Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins? I'm sure most of you reflexly answer 'of course'.
Try this: Do you know (right now) that you are forgiven right now as you sit here?
I think if we're honest with ourselves that's a bit harder to answer. Because it's a lot more to do with how we feel isn't it? The forgiveness of sins – many of us have heard about that since Sunday School, but knowing you're forgiven. That's harder to pin down.
Chances are, because it's Sunday + you're in church, maybe for the 2nd or 3rd time, it's a bit easier at the moment.
But what about tomorrow? Maybe the Sunday glow will still be there tomorrow morning, but at lunchtime? How about after work, after another mundane day, after that colleague you struggle to get on with has insisted on sitting with you through lunch again, or after you've spent the day desperately trying to cling onto your patience with your kids. What about then? Do you believe in forgiveness of sins then? Do you know you're forgiven then?
It's amazing how quickly we can fall into, if not thinking then feeling, as if forgiveness has something to do with our performance isn't it?
Which is why it's great to get the chance to think through what we really mean when we say 'I believe in the forgiveness of sins'. If you're just joining us we've been spending the last few weeks in the evenings focussing on the apostles' creed, a 1500 year old summary of what Christian's believe. We've pulled it apart and taken each phrase in turn, chewing them over in the hope that we can then put it back together and say it together each sunday with more meaning and a bucket load of encouragement.
So if you haven't already grab a bible and turn to Ephesians 1.
Now, if you're part of a Home Group then you might remember this passage from the beginning of term. However well you remember it, I guarantee there'll be one thing that sticks in the mind: it's got predestination in there – controversial. And I think sometimes that distracts us from what Paul's saying here. It's like we think 'come on Paul, you're just using that word to be contentious' and we mentally switch off because we don't want to think about it. Well, we are going to think about it, but first we need to see predestination isn't the main point of this passage. Listen to how Paul starts:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ...
Paul is praising God - with such passion.
The other day I was working a long day so gave my kids a call to say goodnight. They'd had a good day. Not just a good day. They'd had a brilliant day. Especially Charis. She'd got a present from her cousin in the post, she'd been to a toddler group, some friends had come round and she'd had her favourite food for tea. I mean, for a 3 year old, days don't get any better than this…
So as the phone gets handed to her and I say hello this is what I get back:
"DADDEEEE! (I thought my phone might break) There's a sticky bumble bee daddy, we went to toddlers and my cousin Alex sent me a picture and the story was about Daniel and the lions which is my favourite, and Matthew and Ethan came to play, and we went there on the metro, and there's a sticky flower on it as well, and I showed Matthew my toys, and it's so pretty Daddy, and God rescued Daniel from the lions AND WE HAD SAUSAGES FOR TEA!"
I mean, this was pure unadulterated joy. No punctuation, no stopping for breath, just joy tumbling out of her mouth.
And do you know, with a bit more coherence, that's the kind of mood we find Paul in. Not just down to verse 10, but all of verses 3-14 are one long sentence. He doesn't stop for breath or punctuation, the praise just tumbles out of his heart as he begins to describe all the incredible things God has done. And the point is that in all these blessings; adoption, redemption and future final salvation, forgiveness of sins is the foundation.
When we say 'I believe in the forgiveness of sins' we're opening the door on an immeasurable load of blessing. So there won't be a whole string of ground-breaking application for you to go and do this evening - but there will be a whole load of stuff to believe and get excited about afresh - because as we read Paul's praise we're supposed to go with him - to get caught up in his joy and praise God too.
So Paul's headline is: Praise God for glorifying himself by choosing to forgive us in Christ. And we're going to see how he builds that headline up in 3 points:
1. The grace of forgiveness past
2. The grace of forgiveness present
3. The grace of forgiveness to come
1. The grace of forgiveness past (Praise God for choosing to forgive us)
So what are the first load of blessings Paul praises God for? Look at verse 4:
For he chose us [that those who trust in Jesus according to v1] in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ
In other words, trusting in Jesus, whether you do already or you will do in the future, shows that, in eternity past, before he'd created anything, before he'd uttered the words 'let there be light', God chose to save you, to forgive you, to make you holy and blameless in his sight, to adopt you as a son and so an heir.
