Forgiveness of Sin
"And Peter said to them, 'Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins . . .'" (Acts 2:38, Revised Standard Version).
How are we forgiven, and where do baptism and Jesus Christ fit in? The Bible says God forgives our sins and mistakes. Through faith in Christ's sacrifice, we have all of our sins and the guilt we harbor entirely removed. We are then completely clean in God's sight (Acts 22:16). God is perfect, and He can forget perfectly. It is comforting to know that He not only forgives our sins, but totally forgets them. "For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more" (Hebrews 8:12).
David was awed by God's complete mercy and forgiveness. He wrote, "For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us" (Psalms 103:11, 12).
Through the prophet Isaiah, God tells us of the forgiveness that follows when we repent and turn to Him: "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good... Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (Isaiah 1:16-18).
Paul made it clear that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9). He then explained how we are cleansed and made right with God: "And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (verse 11). Jesus Christ cleanses the church "with the washing of water by the word" (Ephesians 5:26).
This washing away of the accumulated filth of our sins is symbolized by baptism. Before Paul was baptized, Ananias said, "Why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). By plunging our entire body under water, we are symbolically cleansed throughout.
The water is only a symbol. In reality, the cleansing and reconciliation to God are by the blood of Jesus Christ, our Savior (Romans 5:8-10; Acts 20:28). Without His sacrifice, our sins cannot be washed away.
Leaving guilt behind
Fortunately, God does not keep a scorecard with good deeds on one side and bad ones on the other. Our slate is wiped clean of every sin if we confess and repent of our sins and ask for His forgiveness. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1: 9). No good deeds, no physical effort of our own, can ever repay God for the precious gifts of forgiveness and the cleansing of our guilt.
It is normal for us to feel guilty when we sin, and the pain of penalties for past mistakes often lingers. Guilt, however, need not remain as debilitating baggage dragging us down. Guilt can spawn needless feelings of inferiority and bitterness. After we repent, God totally forgives our sins, and there remains no reason to feel guilty unless we sin again. Even then, we should immediately repent, ask God to forgive us and put the guilt behind us. God, in His infinite mercy, applies Christ's sacrifice to cover and remove our sin and guilt.
Being confident of God's forgiveness, we are told to "draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water" (Hebrews 10:22, NIV). A clear conscience is one of the most wonderful gifts God gives His children.
King David was a man after God's own heart (Acts 13:22). He was not perfect, but he did strive to prevent sin from separating him from God. In Psalms 139:23, 24, David prayed, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." He also prayed: "Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me" (Psalms 51:9, 10).
How is sin forgiven?
Sin is the transgression of God's sacred law (1 John 3:4). The penalty we all have earned for sinning is death (Romans 6:23). This cause-and-effect relationship is absolute and automatic. The penalty of death must be paid. We cannot jump out of a 10-story building, futilely trying to break the law of gravity, without paying a penalty for our actions. In the same way, when we break God's spiritual law, the death penalty for doing so must be paid. Forgiveness does not mean removing the penalty for our sins, but the transferring of the penalty from us to someone capable of accepting and paying that penalty in our place. The question is, who pays that penalty?
Because all have sinned and the death penalty hangs over everyone, God knew that a Savior was needed to die for the sins of the world. Notice Peter's words: "...You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, ... but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you" (1 Peter 1:18-20).
The apostle John spoke of God's great love for us and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that pays the penalty for our sins, making forgiveness possible. "He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world" (1 John 2:2); and, "In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:9, 10).
Because He set a perfect example and, as the very Son of God, lived a sinless life in the flesh, Jesus Christ became the perfect sacrifice for humanity's sins.
Perfect love and sacrifice
The incredible truth is that "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). Even more amazing is that God loved us when we were still sinners; we were still under the death penalty when He called us to conversion (Romans 5:8).
Jesus Christ has a deep, burning desire to help mankind share eternity with Him (Matthew 23:37). Paul said we should be "looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2).
It was anything but joyous to go through scourging and crucifixion, an incredibly brutal and torturous form of execution. Isaiah 52:14 prophesied that Christ's appearance would be "disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness" (NIV). Psalms 22:1-20 describes some of the thoughts and feelings of anguish and pain Jesus faced when enduring His betrayal and death. Yet He had the spiritual vision to look past His own suffering to the joy of spending eternity with others who would choose the road to eternal life (Hebrews 12:2).
He willingly accepted the curse, the death penalty meant for us, "having become a curse for us (for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree')" (Galatians 3:13).
Jesus Christ's sacrifice was so complete that no sin ever committed is too big or small for God to forgive (Psalms 103:3). Paul called himself the chief of sinners, yet God used him powerfully after his conversion (1 Timothy 1:15). Throughout the book of Psalms, King David praised God's mercy. He saw God's mercy as endless, filling the earth (Psalms 119:64).
Such examples inspire great hope. No matter what our background or past mistakes, upon true repentance and baptism God promises complete forgiveness.
Humanly devised teachings of psychology can make us feel good about ourselves and seek to improve our self-image. None of these human efforts, however, can forgive sin and completely remove the spiritual penalty associated with it. Only Christ's sacrifice can permanently cleanse and forgive us.
Burying the past
As God forgets our old sins, so should we. With our old sins now buried in the grave as pictured by baptism, we should not go back and dig them up. Considering the symbolism involved, this would be akin to grave-robbing. God is not a grave robber, and He does not want us to be.
For some, grave-robbing in the form of continuing to fret about past sins may seem like repentance. However, God wants repentance, not penance. God does not want us to throw old sins back into His face by continuing to hang onto them. He expects us to trust Him and His desire to completely forgive and forget.
We need to learn from our mistakes, but, once we have done so, we need to leave them buried in the past. We are to "walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). An individual who does this, in God's eyes, becomes a new person, someone completely forgiven as though he never sinned.
It is important that we see ourselves this way. We must focus on the future. Paul expressed this concept in Philippians 3:13, 14 when he said, "...One thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
Now that we have seen how forgiveness is possible through Christ's perfect sacrifice, we need to understand how we can stay the course. In the next chapter we will see how to stay on the road to eternal life.
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