"Be it known unto you, therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. Beware, therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets: `Behold, ye despisers, and wonder and perish.'" Acts 13:38-41.
W. Hay Aitken: I HAVE chosen for my contribution the great central doctrine of the forgiveness of sins, just because it seems to me that it is central, all else in Mission preaching leads up to this, or flows from it as a natural sequel. The acceptance of this specific spiritual benefit marks the true turning-point in the experience of the human spirit, and is the criterion of genuine success in the Mission preacher's work.
There is perhaps a tendency in the present day to put moral decision in the foremost place, as the thing above all else to be aimed at; but while it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this, and, indeed, we can reach no semblance of success without it, yet this is rather the condition precedent of a true conversion than the conversion itself. If the awakened soul gets no further than the making of a solemn decision to forsake sin and yield himself to God, he is, indeed, repentant, but can it be said that he is a new creature, that old things have passed away, and all things become new?
His decision is good and right, as far as it goes; but surely however honest and genuine in itself, it needs to be reinforced by the entrance of a new spiritual force, the dynamic of distinctively Christian experience; and it is when pardon has been claimed through the vision of the Cross, that, all barriers being removed between the soul and God, the new life - the resurrection life flows into the soul, and renders it capable of living out the decision at which the will has already arrived.
Here, too, we find the spring of that grateful love, which is so prominent a feature of all true Christian experience. We love much because we have had much forgiven, and all the more because that forgiveness has reached us through the triumph of Divine Love in the Cross. It is only the forgiven soul that can live out St. John's doxology, "Unto Him that hath loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood; and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father; to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever, Amen." (Rev. 1:5-6)
3 Reasons I believe in Forgiveness of Sins
W. Hay Aitken: I BELIEVE in the forgiveness of sins. How can I do anything else with such an explicit statement [in the Bible] as this before my eyes? Because I am a Christian I must needs believe in the forgiveness of sins, in as much as this doctrine is the very essence of the Gospel, and in order to doubt it I should have to turn my back upon the most emphatic teaching of the New Testament Scriptures. Nay! worse than this, I should have to disown the primary object of our blessed Lord's Incarnation and atoning death, and no longer to regard Him as "a Prince and a Saviour," exalted by the Father to give repentance and the remission of sins.
And, may I say, because I am a Churchman, I believe in the forgiveness of sins; for I cannot join in the daily offices of our Church, without repeating this confession in the [Apostles] Creed. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that Christians belonging to other denominations believe in this doctrine any less earnestly than we do; but I want to remind my fellow Church-folk that our Church speaks with no uncertain voice on this subject, but demands it of us in our confession of faith addressed to Almighty God, that we should confidently affirm "I believe in the forgiveness of sins."
And because I am a man - a poor, frail, sinful man, I believe in the forgiveness of sins, for were I to abandon this faith, I should find nothing between me and despair. If there be no such thing as forgiveness, what hope can there be for any one of us? Our own hearts tell us that the Apostle is right when he affirms that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). How then can we hope to be accepted by the God whom we have sinned against, and failed to glorify, unless His grace has made some adequate provision for the forgiveness of our sins?
Yet although all this seems so clear and obvious, that one would think there could be no question about it, it is surprising how vague the ideas of some, who would profess and call themselves Christians, are upon this subject.
I well remember a dear friend of mine, who was a very earnest evangelist, describing to me a conversation that he had with a lady of this class upon the point. He had been pressing upon her the Gospel of forgiveness, when she almost petulantly replied,
"I don't believe that we can have our sins forgiven us in this world."
"Oh!" replied my friend, "is that so? Then I suppose that you are a Roman Catholic, and believe in Purgatory!"
"Indeed," she replied, not without some show of indignation, "I am nothing of the kind, and I don't believe in Purgatory."
"Well, then, my dear lady, will you tell me - when and where our sins are to be forgiven? If there is no such thing as Purgatory, they cannot be forgiven there; and it is obvious that they cannot be forgiven on the Day of Judgment, for that will be the time for judging them, and not the time for forgiving them; and you cannot take them with you to Heaven; for there is no sin there. Will you tell me then when and where they are to be forgiven?"
The good lady looked very embarrassed, and after a moment's silence replied frankly enough,
"Well, I never thought of that!"
But she went up to her bedroom that night thinking of nothing else.
"Surely the man is right; they cannot be forgiven in Purgatory, for I don't believe that there is such a place; nor can they be forgiven on the Day of Judgment, for that is the time when they will be judged. Oh my God, if they are ever to be forgiven at all, I see that it must be now. Then, Oh my God, forgive them now!"
So she flung herself on her knees by her bedside and sought for present pardon until she had found it. And when she met my friend the nest day, she was able to tell him, with a bright face and a joyous heart, that she knew now that "the Son of Man path power on earth to forgive sins." (Matt. 9:6)
Perhaps there are few that would commit themselves to so rash and ill-considered an assertion as that lady made; but there are many others whose views and theories on the subject of the forgiveness of sins are just as faulty and misleading as were hers, though they take a different form from hers.
Two Common Misconceptions about Forgiveness
There are two forms of error, lying in opposite directions, that the seeker after forgiveness needs to be warned against - the one has to do with practical experience and the other to a large extent with theories.
The first is the mistake of the man, who, when he is awakened to a consciousness of sin, and realizes his own guilt and danger, allows himself to feel almost as if he were endeavoring to extort a pardon from a reluctant God. With fervent entreaty and agonizing supplication, he pleads for a pardon, which he knows that he does not deserve, and for a salvation which he has no right to hope for, as though he had to move the heart of God by his prayers, and induce Him to adopt an attitude of reconciliation and forgiveness.
But he who thus draws near to the Mercy-seat is the victim of a defective and misleading conception of God, and of the relation in which He stands to us, through the redemption that His love has provided in Christ. God does not need to be moved to adopt an attitude of reconciliation. "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them" (2 Cor. 5:19). He on His side is reconciled already. In accepting the atoning work of His Blessed Son on our behalf, it is not too much to say that God has adopted an attitude of forgiveness to all the world. It would, therefore, be true to say that God on His side has forgiven the whole world, and yet it would not be true to say that the whole world is forgiven.
Here lies the second and theoretic error of which I spoke a moment ago. It is not an uncommon thing to hear it affirmed that because God has revealed His forgiving love towards all mankind, therefore, all mankind are already forgiven, although they may not know it. It is, therefore, the function of the Evangelist, according to these teachers, to let people know that they are forgiven, and, by insistence on this fact, to endeavor to lead them into a higher and worthier life.
But those who accept this theory need to be reminded that there are two parties to an act of forgiveness, if that act is to be complete. There is, on the one hand, the person who forgives, and, on the other, the persons who accept the forgiveness. Where a reconciliation is dependent upon an act of forgiveness, both these elements must needs be present: there must be a readiness on the side of the party that has been wronged to forgive, and an equal readiness on the side of the party that has done the wrong to accept the forgiveness, and that on whatever terms the other may prescribe; or else there can be no reconciliation.
Even so God may be ready to forgive, nay, rather He may actually have forgiven the whole world by providing a full and free pardon in Christ for all; yet if man will not accept that pardon on God's own terms, it cannot be true to say that he is already pardoned.
Example of the Indian Mutiny
Let us find an illustration of the point in our own [British] "island story." Some of our elder friends in this congregation can recall, as I can myself, the horrors of the Indian Mutiny [an 1857 rebellion against the British rule in India]. When that tragic struggle was drawing to its close, but before the fighting had altogether ceased, Queen Victoria was advised by her ministers to publish a "Deed of Amnesty," as it was called, addressed to all the Mutineers of India - that is, a deed that conveyed her full and free forgiveness of all who had taken part in the mutiny, with the exception of Nana Sahib, and one or two other arch-criminals.
An Example of the First Error
The ink was no sooner dry on that parchment, signed by our Queen, than her pardon of her rebel subjects was a settled fact. Hence it would no longer have been necessary, had it been possible, for any one involved in that rebellion, but anxious to escape the consequences, to make his way into the Queen's presence, and, falling at her feet, with tears and supplications to implore her mercy. Surely the Queen's answer would have had to be
"My Amnesty has been already granted; my word has been pledged, and, therefore, your personal appeal to my womanly compassion is little short of an insult, implying, as it does, a doubt of my pledged word."
This may serve to illustrate the first of the two errors that I have been endeavoring to expose - the mistake of the man who, in seeking for forgiveness, feels and acts as if he had to move the heart of God to an act of forgiveness, when that act has already taken place.
An Example of the Second Error
But it is with the second of these two errors that we are now concerned, and we shall find an illustration of it in the further consideration of this historical event. Let us suppose ourselves to be in India at the time of the proclamation of the "Deed of Amnesty," and that we are allowed to accompany the representatives of our forces in an attempt to make it known to the rebels. We approach a stockade held in force by the enemy.
A flag of truce is waved and the commander of the Mutineers presents himself for a parley. We tell him of the good news that the great Queen has granted a free pardon to him and his. We tell him that he has but to accept the Queen's pardon and go forth a free man. But the infatuated rebel treats our offer with scorn. "So long as there is breath in my body or blood in my veins," he cries, "I am the sworn enemy of you and your Queen. I'll have none of her pardons. I fight out this battle to the end, whether that end be victory or death."
Our friendly counsel and remonstrances are fruitless, and we have to withdraw, and leave that rebel to his fate; and the very next day the stockade is stormed, and its rebel garrison slain to a man, and that with all the less compunction just because they had had the offer of the Queen's pardon and rejected it.
Now surely it would be ridiculous to say that these men were pardoned, and yet it would be quite true to say that the Queen had pardoned them; but her pardon, instead of doing them any good, rendered her representatives all the more relentless; and we may truly say that the Queen's pardon, rejected, sealed their doom.
An Example of Mercy
But let us pursue our journey of mercy. We approach another stronghold and again we sound a parley. This time we are met by a man who knows full well that his cause is lost; and who sees nothing before him but certain death. To him the Queen's proclamation comes as glad, good news. As the nature of the document is explained to him, we see his face lit up with a smile of joy and relief. He grasps the hand of the officer, and in another moment gives the order to his men to lay down their arms.
Nothing remains now but to claim and receive the printed forms that carry with them the assurance of pardon and safety, and now not only has the Queen pardoned these rebels, but they themselves are actually pardoned, and no British officer could order any one of them to execution, whatever he might know of his special guilt amidst the horrors of the mutiny.
Here was no room for uncertainty; it was not a case of trusting or hoping for a pardon that might or might not be conceded. The act of pardon was already an accomplished fact, and now that the conditions attached to that act of pardon were complied with its application to the individual offender was no doubtful issue.
And what were those conditions? Just those that were obviously necessary in the nature of things. The Mutineer who desired pardon had to give up his rebellion, lay down his arms and make his submission, and having done so to throw himself on the Queen's grace and claim his pardon. That was all.
The Gospel Pardon
Surely it is on the same terms that the Gospel pardon is freely offered to all, for what have we here but repentance and faith, that "repentance whereby," as the Catechism puts it, "we forsake sin," and that "faith whereby we steadfastly believe the promises of God," and claim their fulfillment.
"Be it known unto you therefore, Brethren, that through this man is proclaimed unto you the forgiveness of sins, and by him all that believe are justified from all things" (Acts 13:38.) Thank God for that twice-repeated word, "ALL, ALL that believe."
If I knew that there was a poor degraded drunkard in this gathering whose life has been blighted, his home destroyed and his children beggared by his cruel selfish vice, I would still say to him, "Brother, in spite of the loathsome sin that has spoilt your life, you are included in that `ALL.'"
If I knew that there was a poor fallen outcast [woman] before me now, from whom all the true grace and comeliness of womanhood has fled, to her I would like to say, "My child, my poor lost child, a world that is none too pure itself may turn its back upon you, and pass you by with haughty scorn, but Jesus never turned His back upon a repentant sinner yet; you, too, are included in this `ALL.'"
Justified from All Things!
"Justified from all things." To how many does this seem too good news to be true; but it is true.
I remember a man long years ago describing to me how he went home from the Mission service in an agony of conviction. Sleep was out of the question, and as he lay before God pouring out his confessions, it seemed as if all the many sins of his life were passing in review before his mind's eye.
"They were black enough and numerous enough, yet it seemed to me," said he, "as I reflected, that for most of them there might be forgiveness; they were just such sins as probably many other sinners were guilty of, and, if they could be forgiven, why should not I? But there were some particularly dark stains in the record of my past life, and as I recalled them I felt sunk in despair. How was it possible that they could ever be forgiven? My heart sank within me at the thought of them, and for a long time I continued in a state bordering on despair. And then there stole into my mind the memory of a dear old familiar text, `The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth from ALL sin'; and I left the whole lot - great and small - inside that wonderful word, `ALL.'"
"Beware, therefore, Brethren, lest that come upon you which is spoken of in the Prophets, 'Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish!'" What! "Perish" in spite of that wondrous "Deed of Amnesty" proclaimed from the blood-stained Cross. Nay, rather just because of that amazing provision of Divine love.
Surely that must be the explanation of that terrible word, "THEREFORE." You remember how in our illustration the Mutineers who rejected the Queen's offer were all the more mercilessly dealt with, just because they had received that offer, and rejected it. And if, to use the Apostle's words in this passage, we put the offer from us, and "judge ourselves unworthy of eternal life," what is there left for us but that terrible word "perish."
Right across the broad road that leads to destruction a kindly Providence has, as it would seem to me, erected a notice of warning in that solemn word, BEWARE! BEWARE! BEWARE!; and when we ask what the danger is, we find ourselves warned not against some grave and shameful breach of the moral law; not against murder or adultery or theft; but against a much more common sin than any of these - the sin of despising proffered mercy and refusing to accept the pardon which is already secured.
There might have been some sort of excuse for the sinner, considering his human frailty and liability to be overcome by hostile influences, if no such gracious provision of Divine love had been made. But the provision has been made, and we despise it when we do not accept it. God save us from this sin of sins!
But if your hearts tell you that you have been guilty of this sin all through your past life, and are guilty of it still, why persist in this guilt?
"Why will ye die, O House of Israel!" (Ezek. 33:11). Why perish within sight of mercy? God's great "Deed of Amnesty" is set forth before your eyes in a crucified Saviour, it is proclaimed to a guilty world from yonder blood-stained Cross. On His side the forgiveness is already complete. Why not lay down the weapons of your rebellion, and make a full surrender of yourself to Divine Love, and claim the pardon that is already yours.
This is no doubtful matter; it is not an open question whether God will or will not pardon you. He Himself, in His infinite love, has provided the atonement; and He would be dishonoring the work and person of His Son if He did anything else but pardon you.
"By Him all that believe are justified from all things." Take these words home as God's message to your weary sin-sick heart, and dare to sing:
"O Love, Thou fathomless abyss!
My sins are swallowed up in Thee:
Covered is my unrighteousness,
Nor spot of guilt remains on me;
While Jesus' blood through earth and skies
Mercy - free, boundless mercy - cries."
A sermon by W. Hay Aitken, Norwich, England, 1925
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