Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Requirements for Forgiveness

What must we do to be forgiven of our sins?  We have looked at this some with our reading on repentance.  There were (are) those who believed that more is required.  Much of this misunderstanding started with over-analyzing statements made by some of the church fathers.  These statements were made to urge men not to continually fall into the same sins that had previously been committed by them such as "to repent is to weep over former sins, and not to commit sins to be wept over."  These sophists twist the meaning of these sayings to "prove" that something is required to be forgiven of sin.  According to them, there are three steps for forgiveness: contrition of heart, confession of mouth, and satisfaction of works.  They teach that repentance "is a discipline and austerity that serves partly to tame the flesh, partly to chastise and punish faults."  It is not, according to them, a free gift from God to bring us nearer to Him. 

Not only are there three steps that they (not God) require for repentance, these same three steps are directly tied to the forgiveness of sins.  Calvin writes, "But if forgiveness of sins depends upon these conditions which they attach to it, nothing is more miserable or deplorable for us."  How much contrition of heart will satisfy their requirement for the forgiveness of the sins I have committed?  How many of my sins must I remember to confess?  How much is enough when I am performing my penance?  No one can know, chiefly because no one can earn God's forgiveness and grace.  It would be miserable indeed to not know how much more we needed to do to earn God's forgiveness. 

It is not our actions which earn forgiveness, but God's mercy alone that freely gives it to us.  "Repentance is not the cause of forgiveness of sins."  Remember that repentance is a gift from God, but it is God who has already forgiven us.  Calvin writes, "We have taught that the sinner does not dwell upon his own compunction or tears, but fixes both eyes upon the Lord's mercy alone."  Calvin points out that the Pharisees were excluded from forgiveness of their sins because they were so sure of their piety and adherence to the law.  They really thought that they had achieved perfection, that by following the letter of the law was enough to earn them favor with God.  They did not recognize their own spiritual poverty.  Calvin differentiates between right and wrong understandings of forgiveness: "But it makes a great difference whether you teach forgiveness of sins as deserved by just and fill contrition, which the sinner can never perform; or whether you enjoin him to hunger and thirst after God's mercy to show him - through the recognition of his misery, his vacillation, his weariness, and his captivity - where he ought to seek refreshment, rest, and freedom; in fine, to teach him in his humility to give glory to God."

Those who argue that sin must be confessed to a priest and the sinner must perform works to earn forgiveness sometimes use some Old Testament law to "prove" their point.  They refer back to Levitical law stating that the priests determine leprosy and what stage the leprosy is in.  Sin is spiritual leprosy, therefore according to their logic, the priest must determine the stage of the spiritual leprosy for the sinner.  They use also the text in Matthew 8 to make their case.  Calvin makes three key points here:  (1) Christ has assumed the priesthood and all the duties of the priesthood.  We go to God directly with our confessions, no longer do we use an intermediary.  (2) Christ sent the lepers back to the priests to obey the civil law but not the ritual law.  This also demonstrated His miraculous power to the priests.  (3) He also did this "on account of the Jews, that He might not be regarded as a transgressor of the law."

Tomorrow's reading: 3.4.5-3.4.8

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