The Forgiveness of Sins
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness ... He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His loving kindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.Psalm 103:8, 10-12
It is often overlooked that the Apostles' Creed includes the article on "the forgiveness of sins" in the third part of the Creed. Our confession as believers of "the forgiveness of sins" comes within that part of the Creed which deals with the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, we confess the "forgiveness of sins" within the context of the church and the communion of saints. This reminds us that it is only within the setting of the ministry and fellowship of the church that the Spirit convicts of sins, grants the assurance of pardon, and enables us to forgive those who sin against us.
In considering this article of the Creed, accordingly, I would like to emphasize that this is the proper biblical context within which to confess "the forgiveness of sin." Only the Spirit working by the Word convicts us of our sin, our need to be forgiven (compare John 16:8). Only the Spirit working by the Word imparts the glad assurance and joy of the forgiveness of sins. And only the Spirit working by the Word brings us to the point where we practice the forgiveness of sins toward each other. In each of these respects, the forgiveness of sin belongs to the Christian confession of the church as the place of the Spirit's presence and working through the gospel.
Confessing Our Need to be Forgiven
The first and most obvious aspect of this article of the Creed is its biblical assumption that we are sinners in need of God's forgiveness. Basic to the life and ministry of the church is this conviction that all men are sinners by nature and subject to the wrath and displeasure of God. This truth belongs to the heart of the gospel testimony which the church is called to make through her preaching of the Word of God to all the nations.
Though there have been some strange voices raised within the church in recent years, voices which have suggested that the gospel could be preached without calling people to a confession of their sin, the gospel is "good news" only to those who know and confess this truth.1 The gospel makes no sense without the presupposition of man's sinful condition and its consequence in the way of alienation from God and liability to condemnation and eternal death. Indeed, the gospel would be an answer to a non-existent question, were we to deny the reality of sin and its consequence!
The Scriptures' testimony on the subject of sin is clear. From the account in Genesis 3 of the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, into sin and disobedience, to the extensive statement of the biblical teaching on original sin in Romans 5:12-21, the presupposition for the biblical history of redemption is the sad fact of man's sin. Whereas God created man for covenantal communion with Himself — "after His own image, in true righteousness and holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness" (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 6) — all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory (Romans 3:23).
Consequently, in the opening chapters of Romans, the apostle Paul argues that all men, Jew and Gentile alike, are inexcusably guilty of worshiping the creature rather than the Creator and disobeying the law of God. As he summarizes in chapter 3,
There is none righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, there is none who seeks for God. vss. 10-11
In chapter five of Romans, the apostle argues that, by virtue of the sin of Adam, our first parent, we have all been constituted sinners, guilty and deserving of condemnation (compare Romans 5:12-21). All men are by nature sinners, in a state of guilt before God and in a condition of sinful corruption. All are therefore subject to the reign of sin and death, liable to God's just condemnation and without any hope of redemption through their own good works.2
The Scriptures use various terms to describe sin. Sin is "missing the mark," missing the purpose for which we were created — "to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. & A. 1). Sin is "transgression" or "trespass," crossing over the boundaries of God's law and blessed order for human life in relationship to God and to neighbor. Sin is also "debt," the accumulated and unmet obligation which we incur each day afresh when we fail to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 6:12).3 Sin is disobedience and "lawlessness," the proud and faithless rebellion of the creature against his Creator (1 John 3:4).
What runs like a thread through all these biblical descriptions of sin is that sin breaks covenant with God; sin is always described in relation to God. Our sin strikes at the heart of that blessed communion with the Triune God for which we were created. Sin is not "human error." Nor is it reducible to a "mistake" or "miscalculation." It is certainly not a "sickness" for which we are not culpable.4 No — it is a fundamental and radical violation of the covenant relationship in which we were created. Sin is "offense" against God which alienates the sinner from Him and requires reconciliation and forgiveness.
Confessing God's Provision for Our Need
Though this article of the Creed presupposes the fact of sin, it emphasizes the forgiveness of sin. In this article we confess the heart of the gospel's message of good news, of salvation for all who embrace Christ by faith and accept the promises of God's Word. Lest we become guilty then, of majoring in sin and minoring in grace, we need to move on to consider God's provision of forgiveness through the gospel!
If we seek a brief exposition of the forgiveness of sin, the Heidelberg Catechism in Q. & A. 56 helps us considerably. In reply to the question,
What do you believe concerning the forgiveness of sins?
the Catechism answers,
That God, for the sake of Christ's satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my sinful nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long; but will graciously grant unto me the righteousness of Christ, that I may never come into condemnation.
