I was recently asked to be part of a sermon series on the Apostles Creed at a local church regarding the line “the forgiveness of sins.” Below is the message. I have written a lot on forgiveness on my blog. This message serves as a good overview of what Christian forgiveness is and how it works. Kind of like the Apostles Creed, it represents a summary of the core aspects of forgiveness. It is not exhaustive. If any of you have questions about God’s forgiveness of us or about forgiving other people, let me know in a comment. I will be glad to address it as best I can.
The Forgiveness of Sins
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:12-14, NIV).
My mentor Charlie “Tremendous” Jones had a formula he tried to live by, SIBKIS: See it big, keep it simple. This was no trite business success formula, it was a reminder about what we tend to do with everything. Our nature is to see it small and make it complicated. If we don’t guard against that innate tendency of ours, we will never see things as big as they need to be seen and will complicate things to the point that we lose sight of the very truth we are trying to understand. The genius of the Apostles Creed is that it sees it big and keeps it simple. It encapsulates the core doctrines of the Christian faith.
The line we are going to focus on this morning is “The forgiveness of sins.”
Forgiveness is at the center of what the gospel is all about.
There is only one problem….Forgiveness is not natural to us. And by “us” I mean everyone. While everyone wants to get forgiveness, no one likes to give forgiveness! Giving forgiveness runs against our nature. Our nature is to say “Hey! What’s wrong with you? What have you done? Why did you do that?” Our nature is to point out and punish bad behavior, wrongs, and offenses not to “reward them” with forgiveness. Forgiveness is not natural to us.
That is why when we see forgiveness—real forgiveness—it stands out. Forgiveness looks like an anomaly, something very out of place that doesn’t match up and that doesn’t make sense. It is not natural. It is unnatural!
You don’t need to look further than the accounts of Jesus in the gospels to see that this is true. Those who were attracted to Jesus were drawn to Him by the discovery of real, unadulterated, unfettered grace and forgiveness. It is not natural to forgive prostitutes, or criminals, or your enemies. Those who were repelled and offended by Jesus were stunned by His forgiveness which was given so freely to all the wrong people in all the wrong places. Whether it attracted you or disgusted you, those people all knew one thing: that kind of forgiveness is anything but natural.
But while forgiveness is against our natural inclination to give, it is still something everyone wants, and so…Forgiveness has its counterfeits. All of us have been hurt by the discovery that we have been given counterfeit forgiveness:
- Being told that you are forgiven only to find out the offer was made to make someone else happy.
- Finding out that the reason that guy forgave you, was so that you owed him.
- Being assured that you are forgiven, but being made to apologize for that same offense a week later.
…makes promises to let go, but does not.
…looks like a gift, but expects something in return.
…always costs more to the recipient than the giver.
…benefits the giver at the expense of the receiver.
…is motivated by self-interest rather than love.
…takes more than it gives.
…hides instead of heals.
…ends up making things worse instead of better.
As a Christian and a pastor, perhaps the worst thing about counterfeit forgiveness is that it is so much more common than the real thing…even among Christians! The deception of counterfeit grace makes it harder to convince people that the real thing even exists.
The best way to tell the difference between the counterfeit and the real thing is to know the real thing inside and out.
What does authentic God-given forgiveness look like?
- God’s forgiveness is an act of grace. What is grace? Grace is one-way love. By one-way love I mean it is love that is not built on the expectation of getting anything back. It is not loving to get something, it is loving to give something; not because the love is deserved, but in spite of the fact that it is not. Grace is love that has nothing to do with what is deserved, or what is fair, or a return on investment. It is one-way love. God’s forgiveness is an act of grace in which He chooses to love us in spite of our sin, mess, and brokenness—because He wants to; not because He has to, or ought to, but simply because He wants to.
