The good news is that people seem to increasingly understand that they have committed some terrible sins, and they are seeking information from their ministers and priests about forgiveness. They want to know if God, particularly through Jesus Christ, since it is through him the promise is made, forgives all sins. The bad news is that many who provide this spiritual direction give false information based on their own lack of understanding of the scripture and also the temptation to sugar coat bad news.
The hub of the problem is to distinguish between God’s ability and willingness to forgive all sins, even the worst of them (Yes) and God’s assurance that he will forgive every sin (No). In this blog post I will use “can” to indicate that certainly God is able to and has an infinitely merciful heart to be able to and to be motivated to potentially forgive even the worst of sin. I will use the word “will” to indicate what people are seeking, which is the absolute assurance that God will forgive their particular sin. Why is there a difference? Because there is, to put it in modern terms, an “eligibility requirement” for the forgiveness of sin, one that while it seems like one requirement, it actually has two parts. Far, far, FAR too many ministers and priests urge the first half and gloss over the second half. They thus give false hope to certain people that God has forgiven their particular sin.
Even the best of the best fall into this trap, such as the Rev. Billy Graham, who people know I greatly admire. Here is from a recent column. Title: “If you confess, God has promised to forgive you.” Question: “I’d give anything to know that God has forgiven me for a terrible sin I committed many years ago. But how can I know if he has? Maybe he decided I don’t deserve to be forgiven, and he’s condemned me to carry this burden the rest of my life.” The good news is that I fully support the majority of the Rev. Graham’s assurances that it is exactly for this reason, to demonstrate his love, but his hatred for sin, that God sent Jesus Christ his Son. People need to realize that anything (with one exception) can be forgiven by God. The one exception is that as Jesus states, offense against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. As I have blogged repeatedly, even Judas would have been forgiven if only he had not despaired and taken his own life. Imagine how he could have been one of the greatest witnesses to God’s mercy if he stayed alive and sought the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, who resurrected from the dead and appeared to the Apostles only three days after his crucifixion! So God is obviously, in his own words, but to put in modern terms, “ready, willing and able” to forgive even the worst of the worst. However, there are conditions and this is where I see ministers gloss over the second half of the conditions.
Excerpt from Answer: “What must you do? First, turn to Christ and confess your sins to him. Then trust him alone for your salvation and receive him by faith into your heart and life. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 6:23).
Sounds good, but here’s the problem. What does it mean that one MUST “receive him by faith into your heart and life?” Too many ministers make it seem as though to be forgiven of a sin one must only confess and trust in Jesus. Yes, sure, but you also must totally convert your sinful ways. It is not a coincidence that Paul uses the analogy of a paycheck “the wages of sin is death.” It’s not a fee for a one time sin. One must not only confess one’s sin but totally remove one’s self from the nesting place of that sin and stop encouraging it and enabling it, even if your hands no longer commit that sin. God will NOT forgive a sin until that is done. THAT is what it means to receive Christ into your heart and life.
Let’s use two modern analogies before getting into the actual scripture. The modern analogies help you to hone your discernment so you read the scriptures more correctly and thus get my point better.
Jesus Christ went to medical school so that all people will be cured of cancer. Would you agree with this? Obviously you should not agree. Even if Jesus Christ went to medical school, he did not do so in order to eliminate all cancer, since anyone can see that if anything incidents of cancer have increased, not decreased. However, if you want to defeat cancer you emulate Jesus Christ and go to medical school. You do not claim that either Jesus, your yourself, will eliminate cancer.
You work for an investment bank and you totally ripped off a client, bankrupting him. You used legal tools and products available at the bank, but used unethical guidance. You ask God to forgive you of destroying that person’s life (and you’ve done nothing to fix his problem, perhaps he died in poverty since that was his retirement account). Yet, putting aside that you can’t fix what you did, here is the heart of the problem: You continue to work for that bank and that place of low ethics. Even though you never bankrupt the innocent again, you continue to work for an institution who can and does do so. Your “hands are clean” but you provide income by working at that bank for people who continue to have dirty hands. Why in the world would you think that God will forgive your sin in that circumstance?
