight to hell. So we lie about our lies and we cover up our cover-ups. We pretend that we didn’t do what we know we did. No wonder we’re so messed up. We think guilt is a bad thing so we avoid guilt at all costs. Our children learn to make excuses by watching us make excuses. We blame everyone except ourselves. But Psalm 130 liberates us from that self-destructive cycle. Verse 3 says that God doesn’t keep a record of our sins. But in the Hebrew it literally says that God doesn’t keep an eye on our sins. That is, he’s not looking for a reason to send us to hell. Many people picture God as some kind of cranky old man with a long white beard, hoping to catch us messing up so he can send us to hell. But that’s not the God of the Bible. He is willing to forgive those who repent of their sin and cry out for mercy.
We need forgiveness because we are sinners who try to change the rules so we can dodge the guilt question. But since the rules can’t really be changed, we end up extremely messed up on the inside. Here is the bottom line: We need forgiveness and we cannot live without it. Without forgiveness, we are hollow men and women, empty and conflicted on the inside. The one piece of good news is that God doesn’t keep an eye on our sins. If he did, we’d all be in hell already.
2) What hope do we have of forgiveness?
By that I mean, what are the chances that we can be forgiven? Is it just a distant dream, some kind of long shot? If the Vegas bookies laid odds on our forgiveness, what would the number be? 50,000 to 1? 100,000 to 1? One million to 1? Look in the mirror and consider your own soul. If you do, the outlook will not be hopeful. One British writer put this way: “There is no man who, if all his secret thoughts were made known, would not deserve hanging a dozen times a day.” To which I reply: Only a dozen times? I would think it would be much more than that.
The first part of verse 4 brings us some very good news; “But with you there is forgiveness.” Or to say it another way, God makes a habit of forgiving sin. He does not delight in punishing our sin. He looks for chances to forgive us because forgiveness is in his nature.
That’s a huge insight because it touches how you see God.
He is eager to forgive.
He is ready to forgive.
He wants to forgive you.
Exodus 34:6-7 calls him “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
If you are in the pit, you need to know that sin is real. You can’t break the rules and get away with it forever. But whenever you are ready to come clean, the Lord is right there waiting for you. It’s never easy to confess your sins, but listen to the invitation God makes in Isaiah 55:7 “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” Okay, so maybe you don’t like that word “wicked” or the word “evil.” Maybe that sounds harsh to you. But that’s God’s description of the whole human race. That’s what you and I are apart from God’s grace. We are wicked and evil. Get used to it because that’s the plain truth about all of us. Don’t get hung up on the negative words and miss the invitation. Turn to the Lord and you will find mercy and pardon.
Picture two doors, each with two words emblazoned across the top:
Door #1 Door #2
Now which door do you like better? Answer: We all like mercy and pardon better. God says you have to go through the door marked Evil and Wicked to get to the door marked Mercy and Pardon. You have to go through the first door to get to the second door. But someone says, “I’m going to skip Door #1 and go directly to Door #2.” It doesn’t work that way. You can’t “skip” Door #1. And you can’t climb through a window either. The only way to reach Door #2 is to go through Door #1 first.
When you go through Door #2, you discover that “he will freely pardon.” Freely means without cost. No charge. You want mercy? You’ve got it. You want a pardon for all your sins? You’ve got it. You can go in evil and wicked, and you can come out with mercy and a full pardon from the Lord. That’s the best deal in the world.
3) What happens when we are forgiven?
The last part of verse 4 has the answer: “Therefore you are feared.” Another way to say it is, “Therefore we worship you.” Once we are forgiven, that vague feeling of unease is removed. Our slate is wiped clean. The prison cell swings open and we walk out. We’re free at last. Sometimes that’s the hardest part to accept. Each week I receive letters from prisoners who have read An Anchor for the Soul and then write to tell me their stories. I got a letter this week from a man who committed a particularly heinous crime. He said he is afraid to go to church because he worries that people will find out what he did and will shun him. That kind of shame works in all of us to keep us in bondage. The devil whispers to us, “You’re no good. If people knew what you were really like, they’d have nothing to do with you. How can you call yourself a Christian and treat your wife that way? Your children that way? Your husband that way? You hypocrite.”
