************ Sermon on Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 56 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 6, 2011
Q & A 56
"I Believe the Forgiveness of Sins"
We continue our study of the Apostles' Creed by looking at the line concerning the forgiveness of sins. Let me remind you this means we continue our study of the Gospel and of the content of true faith. As you know, we hope – the Lord willing – to celebrate the Lord's Supper next week Sunday. Which means that this coming week you need to prepare yourself. As you prepare yourself for the Lord's Supper I want you to think about your sins and the forgiveness of your sins.
I The Atonement
A "I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." What exactly does this mean? What does it imply? How are we to understand this article of our historic Christian faith?
According to the Catechism, to talk about forgiveness is to talk about the atonement which brings forgiveness.
What is the atonement? It is a most beautiful doctrine concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It lies at the heart of the Christian faith for without it there can be no salvation. The atonement is that great work of Jesus Christ carried out by His perfect life, His sacrificial death, and His powerful resurrection. By His life, death, and resurrection Jesus makes perfect satisfaction to God for our sin and guilt; wins a decisive victory over sin, death, and the devil; liberates and frees us from bondage to sin and Satan; and restores us to covenantal life in eternal fellowship with the living triune God.
B "I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." I believe in the atonement. Why did God send Christ to earth to make atonement for us sinners? One answer comes from John 3:16 – "for God so loved the world ..." God sent Christ as an atoning sacrifice because He is a God of love. God loves us so much He sent His one and only Son as our atoning sacrifice. But there is another answer as well. God also sent Christ as an atoning sacrifice because He hates sin so much. God so hates sin that He was willing to offer His one and only Son. God hates sin because sin destroys God's good creation, spoils our perfect humanity, and wrecks our relationship with God.
C "I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." I believe in the atonement. At the heart of the atonement lies the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. More than one person has wondered if God could not have figured out some other way to make atonement for our sins. Can we somehow ourselves make payment for sins? Can another creature pay our debt? Or, can't God just overlook our sin? Why does the atonement require the perfect life, the sacrificial death, and the powerful resurrection of God's one and only Son? Why does the atonement require something so bloody and gruesome as Christ's sacrifice upon the cross? The answer is found in the song we sing:
What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
O precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
D "I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." I believe in the atonement. At the heart of the atonement lies the word "substitute." Christ Jesus was our substitute. His life of obedience became our life of obedience. His death became our death. His resurrection became our resurrection.
Topic: AtonementUpon the cross and grave of Christ we can write similar words: "Adrian Dieleman's substitute." "Robert Godfrey's substitute." Or, put in your own name. In His life, death, and resurrection Christ is our substitute. We have a theological word for this: the word "vicarious." Which simply means "in our place, our substitute."
Title: Lincoln's Substitute
Civil War buffs know that in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, there is the grave of a Civil War soldier. The stone bears his name, the date of his birth and death, and then these words: "Abraham Lincoln's substitute." In the woe and anguish of the war, realizing that thousands upon thousands were falling in his place on the field of battle, Lincoln chose to honor one particular soldier as his substitute.
"I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." I believe in the atonement. Think about that as you prepare for the Lord's Supper.
II God Holds No Sin Against the Believer
A "I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." I believe in the atonement. So what? What does this mean? What is the result? Notice what the Catechism says:
I believe that God, because of Christ's atonement, will never hold against me any of my sins nor my sinful nature which I need to struggle against all my life.
There are two words that every Christian should know. Not only should every Christian know them, every Christian should also understand what they mean. The two words: expiation and propitiation.
Expiation refers to the offense of sin. Propitiation refers to the offended God.
Expiation means Jesus Christ does something to our sin by His life, death, and resurrection. What does Christ do? The Bible describes this work with a variety of terms: Christ pays, or Christ covers, or Christ washes away, or Christ redeems. Have you ever noticed the multitude of ways this work is described in Psalm 103:
-the Lord forgives
-the Lord heals
-the Lord redeems
-the Lord crowns with love and compassion
-the Lord will not accuse
-the Lord will not harbor His anger forever
-the Lord does not treat us as our sins deserve
-the Lord does not repay us according to our iniquities
-the Lord has removed our transgressions
-the Lord has compassion
All of this is the work of expiation.
Propitiation means Jesus does something to the wrath of God by His life, death, and resurrection. You need to remember that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God. God is angry, terribly angry, about the sin we are born with as well as the sins we personally commit. You need to remember we are sinners who deserve punishment. Sinners who have earned judgment. There is nothing we can do, nothing we can bring, nothing we can give that will turn away the wrath of God. But, as the psalmist puts it, God – because of Jesus – "does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities" (Ps 103:10). Jesus, by His atonement, removes the wrath of God. This is the work of propitiation.