Whoa, you are probably yelling at the screen. How do I know this? THAT’s not in the Bible you shriek or sniffle. Oh, but it is.
As you know in the Bible, Rome controlled the entire empire and collected taxes from all people, including the Jews. The tax collector appointed by Rome has the job title of “publican.” When you read the Bible you will observe that an entire group of all people who performed a single job, tax collector, were condemned not only by the people, but in God’s eyes, as being sinners en masse. When you read the Gospel of Luke (who was a professional himself, a physician), you understand this very clearly since he includes detail on not only the public’s opinion but that of Jesus Christ.
Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, “Exact no more than that which is appointed you.”
We see in the passage when John the Baptist is baptizing and preaching that publicans approached him and asked “what shall we do?” Why would an entire job class of people come to him and ask how to get out of a jam? Because this is evidence of what I am saying that the entire class of publicans, whether an individual was sinful or more just than the others, was viewed as notorious doomed sinners. John does not reply, “Oh, don’t worry, individual sin is between you and God and all will be forgiven.” No, John recognizes and validates the entire class of sin problem immediately by telling them not to exact more taxes than what is assigned to them (taxes were like bonus payments back then, where if the tax collector could get more from a person than Rome expected, he could pocket the rest). See the problem? Even an individual “good” tax collector was part of and supportive of an oppressive sinful system, and this is why they are all viewed as doomed sinners.
Here, Jesus has just finished teaching and preaching, when this occurs:
And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom [the tax collector’s place of work]: and he said unto him: “Follow me.”
And he left all, rose up, and followed him.
And Levi made him a great feast in his own house; and there was a great company of publicans, and of others that sat down with them.
But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying “Why do you eat and drink with publicans and sinners?”
And Jesus, answering, said unto them, “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Here is what you see as hard evidence in the scriptures:
1. Jesus calls Levi, who will become named Matthew, out of his place of work in total. Unlike the fishermen Apostles who continue to fish to feed their families, Jesus does not let Matthew “stay in the job.”
2. Publicans are throughout the Gospel identified by name as, here, as a group of doomed sinners, despite the behavior of any individual, just or not, within them. Tough luck: that is reality. By distinguishing publicans from the other “sinners” common thought is that they are not only sinners like the other average Joes, but doomed as a group.
3. Jesus does not discourage that attitude. He in fact acknowledges that publicans as a group are on his list of sinners in need of repentance.
4. This is why you can see that Jesus goes a step beyond John the Baptist (which is why Jesus is Jesus and John the Baptist is John the Baptist). He doesn’t just tell Levi to continue working but take no more than what is due to him; Jesus removes Levi in total from the publicans, something he did not do to those who fished among other fishermen for a living.
Yeah. I thought you might not have noticed that.
And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles, and both are preserved.
You must read the scriptures with your eyes and your fingers, but also in a holistic understanding of the action that is taking place, as it is Jesus role modeling the truth. Jesus does not lecture the crowds that they are being “mean” to publicans and “discriminating” against them. In fact, he demonstrates, by voting with his feet, that he loves Levi as an Apostle, even though he is a publican, but hence removes Levi entirely from the context of sin he was in. We, of course, do not know since the scriptures do not say if Levi was one of the good, moderate, or bad publicans, if he was a huge sinner or a moderate sinner within the context of publicans. All we know is what the scripture demonstrates is that his sins were forgiven and he was made an Apostle only because Jesus removed him in entirety from the group of publicans.
John the Baptist was not incorrect, as he, presumably, baptized the publicans and told them not to gouge the people with extra taxes for their own benefit. But John did not speak for God. Jesus spoke for God, both in his speech and in his actions, which we must emulate in total for any assurances of what God promised is possible.
