It seems that we have an innate sense that tells us that we need to be forgiven. Novelist Marghanita Laski, a well-known secular humanist, said not long before she died in 1988, in a moment of surprising candour on television, “What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me.”
R. C. Sproul tells a story about a psychiatrist in South Florida who wanted to hire him and pay him a hefty salary. R. C. told him that he didn’t have a degree in psychiatry and asked why he wanted to hire him. The psychiatrist said, “R. C., 95 percent of my clients do not need a psychiatrist. They need a priest, because their lives are being destroyed by unresolved guilt.”
Our unresolved guilt is why we long for forgiveness. We want restitution… peace… the clearing of our conscience
Our unresolved guilt is why we long for forgiveness. We want restitution, absolution, pardon, and peace. Using the language of the Bible, we know that we’ve rebelled against the love and authority of God and that we have not loved or served our neighbours as well as we should have. So we long for the forgiveness of our sins and the clearing of our conscience.
There has been some confusion throughout church history about how forgiveness happens. Roman Catholics developed a complex doctrine of penance. Part of the sacrament of penance is confession and absolution from a priest. The penitent person would go to the confessional and say, “Father, I have sinned,” and then tell the priest all their sins. Then the priest would say, “Te absolvo,” or, “I absolve you.”
The Roman Catholic Church has been careful to say that the earthly priest has no power to forgive sin and that only God can forgive sins. The priest merely reminds the penitent that their sins are absolved in the name of Jesus Christ. Though he had other problems with the Catholic understanding of penance, Martin Luther actually kept the confessional because he felt that people needed assurance that they were forgiven. One can understand how this practice could lead to confusion about forgiveness nonetheless.
Another Christian tradition that can lead to confusion about forgiveness is Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter. During Lent, many Christians will fast from various things and devote themselves to prayer in order to prepare their hearts for Easter. But if we are not careful, we can think that our religious rituals during Lent gain us favour with God or even clear the ledger of our sins.
If not careful, Christians can start to think that religious acts like confession of sin to a priest or fasting during Lent can take care of their guilt and cancel out their sins. But none of these things can undo our failures or deal with our unresolved guilt.
If we cannot remove our sins, who can? Jesus can. How can we be so sure? Because He said so and His Word is true; He also backed up his words with acts of power (see Mark 2:1-12). Jesus has power to forgive sin because He is the Son of Man who lived a perfect life, died on the cross, rose from the dead, and was exalted to God’s right hand. As such, He has authority to do things that only God can do — things like forgive sins.
Jesus came to do what no man can do. He came to do what only God can do. He came to forgive sins
What does it take to secure Jesus’ forgiveness? Mark 2:5 gives us a clue. “And when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” Jesus is always looking for what He saw in these four friends: faith. His power went to work for those who knew they had none.
Faith always precedes forgiveness. Jesus’ power to forgive is employed toward those who admit their weakness and cry out for His help. He came to do what no man can do. He came to do what only God can do. He came to forgive sins.
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