B "I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." Notice what is covered by Christ's atonement: my sins and my sinful nature. Christ expiates and propitiates all my sins and the root or fountain of that sin. I need to emphasize this is good for all sin and all time. It is good for past sins, present sins, and future sins. "Therefore," says Paul in Romans 8:1, "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."
C "I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." We need to avoid two extremes.
First, we need to avoid the extreme of "cheap grace." This extreme says it is God's job to forgive and it is our job to sin. As Paul says in Romans 6:
(Rom 6:1) What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?Paul's answer:
(Rom 6:2) By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?This extreme, taken to its logical conclusion, fails to see the damage sin does to the Christian's relationship with God. It fails to see the need for repentance – meaning acknowledgment of sin, confession of sin, and turning from sin. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without the preaching of godliness. Cheap grace leads to indifference about lifestyle.
Notice how the Catechism deals with cheap grace? It speaks of the sin and sinful nature "which I need to struggle against all my life."
Let me emphasize this for a couple of moments. We need to fight and struggle against sin and our sinful nature because God's grace is not cheap. The Apostle Paul talks about this struggle in such eloquent terms in Romans 7:
(Rom 7:15) I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do ... (18) ... For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. (19) For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing ... (21) So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me ... (24) What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (25) [HERE IS PAUL'S ANSWER:] Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!Do you hear the war, the struggle, within the Apostle: a war between good and evil, between the man of sin and the man of righteousness, between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman?
Anyone who has ever tried to stick to a diet knows some of the exasperation with which Paul explodes in this chapter. The dieter knows exactly what he or she must do. You have to stay away from chocolate-covered doughnuts and Sees Candy. And yet, as you pass a bakery on the way home or in the mall the smells of freshly-baked cinnamon rolls overwhelm you. Or, the ice-cream section of the grocery store proves to be irresistible. You know you shouldn't. You resolve to say "No!" Yet, you buy those diet-breakers anyway. Once more you blow your diet. And afterwards, you chastize and admonish yourself and resolve to try even harder.
That's the way it is in the Christian life with sin. We know what we are supposed to do – we are to stay away from sin and lead a life of righteousness. We know this. We resolve to do this. Then along comes temptation. And we do the evil we do not want to do. We fight this. We swear never to do this again. And yet we do anyway. And so many times in doing this we cheapen grace.
D Second, we need to avoid the extreme of "unattainable grace." This view sees sin as being almost unforgivable. King David struggled with this extreme after he sinned with Uriah and Bathsheba (cf Psalm 32, 51). And, the Apostle Paul indicates he had the same struggle when he identifies himself as "the worst of sinners" (1 Tim 1:16). In my experience as a pastor, it is members of the Netherlands Reformed churches who especially seem to struggle with this extreme. They think their sin is too awful to be forgiven. So, they are unsure of their salvation and they tend to stay away from the blessings of the Lord's Table.
I read this past week about a cure for amputees who suffer what doctors call "phantom limb." Somewhere, locked in their brain, is a memory of a hand or leg that no longer exists. Invisible toes curl, imaginary hands grasp things, cramps are experienced by non-existent calf muscles. Doctors are helpless to do anything because the part of the body screaming for attention does not exist.Many Christians are like these amputees: they feel the pain of amputated sin, they feel guilt for a transgression that has long since been forgiven, they are obsessed by the memory of some deed committed years before.
"I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." I believe in the expiation of my sin and the propitiation of God's wrath. I believe all my sins have been forgiven. I believe I need to struggle against sin all my life. Think about that as you prepare for the Lord's Supper.
III God Grants the Believer Christ's Righteousness
"I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." We've already covered what this says about Christ's atonement. We've looked at what this says about sin. Let me end by mentioning what this says about righteousness.
"I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." According to the Catechism this means "God grants me the righteousness of Christ."
Let's make sure we understand this correctly. In this life and on this earth, we sinful people can never become righteous. Rather, we are given the righteousness of Christ. We sinful people can never become righteous, but we can be declared to be righteous. Think of a judge who reads a verdict that a defendant is "not guilty." The judge is not making the defendant "not guilty." Rather, the judge is declaring the defendant to be "not guilty." Likewise, God does not make us righteous. Rather, the divine Judge declares us to be righteous because of Christ and His atonement.
Do you understand the grace and mystery of what God does when He forgives us? God declares unrighteous people to be righteous. If earthly judges were to do this, we would condemn them. This means God does what no earthly judge should ever do.
How can God do this? God can only do this because He looks at us through the blood of Christ. God can only do this because He looks at us through the perfection, sinlessness, holiness, and righteousness of Christ.
"I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." I believe the atonement of Christ. I believe Christ expiates my sin and propitiates God's wrath. I believe I am given the righteousness of Jesus.
Keep this in mind as you prepare for the Lord's Supper this coming week.
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