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Know What You Believe – A series based on The Apostles’ Creed – Part 11
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
I believe in the forgiveness of sins! Is this also your affirmation?
There are many good reasons relevant to you and me today as to why this phrase was included in The Apostles’ Creed, and it is important for us to look at what you and I need to do to experience God’s forgiveness.
I. There are four primary reasons why we need to talk about the forgiveness of sins.
First, our society minimizes sin.
All you need to do is pick up an issue of People magazine or tune into “Entertainment Tonight,” and you will see not only the minimization of sin but the glorification of that which wrecks lives.
In this week’s Time magazine there is an article about Hugh Hefner, in his mid-seventies, as he celebrates the 50th anniversary issue of Playboy magazine, which this month hits the newsstands. He is asked if he could be interested in a 50-year-old woman. He responds, “Romantically, my interests are younger.” When asked how many girlfriends he has now, he answers, “Six.” When asked if he sleeps with all of them, he declares, “It is just like a ordinary relationship times six. A lot of single guys and women date more than one person. The only thing that is different here is that we do whatever we are going to do together. It is very nice. Makes it like a little family.”
Even the Carl’s Jr. ad campaign brazenly features Hugh Hefner, declaring how much he likes variety, both in terms of women and fast food items. The society which once would have been outraged at such comments now finds them entertaining. Nothing is said about the lives of the hundreds of women he has consumed and discarded. Where are they now? Where is the outrage that Carl’s Jr. would approve such a morally outrageous ad campaign?
Saturday’s Los Angeles Times features an article about Heidi Fleiss, the former Hollywood madam, in her new clothing store that also sells her book titled Pandering. It describes women’s panties embroidered with the words “Heidi’s No. 1 Girl.” To think that anyone would want such clothing that labels them a prostitute.
Last night on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” he interviewed actress Ingrid Bergman’s three adult daughters. It brought back memories of a flight I made from London to Paris in July of 1958. Ingrid Bergman was my seat mate and was very gracious in conversation with this 18-year-old youth. But as I remember, and her daughters confirmed last night, she had fled the United States to live in Europe because of the moral outrage of Americans to her affair with the Italian film producer Roberto Rossellini. Today, anything goes.
I could spend the entire message just giving evidences of the way our society minimizes sin.
Some give the excuse of genetic disposition. “This is the way I am built. What else can you expect?”
Others use the excuse of environmental influence. “I am the result of my social conditioning.”
We exchange the word “sin” for “addiction” or “dysfunction.”
All these notions are helpful in understanding our human condition. I too engage in the debate as to how much of our addictive and dysfunctional behaviors are genetically and/or environmentally motivated.
I would be the first to warn myself not to demonize Hugh Hefner, Heidi Fleiss, Ingrid Bergman, even the recently captured Saddam Hussein, or anyone else who deviates from God’s standards. They too are human beings, loved by God. I too am a sinner in need of God’s grace.
But I think it is clear to see the truth of these words: “We have gone from ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ to ‘clients in the palm of a satisfied therapist.'”
Second, the Bible says anyone who genuinely believes he is not a sinner is self-deceived.
Mark Twain once said, “Man is the only animal that blushes or needs to.”
The Bible says, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . . ” (Romans 3:23). It goes on to say, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The Bible also says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
Today is not the first or the last time that I will preach on sin. I researched this week the many sources dealing with The Apostles’ Creed that sent me off in any number of directions in terms of endeavoring to define sin. We could spend the entire morning listening to the various Hebrew and Greek words for sin. I have done this in the past and will do this in the future. Each one has a slightly different nuance in regard to whether the sin was intentional, accidental, one of omission or commission, a specific act or some subtle attitude.
Instead, let me share with you my endeavor to reduce all my years of study and reflection on this to two fairly simple statements, synthesizing the Old and New Testament teaching about sin.
If there is anything I do, or attitude I have, that disobeys God, breaks His heart and hurts others and/or myself, that is sin. If there is anything I leave undone, in action and/or attitude, that I could reasonably do that would bring joy to God, others and myself, that is sin.
When you define sin this way, you realize we all are involved. Granted, I have a bit of an ego problem. Most of us do. I would like to define my sin as “dysfunction” rather than use the blatant label SIN. I fact, I have subtle ways of denying that some of the things I do, some of the attitudes I have, some of the things I have left undone, some of the attitudes I do not but could have, are actually SIN. I prefer hiding my head in the sand when it comes to myself, and pointing my finger when it comes to others.
Third, Jesus came to give forgiveness of sin.
Remember how the angel came to Joseph as he was struggling with the pregnancy of his fiancee, Mary? The angel reassured Joseph in a dream that this was God’s activity, the advent of God into human history, with these words: “‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins'” (Matthew 1:20-21).
