Friday, September 17, 2010

Forgiveness of Sins

One of the most amazing things about our relationship with God is that not only does He forgive us when we sin, He continues to forgive us again and again. He preserves and protects us in His company, the church, forever. It is not a one-shot deal where we get forgiven once, but we better never mess up again. It is continual, since we sin often. Calvin writes, "sins have been and are daily pardoned to us who have been received and engrafted into the body of the church."

Jesus granted the "power of the keys" to the apostles, which has been passed to the church (Matthew 16:19). Calvin writes, "When Christ gave the command to the apostles and conferred upon them the power to forgive sins, he did not so much desire that the apostles absolve from sins those who might be converted from ungodliness to the faith of Christ, as that they should perpetually discharge this office among believers."  Calvin makes three significant points about this doctrine.  First, without the forgiveness of sins, we cannot stand before God in our mortal bodies no matter how "good" we are since we all have sinned.  Secondly, apart from the church, we cannot experience this benefit.  And what I think is the most important piece in understanding this doctrine, "Thirdly, it is dispensed to us through the ministers and pastors of the church, either by the preaching of the gospel or by the administration of the sacraments; and herein chiefly stands out the power of the keys, which the Lord has conferred upon the society of believers."

I worked with a guy once who thinking he was a faithful Christian used to preach to all who would listen to him in the breakroom at our office.  Typically I ignored him, but one day as I was passing through I heard him tell everyone that it had been several years since he had sinned.  I knew I did not hear him correctly, so I lingered to hear what he said next.  He explained to everyone that once you became a "real" Christian, you stopped sinning.  I pointed out 1 John 1:8-10 to him, and he had no response.  Later, this same married supervisor got fired in part because he had on more than one occasion had affairs with temporary employees.  His error is not new to the church.  The Novationists and the Anabaptists (no relation to the Baptist church) taught the same thing.  They taught that once you have been reborn and baptized, if you sin again you only will receive God's judgment.  This is not what Christ taught.  In the "Lord's Prayer," we ask for forgiveness on a regular (if not daily) basis.  We are told to forgive our brother "seventy times seven" times, which is how God graciously forgives us. 

There are numerous Old Testament examples of believers who committed sins and were forgiven.  Think of Joseph's brothers who conspired to commit murder, but then only kidnapped Joseph, sold him into slavery, then lied to their father about it.  "Yet far from being banished from the chosen people, these men were raised up as heads!"  David, committed adultery and murder, but was still forgiven by God.  The Israelites as a whole sinned by worshiping false gods, but God always forgave them, too.  "So often does the Lord prove that he shows himself willing to forgive the offenses of his people!"

So often the prophets of the Old Testament called the Israelites to turn from their rebellion and sin.  They preached that God would forgive them once they repented of their sin.  God was faithful and did just that time and time again.  It is clear in Solomon's prayer of dedication for the temple that it was to be used as a place where forgiveness of sins was to be prayed for and answered (1 Kings 8:22-53). 

God's mercy did not stop with the coming of Christ, but instead it is given even more.   "The Heavenly Father's clemency flows forth to us much more abundantly, rather than that it is cut off or curtailed."  Calvin gives several examples of this.  First, he mentions Peter who denied Christ but was received back into communion with Christ.  Paul chastised the church in Thessolonica, not to banish them but to invite them to repent.  Another example was Simon the Magician (Acts 8:22) and Peter tells him to pray.

The churches in Galatia and Corinth both were in great sin when Paul wrote to them.  Neither church was prevented from receiving God's mercy.  Calvin writes, "Finally, by the very order of the Creed we are taught that continual grace for sins remains in Christ's church.  For once the church has, so to speak, been established, forgiveness of sins is added to it."

Another error of the Anabaptists was the idea that only unconscious sins were forgivable.  If we know that something is a sin and still commit it, they believed that we would not be forgiven.  In Leviticus 6:1-7, the law commanded that a sacrifice be given to God for the forgiveness of the voluntary sins of believers.  There was a separate sacrifice for sins of ignorance.  There are other examples as well.  David punished adulterers and murderers, but he committed both of those sins.  Joseph's brothers knew that plotting murder and kidnapping was a sin, but they did it anyway.  Peter was warned that denying Christ was a sin, yet he denied Christ three times.  All of these were forgiven of their sins and received back into fellowship with God.

There were some ancient writers who wrote about "slight errors" versus "public crimes".  Forgiveness was easily obtained for the slight errors that someone might commit on a regular basis.  Public crimes were a more serious matter, which forgiveness was not quite so easy to obtain.  "They did this, not because they considered pardon for their sins hard to obtain before the Lord; rather, with this severity they intended to deter others from rashly plunging into iniquities that would merit their being cut off from the communion of the church."

Tomorrow's reading: 4.2.1-4.2.6

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