5. We can now notice the fifth point, which is that Levi throws a dinner for Jesus and invites many publicans.
Levi is no longer of the publicans, but he immediately, through the grace he has already received in just one day from Jesus, upon his calling by Jesus and his acceptance to Jesus, casts a life net for those he has totally left. Levi did not stay within the publicans, since Jesus took him totally from them, but through grace immediately throws the life net to the publicans by inviting many to meet Jesus. Too many ministers focus only on the lesson that Jesus reached out to sinners and miss that other point. Levi and Jesus both underscore through their actions that not gouging people is not enough: people within a group of sinners must have a total conversion of life and heart, symbolized here by their being invited to meet Jesus outside of the sinful workplace, to totally leave their participation therein. They must do their outreach and ministry from the outside, not the inside. That is another way to understand the parable of the new wine being placed in new bottles, and not put into old bottles, where both will be destroyed as they are now incompatible.
When one has committed a dreadful sin, one must not only find God through Jesus and repent, but he or she must also with total and immediate sincerity, as Rev Graham puts it, “receive him by faith into your heart and life.” That’s heart AND life. It’s not enough to love Jesus but still live within the conditions that caused not only your sin, but enables others to continue doing so. To be forgiven in such circumstances, like the publican, you must leave in entirety and belong in your life totally to Jesus. As Paul explains it, you can no longer continue to obtain your wages via sin. If you are still paid by or enabling the people who promote the sin that you committed, you cannot remain among them and be at all assured that God has forgiven you for that sin. No one is being kind or doing you a favor by telling you otherwise. You must follow Jesus and the scriptures for any certainty, and not wishful thinking.
Is it not abundantly better to follow precisely the role model of someone who you know was saved, Levi who became Matthew, as specified in scripture, rather than read into God’s infinite capacity for the forgiveness of sins a free pass that is not truly there? If it was “OK” for Levi to remain a publican but he is now “a good one” and does that work in order to, like the fishermen Apostles, financially support the early Christians, then Jesus would have done so, I mean, duh. Jesus removed Levi from the group that everyone everywhere considered doomed sinners. John the Baptist kind of told them what was wrong with them, that they had to stop gouging extra money from the tax payers who were suffering under the burden, but only Jesus can “fix it.” Yes, Jesus died because of humanity’s sinfulness and also for the forgiveness of sins, but scriptures clearly demonstrate that Jesus did not give a clear pass for continued tacit participation and lack of full repentance from sinful situations.
Ministers and priests must emphasize their own words of spiritual direction so that they and others do not listen with half an ear, hoping for the easy answer. Do not be the one who tells someone that God has forgiven their sin, and then when that person dies they find themselves in hell or at the very least some very tough purgatory. I mention purgatory not to get in a quarrel with those Christians who deny purgatory but, rather, to not totally freak out people in the situation such as the author of the question to Rev Graham. God knows all the circumstances of the terrible sin, since he is, as I constantly remind all people, the All Knowing. It is possible that even a person with an unforgiven sin, that God in his mercy will strip away the sin in purgatory and allow what remains of the soul to enter heaven. But it is also possible, since God knows all the circumstances, that he will cast into hell the person who thinks they were forgiven but are not, since they did not bring Jesus into their life and their heart from that point in their confession onward. If they continue to earn their wages in the place of the sin, that does not look good for forgiveness. But it really is that easy to obtain forgiveness from God, when one follows exactly, not through wishful thinking, what is documented in the Gospel as said and done by Jesus Christ who alone spoke for God with authority. If you remain in the sin factory or the sin wagon where your individual, but genuinely, regretted terrible sin occurred, you are still reaping the wages of sin and have not completely brought Christ into your life and heart, which is required for total forgiveness of sin. Believing that Jesus existed and trusting that he’s a good and merciful guy, and even loving him is not enough if you do not also have him dwell in your heart and your life, peeling away the wages of sin.
I hope that you have found this helpful.