When someone genuinely trusts in Jesus they show that in eternity past, God chose them.
Woah! That's pretty big stuff isn't it? And through the years this has been debated and argued about so much so that we often miss the point. These words aren't supposed to argued about. It's not like Paul's goes: 'here's an interesting proposition, I wonder what people will make of this theological conundrum'. Have you noticed - he doesn't even try to explainhimself? He's caught up praising the God that he knows has rescued him from being the fanatic Jewish pharisee that he was, going out of his way to murder Christians and silence talk of Jesus. And as he praises God he knows there's no way he would have come to Jesus himself - unless God had first set his heart on Paul and pursued him right to forgiveness.
But we kick against this don't we? We live in a society obsessed by freedom of self. What I do for myself, how I define myself. Self-actualisation, self-realisation. Freedom is all about making my free choices in my free way. So we get frustrated: and we're so hung up on this idea that we don't read what Paul says properly. We just hear 'he predestined us' and 'right, no, sorry but I'm an autonomous individual' – stop listening.
But we can't do that. We can't seperate this from who God is. Back up 2 words from the beginning of verse 5 and what does Paul say? In love he predestined us... for what? To be adopted as his sons.
So we get upset: my liberty, my autonomy, my free will is being overridden. God is imposing himself on me. And Paul says: PRAISE. GOD. Praise God!
Why should we praise God for that? Because God predestined you for adoption. Because God is a father.
And if you have kids you'll know what Paul's talking about. A few months ago I remember walking down to church with my family. And my girls want to ride on their scooters. Good – it'll turn the usual 20 minute walk into a 10 minute scoot, so great, we might not be late for church. So they're scooting off, towards the bottom of the path, and I tell them 'stop at the bottom before the road'. But 'Thea – she had this look in her eye that told me 'I'm not going to do that' – so she's scooting off determined – looking at her goal on the other side of the road, and I run after her. She's just about to hit the road when I grab her and pull her back. What does she do? Screams. "What are you doing Dad? Why are you imposing your will on me? I'm self-actualising – I want to scoot into the road so I'm going to scoot into the road. You're assaulting my autonomy." Only – she's 2 – so she doesn't say all that. She just screams.
But that's the point. I'm her Dad. So in love I want to protect her. If I don't overcome that little will she'll end up arguing with a big lorry.
The problem many of us have with predestination was eloquently put by an American preacher - that we imagine God playing some cosmic game of 'Duck, duck, damned' - arbitrarily sending people off to heaven and hell from a neutral starting point.
But what's the phrase we're thinking through tonight? I believe in the forgiveness of... sins. We are not neutral. We're rebels. Actually, our natural reaction to predestination is just one example of our unwillingness to submit to the God who made us. It's not like God is trying to persuade us, he's just revealing it as true about himself. Which is why in Romans 9 one of Paul's responses to objections to the idea of God choosing to save people is 'who are you O man to answer back to God?' The fact is, left to ourselves we don't much like the God who is there. We'd rather have a god we can control, who we can define. So we reject the God who is there - and that rejection of God is the most heinous, most despicable act ever committed. Left to yourself there's nothing in your will that wants to submit to God. We aren't just separated from God - we're running in completely the opposite direction.
So what does God think of that? In short: disgust. Just think about some of the language the Bible uses to describe our appearance before God. We wear filthy rags, we're covered in excrement. God is disgusted by us. And he is angry with us. So as we run away from God, we're headed straight for the juggernaut of his hatred for sin. Judgement is real - and God the judge will judge.
No wonder Paul praises this God who will judge, but also out of his own sovereign grace, chooses us in Jesus to be his sons, who chooses us to not to be disgusting, but to be holy and blameless - to be pure - in his sight.
Now I know that I haven't covered all the questions this idea of predestination throws up. That's partly because it's not possible to answer all the questions. There is mystery here. But what glorious mystery! So I urge you - don't just stop thinking about this because it feels too difficult to get your head around. It is, but this is God revealing his ways to us, and the more we look into this the more of the mysterious yet amazing, all sufficient, gracious character of God we see.
