[B33] The Apostles' Creed: The Forgiveness of Sins

Faith, and faith alone, appropriates forgiveness. God loved the world, and gave His Son, that whosoever believeth in this Son, and the work He did, as the result of which He is able to forgive, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. We are justified, that means forgiven, and adopted into the family of God’s children by faith alone. Let us thank God that there is such a certain ground of forgiveness.

Table of Contents

33. The Forgiveness Of Sins

Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice; let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If Thou, Lord, shouldest work iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared. — Ps. 130:1—4.

We are gradually drawing near the close of our studies on the Creed. Indeed today we have come to the last subject of the Third Article which has to do with life as we now know it. What great, cardinal truths these are of which the Creed treats. They stand out like the giant patriarchs in some primeval forest. Not to go any farther back than the Third Article, we have the person and work of the Holy Spirit; the founding of the Christian Church; and the character and activities of its members. But now we close this earthly order with a statement about forgiveness of sins. Does this not seem to be an anticlimax? Is it not a weak ending to a great series of thoughts? Not so. All that God has revealed of Himself in the Gospel, of which the Creed is the summary; the establishment of the church; the administration of the means of grace, all have but one aim, — to lead us to believe in His ability and willingness to forgive the sins of the children of men.

Let us take up for earnest, prayerful study in this morning’s hour the words of this statement of our Creed — I believe the forgiveness of sins.

1. Sin

The first point which needs to be candidly, fearlessly considered is the sin for which we need forgiveness. We will never get anywhere with the thought of forgiveness till we have an adequate consciousness of the nature and consequences of sin.

There are many who are troubled very little about forgiveness, because they have never had driven home to them the enfeebling, blinding, corroding, cancerous, damning, body and soul destroying nature of sin. In the past twenty-five years we have lost very much in appreciation of the real seriousness of sin. It is said that the Greeks and Romans, with all their culture had no true conception of sin. Very much of the culture of our age is being employed to destroy the consciousness of sin. Science and philosophy have combined to give it a naturalistic explanation. To them sin is nothing but some of the imperfections still clinging to us as we have advanced along the path of development. To others sin is nothing but the series of circumstances which necessitates the struggle to overcome. Very many consider sin as something to be reckoned with, indeed; but nothing series, — something like a blotch on the skin, a pimple, or a boil, inconvenient, and unsightly, it may be; but not series.

Sin, s-i-n, a very small word; but oh, what a meaning. Sin, oh the darkness and the stench of it. You have read of volcanoes in violent eruption, the dark clouds rolling out and eclipsing the sun, and hiding the beauties of the landscape; rivers of lava flowing down the valleys, destroying golden harvests, and teeming villages; the stifling, sulphuric fumes blighting what the swifter elements had spared, and spreading the general desolation. Somewhat like this is sin. It has its original source in the Stygian depths where the prince of darkness has his reeking Ebon throne. The clouds of dust and smoke this fire of hell has set afloat have wrapped this whole world in a sickly haze of unreality. The pestilential vapors of this miasm of sin have covered the earth, and made it a charnel-house of bleaching bones. Like some of the fabled monsters of primeval times, with their poisonous fangs dripping with the blood of their innumerable victims, and, with insatiable paunch, dragging their slimy bodies over the length and breadth of the earth, devouring the sons and daughters of men; sin, as a hydra headed, insatiable monster, largely dominates the earth. From its nostrils of fire are breathed forth death and destruction. Wherever cries of woe are heard, wherever human hearts bleed, wherever human tears fall, wherever human forms grow pale and totter and fall by the way, there sin has done its deadly work. There is scarce a garden plat on the face of the earth that sin has not made into a grave. There is not a hamlet or a secluded vale on this terrestrial globe from which sin has not wrung cries that have ascended to the court of the Majesty on high. Sin has been the subject of some of the deepest deliberations in the council chambers of heaven, and has led to some of the most decisive actions ever inaugurated on earth by the holy Trinity. And the last great act in the drama of earthly human history will have to do with the final settlement of the problem of sin.

In spite of all this, the modern world has largely lost the consciousness of sin. Crime is a violation of human laws, and is punishable by human courts. Of this the dullest wits take some notice. But sin is offense against holy, eternal God. Policemen are not always capable of discerning it. It is not always in contravention of human statutes. Hence many are but little concerned about it.