That’s at the beginning of the earthly life of Jesus Christ. Let’s take a look at what Jesus said about his purpose in coming at the very end, prior to His ascension into heaven. He said, “‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem'” (Luke 24:46-47).
Years later, the Apostle Peter wrote this about Jesus: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
This is Good News, not bad news. The bad news is that we are sinners. The Good News is that we can be forgiven. This is GRACE — God’s unmerited favor. One definition of grace is, “God no longer tries to collect what you owe Him.” He already did that through Jesus Christ.
Fourth, you are forgiven, not just from something–but to be more.
For some, the reception of forgiveness is an end in itself. They clutch the one-way ticket to heaven, so proud they have responded to the invitation to receive Jesus Christ as their Savior. They somehow think that forgiveness is the end. They don’t realize it is just the beginning! You and I are not just forgiven from sin, we are given a fresh slate to begin a new life, empowered by the Holy Spirit to not be in bondage to the debilitating action of sin in our lives.
Some of us completely misunderstand what it is to be born again. We forget that this rebirth is to a beginning of a new life, not just an end of an old life. The Good News is not just that we are going to go to heaven someday. We are standing patiently in line, holding our one-way ticket, waiting for that day. The forgiveness which we have received in Jesus is an entitlement to a life here on earth in which we become partners with God in His work on earth. The theologians distinguish between spiritual regeneration, which is our appropriation of what God did for us on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ, and sanctification which is that process of growing toward wholeness as the Holy Spirit enables us to be all that God created us to be. We are not just forgiven from something but to be more than we have ever been before.
You and I are privileged to march to a different drumbeat. We are privileged to not run away from suffering and difficulty but to claim the help of the Lord through the tough times of life, forgiven men and women, part of His forever community right here on earth, as well as in heaven.
Last week, I read to you 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. This illustrates what I am trying to say. Paul specifically mentions specific types of sins that label a person and declares they are disqualified for the kingdom of God. But then he shifts gears and declares that some of them used to wear those labels as fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, greed, drunkards, revilers, robbers. But he declares that by God’s grace they are redefined to being something much more. He writes, “And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). You see, they now have a whole different identity. That’s how all encompassing God’s forgiveness is! They move on to something more. You and I can too!
II. Let us now look at what you need to do to experience forgiveness.
There are four actions on your part that will enable you to experience forgiveness. That forgiveness is there for you, but that does not mean that each of us appropriates it.
First, RECOGNIZE your need for forgiveness.
Anselm, once the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared, “You have not yet considered the heavy weight sin is.”
Think about that. Have you considered the heavy weight sin is? I am talking to both believers and nonbelievers in Jesus Christ. We don’t quit struggling with sin the day we are born again. The fact is that we still have the old nature that battles with the new nature. Satan is still functioning in this world. Temptation is there and although those of us who, in the past have received Jesus Christ as savior are forgiven of past sins, we need to keep up to date with Him.
The story is told about a little boy whose mother told him it was time to get ready for Sunday School. He said, “I am not going.” She said, “Oh, yes you are!” He said, “I don’t want to go.” She said, “I don’t recollect asking you if you want to go. You are going.” He then asked, “Why do I have to go to Sunday School?” She responded, “To learn to be a good little boy.”
This is where the little fellow demonstrates to us tremendous insight into human makeup. His answer was, “I already know how to be a better little boy than I want to be.”
Whether you are a believer or a nonbeliever, there is a kind of war going on inside of you, between what Satan would love you to be and what God would dream for you to be. The Apostle Paul recognized this within himself. In Romans 7, he describes the battle going on within. He tells how the things he wanted to do he didn’t do, and the things he didn’t want to do he ended up doing. What’s important is, he recognized his need for forgiveness. Do you?
Two, REPENT of sin.
Some repent when they are caught. They are not really sorry for their sin. What they are sorry about is the consequences of sin. They got caught. I know people who have a basic lifestyle of living life right up to its limits, getting by with everything they think they can get by with. When they get caught, they simply say, “I’m sorry” and then blithely move on doing whatever they feel like doing. They say, “I’d rather say ‘I’m sorry’ after the fact than ask for permission in advance.”
Some of us try to work the same angle with God. We don’t take the time to study His Word and find out the smart way to live. Or, if we know what the Bible says, we rationalize around it and say it is out of date and does not apply to today. Then, when we get caught in some activity and are faced with the consequences and momentarily feel guilt, we ask forgiveness.
The question is, are we really, actively repenting of sin? Do we have real sorrow for our disobedience? Do we anguish over the fact that we have hurt God, we have hurt others, and we have hurt ourselves?
David put on sackcloth and ashes in repentance for his sin. That’s a humble posture for a proud king.
