Any Sin Can Be Forgiven
WHAT WE STILL AND WILL BELIEVE
Article by Marshall Segal, Staff writer, desiringGod.org
I believe in . . . the forgiveness of sins. (Apostles’ Creed)
An awful storm fell on the still fragile church in Rome. The emperor had demanded that Christians be arrested, their books burned, their churches destroyed. Only those who defied God and made sacrifices to the Roman gods were released. Many bowed in fear, with blood on their hands. Some were even clergy.
Like Daniel, however, many refused to bow to any god but one, relinquishing any claims they might have had on this life, knowing that they had “a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34). And some of them did lose it all — their freedom, their possessions, their families, their very breath. Executed for pledging allegiance to Jesus. Others watched, and wept, from prison, knowing full well that they might be next. The blood of their martyred loved ones left painful stains on their hearts.
Then, like the unusual calm after an awful storm, the persecution subsided. Christianity was once again tolerated in Rome. And as the fires died down, and the dangers evaporated, those who had betrayed Jesus, those seeming sons and daughters of Judas, showed up to church again. What would the church do? Should those who were steadfast under trial, even under the threat of death, receive back those who had abandoned them and denied Christ? After all, Jesus himself had warned, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father” (Matthew 10:33). Could betrayers, even betrayers, be forgiven?
Who Can Be Forgiven?
That sensitive, disturbing, and volatile dilemma in the fourth century eventually prompted the addition of four words to the Apostles’ Creed: the forgiveness of sins was not included in earlier versions of the confession, perhaps for hundreds of years. And then those early believers were forced into the deeper, more harrowing waters of sin and mercy.
Some insisted that the recanters were unforgivable, irredeemable, damned. Others pleaded that the fountain of blood at the foot of the cross could cover even this — even these. In the end, according to Ben Myers, the church decided that
failures in discipleship — even dramatic public failures — do not exclude a person from the grace of God. As Augustine insisted in one of his many sermons against spiritual elitism: “We must never despair of anyone at all.” (The Apostles’ Creed, 115)
Through faith and repentance, those who had deserted Christ were welcomed into Christ and heard the unthinkable: “Your sins, which are many, are forgiven” (see Luke 7:47). Thus, the church drove a merciful, durable, and scandalous stake into the soil of our confession: when others might recoil from this outrageous mercy — ignorant of the lumber in their own eyes, ready to cast their self-righteous stones, to cancel fellow sinners because of their failures — we believe in the forgiveness of sins.
What Is the Forgiveness of Sins?
What is the forgiveness of sins? While simple on the surface, those words represent at least three profound truths: First, man, every man, is born in sin, enslaved to sin. “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). “No one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12). We are totally depraved. Second, our sin deserves the righteous wrath of God. God cannot be God if he simply excuses or overlooks our wickedness. Judgment must and will be served. And third, for all who believe and repent, judgment has already been served — when the Son of God absorbed the wrath of God so that the children of God might be reconciled to God. In Christ, God has “forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13–14).
We could explore any number of texts that walk the valleys of our sinfulness and soar the heights of our forgiveness, but Micah 7:8–9 in particular has become a treasured guide over the years.
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord will be a light to me.
I will bear the indignation of the Lord
because I have sinned against him,
until he pleads my cause
and executes judgment for me.
He will bring me out to the light;
I shall look upon his vindication.
SINFULNESS OF MAN
I have sinned against him . . .
When we confess, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” we confess the sinfulness of our sin and our need for forgiveness — one of the most controversial and beautiful truths Christians believe. Through Adam, sin and death have spread like a virus to every last one of us, save for one. We each say with King David, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). And being born in sin, we were dead in our sin (Ephesians 2:1). It is not easy to overstate the wickedness and helplessness of our souls apart from Christ.
To understand, much less receive, the promise of forgiveness, we must know ourselves as wretched sinners. We must acknowledge that “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Hebrews 11:6), that even any good deed we did prior to believing was, in fact, sin (Romans 14:23). Sin was the air we breathed, and the god we served. And if God had not intervened, it would have dragged us, lifeless and hopeless, to hell.
WRATH OF GOD
I will bear the indignation of the Lord . . .
If we did not repent and believe, hell would not have been an overreaction. It would have been fitting, just, even good. The wrath of God never falls rashly or wrongly. We deserve the indignation of the Lord. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) — a death we cannot imagine or bear. Not simply lifelessness, but an existence so dark, so horrible, so excruciating, that we would beg for lifelessness (Luke 16:24). When we confess, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” we declare the righteous, holy justice of the wrath of God.
Those who refuse to turn from sin will receive the just and awful reward of their vile rebellion. “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). As Daniel promises, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Revelation 14:11). And if forgiveness was not possible, such would be our future.
FORGIVENESS OF SINS
. . . until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me.
Micah’s sentence, however, does not end in indignation — not for those who belong to Christ. “I will bear the indignation of the Lord,” Micah writes, “until he pleads my cause and executes judgment” — not against me, but “for me.” The God who could righteously reject us, shame us, torment us, even destroy us, instead advocates for us. In Christ, he pleads our cause before his own throne, his own justice, his own righteous wrath. Forgiveness is possible because, at the cross, the mercy of God met the wrath of God to unveil more of the glory of God. “For my name’s sake I defer my anger,” the Lord says, “for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you” (Isaiah 48:9).
The very name of Jesus promised that he would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Even before he was born, God had said he would bring “salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77). Three decades later, Christ paid for this salvation with his blood, “which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
And then he left his disciples, even to this day, with a mission: “that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). And so we confess and bear witness that no matter who you are or what you’ve done — no matter how profoundly or publicly you have failed him — you can be forgiven in Christ. Nothing but his blood will cleanse you. But know this, that no matter what this world or your own insecurities may say, his blood can surely cleanse you. Forgiveness is far more than possible.
Forgiveness in a Cancel Culture
As simple and familiar as the promise of forgiveness may seem, has the mystery and wonder of forgiveness ever been more relevant? We, at least in America, have suffered a plague of forgivelessness. Our cancel culture waits, with eager and awful expectation, for the next slip, the next error, the next affront — or it grows impatient and flips through history for someone to put on trial — and then unleashes the full weight of its indignation (at least for 24 hours).
How much of our so-called “social” media has become a kind of digital guillotine, a wild and unpredictable mob of executioners, foaming at the mouth, awaiting the next cancelable offense? If you spend enough time among them, you might begin to doubt if anyone can be forgiven.
We, however, believe in the scandal of forgiveness. We still and will believe that “if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We still and will believe that “he has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13–14). We still and will believe that, because of Christ, he will plead our cause. He will execute judgment for us. He will bring us out to the light. We believe that we, even we, can be forgiven.
Marshall Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have two children and live in Minneapolis.