The only way to deal with Satan’s accusations is go back to the character of God: “With you there is forgiveness.” Have you ever worried about the day when you stand before the Lord? Some Christians fear that God is going to project all their sins—even the sins of the mind—on some huge screen for the entire universe to see. We have this mental image of God pressing a button and then our life begins to unfold on a giant screen so huge that millions of people can see it. We fear that in that day all our ugly words and deeds, all our secret sins that no one else knew about, and every dark thought filled with anger, lust, pride, hatred, rage and greed will be displayed for the whole universe to see. How could we endure such a moment? And how could God ever welcome us into his kingdom after putting our depravity on public display?
If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, if you gazed on our sins, who could stand? No one. We’d all be doomed and damned. But that’s the whole point of Psalm 130. We cry from the depths of shame and guilt, and God says, “Good news. With me there is forgiveness.” The Bible uses a number of images to describe how God deals with our sins:
God blots out our sins as a thick cloud (Isaiah 44:22).
God forgets our sins and remembers them no more (Jeremiah 31:34).
God puts our sins behind his back (Isaiah 38:17).
God buries our sins in the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19).
God removes our sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12).
When God forgives, he forgets our sins, he clears the record, he erases the tape so that when he pushes the button, nothing shows up on the big screen in heaven. Our sins are forgiven, forgotten, removed, buried, and blotted out. They can never condemn us again. Let that thought grip your soul, and you will never be the same. But how could it be this way? How could God forgive us? Why doesn’t he look at our sins? Here’s the answer: A long time ago God fixed his gaze on the cross of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. When we are honest enough to admit that we are wicked and evil, a stream of mercy flows out from the cross of Christ and our sins are covered by his blood. We discover in one shining moment that with God there is forgiveness.
That’s why Luther said this was the most important part of the Apostles’ Creed. That’s why this is the only part of the Christian life mentioned in the creed. This is the whole ballgame right here. Everything else is just details.
If you are full of vague uneasiness because of the way you’ve been living, if you are guilty and don’t know what to do about it, if you are in the pit of despair, you don’t have to stay there. Run to the cross! Run, don’t walk, run to the cross and lay hold of Jesus Christ. Trust in him as your Lord and Savior.
With God there is forgiveness. That’s why the creed says, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” Nothing is more important. So I come back to the question I asked earlier: Are your sins forgiven and do you know it?
Softly and Tenderly
Late on Friday afternoon, President Reagan was laid to rest at his presidential library in Simi Valley, California. While waiting for the hearse to arrive for the burial service, a military band and chorus performed a number of gospel songs that were favorites of the president. Included on the list was the old invitation hymn, “Softly and Tenderly.” One of the verses goes like this:
O for the wonderful love He has promised,
Promised for you and for me!
Though we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon,
Pardon for you and for me.
Then the chorus makes the appeal:
Come home, come home,
You who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home.
That invitation isn’t just for presidents. It’s for all of us. “Though we have sinned, he has mercy and pardon. Pardon for you and for me.” God has done everything necessary for you to be forgiven. All you have to do is come. Come home to God. Come in Jesus’ name. Come by way of the cross and you will be forgiven. If you come in through Door #1, you’ll find Jesus as you pass through Door #2.
May I suggest a simple prayer for you to pray? Even while I encourage you to pray this prayer, I caution you that saying words alone will not save you. Prayer doesn’t save. Only Christ can save. But prayer can be a means of reaching out to the Lord in true saving faith. If you pray these words in faith, Christ will save you. You can be sure of that.
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner. And I know that I cannot save myself. No longer will I trust in my good works or in my religion for salvation. By faith I gratefully receive your gift of salvation. I am ready to trust you as my Lord and Savior. Thank you for dying for me. Thank you for taking my sins away. With all my heart I confess you as Lord and Savior both now and for eternity. Amen.
Did you pray the prayer? If you prayed it and really meant it, welcome to the family of God.
One final word. Sometimes Christians can hear a sermon like this and wonder how to apply it. If you already know the Lord, let me tell you how to apply it: Get on your knees and say, “Thank you, Jesus, for forgiving my sins.” Or stand up and say, “I bless the Lord for taking my sins away.” Don’t take your forgiveness for granted. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so. If God has forgiven your sins, rejoice and be exceedingly glad. This is the good news of the gospel. Amen.