This article was written by Rev. Cornelius Hanko and published in the November 15, 1982 issue of the Standard Bearer.
Question 56. What believest thou concerning "the forgiveness of sin"?
Answer. That God for the sake of Christ's satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long; but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may never be condemned before the tribunal of God.—Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 21
There is therefore now no condemnation, not in this present time nor in the great day of days as I stand before the tribunal of the Most High God! My sins are forgiven! I am righteous in Christ!
So often Jesus sent the weeping, sin-burdened sinner joyfully on his way with the assurance, Go in peace, thy sins, though they are many, are forgiven thee. Our Lord's first cry on the cross expresses his deep concern for his lost sheep and his willingness to take our guilt upon himself, when he prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Pentecost, with Peter's sermon and the anxious response from many hearts, "Men and brethren, what must we do?" was a powerful evidence that this prayer was heard.
Of all the benefits of salvation that might have been mentioned in the Apostolic Creed and in this Lord's Day, the fathers chose this one great, fundamental blessing as the core of the riches of grace, the basis upon which God bestows all the other blessings upon us. It is for this reason that our Catechism treats the subject of the forgiveness of sins no fewer than three times in the course of its instruction (see questions 60 and 126). This follows the pattern set before us by the Lord himself, when in the model prayer he teaches us to present our personal needs in just three petitions, the central one of which is, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
O the blessedness of him whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputes not iniquity!
This gift of forgiveness means all the more to us when we consider that it is experienced only in the church and in the communion of saints. The world knows nothing about forgiveness. The unbeliever is never forgiven, nor can he forgive. He is never sincerely sorry for his sins, never confesses them before God and the neighbor, except for an empty "I'm sorry." It is within the church and under the ministry of the word that the Holy Spirit convicts of sin and guilt, arouses in us a sincere cry for mercy, and causes us to hear the powerful, reassuring voice of Jesus saying, "Thy sins are forgiven thee!" It is for that reason that the church of all ages confesses almost in one breath: I believe a holy, catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins. It is in that blessed confidence that we can forgive our neighbor, even as God in Christ has forgiven us.
My sins . . . my depravity.
Sin is a small, ugly word. It encompasses a host of evil desires, thoughts, words, actions, and deeds. I experience every day anew my Father's care and protection, bounties of natural and spiritual blessing far above all that I could ask or think, yet I use those very gifts to turn against my God. I know so very well that whether I eat, or whether I drink, or whatever else I may do, I should do it all to the glory of God, yet I fail in that so miserably. I miss the mark of God's glory both inadvertently and often deliberately; I transgress his commandments both unconsciously and consciously; I am guilty of offending God even in my holiest undertakings.
Still worse, sin is like a cruel tyrant that takes us in his grip and forces us to willful submission. Scripture compares sin to a lion that crouches at the door of our heart, ready to pounce in at the earliest opportunity, in order to devour us. Once in its power, one sin leads to another, each one worse than the former, for sin breeds sin unto death. Willingly we heed the lures of Satan, like a child that is drawn to a puddle of water, or like a moth that flits dangerously near the flame of fire. Our sins rise up against us, prevailing day by day, for we are evil, born in sin.
Leprosy was a dread disease in Israel. This was true mainly because of its symbolical significance. A leper was a most miserable wretch. A small spot appeared somewhere on the body and grew into a festering, stinking sore. As the disease progressed, the face and limbs became distorted into ugly shapes, the extremities rotted away, while the victim lay in mortal agony, longing for release in death. What made the disease even more horrible was the fact that the leper was an outcast, driven from God and from men, living in the caves of the hills and forced to cry out when anyone approached him, "Stay away, for I am unclean, unclean!" Isaiah describes Israel's spiritual condition as that of a wretched leper (Isaiah 1:5, 6). David has this in mind in Psalm 51 when he pleads that the Lord may wash him with hyssop, for only then will he be fully healed, white as snow. There were many lepers in the days of Jesus. The land seemed to be full of them. That also speaks of our spiritual condition better than words can utter it.
I stand before the tribunal of God. Shamefacedly I must confess that I have grossly transgressed, and do transgress all his commands. As for my sinful self I do not, I cannot keep a single one of them. The convicting power of the Spirit of Christ in my conscience forces me to confess that I deserve nothing less than God's just and eternal condemnation in hell fire. Thank God, that same Spirit also creates in me a true and lasting sorrow for my sins.
There is also an "Esau's sorrow." I fear that. So readily we are sorry, not because we have sinned against the most high majesty of God, but rather because our sins have found us out. We failed to get away with it, so that now we experience the bitter consequences. We tend to blame everything and everybody but ourselves. We lie awake at night thinking up excuses to condone what we have done. Although we most strongly condemn that deed in others, we can readily justify ourselves. We may even be angry with those who accuse us. And as soon as the consequences have somewhat faded away we are ready to return to our old "habits." Scripture calls that a sorrow unto death (II Cor. 7:10).
There is also a godly sorrow, wrought by the Spirit of God in our hearts, whereby we cry out with David, "Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight." The burden of guilt oppresses us; the shame of having offended God with our transgressions humbles us in dust and ashes. From the depths of hell, as it were, we cry for mercy, for cleansing, for peace.
"But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us," says Paul in Ephesians 2:4, 5. Our Catechism echoes that joyful cry by saying, "That God for the sake of Christ's satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long."
There is a divine forgetting. Not as if God forgets as we do because of our human limitations. That would be contrary to God's eternal immutability. God loves his people with an eternal love in Christ Jesus. That love is so great, so deep, so broad that he gave his only begotten Son to die the accursed death of the cross in our flesh. It is on the basis of that meritorious work of Christ on the cross that God casts our sins into a sea of eternal forgetfulness, as if they never existed.
Christ made a perfect satisfaction for all our sins. Satisfaction! Amazing word, rich in its value for us! Our Lord satisfied God's justice by his atoning sacrifice of willful obedience in our stead on the cross, so completely "as if I had satisfied in my own person for all my sins and fulfilled all righteousness" (Communion Form). The righteousness of Christ is so completely ours, that we have the right to the adoption of sons, the right to call God our Father, the right to be heirs of eternal life. Who is the condemner? It is God who justified now and forever!
"I will, be thou clean!"
There was a certain occasion when a leper came running into the city after Jesus. Little did this leper realize that as Jesus passed him outside the city power had gone out of the Lord drawing him in faith after him. We may marvel at the audacity of this fellow, who leaves his isolation, runs among the crowd in the city, and falls down before Jesus in humble worship. He does not call Jesus "Master," but addresses Him as "Lord." He adds, "If Thou wilt Thou canst make me clean." What an amazing confidence! There is no doubt in his mind that Jesus can cure the "incurable" disease, but only the question whether he will have compassion on such an unworthy wretch. Readily we join him in the plea, "O Lord, be merciful to me, a leper!"
We read that Jesus touched him. Imagine that! The holy, sinless Jesus condescended to touch that festering, diseased sinner! He took upon himself our deadly diseases. "Surely, he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows" (Isaiah 53:3). He set his face steadfastly toward the cross, willingly spread his arms on the accursed tree, and out of the darkness of hell cried out, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me, the Leper?"
A single word sufficed for the leper who lay at Jesus' feet, even as for us: "I will, be thou clean."
How blest is he whose trespass hath freely been forgiven,
Whose sin is wholly covered before the sight of heaven.
Blest he to whom Jehovah imputeth not his sin,
Who hath a guileless spirit, whose heart is true within.
I believe the forgiveness of sins. This does not mean that my struggle, my battle against sin is finished. In a sense, it has just begun, for sin still wars in my members. That struggle I must carry on as long as I live, even to my dying breath. But grace abounds. According to the new man in Christ I hate sin, can crucify the flesh, as painful as that is, and can in principle live a new and holy life before God.
In that confidence I can anticipate the coming of that great day of days when the great white throne will be set up. God who has begun a good work will surely finish it. He rewards his own work in me with his testimony, "Come, thou blessed, inherit the kingdom prepared for you." Amen.