According to a good many people, there are very few things in our modern life which deserve the opprobrious name — sin. Sin is diluted. It is given high-flown names, so that the villain, especially if well-to-do, is saved his respectability. Sin is no longer a moral problem, the name of a spiritual condition and its expression in action. In the modern view, sin is the result of physical relations. Sin is now, supposedly, gotten rid of by amputation at the hands of the surgeon, — or it is corrected by trepanning the skull, or perforating the cerebellum.

This modern attitude of lightness toward sin which characterizes so much of our modern life is not in accord with some of the very best thought of even the non-Christian world. The deepest, sanest thinkers of every age, and every clime, have busied themselves with this thing we call sin. They have ever recognized it as the fruitful source of all human ills, the one great curse which needs to be cured. And some of them at least did not think it wise to remain in ignorance concerning it. Epicurus, though without the Christian understanding of the nature of sin, declared that the beginning of salvation was in the knowledge of sin. And Seneca praised the thought. If men today knew more about the nature and consequences of sin they would be more in earnest about salvation.

Sin! how shall we ever define it? Men have catalogued sins, they have made all kinds of distinctions, but it is questionable whether thereby they have attained a clearer understanding of sin itself. Sin in its essential nature is singular, not plural. It is the utter corruption and demoralization of our whole human nature. Sin is separation from God the author of life, in true unity with Whom alone human life can be lived in peace and harmony here below, and attain an ultimate destiny of blessedness and glory above. Sin is rebellion of the creature against the creator, and against His laws, which are but the expression of the inner harmony of his own nature, and the purpose of which is to lead us to live in harmony with Himself and our own truest nature.

There are some things which we learn to know better in their consequences than in their nature. Sin is one of these things. At every turn, in every circumstance of life, we meet the consequences of sin. The leprosy which disfigures, and finally destroys, human life is sin. The deadly gangrene which is eating at the life of the nations is sin. All that makes life cold and hard, all that petrifies the emotions, that eats out the soul piece by piece, that perverts human tastes and leads their possessors to wallow in the mire, and delight in swill, — this is sin. It is as universal as human life. No purely human life has ever escaped its withering, death-dealing touch.

All the great children of God have had a clear vision of the exceeding terribleness of sin, and a profound sense of the awfulness of its consequences. The prophets, the Baptist, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Bunyan, and all who have in any way approximated them, knew the terrors of an accusive conscience. They knew what sin is. They knew the meaning of David’s words, “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord.” Sin to all enlightened, sensitive souls is a great engulfing wave; from which by mere human effort, there is no possibility of escape. But it is not the deep-dyed sinner who recognizes this. Only those with Spirit-anointed eyes begin to see this. Only when Jesus Christ, the incarnation of purity, begins to live in us, and we begin to see through His eyes, do we begin to understand aright the true nature of sin. Life is like a mountain the top of which is reached by a winding path. As we make the circles ye see the same landscape, but from a different height, which somewhat affects its appearance. As we climb the heights with Jesus, and look down upon the things of the world from the more rarefied atmosphere of advancing spirituality, we begin to be able to give a proper appraisement to the nature of sin.

One point is well established. No man can have an adequate appreciation of the compassionateness of mercy till he knows the exceeding sinfulness of sin. A superficial view of sin is inevitably followed by a shallow view of Christ and His Gospel.

What the world needs today more than anything else is an adequate conception of sin. And there is some evidence that God is leading the world, as it faces the consequences of its own madness, to think more seriously on this subject. What the Church needs is a deeper consciousness of sin. We need to be jarred out of our easy-going complacency by having the undimmed searchlight of God’s truth thrown athwart the bared recesses of our inner life. What we need is the deep, pricking, gnawing consciousness of personal sin. If we could be given such a vision we would get a shock which would sober us. And if we do not allow ourselves to be thus disillusioned, the probability is that one of these days we will get a shock which will stupefy us. Lord give us the vision which, though it will smart and grieve, will lead to a cure.

2. The Cure

Let us now turn from the disease to the cure. There is but one cure for sin and that is forgiveness. Let us consider what forgiveness means, and how it is possible for God to forgive sin.

