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The forgiveness of sins

Sin, forgiveness lose their meaning in secular age

THE statement of the Creed concerning the forgiveness of sin poses some difficulty to the modern reader because both sin and forgiveness have lost their meaning in the secular and superficial age in which we live.

The evangelical theologian Bernard Ramm aptly entitled his book on sin, An Offence to Reason. This title is appropriate because it insightfully captures the sensibility of the modern man, his attitude towards what is traditionally called sin.

For the modern man, the concept of sin is indeed an offence to reason because it injures his pride and sense of greatness. We have therefore invented a number of very clever euphemisms to replace the word sin: weakness, habit, orientation, tendency, and fixation.

Our age also has a penchant for psychologising sin, and for understanding sin not so much in relation to God but in relation to ourselves. The unhappy result of all this is that sin has lost its sinfulness before God, being reduced to a psychological problem that can be treated. Once sin is psychologised in this way, salvation becomes nothing more than therapy. God himself is sometimes envisioned as a great therapist who is able to sort out or fix all our problems.

Just as sin has lost its true theological meaning in our modern culture, so forgiveness too has been grossly misunderstood. To begin with, forgiveness is something that most of us find difficult to give or receive.

I think it was William Willimon who very insightfully said that it is very “unnatural” for us to either forgive someone or receive forgiveness. It is “unnatural” for us to forgive because we are “naturally” vengeful. And it is “unnatural” for us to receive forgiveness because we are “naturally” self-righteous. We find forgiveness difficult simply because sin has perverted our nature and created a barrier of self-righteousness and pride.

However, there is another way in which the idea of forgiveness has become problematic for us. In our modern world, forgiveness is no longer understood in relation to God, to sin, and to justice. As a result forgiveness becomes sentimentalised and trivialised: it is understood superficially as letting people off. To understand the importance of the credal statement about the forgiveness of sins, we must recover the biblical-theological understanding of sin and forgiveness.

In order to understand what the Bible means by sin, it is helpful to examine some important words that it uses to refer to it. The Bible sometimes describes sin as a “transgression”, a word which signifies stepping across or going out of bounds. Transgression refers both to the things that we do and the things that we have left undone.

Another key word the Bible uses to describe sin is “iniquity”, and this has to do with perversion or distortion that is located at the very heart of the personality. While transgression refers primarily to some act which a person performs or fails to perform, iniquity deals with the disposition of the heart, the nature and attitude of the sinner.

The primary meaning of sin in the Bible is encapsulated in the concept “rebellion”, for in the Bible, sin has to do not just with the nature and inner disposition of man, but more fundamentally with the relationship between man and God.

Romans 3 therefore provides us with the definitive description of the nature of sin when it characterises sin as rebellion: “All have turned aside, together they have become worthless … There is no fear of God before their eyes” (3:12, 18). Sin is here described as the autonomy that man wishes to exert over against God his Creator, the rejection of God’s sovereignty and rebellion against his authority. The Bible does not trivialise sin by reducing it to a psychological state, but insists on the gravity of sin by pointing to its true nature and by emphasising that sin is transgression against God Himself.

Only when we appreciate the gravity of sin will we fully appreciate the greatness of God’s forgiving grace which is extended not just to a group of individuals but to all, because all have sinned.

The most powerful portrayal of God’s attitude towards the sinner is found in the famous parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11ff). In fact, the whole of Luke 15, which tells of three losses, provides us with profound insights regarding God’s attitude towards sinful men and women, for these parables tell us that God is ever willing to welcome back sinners. The parable of the prodigal son has much to teach us regarding sin, repentance and forgiveness.

No forgiveness of sin without repentant heart

This parable, which is sometimes called the parable of the waiting father, teaches that God is always waiting for His children to return, and that He is always ready to forgive them when they repent. The warm reception that the father gave to his prodigal son when he returned, and the elaborate feast that he organised to welcome his son home, shows that God’s forgiveness of the repentant sinner is total and complete. This parable brings out the astonishing nature of forgiveness – forgiveness is all about the God who takes us back to Himself when we have nothing to say for ourselves, no excuses to make, and no self-justifications to offer.

We cannot think of sin and forgiveness without reflecting on the meaning of the Cross of Calvary, the Cross on which Jesus Christ sacrificed His life for atonement of the sins of the world. The question regarding the necessity of the Cross for the forgiveness of sin has been frequently asked in the history of theology, and something of an answer is provided by a 12th century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury, in his famous treatise regarding the incarnation (Cur Deus Homo?).

Space does not allow the examination of Anselm’s arguments in detail, but for Anselm the necessity of the Cross for the forgiveness of sins has to do with the intricate relationship between sin, divine justice, and the mercy of God. Because sin is the great offence against God, sinners (the offenders) justly deserve punishment from God for their misdeeds. God, however, wishes to be merciful to sinners; but the question is, how can He do this without compromising justice and without in some sense trivialising the offence itself.

The incarnation and the Cross provide the answer in that through His substitutionary death on the Cross, Christ has taken our place and endured the punishment on our behalf, so that we might in turn receive God’s mercy. Thus, because the demands of the divine justice are met by Christ’s substitutionary death on the Cross, God can now show mercy without having to compromise His justice.

Even if we are not entirely satisfied with Anselm’s explanation, we must acknowledge that the Bible, especially the New Testament, very clearly teaches that between the sinner and forgiveness stands the Cross of Golgotha. In a culture in which sin and forgiveness are not taken very seriously, Christians often forget what it took for God to make His forgiveness available to sinners. The Cross of Christ brings home the profound truth that God’s forgiveness for our sin is never cheap, and that we cannot simply move from sin to forgiveness as if our sin is of little consequence and as if forgiveness comes easily.

We can only attain forgiveness through the Cross of Christ, that is, through the loving self-sacrifice Christ, the One who knew no sin but who willingly took upon Himself the sins of the world. Forgiveness therefore has to do with the great, unfathomable action of God in Jesus Christ that reverses the entire situation for the sinner who comes by faith to Christ.

The Reformers were right to stress the very important fact that the forgiveness which is freely given and at great cost to God in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, is something which we cannot earn. Forgiveness wins our response and makes available to us new and marvellous possibilities even as it opens our hearts to the Spirit of God and teaches us how to forgive others. But, as the Reformers are careful to point out, none of these things can be seen as a pre-requisite or as a prior condition of God’s forgiveness; rather, in light of the Gospel, they must be seen as consequences, the result of having received the forgiveness of God.

This, however, must not lead us to the wrong conclusion that the Bible does not present any conditions for forgiveness. On this matter the Bible is very clear: there is no forgiveness of sin without a truly repentant heart which acknowledges the sinfulness of sin and renounces it with all its power and with honesty.

As theologian Emil Brunner has so poignantly put it, “To wish to have God’s forgiveness without this renunciation of things contrary to God, that is crazy frivolity: that is to carry on a mischievous game with the grace of God.”

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. A member of Fairfield Methodist Church, he is now worshipping at the new Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands