One of the tenets of Christianity, found in every faith tradition and denomination, is that God forgives sins. Many examples of this belief can be found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and in the liturgy of the Church.
The most widely used creeds in Christian liturgy are the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. One or the other (or both) are recited in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and many Protestant Churches. In these creeds, which are summaries of the Christian faith, the worshiper acknowledges belief in the forgiveness of sins.
What does it mean to declare, as a worshiper does when reciting the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”? What – and whose – sins are in mind? Who is doing the forgiving? Does the forgiveness of sins make any difference in a person’s life?
When a Christian claims to believe in the forgiveness of sins, is she talking about her sins, her neighbor’s sins, or everyone’s sins? Are these sins little or big, foibles or atrocities?
The scope of forgiveness is vast. Jesus said that forgiveness would be proclaimed to all nations (or people groups). St. John wrote that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Forgiveness is universal in scope but conditional in application. The condition is faith in God through Jesus Christ.
No sin is by nature beyond forgiveness (except the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, but that is a topic for another time). Many people find the extravagant breadth of Christian forgiveness objectionable. Should even Hitler, if he has expressed “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ,” be forgiven? What about the sexual predator? The murderer?
I have had to be clear about this in my own mind. The forgiveness of sins is easy enough to believe when you are sitting in a church pew. It is another matter when you are sitting in a jail cell with a man accused of molesting a two-year-old child or a woman who shot her sleeping husband and then decapitated him so she could be with another man. In such situations, could I honestly say that I believe in the forgiveness of sins?
Yes. I have been able to believe in the forgiveness of sins – even in those cells – because I believe in the God of Jesus. I am, however, in doubt about whether the people I came to see believed. They didn’t stop making excuses long enough for me to find out, but people who believe in the forgiveness of sins make confession, not excuses.
When Christians, reciting the creed, say that they believe in the forgiveness of sins, it is important that they believe in the forgiveness of other people’s sins, not merely their own. Do we believe that God will forgive our enemy’s sins? If we do not, it is likely that we have fallen into the trap of thinking that others need to be forgiven while we need only be excused.
When we say that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, are we assuming that forgiveness resides in God’s domain but not in our own? Another way to put the question is to ask if God is the only forgiver or if others are included? When I acknowledge the forgiveness of sins, do I recognize that I too am called to be a forgiver?
God is surely the Primary Forgiver and it is his forgiveness that is central in the Scripture and in the creeds. But belief in the forgiveness of sins does not end at God’s throne. It descends to my desk chair, to the break room in the factory, and to the family kitchen. Jesus and his apostles will not allow us to exclude ourselves from the responsibility to forgive, anymore that they exclude us from the need to be forgiven.
Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” To believe in the forgiveness of sins is to believe that I need to be forgiven, not merely excused, that God will forgive, and that I must do likewise.
(First published by Gannett.)