Human ingenuity is great, and its power for carrying out its devices is sometimes wonderful. But all human skill and power has failed to provide a cure for sin. All kinds of contrivances have been tried, but in vain. Fanatic priests have stood by their heathen altars, assailing the skies with piercing cries, wringing their hands in impotent agony, while their altars dripped human blood; but all in vain. Men, heathen, and sometimes professedly Christian, have set themselves prodigious tasks; but whether able, or not able, to execute their plans, it has never availed to take away sin, no not one, not even the smallest. If they did succeed in pacifying conscience, it was a false peace; one of Satan’s numerous devices for keeping people helpless in his bonds. Sin can not be cured in any such way. Water cannot drown sin; fire cannot burn it; no concoction compounded in the laboratory, or brewed in witches’ cauldron, can cure sin. There is only one cure, it must be forgiven.

A rather noted English literary man has suggested, rather in jest we trust, that the best way to escape the galling memory of sin is to buy sleeping medicine. Many have apparently invested heavily in this kind of potion. They are exceedingly somnolent with respect to sin. The inner man is practically dead to the accusing voice. But to have a sleepy, drowsy conscience does not mean that sin is cured. Some of the most dreadful diseases give little evidence of the beginning of their death-dealing presence. To make us insensible to sin’s presence does not cure it, it must be forgiven.

Another distinguished man, following, no doubt, the purely materialistic theory of mind, namely, that each act of memory, each object recalled, represents an actual impression made on the substance of the brain, or the presence of a very minute fiber, has suggested that it may yet be possible to locate these separate points of memory, and, if they are disagreeable, and we wish to be rid of them, a way may be found of dissolving them. But if we could all, at will, drink of the waters of forgetfulness, it would not cure the disease of sin. Because we may have forgotten some of the meanness of which we may have been guilty, does not say that it, and all its consequences, have passed out of existence. God’s memory never fails. He never forgets. The way to be rid of sin is not to forget it, but to have it forgiven.

Forgiveness! Well, what is forgiveness? It is pardon. It is failure to exact the penalty which in justice might be demanded of an offender. Forgiveness is to deal with an offender as if he had not offended. True forgiveness is a covering up of the past. More, it is a cleansing of festering wounds, it is a purification of life, it is a reception of the forgiven one into fellowship with God who forgives, forgiveness makes the recipient of it partaker of all the Divine blessings.

You remember the story of the mother who was importuned by her little boy to explain how God can forgive sins. She illustrated the subject by asking him to bring his slate on which she knew he had been writing the day before. Finding the slate clean she asked the boy what had become of the problem he had written on it. He explained that he had wiped it out. But where is the writing, asked the mother? I do not know, replied the boy, I wiped it out, it is gone. Perhaps that is about all that can be said, so far as our real understanding is concerned, of forgiveness. It is a truth to be accepted on God’s Word, rather than understood. Of this we can be assured, God takes away our sins. “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, they transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins” (Isa. 44:22). Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19). “I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:12). But after all, God’s forgiveness is not just like the wiping off of a problem from a slate.

There has to be something to make it possible for God to blot out our sin. He could not simply say to the world, I am going to forgive you all; or, I am going to forgive as many of you as want to be forgiven. God is just. He has a character to maintain. God has been grievously offended, His commands violated. His justice had to be satisfied, His holiness vindicated. Our text says, “If Thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” And God’s very nature demanded that He should hold them against us till the wrong was righted. But God wanted to free man of his burden, and Divine love found the way. God Himself came, in the person of Jesus Christ, to take man’s place, to pay man’s debt, to acquire for man all that he requires to stand approved in God’s sight. In view of what Christ has done for us as our substitute, we can understand how God can be just, and still forgive, justify, the poor sinner who believes in Christ (Rom. 3:26).

That forgiveness has been made possible only by Christ Jesus is the emphatic teaching of Scripture. It is He who was delivered for our offenses, and raised again for our justification (Rom. 4:25). In Jesus Christ we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:14). The Apostle Paul declared to the people of Antioch, but equally applicable to all men, “Be it known 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” (Acts 13:38, 39). And that there might be no mistake as to the all-inclusive efficacy of the Saviour’s merits, He Himself says, “It behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (St. Luke 24:46, 47).