CH Spurgeon put it this way:
"It does us good to get back to these eternal things. You shake off something of the dust of time, as you no longer walk down its restless ages; but traverse the glorious eternity, where centuries seem no more than fallen leaves by the way. Thousands of years are less than a drop of a bucket compared with the lifetime of the Almighty. How sublime a thing to climb, in contemplation, to the everlasting God and the eternal council-chamber, and to see the heart of love beating towards the chosen people before all time, and the infinite mind of God devising and purposing their good! This is an exceeding great refreshment, and the wonder is that so few believers dare to ascend this sublime hill of the Lord, there to commune with him that was, and is, and is to come"
As you say 'I believe in the forgiveness of sins' this is the first reason you can know that you are forgiven right now. Because none of it depends on you. You're not going to surprise God. When he chose you he already knew everything about you - sin you have committed, sin you will commit. Your need for forgiveness is the only thing you contribute to your forgiveness - and God knows that. So praise God! As you believe in Jesus, Praise God for choosing to forgive you.
But. There's an important question, which I'm sure many of us are thinking: 'if God's chosen some why do or choose anything ourselves? If I'm chosen, I'm chosen right? Who can resist the will of God?'
In other words, what we need to know is, once God chooses to forgive, how does that forgiveness come about?
2. The grace of forgiveness present (Praise God for choosing to forgive us in Christ)
Look at v5 again:
...he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given usin the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, [and here's our phrase] the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace, which he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.
Have you noticed how many times Jesus is mentioned in this passage? 9 or 10 times in 7 verses. Paul praises the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for the blessings he has given us in Christ: choosing us in him, adopting us through Jesus Christ, by grace given us in the one he loves. In him we have redemption, all according to the mystery of his will which he purposed in Christ to bring things under one head even Christ.
And that's the point. God's choice to forgive is worked out through Jesus.
Because the real issue here is: if sin is so bad, so abhorrent to God, how can he choose to forgive anyone? If we reject God and essentially demand a different god altogether, how can God just let that go? His status as God is being challenged. When he forgives, what happens to that juggernaut of his hatred for sin?
And the answer to that is in v7: forgiveness comes by redemption through Jesus' blood.
And 'redemption' sounds like a proper Bible word doesn't it? To be spoken in a serious voice. Preferably by someone with a dog collar and grey hair. But actually we use it, or at least see it, a lot. Probably the most common place is on vouchers. Maybe it's clubcard or gift vouchers or whatever. Have you ever noticed in the small print somewhere they'll say 'redemption value: 0.01 pence' or something? I always think "what would they do if I got 10000 of these and took them into tesco or wherever demanding my £1 redemption."
But what Paul is saying is that Jesus can hold out the cross, his blood spilt, and on it is written "redemption value: the forgiveness of sins". In other words: Jesus paid the price. When Jesus died the full force of that juggernaut hit him square on and God fulfilled his eternal purpose to forgive. Which means that as you choose to trust Jesus' death for you, in your place (whether that's for the first time or millionth time this evening) God is fulfilling his eternal purpose in you.
So as you say "I believe in the forgiveness of sins", this is the second reason you can know that your sins are forgiven: God is just - he won't punish your sin twice. And he already punished Jesus. And the result is Paul can say, in verse 7 we who trust in Jesus have redemption, the forgiveness of sins - right now this minute.
Which might be easy to feel most of the way into a sermon on Ephesians 1. But the point is this 'now' is what some have described as the 'eternal now.' It's rooted in God's choice in eternity past, it's true as you trust Jesus' death in your place. It's true now, and will be true when now means this time tomorrow, next month, next year. Even more mind blowing: it's still true if you are a believer in Christ when 'now' means the very moment you repeat that sin you so struggle with. In him we have (now) redemption, the forgiveness of sins. The price has been paid. God will not punish your sin twice - and he already punished Jesus for it. So Praise God for choosing to forgive you in Christ
So we can know we are forgiven because it doesn't depend on us but on God's choice before creation. We can know we are forgiven because in history Jesus paid the price. And there's a third support to this amazing certainty. As we say 'I believe in the forgiveness of sins' we can know we're forgiven, because the most fundamental reason God chooses to forgive, is to glorify himself for all eternity.
