THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS
John Clifford, Baptist divine, was born at Lawley, Derbyshire, in 1836. He was educated at the Baptist College, Nottingham, and University College, London. He has had much editorial as well as ministerial experience and has published a number of works upon religious, educational and social questions. The Rev. William Durban, the editor, writing from London of John Clifford in the Homiletic Review, styles him |the renowned Baptist preacher, undoubtedly the most conspicuous figure in his own denomination.| He speaks of |the profundity of thought,| |simplicity and beauty of diction,| the |compactness of argument| and |instructive expository character| of this preacher's discourses.
BORN IN 1836
THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS
I believe in the forgiveness of sins. -- Apostles' Creed.
This is the first note of personal experience in the Apostles' Creed. We here come into the society of men like John Bunyan and go with them through the wicket-gate of repentance, through the Slough of Despond, getting out on the right side of it, reaching at length the cross, to find the burden fall from our backs as we look upon Him who died for us; and then we travel on our way until we come to the River of Death and cross it, discovering that it is not so deep after all, and that on the other side is the fulness of the life everlasting.
It is a new note, and it is a little surprizing -- is it not? -- to most students of this creed that we should have to travel through so many clauses before we reach it. It scarcely seems to be in keeping with the spirit and temper of the early Christian Church that we should have all this analysis of thought, this statement of the facts of Christian revelation, this testimony as to the power of the Holy Spirit, before we get any utterance as to that individual faith by which the Christian Church has been created, and owing to which there has been the helpful and inspiring fellowship of the saints.
I say it is a new note, but it is fundamental. When the Creed does touch the inward life, it goes straight to that which is central -- to that which is preeminently evangelical. Without the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins you could have no good news for a sinful world; but with the assertion of this faith as the actual faith of the man, you have possibilities of service, the upspringing of altruism, the conquest of self, the enthronement of Christ, the advancement of humanity after the likeness of Jesus Christ.
A note it is which is not only fundamental but most musical, harmonious and gladdening. In the ancient Psalms we hear it oft -- |Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name, who forgiveth all thine iniquities, who healeth all thy diseases.| It recurs in the prophets: |I, the Lord, am he that blotteth out thy sins; yea, tho they be as a thick cloud, I will blot them out.| It is the highest note reached by the singers of the Old Testament; but it comes to us with greater resonance and sweetness from the lips of the men who have stood in the presence of Jesus Christ, and who are able to say, as they look into the faces of their fellows: |Be it known unto you that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins from which you could not have been freed by the law of Moses.| With emphasis, with, strength, with fulness of conviction, with gladdening rapture, these men proclaimed their faith in the forgiveness of sins, and tho the Creed of the churches travels slowly after the faith of the early Church, its last note sounds out a note of triumph: |I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.|
It is the crown of the whole Creed. It is the flowering of the truths that are contained in the Creed. Let a man understand God, and let him have such a vision of the Eternal as Job had, and he is constrained to say, |I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.| He desires first and chiefly to know that the true relation between the human spirit and God which has been broken by sin has at length been rearranged, and that sin is no longer an obstacle to the soul's converse with a holy God, but that the ideal relation of the human spirit with the divine spirit is reestablished by the proclamation of forgiveness. For, as you know, pardon is not the extinguishing of a man's past; that cannot be done. What has been done by us of good or evil abides, it endures; not God Himself can extinguish the deeds of the past. What forgiveness does is this: it rearranges the relations between the spirit of man and our Father, so that the sins of the past are no longer an obstacle to us in our speech with Him, our trust in Him -- our using the energies of God for the accomplishment of His purposes. It is the restoration of the human spirit to right relations with God. Forgiveness of sins conies, therefore, at the very start of a right life. It is the beginning. All else in the spiritual life succeeds upon this.
I know there is a theory among us, and I am prepared to endorse it, that, if we are trained by godly parents in godly homes, we may grow into the spiritual life, pass into it, as it were, by stages which it is impossible for us to register. We are largely unconscious of these spiritual ascents; they are being made by the gracious use of influences that are in our environment, that reach us through sanctified folk, and we travel on from strength to strength, and, then, perchance, in our young manhood or womanhood, there comes a crisis of revelation, and we discover that we are in such relations with God our Father, Redeemer, and Renewer as fill us with peace, create hope and conscious strength. But I assure you that in addition to this experience there will come, it may be early, it may be late, some moment in the life when there is discovered to the individual spirit making that ascent a sense of the awful heinousness of sin; and tho we may not have such a unique experience of evil as the Apostle Paul had, and become so conscious of it as to feel, as it were, that it is a dead body that we have to carry about with us as we go through life, interfering with the very motions of our spirit; yet we do approximate to it, and it is through these approximations to the Apostle Paul that we are lifted to the heights of spiritual achievement, and are qualified for sympathy with a sin-stricken world, and inspired by and nourished in a passionate enthusiasm to serve that world by bringing it into right relations with God.
