the forgiveness of sins
For our penultimate study of the Apostles’ Creed, we continue our exploration of Article 3. Having addressed the Holy Spirit and the local and universal church, we now come to the forgiveness of sins. In order to understand this doctrine, we will spend most of our time in Ephesians 2:1-10 before moving briefly to Romans 8.
WHAT IS SIN?
Within Ephesians 2:1-3 we are given a glimpse of what sin is, the sources of our temptation to sin, and the consequences of sin.
Any discussion over the forgiveness of sin must, presumably, begin with first defining sin. John very plainly defines sins in 1 John 3:4: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” Sin is lawlessness, an act of violating the commands of God. Such transgression is a statement of pridefully rejecting God’s divine design. As the Creator of heaven and earth, God alone establishes the laws and regulations for the cosmos, but by sinning we rebel against His ways.
Yet the great tragedy of sin comes with also understanding the sheer goodness of God’s laws. For instance, God’s command to worship Him alone is not megalomania; it is true reality. If God is God, all other things cannot be God. In fact, worshipping another god would be like choosing to receive a Hot Wheel Ferrari instead of an actual one. Idolatry is the rejection of reality in favor of a mirage. Therefore, God’s command to worship Him alone is an act of loving-kindness toward us. The breaking of the good law of God can only be rightly called evil. Indeed, one of the primary uses of God’s law is to shine light upon our sins, to show to us just how much we fail to meet God’s perfect standard.
Ephesians 2:1 uses two words: sins and trespasses. Sin signifies missing the mark or falling short. It conveys the idea of an arrow or spear throw failing to hit its target (i.e. Romans 3:23). Similarly, a trespass is an act of going beyond what is permissible or of deviating from the proper path. With the idea of sin, we must confront the reality that we are not good enough, and with trespasses, we find that we actively walk in disobedience. Generally, therefore, we find the two main categories of sins presented here: sins of omission and sins of commission. Too often, many only think of sin as an action to commit, yet sin can very much also be inaction, a refusal to obey. Returning to the First Commandment, the refusal to worship other gods is only one aspect of the command; the LORD must also be worshipped, loved with all our heart, soul, and might. A lack of idolatry is not enough; our worship must be given to the true God. Thus, we can break God’s law by both doing what ought not to be done and failing to do what should be done.
Sources of Temptation
Another point to note from Ephesians 2:2-3 is the enemies which lead us into sin. Three of which are listed.
First, Paul states that while we were dead in our sins we were “following the course of this world.” The natural path of the world, therefore, is one of sin. From the moment that Adam and Eve chose to break God’s law in Paradise, they established the pattern for all of their descendants. Like our ancestors, we rebel against God by nature. We, as the collective of humanity, are fallen, entrenched in sin. The world’s inclination is toward disobedience rather than obedience. We must expect the normal course of the world, of which we are a part, to be toward sin.
Second, Paul also claims that we were “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” This “prince” is Satan. His name signifies Accuser, and he is also called the devil, the adversary. While it is fashionable today to avoid discussing Satan, we would do well to note clearly that he is a great enemy of humanity. The first sin in Genesis 3 came as a result of his temptation and lies. Jesus was Himself tempted by the Serpent. Like a roaring lion, Satan demanded to sift Peter like wheat. Indeed, he is continually at war against God and His people. In Ephesians 6, Paul states that our warfare is against Satan and his fallen ones, not against flesh and blood. It is foolish of any Christian to underestimate the danger of Satan as our enemy.
Yet as pervasive and dangerous as the world and Satan are to us, both are secondary to the primary source of our sin: ourselves. In verse 3, Paul says that we all once “lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” Our flesh, our own natural desires, is warped toward sin. Even if the world and Satan did not tempt us, we would still wander from the commands of God on our own. By nature, we desire the immediate pleasure of disobedience rather than the everlasting joy of righteousness.
The Consequences of Sin
Finally, Paul also informs us of sin’s consequences.
First, we learn that sin kills. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” To the Romans, Paul wrote that death is sin’s well-earned paycheck (Romans 6:23). Once again, we look back to the first sin to understand the start of this pattern. Before eating the fruit, life in Eden was free of death, but death came as a direct consequence of sin. Even today, we continue to die because the world is broken by the curse of sin.
But the curse of death is spiritual as well as physical. While under the slavery of sin, we were dead in sin. That is, we were cut off from the very source of life, the Creator. While dead in sin, we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” By nature signifies the core of our being. Fundamentally, we were separated from and enemies of God. Our sin not only warrants our physical death; it requires the flood of God’s wrath to be unleashed upon us. And because He is the Eternal One, the price of our sin against Him is eternal. Hell, therefore, is not an unjust truth. Rather, it is the proper response to offending the Holy One.
The only question that should really concern us is why we might be spared from such a fate? If we are truly traitors against the King of kings, Lord of lords, and God of gods, who sin out of our own desire to do so, why should we be spared from death in this life and the eternal death that follows?
HOW IS SIN FORGIVEN?
We do not merely believe in the reality of sin; we believe in the forgiveness of sins. With all Christians throughout time, we look fully at the horrid reality of our trespasses against the LORD and yet declare with the utmost faith that our sins are forgiven.
God made us alive.
We were dead in sin, but God makes us alive with Christ. Just as Jesus rose to life from the grave, so too are we raised with Him. Once we were spiritually dead even while our bodies lived (although our bodies would have one day followed suit), but now we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places even while our bodies will still die physically (although our bodies will one day be raised to life). This present spiritual transformation, therefore, is the present reality of the physical fulfillment still to come. Nevertheless, reality it is. God has brought us to life out of death. Our God has saved us from our sin.
But again, how?
In Christ. By grace. Through faith.
We are saved in Christ. God’s forgiveness may be free, but it is not cheap. It comes at no expense to us, yet it bears the highest price tag in all of history. “’Oh man,’ says Augustine, ‘consider the greatness of thy sin, by the greatness of the price paid for sin’” (Watson, 135). The work of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, was our redemption, our forgiveness. By His incarnation, God the Son became the new Adam. By His crucifixion, He willingly suffered the wrath of God as a substitute for us to be spared. By His resurrection, He triumphed over sin and death, becoming the firstfruit of the resurrection. By His ascension, He sat down at the Father’s right hand as our Mediator, Intercessor, and great High Priest. By His second coming, He will destroy all sin for good, consummating our eternal life with Him. Christ alone could do these things. By no other name can we be saved.
We are saved by grace. This substitutional work of Christ is given to us freely. “It is the gift of God, not a result of works.” Our salvation by grace, therefore, is unilateral. God has come down to us. He has redeemed us. He has broken the curse of sin through His own body. This is the gospel, the good news. While we could not reach up to God to save ourselves, God reached down to save us. This is the foolishness and power of the cross. Foolishness to those perishing, but the power of God to those being saved.
We are saved through faith. By what means do we receive this grace of salvation in Christ? Through faith alone. We believe, calling upon the name of the LORD to save us, and are saved. We look to Christ, in trust, for forgiveness, and we are forgiven. While this sounds simple enough, its practice is utterly contrary to our nature. We perpetually want to be saved through faith and… For the Galatians, it was faith and circumcision. For many today, it is faith and baptism. The added element is ever-shifting, but we always desire to contribute to our salvation. But the call of Christ is to repent (turn away from sin) and believe. By this belief, this faith, we are saved. Through faith, we latch ourselves onto the grace of God poured upon us through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. By this path alone are our sins forgiven.
WHAT SORT OF PEOPLE OUGHT WE BE?
In our study of Christ’s second coming, we observed Peter’s words regarding how we ought to live in light of the coming judgment: “since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness” (2 Peter 3:11). Let us apply that same framework here. Since we have been saved from the punishment of sin through the gracious and merciful love of God in Christ, what sort of people ought we be?
To answer this question, we will turn to Romans 8. It appears to me that Romans is essentially Ephesians 2:1-10 detailed into an entire letter. Romans 1-7 covers much the same ground as Ephesians 2:1-9, while in Romans 8 we begin to view the purpose for which we are saved. While we could easily just cite this entire chapter as being how we ought to live in light of our forgiveness, I will attempt to be slightly more detailed.
First, we are rooted and grounded in God’s love for us. This theme permeates the entire chapter but let us grab the beginning and ending in particular. Paul first begins by declaring that those who are in Christ Jesus are free from condemnation. This may, in fact, be the most difficult verse of the Bible to believe. After all, the implication of the verse is that we are well-aware of our justified condemnation before God. Yet even through this knowledge that we deserve nothing but wrath, we look to God for grace. In Christ, that grace is received, and we no longer stand condemned to die. Indeed, we now boldly declare that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
Brothers and sisters, the reality of these truths is quite difficult to walk in daily. Plenty of people are convinced of their own condemnation via their sin, and much more firmly believe in God’s unending love for them. Few, however, hold the two truths in tandem, yet this is what Christianity requires of us, belief in both sin and in forgiveness. Without an understanding of the horrors of our sin, we begin to believe ourselves entitled to God’s love. Without an understanding of the vast riches of God’s love, we dissolve into a legalistic frenzy of trying to be good enough or else pure nihilism. Like so many truths, one cannot be properly understood without the other. We must hold both together tightly, and the fruit will be in us a demeanor of deep unworthiness mingled with steadfast and confident assurance.
Second, we will live by the Spirit. As we’ve stated previously, Article 3 of the creed focuses upon the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, but as is the nature of the Spirit, His work is often one of essential and steadfast support from the background. Such was the case as we studied the holy, catholic church and the communion of saints, and the same is true here. We are forgiven in Christ. Amen! Yet our forgiveness is also a Trinitarian act of God. The Father willed our forgiveness. Jesus purchased our forgiveness. The Spirit then applies our forgiveness, enabling us to walk in communion with God once again. All true followers of Christ are indwelt with the Spirit upon their conversion. Indeed, the Spirit’s presence is necessary for our new birth in Christ. “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (8:9). And “for all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (8:14). By the Spirit, we are raised to life in Christ by His grace through faith.
If it is our indwelling of the Spirit which testifies of our forgiveness, how then do we know that we have the Spirit?
We live according to the Spirit.
This means first having our mind set upon the Spirit, which is life and peace (8:6). Paul contrasts this with having our mind set on the flesh, which is death. When our thoughts are constantly and consistently upon our own desires and passions, we are walking dead men. Such thoughts yield no life, only death. Setting our minds upon the Spirit, however, is life and peace. To think about godly things, things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8), brings peace and assurance.
Living by the Spirit also means that we “put to death the deeds of the body” (8:13). In other words, the Holy Spirit enables us to kill our sin. John Owen describes what this violence against sin is and is not in his book The Mortification of Sin. First, he warns that mortification of sin is not: 1) “to utterly root out and destroy it” (such a deed will never occur in this life), 2) “just the changing of some outward aspects of sin”, 3) “just the improvement of our natural constitution”, 4) just the diversion of sin, and 5) an occasional victory of sin. Rather he argues that the killing of sin is: 1) “a habitual weakening of the lust” (note: every sin is in some sense a lust, a perversion of love), 2) “a constant fight and contention against sin”, and 3) “a degree of success in the battle.” Without this constant battle against sin, we must conclude that we do not truly believe in the sinfulness of sin. With the Spirit dwelling inside of us, we simply cannot continue sinning without thought as we once did. The fruit of our forgiveness is our passionate desire to kill our sin.
Of course, to be clear, mortification of sin and walking with the Spirit are the fruit of our being forgiven not the means by which we are forgiven. We fight sin because we love our Savior and know what our forgiveness cost Him. The killing of sin by the Spirit is, therefore, a necessary fruit of being forgiven, but it in no way earns our forgiveness.
We believe in the forgiveness of sins by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, who has now given us His Spirit that we may have life in Him and the strength to kill the sin that still clings to us. Brothers and sisters, the forgiveness of sins is a truth to be believed, not a work to be accomplished.
Do you believe?