The greatest words ever spoken on earth were these: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And the greatest words that you could ever hear are these: “Man, thy sins are forgiven thee” (Luke 5:20).
Not, Your son liveth. Not, You are healed of your disease. Not, You are expecting. Not, You have been promoted. But, Your sins are forgiven.
When we are shallow and make light of our sins we do not understand that. We think other things are more important. But when the Holy Spirit has done His work personally and thoroughly, then we cry: “Cause me to hear Thy voice. Let me lose everything, but let me hear the voice which says to me in the gospel: Thy sins are forgiven.”
It is the Lord’s greatest joy to forgive us our sins. Psalm 103:8, “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.” For a child of God to doubt the forgiveness of sins is, strangely enough, to doubt that which the Lord loves most to do. For the Lord desires and the Lord loves the forgiveness of our sins in Jesus Christ.
Today we are going to talk about that great and central blessing of the Christian faith: the forgiveness of sins.
First of all, let us ask the question: What does God forgive? The answer to that is: My sins and my corrupt nature against which I have to struggle all my life long; all my sins. Can you conceive of anything more vast and innumerable and vile than all of our sins, every last one of your sins? If the list were to be brought of your sins, how far would it reach? “My sins are more than I can count,” says the psalmist. Psalm 19:12, “Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.” I cannot remember, nor keep track of them.
There are the external sins, open to view, when in my life I plainly broke laws before me. But that is the tip of the iceberg. Far more and vile are those secret sins, internal, of mind and heart. Known to God. And the character of those sins: vile and evil, dark and putrid, devilish! All my sins? That must be an infinite grace. That is something inconceivable.
For the Pharisee, that is, for those who are proud before God and know very little sin in themselves, this means nothing, because a Pharisee has no sins, or at least very few. A Pharisee has only virtues. For the Pharisee, it means very little. But for the publican it means much. For those who are brought to pray: God, be merciful to me the sinner; those who are given to know that there has never been a moment or a deed or a day or an hour in which I could say that I have not sinned. What a wonder to hear that all my sins are forgiven.
You know, the confession of sin can come very easily and smoothly from the lips of Christians. We pray so readily and almost routinely: Forgive us our debts. Do you know what you mean and what you are saying? We must not be content with vague generalities. We must not make this petition a matter of mere routine. But we must notice our sins and see them for what they are. Psalm 32:5, “I acknowledge my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” You may have kept your life pretty much on course before man, but what about the eyes of God? Nobody else knows, but God does. My sins which I do not even want to see and which very often I do not see, are known to Him.
The older we become, you know, the more sinful we see ourselves to be. God wills that we own our sins, that we not walk around them or ignore them. The wonder of forgiveness is that God cancels all my sins.
And not only all my sins but my sinful nature, against which I must struggle all my lifelong. Not merely does God forgive what I have done and thought and imagined and said, but He forgives me for what I am, the kind of person who is so evil. God, be merciful to me, the sinner! Oh, wretched man that I am, says Paul in Romans 7. All my sins proceed from a source, after all. It comes from something, something dark and deep. And that is what the Bible calls our sinful or depraved nature. That is not an excuse for our sins. But that makes it worse. My sin is not a mistake; it is not an error in judgment. I mean it! I need to be forgiven. I need to be forgiven. I may not say, “Well, that’s just the way I am.” If that is what you say, you are a hardened sinner. Rather, we must say, “It shocks me; it disturbs me; it frightens me.” Or, with Job: “I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Oh, what a light that sheds on God’s forgiving grace! How will we ever be able to comprehend it? God forgives my sins and forgives me.
All my life I have to struggle against that depraved nature. Even as a child of God I do not get rid of that old nature. There is progress in a life of obedience. I learn just how cunning and how slippery and how ruthless a sinner I am. I must always be on my guard. That is the progress. I must love God yet more earnestly and intensely. That sin remains my constant struggle and enemy. But God does not cast me aside. He enfolds me in His arms. He says, “I forgive you.”
Do you not love Him for this grace? He forgives all our iniquity-to the extent that He says that search shall be made in the last day for unforgiven sins in God’s children and they shall not be found. That is what God forgives: all my sins and my depraved nature against which I must struggle my lifelong.
But why does God do that?
The answer to that question is this: He does it for the sake of Christ and Christ’s work upon the cross. We read Ephesians 1:7, “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sin, according to the riches of his grace.”
Why? God forgives for the sake of what Christ did on the cross. You see, forgiveness is not that God ignores. It is not that God made a decision that He would not punish, that He would not render to our sins what they deserved. But forgiveness is that Christ satisfied, Christ shed His own blood for my soul. Christ paid, by His suffering, the penalty my sins deserved. That is why my sins are gone. They are gone because they have been forgiven. They have been dismissed. The punishment that was owed to them has been inflicted upon God’s Son. And God will not punish again.
Why did God do that? He did that for His own Name’s sake, because He would be gracious. Jeremiah 14:7, “O LORD, though our iniquities testify against us, do thou it for thy name’s sake.” Understand well, God does not forgive our sins because we are sorry for them and repent of them. I did not say that you must not be sorry and repent of your sins. You must! I said that God does not forgive you because of your sorrow or repentance. Do not fall into the error of making God’s blessing of forgiveness dependent upon our acts. All of our acts come from God; also our repentance. When we ascribe it to ourselves, we commit theft. The work of repentance in your heart is not your work; it is the work of God in you. II Timothy 2:25, “If God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.”
Why does God forgive us? He finds the reason in Himself, and He looks to what Jesus did upon the cross.