When, therefore, a man says, |I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,| he is asserting that which, being turned to its full and true use, carries him to this goal, |I believe in the forgiveness of sins.| For a full and true doctrine of God can only be heartily welcomed when it is associated with the message of the forgiveness of sins. Otherwise the visions of the eternal Power may start in us the cry of Peter: |Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,| When a man asserts his faith in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was crucified, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, who died on the cross; he is himself asserting his faith in the great purpose for which God sent His Son; even to take away the sin of the world, to make an end of iniquity, to bring in an everlasting righteousness; and so out of that faith he prepared for the response which the soul makes to the workings of the Spirit, the Holy Ghost within him, and he is able to say from his own knowledge of what God has been to him, |I believe in the forgiveness of sins.|
Friends, you have said this again and again, some of you hundreds of times. You have asserted it week by week. What did you mean by it? What exactly was the thought in your heart as the words passed over your lips, |I believe in the forgiveness of sins|? Was it simply the recognition of a universal amnesty for a world of rebels? Was it merely the assertion of your confidence in the goodness of God irrespective of His holiness? Or when you uttered that faith of yours, did it mean that you were able to say, |My sins, which were many, are all forgiven. My sins are forgiven, not may be -- that pardon is a glorious possibility only -- but are forgiven, not will be forgiven at some future time. I am now at peace with God through faith, in our Lord Jesus Christ|? Could you say that? Was that what it meant; or was it simply the repetition of a phrase which has been handed down to you by your predecessors, and which you took up as part of an ordered service, without putting the slightest fiber of your soul into it?
Depend upon it, the mere recitation of a creed will not bring you God's peace, it will not open your heart to the access of His infinite calm. It will not secure you that emancipation from evil which will mean immediate dedication of yourself to work for the emancipation of the world. You must know of yourself, of your own heart and consciousness, that God has forgiven you. And if you do get that consciousness, that moment of your life will be marked indelibly upon the tablet of your memory. The dint will go so deeply into your nature that it will be impossible for you to forget it. Speaking for myself, I can at this moment see the whole surroundings of the place and time when to me there came the glad tidings, |God has forgiven you.| |God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto men their trespasses.|
Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins? Then preach it. Tell it to other people. Let your neighbors know about it. I do not mean by preaching at the street corners, but by getting into such close affectionate touch, with your friends as that you shall be able to persuade them to disinter the thoughts of their own hearts, and show the sorrows that are there -- sorrows produced by sin. For, believe me, behind all the bright seeming of human countenances there is a subtle bitterness gnawing constantly at the heart, consequent upon the consciousness of failure -- the sense of having broken the law of God. I know that hundreds of people go into the church and tell God that they are miserable sinners. They do that in a crowd; it is saying nothing. They no more think of saying it in such a way as to place themselves apart from their fellows than they would of saying: |I am a thief!|
Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins? What, then, are you going to do with your faith?
Prove your faith by your works. Every time you ask God for forgiveness you should feel yourself pledged to a most strenuous and resolute fight with the sin you ask God to forgive. The acceptance of pardon pledges you to the pursuit of holiness, and yet we have to keep on with this doctrine, because it is not only the very beginning of the Christian life, but also the continuous need of that life.
We have to say night by night, |Forgive the ill that I this day have done.| And if we say it as we ought, as really believing that God forgives us, so that we may not lose heart, may never encourage despair of final victory, we shall get up next morning resolved to make a fiercer fight than ever with the evil that sent us on our knees last night. Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins? Let the joy of it come to you, and as your own heart overflows with the fulness of that joy, declare unto others God's salvation, and teach transgressors His way. Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins? Then find in that faith an impact to obedience to the law of Jesus: |Be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect|; and do not forget that He who begins the good work in you with His pardon will carry it on to the day of Jesus Christ; so that you may add the last words of the Creed: |I believe in the resurrection from the dead and in the life everlasting.|
It is not altogether a good sign that we have pushed eternity out of our modern thought. Confronted as man is every moment by a sense of the fragility and the brevity of human life, it is not surprizing that we should welcome everybody who comes with a message concerning eternity.
Is there not, in truth, beauty in the old Anglo-Saxon story of the bird that shot in at one open window of the large assembly hall and out at another, where were gathered together a great company of thanes and vassals; and when the missionary was asked to speak to them concerning God and His salvation, the thane who was presiding rose and said, recalling the bird's speedy flight from side to side of the hall, |Such is our life, and if this man can tell us anything concerning the place to which we are going, let him stand up and be heard.| Brothers, a few days may carry us into eternity. |Boast not thyself of to-morrow, thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.| Strong, hopeful, rich in promise of service is to-day; to-morrow friends may be weeping, kith and kin full of sorrow for our departure. This life does not end all; we are going to an eternity of blessedness, to progress without limit, to an assimilation with God that shall know no sudden break or failure, but shall be perfect, even as He is perfect.