Some years ago, so it is related, an attendant, in the experiment station at Vienna, was guilty of carelessly handling an animal infected with the Bubonic plague. He was infected, and died a frightful death. His physician contracted the disease, and died in fearful agony. The city authorities were thoroughly alarmed. There was eminent danger of the land being ravished by the much dreaded Black Plague, and its population decimated. The people were in terror. All Vienna quaked. Presently a man came from a distant city. He had made a thorough study of the plague. And had found a specific, a valise full of which he carried with him. It did its work, speedily and well. The plague was stopped. Confidence was restored. So it is with sin. There are many nostrums. They do no real good. There is only one real remedy. It is a specific, unfailing in its operation. It is the blood of Jesus Christ. It kills the power of sin. It drives out the poison. It restores to the roseate bloom of spiritual health those who take it according to the God-given directions.

3. How Forgiveness Is Received

It is yet necessary for us to consider the questions, who are the recipients of God’s forgiveness, and how this forgiveness is received.

Forgiveness has been prepared for all men. God loved the world. Jesus died for all mankind. The Holy Spirit wants to gather every body. The remedy provided, the blood of Christ, is amply sufficient for all, and will prove efficacious wherever tried. But it does not follow that all will be cured. The remedy does not work automatically. It is not bestowed independently of the attitude of the person for whom it is intended.

The first step necessary to the reception of forgiveness is knowledge of our need of it. The person who does not know that he is diseased will not want a remedy. We must know what sin is, and that we are sinners. We must get away from the very general human habit of magnifying other people’s sins, and minimizing our own. The confession of St. Paul, that he was the chief of sinners, must, in a real sense, become our own.

With the knowledge of sin, there must be a true, deep-seated sorrow. This sorrow must not come alone from the ills we have brought on ourselves, or that we anticipate. First of all, and chiefly, it should result from the recognition of the way we have grieved and offended God. David sensed this truth when he cried out, Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned; and done this evil in Thy sight. It must be a grief of the heart that we have brought such shame and suffering on Jesus our friend. Such repentance is needed, but it is not the repentance which gets forgiveness as a reward.

If there is true repentance there will be confession also, though it does not always come easily. David tried to pen up, and live down, a grievous sin of his without confession. But it brought him only added grief. “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. Day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me.” Pride ruled David’s heart, and sealed his lips; but as long as this was true he could find no peace, because no forgiveness. This confession, however, should be be made also to the offended brother, when we have sinned against him as well as against God. And where sins, truly repented of, are honestly confessed they will be forgiven. David could bare witness, “I acknowledged my sins unto Thee, and mine iniquities have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sins (Ps. 32). And the Lord’s promise to all is, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Confession must be made of sins truly repented of, but forgiveness is not a reward for confession.

Faith, and faith alone, appropriates forgiveness. God loved the world, and gave His Son, that whosoever believeth in this Son, and the work He did, as the result of which He is able to forgive, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. We are justified, that means forgiven, and adopted into the family of God’s children by faith alone. Let us thank God that there is such a certain ground of forgiveness.

Brethren of the faith, let us not forget that these words about forgiveness are also for us who are in the Church, and may have been in it practically all our days. Indeed, I think Luther understood it to apply especially to us, and not only in the act of coming into the church, but during all our days in it. He says, “In which Christian Church He daily and richly forgives all sins to me and all believers.” When we accepted the invitation, and came into the Church, we received forgiveness full and free. But though we became God’s children, with good intentions, and developing life, we did not become perfect. We still daily sin much. We fail much in our understanding and doing. And if we have been truly growing in grace and strength, we have come to realize as never before that these things are truly sins, deserving of God’s displeasure. But because He is our loving Father, and we are his dear children, He daily and richly forgives us. He does this by His Spirit, through the proclamation of the Gospel, and the administration of the sacraments.

“Lamb of God, we fall before Thee,
Humbly trusting in Thy cross;
That alone be all our glory,
All things else are only dross.

“Jesus gives us true repentance,
By His Spirit sent from heav’n;
Whispers this transparting sentence:
‘Son, thy sins are all forgiv’n.’ "

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

Luther’s Small Catechism: Series B – The Apostles’ Creed

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Apostles’ Creed”
  • Originally Published: 1917 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2020
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0