God does not forgive our sins because we confess them to Him. I did not say we must not confess our sins to God. We must confess! The Scriptures say, Only confess thy sins and I will heal thy land. If I do not confess, I will not experience what David did. He tells us in Psalm 32 what he experienced: the peace of forgiveness. But so long as he did not confess his sins, he experienced the breaking of his bones by the hand of God. If you do not confess your sins, there will be a spiritual withering within you-a spiritual hardening inside you. Confess. Put content into your words. Do not generalize. Tell the Lord what you have done. And confess your sins one to another. When I discover the sins that I have committed against my brother, then I must confess that sin. Yes, confess your sins. Repent of your sins. Be sorrowful for your sins. But know why God forgives your sins! Not your repentance and not your confession; but the miracle of the cross.
Christ took all our sins upon Him. He took all the sins of God’s elect and chosen, as He stood in the place of those whom the Father gave Him. John 10: “I lay down my life for the sheep.” All that we were and all that we did was transferred to Him, and now I bear it no more. My sins cannot be reckoned to me because they were laid at the door of my Savior. Behold, the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!
The glory of forgiveness belongs to God.
That is why He forgives. But how does He forgive?
The answer to that question is this: He will not remember my sins, but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ.
God forgives fully. God forgives completely. God forgives generously. We read in the Scriptures: “But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to the servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes upon his feet…. For this my son was dead and is alive again.”
God casts our sins behind His back. He will not deal with us as those sins deserve. He forgives in such a way that the matter is settled. All my sins are forgiven in such a way that He does not see me in them anymore. Psalm 103, “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” I and the guilt and penalty for my sins will never meet. God has forgiven me fully in His Son. God is not as a father who forgives begrudgingly, who has his child return back and says, “Well, you rebel. You finally came to your senses, huh? You shamed the whole family. You squandered my whole life’s earnings. Well, you had better get back into the house. What will the neighbors say if I kick you out.” No. God lavishes forgiveness. It is amazing. From His heart He forgives. He says, “I don’t see them anymore. I see My Son upon the cross. I see your sins gone. I see you white as snow.”
No, that does not mean that God will not chasten us for our sin. We need that. Nor does it mean that the consequences of our sin are going to escape us in this life. David knew about that. He knew that he would bear the consequences of his sin throughout his life. And those consequences can be awful. One moment of thoughtlessness can cause a person to weep for years. What was so cheaply bought, so cheaply given-the payment for that can come in later life in terms of years. Sin is a monster. Sin is not a cuddly plaything. Sin is not a cheap little enjoyment that comes with no cost. The scars of this monster sin will be with you for life. It is evil in terms of this life. Very often the consequences for those sins in terms of this life cannot be undone. Do not sin cheaply.
The smug soul which comes before God and says that sin is not such a big deal can never know the living God. It is the soul of the contrite, the soul which truly grieves over his sins by the grace of God, that is the soul that will hear the words, “God will not hold them against thee.” When I go to Him in prayer He will not be cold to me. He will not stand off. He will not refuse to associate with me. The vilest, the worst sinner in his own eyes, in the way of Jesus’ blood and righteousness is clean in God’s eyes.
Still more. God does more. He not only forgives generously, but He grants me the righteousness of Jesus Christ as my own righteousness. He not only takes away our sins, but He puts something in their place: the righteousness of His Son. This righteousness of His Son refers to the perfect obedience that His Son gave to God throughout His whole life and especially upon the cross. Perfect obedience, according to the letter of the law and according to the spirit of the law-for Jesus, as He stood in our place, not only bore the wrath deserved for our sins, but as He stood in our place He also fulfilled the demands of the law for us. He loved the Lord His God. And He loved the neighbor as Himself and fulfilled the law perfectly. It is that righteousness which becomes my dress, my robe, my clothing for all eternity. I am clothed in the righteousness of Christ, washed and forgiven and given a garment to wear of fine linen, the righteousness of the saints. We wear it now. I am as fully in Christ, forgiven, right now, as I will ever be throughout all eternity. How full, how gracious is forgiveness!
God points us to the cross and says, “There is your forgiveness.” The holy God, whose glory blinds the angels and whose majesty burns up sin, says, “Look to that cross. There I have covered your sins. There I have removed your sins by giving My Son to die. There I have given to you wonderful robes of righteousness. I removed from you the robes which you had which were eaten with worms and defiled with the dirt of your sin. And I give to you the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.”
What a glorious truth! The forgiveness of sins in the blood of Jesus Christ. I will never be condemned before the tribunal of God.
What a glorious truth, and what a glorious Word when, through the gospel, by the gift of faith, God gives us to hear: “Thy sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.”
Do you hear those words spoken by Christ in the gospel to you? Do you hear them as they are preached to you from the pulpit of a faithful church? Do you stand before God undone and unclean with but one plea: the blood of Jesus Christ avails for me. All other hope is sinking sand. On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand.
Then you have this blessing which, even though all hell should rage about you today, you cannot lose. Your sins are forgiven. Not, I hope they are forgiven. All my sins and my depraved nature is forgiven only for the sake of Christ.
Then I hear Him say, as only He can say these blessed words: Go in peace.
Let us pray.
Father, we confess that the work of salvation is Thy work powerfully performed by the Holy Spirit based upon what Thy Son has done once upon Calvary, founded in Thy eternal love and grace. Salvation is of the Lord, and oh, what a glorious salvation: the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of Thy grace. May this treasure thrill our hearts, sustain us in trial, and be the source out of which we give to Thee unending praise. Amen.