‘I believe in … the forgiveness of sins’
Timothy Cross continues looking at the Apostles’ Creed
The free forgiveness of all our sins because of the death of Christ is fundamental to the Christian faith. It brings us to the heart of the gospel and is a uniquely Christian blessing.
None of the world’s religions claim to bestow such forgiveness. Only God in Christ can bestow it, for ‘nothing but the blood of Jesus’ can erase a sinner’s guilty past and bestow a righteousness qualifying a sinner for God’s holy presence.
We will only cleave to the crucified Christ for divine forgiveness and appreciate and rejoice in it, if we realise that we have a desperate need to be forgiven. Only the Spirit of God can bring this about. He alone convicts us of our sin, and breaks down the barriers of self-righteousness and spiritual complacency.
According to the Bible, we are by nature ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’. The psalmist asked the question: ‘If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand’ (Psalm 130:3). The Bible’s diagnosis is that we are all sinners who need to be saved. Sin is rebellion against and disobedience to Almighty God. Hence if it is not pardoned by God, we are liable to eternal punishment.
So the gospel has a dark backcloth to it, but the gospel proclaims that there is a Saviour, for ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). Christ came into the world to procure the forgiveness of our sins, and this he did by paying their penalty on the cross:
He knew how wicked man had been
He knew that God must punish sin
So out of pity, Jesus said
He’d bear the punishment instead.
In 1 John 2:12, the apostle John wrote: ‘I am writing to you little children because your sins are forgiven for His sake’. The perfect tense used here for the Greek verb ‘forgive’ refers to a past action with present, abiding consequences.
John is saying that the past action of Christ on the cross has abiding consequences for the believer. Literally, John is saying, ‘I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been put away from you and remain permanently forgiven, for the sake of Christ’s name’.
Technically, to ‘forgive’ means to ‘remit’ or ‘refrain from inflicting a punishment or exacting a debt’. Our sin against God is a debt to him we cannot pay. But on the cross, Christ paid the debt for our sins that he did not owe, to procure our remission.
He paid our sin-debt in full, cancelling it for ever and saving us from hell. ‘Having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands, this he set aside, nailing it to the cross’ (Colossians 1:14).
The verb ‘forgive’ can also be translated ‘send away’. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would confess the people’s sins and lay his hand upon a live goat, symbolically transferring these sins to the scapegoat. The goat would then be ‘sent away’ to die in the wilderness. This was a prefiguration of Christ’s atoning work at Calvary.
Because of the crucified Christ, the believer will never be condemned by God. Justice has been met and we have been redeemed. ‘As far as the east is from the west so far does he remove our transgressions from us’ (Psalm 103:12).
The joy of sins forgiven is a blessing known to Christians alone. It gives constant cause for praise ‘to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood’ (Revelation 1:5).
The assurance that our sins are forgiven by God gives us joy in the heart, a song on the lips and a leap in the step. ‘We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5:1).
The glory of divine forgiveness was wonderfully articulated by John Bunyan in his Pilgrim’s progress. Bunyan related how ‘Christian’s’ burden of sin was taken away.
‘He came at a place somewhat ascending, and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in and I saw it no more.’
‘Then was Christian glad and lightsome and said with a merry heart, He hath given me rest by His sorrow and life by His death. Then Christian gave three leaps for joy and went on singing:
Thus far did I come laden with my sin
Nor could ought ease the grief that I was in
Till I came hither, what a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss?
Must here the burden fall from off my back?
Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?
Blest cross! Blest sepulchre! Blest rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me’.
Truly, ‘Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity’ (Psalm 32:1-2).