If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:9
This morning I heard a lovely hymn on the television. My mother-in-law frequently spends her Saturdays listening to hymns and the one she was listening to was very pretty, but I had some problem with the lyrics. Now, I am not going to name the hymn, since I am definitely not meaning to attack the songwriter. What I am pointing to is the fact that the lyrics do not properly fit with Christian doctrine. Over and over in the refrain the words kept appearing “please forgive us of our sins”. Why did that strike me as so wrong?
When we first become Christians, part of the awareness of stepping into the family of God is becoming aware of the sacrifice already made for our sins. It is altogether fitting and proper to ask for forgiveness upon believing, for part of the belief in what God hath wrought is in the cross, and the Savior which died for the sins of the world. But upon faith, or trust in what Christ has done, the Christian moves into grace, and should become aware that forgiveness is given—it is, after all, what the cross was all about.
Part of the almost unbelievable kindness of God extended through Christ is our adoption as sons. “But as many as received him, to them gave he the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (Jn. 1:12). Here in these words, God offers something to us totally unexpected—not just mercy, of which we might hope, neither just eternal life, of which we might dream, but far beyond that, he offers to adopt us into his own family, to take on part of the divine nature, indeed, to be given the Spirit of God himself to live within us and help us in living the impossible calling that he has given.
And make no second guess about it, it is an impossible calling. I could point to specific New Testament commands that make it so obviously difficult, but perhaps it might be more easily seen if we take a step back and see if we can guess at the purpose of God. He has imparted his own Divine Nature into us, making us to be, if you will, little Christs. We are put now in a lost world where we are expected to act like Christ, to our brothers and sisters in Christ, a challenging enough calling, but also to a lost world that hated the first Christ so badly that they put him on a cross. What will they do to us? History is replete with examples of the way wicked men have poured out their hatred on Christians, and such a calling is quite plainly above what you and I are able to do. (See John 17:14-23, below)1
I am not saying that we should not, more or less constantly, be expressing and even singing thankfulness to God for the forgiveness of sin, but as we grow in Christ we should become more aware of what he has already done on the cross. Many pastors, at this point, will offer the observation, that when we accepted Christ, or believed, Christ had already died for the sins of the world. In other words, Christ had died for you long before you were born, and for every one of your sins. Our growth in Christ ought to bring us to the realization that Christ did indeed take the punishment for our sins upon that cross so long ago, and that, if even one of my sins is not covered by his sacrifice, I am utterly and completely without hope. But, as the apostle says, thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord!
If you are mature in Christ at all, you probably realize that you sin somewhat often. Walking in the Spirit is not easy, as we are tempted by our fleshly lusts, and the Bible does warn us of the one who is going about seeking whom he may devour. Paul tells us to take on the full armor of God, to walk after Christ, and to run the race, setting aside the weights which do so easily beset us. To such a high calling it is our lifelong goal to pursue, since we look to a hope that is beyond this world, and we have the very nature of God in us to make such living possible.
A different apostle, John, tells us that when we sin we have an advocate with God the Father, and that advocate will always intercede for us—it is the very reason that Christ came into the world. If we say we have not sinned, says John, we call God a liar and his truth is not in us. Which brings us to the uncomfortable place: what are we to do when we sin? Fortunately, John also taught us that, listed in the opening verse at the top of this piece. Confess, says John, and God will faithfully and justly forgive us our sins, and cleanse us, that we might get back to that spiritual walk, or armor, or race, as the case may be.
Now confession should not be confused with forgiveness—the latter was done on the cross as a one-time event, waiting for our one-time understanding. The former, confession, means to agree. When we become conscious of our sin, we are to agree with God that it is sin, and thus we are cleansed and able to begin walking in the Spirit again.
Begging his forgiveness all over again must be an insult to the one who loves you and gave himself for you, and if you do not believe that God has totally forgiven you, on what basis can you possibly be saved? If you follow the logic, it is relentless. Either of two alternatives is possible, if you do not believe in God’s total forgiveness. In the first alternative, you believe that God needs “a little help”, and so you believe that your works will somehow cover any deficit. Yet, the Bible declares “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he has saved us.” Your insisting on adding your works is denigrating to the work on the cross which the Son of God has already done for you. You are in effect saying, “Jesus, what you did was not enough. Here let me add a bit and help you out.” When we reduce the first outcome to its basics, we realize that it is utter nonsense. If any of our salvation, beyond belief, depends on us, then rest assured, we are on our way to Hell, and nothing can be done to help us. If it all depends upon his grace, and nothing of ourselves, then the work is complete, and nothing can be added to it.
The other logical outcome is that you believe that you are too much of a sinner to qualify for forgiveness. I am reading a novel whose main character believes exactly that—his past is too awful for him to even countenance the forgiveness of God. In effect, he is saying that God may have died for regular sinners, but he could not have died for me—I am a special case. We might do well here to think of Saul of Tarsus, who assented and helped in the murder of many Christians before being gloriously saved, and changed into Paul the apostle. Paul, reflecting on his past, calls himself the chief of sinners, yet he fully knew the grace of God to be more than adequate for his sins. At the root, following this logical outcome is denying the grace of God with unbelief, and thus rejecting what Christ has done on the cross. Remembering that all God asks is that we simply believe in what he has done in sending his son, disbelief will disqualify us from salvation. With the heart confession is made unto salvation.
I recently heard of a poor soul in my church who came to a point of decision, but was worried over his tattoos. Look what I have done to my body, he seemed to be saying, there is no way God can forgive that. He realized his sin, but his problem was that he did not realize the grace of God. I am reminded of another hymn that famously sings “grace greater than all our sin”. But it exactly in realizing that just for those sins the Christ did indeed die, and all he asks of us is that we believe in the work which he has done.
I found a sweet tract to share with my four-year-old grandson who is learning to read. It simply says, “Know God, Know peace”, and then underneath, “No God, No peace”. He is just learning to read, and I thought he might be able to understand the simple message. It was a fairly big deal to teach the four-year-old his first homonym, and I had to work with him lots, reviewing the meaning of “no” and “know”, until at last he came to an understanding. How like my grandson’s understanding is the pattern for the church! When we at last know God through the forgiveness in Jesus, do we not come to know peace? And, as Paul reminds us, there is nothing that can separate us from that peace. It is ours forever, a gift of God.
1. John 17:14-23
14 I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
15 I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.
16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.
18 As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.
19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.
20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;
21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:
23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.