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Second Chances
August 24, 1997


We are working our way through the Apostles' Creed this summer. I am surprised and pleased by the interest the sermons have been receiving. Studying the Apostles' Creed is the consideration of our basic beliefs. This morning we look at "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." Perhaps you find it interesting that the creed writers thought it necessary to list forgiveness as one of our basic beliefs. It is even more interesting when we realize that the creed was written to define heresy, and to affirm what the church does and does not believe. So, because the creed affirms the belief in forgiveness, does this mean that some in the early church did not believe in the forgiveness of sins? Yes, it does.

When Peter preached the famous sermon on Pentecost, where 3000 were converted and the church was born, he told them, Acts 2:38, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Many took this to mean forgiveness of sins is a one time act. When you come to Christ, are baptized and receive the Holy Spirit, you become a new person who no longer sins. If you sin, you have fallen from the grace of God, and there is no forgiveness. This belief led to many death bed baptisms. It was logical: if I cannot be forgiven after baptism, I will put off my baptism as long as I dare!

The restriction on forgiveness was especially applied to those who did not remain loyal to Christ in the face of persecution. We know the persecution of Christians was harsh, especially under Emperors Nero, Domitian, and Trajan. Many Christians were martyred-- some were burned, some were thrown to animals in the arena, some were crucified-- because they steadfastly proclaimed, "Jesus is Lord." But, many Christians did not have the courage to remain loyal. They gave in and pledged, "Caesar is Lord." There were those in the church who were angry with them. Certainly, they said, those who renounce Christ in the face of persecution have turned their backs on God, and for them there is no forgiveness.

The church council in 150 AD, through the Apostles' Creed, decided in favor of the mercy of God. There is forgiveness of sins, even after baptism. There are second chances. One bad choice does not put you outside the grace of God.

On one hand were those who said there was no forgiveness after baptism. On the other hand are those who believe you can do anything you want, live any way you please, because there is forgiveness of sins. A woman told me recently that she had confronted her sister about the way she was living. The sister replied, "Christ died on the cross and paid the penalty for my sins, so I'm already forgiven." Oh, I'm afraid forgiveness is not automatic! Peter's invitation was, "Repent and be baptized." Repentance, being sorry enough to turn one's life around, is a condition of forgiveness.

Let's look at forgiveness of sins this morning. The Scripture lesson begins (Ephesians 2:1) with the observation, "You were dead through trespasses and sins." Because of sin, you are separated from God, alienated from God, and prevented from being the person you were created and called to be. You need to be forgiven and made right with God. This is possible because we believe in the forgiveness of sins. When there is no forgiveness, there are blocks, hurdles, obstacles. It is difficult to stand up straight and meet life head on when weighted down by grudges, animosity, resentment, revenge. It is difficult to stand up straight when burdened with shame, embarrassment, guilt, self-hate, feelings of unworthiness.

Forgiveness means to let go. Forgiveness does not mean to erase or forget. "Forgive and forget" is impossible. Forgiveness means to let go. Let go of the grudges and resentments. Let go of the hurt feelings. Let go of the shame, guilt and self-hate. In Colossians 3:5, Paul urged, "Put to death whatever in you is earthly." Put to death is a powerful image. Let it go. Put it to death. Accept God's gift of forgiveness. There are four basic acts of forgiveness. Ask yourself these four questions:

1) Do you need to be forgiven by God? Are there dead spots in you? Is there a dark side to you that needs to be addressed and brought into the light? Is there shame over something you did that needs to be confessed? Is there some habit, some bad attitude you need to repent, to turn from, to change? Be confident. Claim the promise of 1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Do you feel dirty inside? All of us at times need to be cleansed, washed. A word that is not popular today is blood. But, blood is vivid. Forgiveness cost Jesus his life. Picture yourself being washed in the blood. Dirt, grime, obstinacy, shame, anger and guilt take more than water to wash away, more than an intellectual religion. The detergent that works is the blood of Jesus!

2) Do you need to forgive yourself? During a Walk to Emmaus weekend, a woman told me about the heavy burden she was carrying. It was affecting her family, her job, her church work. She was very active in her church, but there was no joy. She was so ashamed of herself, so much guilt. Before her marriage, she had an abortion. The memory was killing her. I asked her if she believed God had forgiven her. "Yes," she said, "But I can't forgive myself." I encouraged her to give it to God, to let it go, to accept God's forgiveness. I said, "Let it go, and don't take it back. Give it to God and let it go." By the end of the weekend, the joy in her face was unmistakable. She was forgiven, and she had forgiven herself.

3) Are there people from whom you need to ask forgiveness? Have you hurt someone, intentionally or unintentionally? Have you let someone down, failed to fulfill a promise, were not there when they needed you? Did you say something you are sorry you said? Is there a strain on the relationship? Do you need to make restitution? The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America which is the largest synod after several mergers of recent years, held a monumental conference last week. They mended bridges between themselves and several other denominations, and they renounced their previous condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church, after 500 years! Luther separated from the Pope over the question of justification by faith. The Catholics, Luther said, placed too much emphasis on penance, doing works, buying indulgences. Protestants have emphasized justification by faith. Catholics have emphasized confession and penance.

But, both have their place. Yes, we are justified by faith. As we heard in the Scripture lesson, Ephesians 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith." But, before receiving salvation by faith, you must repent, and sometimes you need to make restitution. Zacchaeus, the tax collector, paid people back double what he had cheated. The current emphasis in the courts making people repay those they have wronged is good and it is biblical. What do you need to do to ask forgiveness from someone? What do you need to do to make things right? You may wonder, "What if I do all that can be done and they refuse to forgive me? What if I ask to be forgiven and they refuse?" Forgiveness means letting go. You've confessed, you've made restitution, give it to God. It is now a matter between them and God. You are out of the picture. You are free. You are forgiven.

4) Do you need to forgive others who have wronged you? Have you been hurt? Has someone said some things about you that hurt? Have you been let down? Have you been mistreated, abused? In the Lord's Prayer, we pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Oh, Lord, what are you asking us! Forgive a relative who molested us? Forgive an ex-spouse who maligns us? Forgive a thief who has stolen precious memories from us? Forgive a company who uses our talents and then discards us? Forgive a parent who abandons us? Forgive stupidity, bigotry, cruelty, greed? Don't we prefer, "Don't get mad; get even." Or as Ivana Trump puts it, "Don't get even; get it all!" But, if you don't forgive those who have wronged you, you only hurt yourself. You are the one carrying the burden. You are the one carrying the grudge, the anger, the resentment.

Terry Anderson spent seven years as a hostage in Lebanese prisons, seven years in darkness and chains, not knowing from one day to the next how much longer, not knowing if the next day he might be released or killed. What did he do with his fear and with his anger? He forgave his captors. He said, "Forgiveness doesn't have anything to do with one's enemies." Forgiveness has to do with you. Forgiveness doesn't mean there isn't any anger. Forgiveness is letting go of the anger. If you hold on to your anger, you only hurt yourself and those around you. It festers within you. It saps up your energy. You take it out on your spouse and your children.

Forgiving others does not mean excusing them, or telling them they are okay. They may be rotten, and remain rotten! Forgiveness means letting go and letting God deal with them. Forgiveness is not easy, but forgiveness is not our act, it is God's act. Letting go of the anger and turning it over to God allows God to do the forgiving. It is God who forgives, and when we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, God's forgiveness flows through us and fills us with a forgiving spirit.

I believe in the forgiveness of sins. Have you asked God to forgive you? Have you forgiven yourself? Have you asked those you have wronged to forgive you? Have you forgiven those who have wronged you?

© 1997 Douglas I. Norris