In this answer, the forgiveness of sins is based squarely upon Christ's atoning work on behalf of His people. God forgives the sins of His people "for the sake of Christ's satisfaction." That is, because Christ bore the punishment and curse due us on account of our sin, we "may never come into condemnation" (compare Romans 4:25). God does not remember our sins because Christ Himself bore their penalty upon the cross. Moreover, Christ, by His life of perfect obedience, has fulfilled on our behalf all the obligations of God's covenant. By graciously granting or reckoning to us the righteousness of Christ, God forgives my sin without abandoning His justice or minimizing the obligation of obedience (compare Romans 3:26; 5:17-19). Furthermore, this forgiveness through Christ God grants to those and those only who acknowledge their sin and embrace through faith the gospel promise.
That's why the setting for our confession of the forgiveness of sins in the Apostles' Creed is so important. Only where the gospel is being administered in the power and presence of the Spirit do we dare speak of the forgiveness of sins (compare John 20:21-23; Romans 10:6-10, 13-21). Only where men and women are summoned through the gospel to "be reconciled to God" through Christ's "active" and "passive" obedience, His obedience on our behalf and death in our place, is there the forgiveness of sins. The forgiveness of sins is a divine act in which God is reconciled to us and we to Him through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is an act which requires a believing response. It is not a presumption which any careless and impenitent sinner may have before God!
Notice the striking contrast between this understanding of the forgiveness of sins and the way it is often misunderstood today. Most of us are probably acquainted with contemporary presentations of the gospel which are reducible to the slogan, "God loves you and so do I!" Or we may be familiar with the phrase, "Smile, God loves you," or the bumper sticker, "I'm not perfect, only forgiven!"
Though all of these slogans and phrases are frequently bandied about, even in Reformed circles, they are at best dangerously mislead, and at worst militate against the biblical teaching concerning forgiveness. They do so because they treat forgiveness as though it were cheap!
Those who deal in such slogans often neglect to mention that forgiveness was purchased at the price of Christ's satisfaction and perfect righteousness on our behalf. Not only is God presumed to be in the business of simply forgiving people for whatever sins they commit, but it is also presumed that He grants forgiveness to everyone — period! As a pastor's meditation in a local newspaper column I read recently put it, "Everyone should be happy all the time because God loves and forgives them!" This, he argued, ought to be the case for everyone, whether or not they confess and turn from their sin, or flee to Christ for mercy and grace!
The Christian confession of the forgiveness of sins, however, acknowledges that reconciliation and peace with God, including the forgiveness of sins, are granted only to those who embrace Christ through the gospel. Only those believers who can sing with the heart, as well as with the mouth, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me," know what it is to confess the forgiveness of sins.
Confessing Our Readiness to be Forgiving
Most of us are familiar with Jesus' parable about the "Unmerciful Servant" in Matthew 18:21-35. When asked by Peter, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus responded by means of a parable which illustrated our obligation to be forgiving toward those who sin against us.
I mention this parable here, because no consideration of the forgiveness of sins in a Christian context is adequate unless it also includes our responsibility to be forgiving. This is something which is repeatedly emphasized in the Scriptures (compare, for example, Matthew 6:12, Ephesians 5:32).
Here too we have to be careful how we understand this mutual forgiveness. We are to forgive even as the Lord has forgiven us. This is a far cry from the tolerance of evil or acceptance of those who continue in unconfessed sin which some today mistake for forgiveness. For example, a husband who is unfaithful to his wife cannot say to her (nor should we), "you are obligated to forgive me" (him), when he is himself unwilling to confess his sin to the Lord and turn from it! Forgiveness always begins with confession of sin and reconciliation through Christ. Only within the context of the Spirit's work in convicting of sin and renewing the heart is place given to, and opportunity provided for the forgiveness of our brother or sister.
However, when we are sinned against and our brother or sister acknowledges the sin, then we are obliged to forgive in turn (compare Matthew 5:23-24; 18:15). When we have been sinned against and the offending sinner acknowledges his sin, we must forgive and be reconciled to him. Or, to put it more accurately, we may and will forgive, just as we have been forgiven in Christ!
It is not that our readiness to forgive earns or merits God's forgiveness. Not at all. It is only that no one can be a recipient of God's gracious forgiveness in Christ — no one! — without standing ready to forgive. God never grants forgiveness without provoking us to be forgiving of others.
In that respect, the truest test of our confession of "the forgiveness of sins" is whether we live by grace. Those whom God has forgiven in Christ, who know that they live each day and are members of the church by grace alone, cannot but be forgiving of and gracious in their dealings with others.