Summary: The tenth phrase of the Creed: "The forgiveness of sins"
THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS
TEXT: 1 John 1:5-10
We’re almost there. For months now we have been preparing for our journey into mission by examining the map left to us by the ancients…the Apostle’s Creed. We have gone through controversial lines, misunderstood lines, historical lines, and confusing lines. By contrast, this week we come to a simply difficult line…a line we basically understand and, I think, a line where we have at least a gut level of agreement. When it comes to the forgiveness of sins, however, we find it terribly difficult to actually do.
When we say, I believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are making a powerful statement about the nature of God. Sin is simply an offense against God…something that goes against the basic goodness of the universe. We know in our earthly dealings that to offend the boss or the company president often means painful consequences. We might be written up, denied a promotion, or fired. To say, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” is to say that I believe the nature of God is so kind and loving that God will not hold me eternally accountable, as long as my heart is in the right place. That is pretty remarkable.
There are really two parts to the issue of forgiveness: God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness toward one another. This morning we are just going to deal with the first part, and we’ll get to the other one in the weeks after Easter. We’re dealing with God’s willingness to forgive us first, because that understanding is the foundation of our ability to forgive one another or ourselves.
All across the Christian church…Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants alike…we believe that God can and does forgive sins. We differ, however, in the mechanics of how that actually works. I don’t know enough of Orthodox theology to speak to that branch, but I do know that a primary difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants is in the notion of penance. We both believe that forgiveness follows honest repentance and confession of sin. Because Jesus asked for forgiveness for those who tortured and executed him saying, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” we also leave room for forgiveness for those who are ignorant of their sin…who truly believe what they are doing is right, even if their actions are truly misguided.
If you want something interesting to talk about over dinner sometime, take that shoe of forgiveness and try it on Osama bin Laden sometime.
Both Protestants and Roman Catholics believe that good works follow forgiveness, but we differ significantly in why we think that is. Those of you who began life as Roman Catholics know this well. After you confess your sins and forgiveness is given, you must do penance…that is the priest will tell you what good works you must do to balance out the sin you have committed. In the Roman Catholic system of belief, you participate in your forgiveness by working off your sins, in a way.
In Protestant thought, however, it looks different. We believe that God’s forgiveness is a free gift of love…we don’t need to pay for it or activate it in some way by what we do. We believe that good works will naturally follow forgiveness for two reasons. First, as an outpouring of gratitude for the gift we have received, and secondly because if we are truly sorry for what we have done we will actively try to be better the next time around.
Now, in one sense the Roman Catholic tradition may well be more suited to human nature. At least in American culture, gratitude is in short supply. We, who have more than most of the world can even imagine, spend most of our time in prayer asking God for things and precious little time thanking God for what we have been given. When my sister-in-law got back from two months in Zambia a few weeks ago she said that the most noticeable cultural difference was that in Zambia “there was no whining.” There was 50% unemployment, most locations were only accessible by foot, and a third of the women were HIV-positive, but, she said, “there was no whining.” No complaining. They just went about their business, grateful for what they did have at any given moment.
Now in defense of the Roman Catholic system, I think there are many of us that could be well served by responding to the news of our forgiveness with saying the Lord’s Prayer 50 times. It might help us in the gratitude department. But I disagree with the notion that God requires such action in order to forgive.
Forgiveness is an act of love, and love is not love unless it is freely given from the heart. To pay for it with our works takes away the gift and makes it an earned wage. It is no wonder that in the medieval church, the notion of penance came to exactly that sort of abuse, so that people were literally encouraged to pay for forgiveness for themselves and their loved ones. Such money built St. Peter’s in Rome, and such abuses finally pushed the monk, Martin Luther, to the place of splitting with his church and beginning the Protestant Reformation.