God’s forgiveness is not blind. His forgiveness does not mean overlooking sin. Forgiveness is not choosing to not see sin, or hurt, or guilt. It means God must see it for what it is. He has to look into our hearts and see everything. When it comes to describing sin’s effect on the heart and mind it is not like a cold, or a flu, it is death.
How many of you remember the old TV show Get Smart? I think in almost every episode you would hear the bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart say, “Missed it by that much…” When it comes to meeting our obligations to love, honor, and obey God we do not “miss it by that much.” We don’t just bend the rules. We break them clean off! God’s forgiveness is not about ignoring sin or excusing it. It sees it head on.
God’s forgiveness means after He looked head on at all the sin we committed, and took into account what justice required, He cancelled the debt. God’s forgiveness means that He chooses not to charge us with justice, but to bless us with grace.
That isn’t done by forgetting about it, or brushing it off, or sweeping it under the rug. It is done by taking it to Christ. It was done by nailing Him to the cross. Jesus paid your debt for you. He satisfied the justice of His Father and gave His life for you. So instead of being dead in sin, we are now alive in Christ.
Forgiveness is an act of gracious one-way love in which God decides to look at us and relate to us through the righteousness of Christ. When God forgives us He no longer holds us legally accountable for our sins in any way. It means that God has fully restored the relationship between Himself and the believer. So as far as God is concerned, you are not only guiltless, but righteous.
When God forgives you, it is instant. There is no lag time in effectiveness. As soon as God offers forgiveness it is in effect.
When God forgives you, it is total. Forgiveness does not just cover past sins, or a certain number of sins, or certain kinds of sins. God’s forgiveness covers all the sins a person will commit in their life.
When God forgives you, it is effective. Not just have been forgiven, not will be—are. Forgiven of everything. Forgiven forever.
When God forgives you, it is permanent. Why? It is one-way love. It does not depend on what you do or do not do. It is dependent on what Christ did. There is nothing you do that can change that, so there is nothing you can do that will cause God to stop forgiving you. Nothing.
When God forgives you, it is life changing. Forgiveness is life changing because…
…it sets you free. Like with the adulterous woman in John 8:2-11, forgiveness frees you from your past. It sets you free from guilt. It cancels your debts. It frees you from judgment.
…It is life changing because forgiveness heals. Forgiveness draws out the poison of anger, regret, hate, and sorrow. Because of this, forgiveness makes it possible for relationships that had been mortally wounded to heal and begin to grow again like in the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 50:15-21.
…It is life changing because forgiveness changes your heart. Forgiveness can accomplish what years of “do’s and don’ts” cannot. Grace moves in your heart to make you want to do the right thing. Just look at the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10.
…Forgiveness meets our deepest need: love. We are all like the Samaritan woman Jesus met in John 4:1-42. We all fail. We all fall. We fracture others. We get fractured ourselves. Over and over again. There comes a point when we realize that no amount of self-help, positive thinking, or hard work on our part changes these realities. Everyone is broken, the only difference is in the varying degrees of brokenness in which we find ourselves.
The more broken you realize you are, the more the world, the flesh, and the devil tell us that we are not only unable to love, but that we are unlovable. The only antidote for this cancer of shame is love. Forgiveness is love in its most sacrificial and costly form. It is love that is not given as a reward for good behavior, good decisions, or being a good example, but is love that is given but in spite of not being or exhibiting any of those things. It is love that is not driven by expectations, or weights, or measures. It is love given simply because it is chosen to be given, it is love that rushes into our bruised and broken souls and eradicates the cancer of guilt and shame.
Forgiveness transforms you. It does not leave you the same.
Colossians 3:13 says we are to forgive as the Lord forgave you. Now that we have an idea of what it means when God forgives us, how do we live that out? How do we forgive as God has forgiven us?
When we forgive someone, we are choosing to see the offender through the cross, the way the Father sees you and me. It means accepting that God saw your hurt, no matter how small or how great, passed judgment on it, and laid his just and holy anger in full on Christ against it. We can let go of our hurt, anger, even hate because God does not let sin go unpunished. Their offense was not ignored, forgotten, or swept under the rug. It was dragged out in the open, judged, and paid for on the cross.