3. The grace of forgiveness to come (Praise God for glorifying himself by choosing to forgive us in Christ)
Because a natural question we probably don't ask often enough is: Why would God want to do this? I mean when I talk about loving my wife, part of what I mean is that I find her lovely, but God finds nothing about us lovely. So why does he 'predestine us in love'?
Should we be thinking 'you know, God is love, it's what he does'? As if he was sort of bound to forgive us - as if his love is fighting against his justice and thankfully for us, love wins. Is that right?
Or maybe it's that, in a word, God's lonely - you know, he made us for relationship with him, we screwed that up, but that's left him all alone and needing to do something to get us back and enjoy that emotional stroking we call worship?
As ridiculous as that sounds, I think a lot of the time if we're not careful, it would seem that's how we think about God and forgiveness. And we end up talking about the gospel with one another, worse, presenting the gospel of forgiveness of sins to non-Christians in such a way as to make it sound like we're the centre of it all. It's all about us, God's wonderful plan for us, God solving our problems. And off we go again, imagining a god we can define and control instead of the God who is there.
But that's not the God Paul is praising here is it? Did you notice what he said back in v5?
In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will to the praise of his glorious grace.
...in accordance with his pleasure and will. It seems that the driving force behind all this is God's pleasure - it pleases him to forgive us... OK, still nothing ground-breaking there. Until you ask why. What is it that pleases God exactly? The praise of his glorious grace. In other words, the pleasure God takes in forgiveness is at it's fullest (I'm not saying that he isn't pleased with us and in our rescue - but where his pleasure is at it's fullest) is in the glory that goes to him. The thing that pleases God so much is that as he forgives us, he is seen and shown to be who he is: infinitely and gloriously gracious.
And that's made clearer by v9-10
And he made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure [there's that word again], which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment - to bring all things in heaven and on earth under one head, even Christ.
So in verse 5 it was God's pleasure in the praise of his glorious grace, and here it's his pleasure in all things coming under one head, who is Christ. Because that's where God's grace is expressed. As a fallen world, is rescued, redeemed and restored under the rule of Jesus. The one who as we've already heard about in this series, suffered, was crucified, died and was buried, descended to the dead and rose on the third day, who ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father and will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Ultimately the purpose of God in choosing to forgive you in eternity past and acting in history to forgive you here and now, is to glorify himself by keeping you and bringing you into eternity as a member of the people redeemed by the blood of Jesus, standing before the throne and worshipping him as saviour, lord and king.
Which is why I say this is a reason you can be sure of your forgiveness as you trust in Jesus. It's not about you! It's about God and what he has done, it's about God and the pleasure he takes in the choice he made in eternity past, put into action in history at the cross, and will fulfill, to glorify himself by and through your forgiveness. Praise God for glorifying himself by choosing to forgive you in Christ.
So as I close let me suggest where we might go from here. 2 things
1st - if you're not trusting in Jesus, trust in him. The very fact of you being here tonight may be evidence of God already working to draw you to himself that he might glorify himself by forgiving and adopting you.
2nd - If you're a Christian...We've been thinking about that phrase 'I believe in the forgiveness of sins.' Go away and believe it. Go away and know it. Read through Ephesians and note everything God has done for you, make a list and praise God for it. Maybe even take time this week to write out your testimony from God's point of view. Don't start 'I was born into a Christian family' but 'God caused me to be born... Don't go 'I went along to church and began to get involved' but 'God brought x or y into my life who brought me along to church'. Think through: how did God act that eternal plan of adoption into my life and bring me to faith in Jesus?
Surely no truth is more life-transforming than knowing and really knowing that you stand before the God of the universe forgiven, adopted and that he will not go back on that decision. Praise God for glorifying himself by choosing to forgive you in Christ. If you do nothing else after hearing this, write that down and live it.