Isaiah saw the holiness of God and became aware of his own unworthiness and uncleanness before the righteous holy God. That brought him to his knees in repentance. We need the same posture.
Peter declared, “I am a sinful man.” I need to say that in heartfelt sincerity, and so do you.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells the story about two men going to the temple. One, a Pharisee, stood up and prayed about himself, thanking God that he was not like other people: robbers, evildoers and adulterers. He proudly declared that he fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of all he had to God. He even declared himself to be so much better than the second fellow, the tax collector. “Aren’t you lucky to have me God?” was his attitude.
The other man, a tax collector, sat nearby and beat his chest in repentance and prayed this prayer: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus distinguished between the two. One probably had lived a better life, but did not go away forgiven. The other fellow, who had sinned more, genuinely repented, humbly asked forgiveness, and went away forgiven.
Both fellows needed to see their need. Both were privileged to be forgiven. One simply didn’t realize his need.
Let me come at this from a slightly different perspective. The author, O. Henry, told a story about a young man who went away from his village to a great city. In the village, he had been brought up in the innocence of a good home and school. In the city, he had taken to petty crime, becoming a sharp trickster, a fast pickpocket, and a confidant man. He was quite proud of himself. There was a girl from the old village days he had sat beside in school, and whom he had known and loved, but that was a long ago childhood crush. One day, just after he had done a smooth job in picking a pocket, quite by chance, he saw this girl. She did not see him, but he saw her. She was just as fresh and innocent as she had been when he had known her in the village. He took a look at her. Then he looked at himself and all his cheap and tawdry petty crime. He leaned his forehead against the coolness of an iron lamppost, “God,” he said, “how I hate myself.” That is precisely the first step to repentance. It is a realization of what we are and the self disgust that comes from that realization.
If you are a nonbeliever, now is the time to come to your senses, repent of sin and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. If you are a believer, but in some areas of your life you have been hedging your bets, playing fast and loose in terms of God’s commands, it is important to face up to reality and come to your senses and repent of sin.
Psalms 51:17 hits the nail on the head. It reads, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Third, RECEIVE forgiveness.
Grace is free. It’s almost too good to believe, isn’t it?
I remember as a youngster growing up in Arington, Massachusetts, in the late 1940s. There was nothing in the world I wanted more for Christmas than skis. Whenever there was a fresh snow, my buddies would go over to a nearby hillside on a deserted golf course and make a ski jump. That looked like so much fun. And they would go off on ski trips to New Hampshire. Oh, did I ever want skis! But I knew my parents were of modest means and that probably was a gift beyond anything I could expect for Christmas. I would probably have to save the money from caddying, delivering newspapers, and mowing lawns.
I will never forget that Christmas morning when I walked down the stairs from my bedroom and there, leaning up against the fireplace by the Christmas tree, was a magnificent pair of skis, with ski poles to go with them. It was a gift much more than I expected. My mom and dad made a real sacrifice on my behalf.
You would have thought there was something wrong with me if I had gone to them and said, “You can’t afford these skis, so I can’t accept the gift.” It would have broken their hearts and left me without my dream fulfilled. No, instead, I received the gift, and did I ever enjoy those skis.
Perhaps you could describe the picture a little bit differently. Some of us have our arms so full of presents of lesser value that we won’t put them down long enough to receive the ultimate Christmas gift, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, offered freely to us. No, we are preoccupied. Our calendars are jammed full with busyness. We are rushing this way and that way to accomplish this task and that task, to make this person and that person happy, and all the time feeling so empty inside.
We need to stop, take a break from all of our activity, the clutter of our lives, our arms so full of this and that, and put it all down, look the Savior in the eyes and receive His unspeakable gift of salvation, of forgiveness, of new life, a whole new life that He offers.
Fourth, RECIPROCATE forgiveness to others.
Some of us want forgiveness, but we won’t give it to others.
I noticed the other day that I started to talk about something which someone had asked me to forgive them for some time ago. It hit me with great force. I had asked God’s forgiveness, and He had forgiven me. This person asked my forgiveness for something in which they had wronged me. I had said I had forgiven, and here I was obsessing on what they had done wrong! Time out! Stop the action! There is reciprocity in forgiveness, John. Remember, if you are going to be forgiven, you had better be willing to forgive.
Jesus said, “Unless we forgive others their sin, our Father in heaven will not forgive us our sins.” In the Lord’s prayer he taught, “‘. . . forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.'”
Reciprocity is a wonderful concept, as well as a great practice. It levels the field. It helps the action go two ways. It’s not just me receiving grace, I also become the dispenser of grace. I am not only the receiver of gifts, I am the giver of gifts. We are all in this together. That’s what makes the family of God a great community when it functions the way God designed it to function, and that’s why it looks so ugly when we fail to practice what we preach.
