Sunday, August 7, 2011

"The Forgiveness of Sins" (part 3)

This is the third and final installment of our explanation of "the forgiveness of sins," as articulated in the Apostles' Creed:

          God does not treat sin the way we do.  To forgive sin is not to ignore it or to play it down.  For God to forgive sin is to take it upon Himself, much the way creditors must pay for every outstanding debt owed to them but which they elect to cancel.  Thus, the cost of the bad loan is borne, though not by the borrower.
          In other words, from the creed we learn yet another thing about "God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth:"  He forgives.  Our Maker is our Redeemer.  God does not excuse sin and He does not condone it.  He judges it.  The sentence He passes upon sin is a sentence He Himself has borne.  God brooks no compromise with evil.  He eradicates it root and branch, and at high cost to Himself.  He deals with it the only way a righteous God can -- judgment.  But because He loves us, this judgment He has taken upon Himself.  In the mirror of human redemption, therefore, we see two faces reflected -- God's and our own.  He is high, pure and loving; we are sinners in need of rescue.  Were God not merciful, we would be utterly undone.  Our redemption is the proof that God is love and that we are sinners, yet beloved. 
           Our forgiveness is based upon the saving work of God in Christ.  It rests upon the death of Jesus on our behalf.  It costs us nothing; it cost God everything.  The forgiveness God offers us is free, though it is not cheap.  That is, it was provided for us by Christ.  He saved us by his righteous life and atoning death.  He paid our penalty, providing for us what we, of ourselves, could never have provided.  God puts Himself in the place of the sinner.  He died so that we might live.  Mercy is free to us though not to God.  It is purchased at the price of God's Son, whose life was the ransom paid to redeem a race captive to evil.  He is the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world (John 1: 29).  The forgiveness of sins demonstrates that in the battle between love and evil, love is stronger.  Love has wrestled with sin, has engaged it in mortal combat, and won.  Once we accept this free gift of grace, however, we are to give ourselves fully to God, not in order to be redeemed, but because we are redeemed.  This is gratitude, not achievement.
           Repentance is not the same as regret or as the desire to escape punishment.  Desperately desiring to escape the punishment of sin is natural, but it is not repentance, only fear.  We are to repent of our sins, not merely to fear their consequences.  If we fear impending punishment and employ that fear as we ought, we repent of, and flee from, our sin.  Our flight from evil toward God is good, and is made possible partly by the fear instilled within us by divine judgement.  But if we permit our fear of punishment to loom so large in our minds that we see nothing else, if it prevents us from truly repenting, then the good has become enemy of the best.  For sinners, repentance is best. 
           In the New Testament, "repentance" (metanoia) means literally to have an after thought, to think again, to reassess one's actions.  Put differently, repentance is a U-turn, an about-face, a radical change of heart regarding one's sinful actions.  To wish to have God's forgiveness without this renunciation of things contrary to God, without this about-face, is impudence.  It is to play a nasty and dangerous game with the grace of God.
           To confess means, literally, to speak along with, or to agree with, someone.  To confess one's sins is to say about them what God says about them, to agree with Him that those sins are indeed evil.  To confess is to admit that you have done something wrong and to take responsibility for it.  You must own your sin.  Forgiveness depends upon the sinner being forgivable, that is, being in a condition where the remission of sins does no harm, a condition that sees sin as sin.  Were God merely to forgive sins indiscriminately, that is, without regard to the moral condition of the sinner, He would do us great injury, not great good, for He would be undermining, perhaps even obliterating, the difference between sin and virtue, for He would be treating them as if they were the same.  But this He does not do.  He requires us to confess.  If we confess our sins, the Bible says, God is faithful and just and will forgive us for our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1: 9).  But confess we must.  
           Finally, we must be forgiving if we are to be forgiven.  That is, we believe that God forgives sin; we believe that we ought to grow to be like God.  We too must be merciful.  He who would withhold forgiveness from his brother cannot expect to receive it from God, as Jesus Himself taught (Matt. 5: 7; 6: 14-15).  The possibility of forgiveness goes hand-in-hand with the desire, indeed the responsibility, to be forgiving.  Only the forgiving can be forgiven, for only they really believe in forgiveness.  To paraphrase something said centuries ago by the English poet George Herbert, he that cannot forgive others destroys the very bridge over which he himself must pass if he is ever to reach Heaven.
          But here is good news:  If you repent, if you confess and forgive, God will forgive you.  He will pardon your offenses and never call them to mind again (Jer. 31: 34).  Or, to return to the words of William Merrill, "If you want with all your heart to be rid of sin, and to live in the beauty of holiness, I declare to you that nothing can keep you from that great joy and success of overcoming; for God is merciful and gracious, long-suffering and tender" (Merrill, The Common Creed of Christians 138).

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