One of the central features of the new covenant is the glorious reality of forgiveness of sins. In Hebrews 8, Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant is quoted at some length (Heb. 8:8-12). But several chapters later, it is quoted again, but this time in abbreviated form. This abbreviation shows what aspects of the new covenant are being emphasized as central. There are two such aspects—they are the internalization of the law (Heb. 10:16) and the remission of sins (Heb. 10:17-18). It is therefore not surprising to find the forgiveness of sins included in the Creed.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the virgin, Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hades. On the third day He rose again from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Summary of the Text:
“And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (Acts 26:15–18).
The apostle Paul is recounting his conversion, and how the Lord Jesus appeared to him. He asked the Lord who He was (v. 15), and received the answer that it was Jesus, the same one he was persecuting. Jesus then told Paul to stand up so that He could make him a minister and a witness, both of what he had seen and what he would in the future see (v. 16). The Lord promised to deliver him from the people and from the Gentiles, those to whom he was being sent (v. 17). As he preached to them, there would be three aspects to their coming into their salvation, which is described as “forgiveness of sins” and an “inheritance among the sanctified.”
Three Stages of Conversion:
The first thing is that his preaching would “open their eyes.” The second is that they would be turned “from darkness to light.” The third is the transfer; they are moved from the power of Satan unto God. This is what it means to be ushered into the forgiveness of sins.
To have your eyes opened is here to be made aware of your need. A person in the dark who has had his eyes opened becomes aware of the fact that he is in the dark. But to be in dark despair is no solution; it is simply the awareness of the need for a solution. The second thing is to turn them toward the light, which is the gospel message. At this point they are made aware of the fact that they are in the dark here, but the light is over there. The third stage effects the actual change, where the person is moved from the dominion of the dark into the dominion of the light. That dominion of light is described as receiving forgiveness of sins, and the inheritance of the saints.
First, we are in the dark looking at the dark. Then we are in the dark looking at the light. After that we are in the light.
Giving the gospel to people who have not had their eyes opened is like turning blind people toward the light. Giving the law to people without preaching grace is like healing a blind man down in the depths of a dark cavern. How would he ever know he was healed?
The holiness of God’s law, God’s righteousness, is what opens eyes. The message of Christ crucified and risen is what shines the light. When the person’s eyes are opened, then they should be turned. The last step is what actual conversion accomplishes.
What Forgiveness Entails:
Forgiveness does not mean that God will now accept your excuses. Forgiveness does not mean that God has somehow lowered His standards. Forgiveness does not mean that things weren’t that bad to begin with.
Forgiveness, being grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has to be complete and total. You are cleansed. You are washed. There is nothing in between you and God. In the Book of Life, there is no asterisk by your name. If someone is forgiven at all, they are forgiven completely. There is nothing shaky about it. All your sins, past, present, and future, have had anvils tied to them all, and have been thrown into an ocean of mercy, there to drown at their leisure (Micah 7:19). In the resurrection, you will be at the eastern end of forever, and your sins will be at the western end (Ps. 103:12). This is the good news.
“In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).
“In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14).
Freely You Have Received:
Those who are recipients of God’s gifts truly are people who are prepared to give in the same way they have received (Mark 10:8). If we received forgiveness, but are surly when required to extend it, this demonstrates that we never really grasped the concept. A man who refuses to forgive is not a man who has had his eyes opened, or who has been turned from darkness to light, or from the power of Satan to the power of God. No, he is just a man who just said that this is what happened. We can see whether it happened or not in the forgiveness he shows.
“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).
“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14–15).
So is forgiveness of others a “work” we must perform in order to earn our own forgiveness? Not a bit of it. Rather, it is simply a recognition of the truth that when God rescues a man from drowning He does not leave him on the bottom of the pond.