Normally at this part of the sermon, I would come up with some kind of conclusion, perhaps an illustration, to try to bring together everything I have been trying to say. Today, instead of trying to bring this message to conclusion all by myself, I have asked the help of a friend, a young woman in our church, Anna Booth, to come forward and share her story, the story of what it means to her when she says, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” Anna, come up and share with us now.
I was raised in a wonderful Christian home, and was a strong believer from my childhood, through my senior year of high school when I was nearly killed in a car accident. After the accident, I took life for granted, and strayed from the Lord many times in my actions. This continued for nearly two years, then I met my husband, Patrick. During our short engagement, we both had moral convictions, but set them aside in favor of our personal desires and interests. So, 5 months before our wedding, I became pregnant. Overwhelmed by the fear of explanations, and amidst selfish behavior, we made the biggest regret of our lives . . . abortion.
Two years married, and with our first son already born, we attended a young couples’ Bible study. A couple stood up to share their testimony, and we nearly rolled our eyes as we anticipated a light-hearted, nearly perfect description of love, laughs, and a possible argument over dirty dishes. Instead, this brave couple shared of their pre-marital sex issues — OK, I get that — not so bad. But then I heard the word, “pregnancy,” and thought — no way, they couldn’t have been where I’ve been, but then they openly admitted to having an abortion, and I nearly collapsed. A woman sitting near me was sobbing. I just couldn’t do that, because then everyone in that room would know I had one too.
Soon after hearing that couple’s story, my husband read about a Bible study for women who’ve had an abortion, announced in our church bulletin. He encouraged me to go, and I actually couldn’t see why, but soon found myself amongst 6 other ladies in a 12-week Bible study for post abortion guilt and regret. My husband even did the material, too. It changed us for the better, and forever. I honestly didn’t think I needed the study, because I already knew about God’s forgiveness. Yet it was within that study that I finally felt His forgiveness, and learned to forgive myself.
I had a shameful experience I wish I could take back. And yet I was reminded, and came to personalize what I already knew. Which is that Christ already covered my sins, past, present and future. His dying on the cross, His blood, covered my abortion. If I accept what He did on the cross, then I can accept His forgiveness for all things, and I am able to forgive myself.
In Isaiah 1:18 it reads, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” And in Job 10:12, “As far as the East is from the West, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
Though I was able to avoid the “big sins” before the accident, what I didn’t realize is that because my sins were more personal, they went unnoticed and unchanged, remaining free to contribute to decisions I would later make. I’ve always been a talker, a keeper of friends, and one who values people and life. Yet when I took the life of my unborn child, I was thereafter eternally changed. What came afterwards, in healing, is beyond proper explanation. I found a renewed faith in Christ. It was mine. Not borrowed. All my own dependence and desire to learn, read, and know my Savior in the most personal way. I was then able to share myself beyond the “usual.” I opened up my life to those around me, and it ultimately ended up as a ministry to women seeking GRACE, FORGIVENESS, and FREEDOM. Now that is complete forgiveness.
I told my parents about the abortion two years ago.
My Dad’s response to me was, “The deepest sin in your life is no different than mine.” To hear that from my earthly father just reminded me of how my heavenly father views sin. To this day that response has helped me forgive those around me.
My Mother, with watery eyes, reached for my hand and said, “Welcome back, I missed you.” I was in the very shoes of the prodigal son in that moment of open arms.
Alongside my husband and friends, they have been incredible advocates and supporters of me, and I am eternally grateful for their Christ-like example of FORGIVENESS.
Thank you, Anna. All that’s left to be said is for me to give an invitation to you, to myself, believers and nonbelievers in Jesus Christ.
You, the believer, is there some area in your life of unconfessed sin? You have harbored that skeleton or skeletons in your closet. You have lived the shame and guilt that is palpable. Or, at the other extreme, you have rationalized in a way that anesthetized yourself to the point that you may be continuing in the same actions and attitudes. I invite you, in the moment of silence, to open your life honestly to the Lord.
If you are a nonbeliever and the Holy Spirit is tugging at your heartstrings and you are increasingly aware of your sin, I invite you to do business with God. As one who has never received Him as Savior, I urge you to welcome Him into your life.
Believer and nonbeliever alike, I invite you to recognize your need for forgiveness, repent of your sin, receive His forgiveness, and be willing to reciprocate in offering that same forgiveness to others.
I invite you now to pray that prayer of confession which is appropriate to you and to claim the promise, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
I believe in the forgiveness of sins! Do you?
This is one of a series of sermons based on The Apostles Creed. Additional sermons from that series will appear in Preaching On-Line in March, April, May and June.
John A. Huffman, Jr. is the Senior Minister at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He is a Senior Contributing Editor to Preaching.