When we forgive, that is what we are doing, going to the cross and experiencing the justice and grace of God. Through forgiveness we experience the love and grace of God in seeing that justice is done.
In accepting forgiveness we experience the justice and grace of God in seeing that Christ paid for our sins and took away our guilt before God and the person we hurt.
Forgiveness is something that God wants you to know how to do. If that is true—and I don’t know how to understand forgive as the Lord forgave you any differently—then this is something that God is going to be teaching us.
Now, you’re not going to like what I say next, but I’m going to tell you anyhow because I don’t get invited back any way. So here it is, the only way to be learning to forgive, is to be hurt. See, I knew you wouldn’t like it! But it’s true! If you are going to be learning to forgive like God forgives you, then you have to be learning to be respond to getting hurt the same way God responds to you when you hurt Him. Without being offended you can’t learn to forgive. So don’t be surprised when you meet lousy people who offend you all the time. As long as you are around people you are going to be learning forgiveness because if there is one thing people are really good at it is screwing up!
And Christians are not exempt from this. While it is true that God’s grace radically changes us, and His Spirit gives us the ability to overcome and let go of sin and to grow in godliness, that sinful part of us is not gone, cured, or uprooted. Its terminal effects are stopped. It is forgiven. It no longer defines who we are. But we can’t ever be fully rid of sin this side of the grave. Therefore we should not be surprised when Christians sin, even when they (or we) sin big.
What should make Christians stand out is not so much the absence of sin, but the presence and practice of forgiveness in response to sin; both to our own sin and the sin we see or experience in others.
In closing, let me share with you two things about forgiveness that are important to remember as we are learning to forgive as God has forgiven us.
The first thing to remember is that forgiveness is profoundly personal and intimate. Now when I say it is personal and intimate I don’t mean in a romantic way. I mean that the costs of giving it and the effect of receiving it are strongly felt by both the giver and the receiver.
Forgiveness is always intimate for the giver because it always costs to give. If grace is to be given in forgiveness for an offense, the hurt and pain of the offense must be absorbed by the offended person.
- The king in the parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18:21-26 had to be willing to accept the loss of billions of dollars (10,000 talents of gold is 11.4 billion in today’s dollars) to offer forgiveness to his servant.
- The prophet Hosea needed to be willing not only to forgive but to pay to get his wife Gomer back who had left him and gone into prostitution and to accept the social awkwardness and questions that would raise with his family, neighbors, and co-workers (Hosea 3:1-5).
- For God to forgive us He had to be willing to give His Son to pay the price for our sins (John 3:16).
Real forgiveness is not cheap. As the saying goes, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” While there may not be any cost to the person eating the lunch, someone has to pay the cost for the lunch to be offered. In this sense, forgiveness is never free. It always costs the giver. The greater the forgiveness, the greater the cost. For that reason, giving forgiveness is one of the most personal and intimate acts of love a person can give to another. It cannot be done nonchalantly or flippantly, it requires too much sacrifice.
When forgiveness is given, its effects are profoundly personal; and the greater the grace the more profound and intimate its effects on the receiver. You cannot be freed from debt, guilt, trouble, or obligation, at no cost to you without being personally and intimately affected.
The second thing to remember is that God’s forgiveness not just something He wants us to receive. It is something God wants us to give. Just as God wants us to love others with the same love He has given us, he wants us to forgive others as He has forgiven us. Forgiving is for giving.
- It is for giving whether the person has asked for it or not.
- It’s for giving so that you can be free to heal.
- It is for giving whether you think they are going to need it again or not.
- It is for giving whether you like the person or not.
- It is for giving no matter what the offense is.
- It is for giving so that the offender can experience the grace of God that you yourself have.
Forgiving is for giving, just as the Lord forgave you.