Sin and the Believer

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Let me tell you about three people I've talked with who were wondering whether God could possibly forgive them. The first was a student who came to faith in a Christian home, came here to study – but, after a good start, got drunk one day and ended up in bed with a girl. And he said to me, 'I feel my Christian life is over – there's no coming back from here.' The second was a friend who served with me on our University Christian Union committee – but after graduating, he stopped living as a Christian for several years. And when he came to his senses, he said to me, 'I've been a complete idiot: I've deliberately walked away from Christ.' And the third was a woman who'd had an abortion, who simply said to me, 'There's no forgiveness for that, is there?'

What does the gospel say to anyone wondering whether God can possibly forgive them, and give them a fresh start? That's our topic this morning. And it's crucial not just for people facing up to sin like the examples I've just mentioned. It's crucial for all of us as we face what you might call our 'normal sinfulness' – the inescapable, ongoing sinfulness in even the best days of our Christian lives. What does the gospel say about whether we can be forgiven and start again, and again, and again – whoever we are, whatever we've done?

That's our topic. And it's our topic because at this time of year we take a look at a few of the Church of England's 39 Articles of Faith. The 39 Articles are its doctrinal standard – they're what a Church of England church (like this one) should stand for. And we're up to Article 16. And just like a film classification might say it contains strong language, let me say that Article 16 contains 'ye olde' language – because it was written in the 16th century. But hang on in there and it will become clearer. So, here is how Article 16 begins:

"Of Sin after Baptism [i.e. 'About sin in a Christian's life']

Not every deadly [i.e. serious] sin, willingly committed after baptism is sin against the Holy Spirit, and unpardonable.
Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after baptism."

At which point, let me say what repentance means, so we're all clear on that. The key idea of repentance is 'turning to God'. And repentance is: turning to God for his forgiveness and his enabling of a fresh start. And Article 16 says:

"the grant [i.e. opportunity] of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after baptism."

So if anyone – including those three I mentioned at the start – asks, 'Can there really be forgiveness and a fresh start for me?', the answer is , 'Yes'. And that's because, as Article 16 goes on to say,

"After we have received the Holy Spirit, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin [i.e. we still can and do sin – sometimes seriously], and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives.
And therefore they are to be condemned, who say, they can no more sin as long as they live here [i.e. who say, 'I'm now beyond sinning – I'm perfect'], or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent."

Now although that is 'ye olde' in style, you'll have got the gist. But I guess you'll have wondered: why does it talk about 'sin after baptism' – as if someone had been saying Christians wouldn't sin after baptism? And the answer is: that's what some people have (more or less) said in the history of the church – for example, the Donatists in the early church. And if you're thinking of Krispy Kreme or Greggs (depending on your budget), let me say that the Donatists followed a bishop called Donatus – which was a good name, because his theology did have a hole in it when it came to sin.

Donatus lived when there'd been fierce persecution of Christians. And some Christians then had temporarily denied their faith to save their skins – as, I think we must say, might some of us in the same situation – but then they had come back to church, expressing repentance. But Donatus believed that baptism somehow cleansed you from your sinfulness – so that the church should really be a bunch of basically perfect people. So he said that if you sinned after baptism (certainly, seriously), you lost your forgiven standing with God, and had no second chance.

Article 16 was written to guard us from that error. So to see where the content of Article 16 comes from in the Bible, would you turn in the Bibles to 1 John 1.5, and the first thing John says here is that:

1. You can tell a real Christian by the overall direction of their life

Not by the fact that they're sinless (which is not possible this side of heaven), but by the overall direction of their life. Look down to verse 5:

"This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all."

So, just like looking into the sun, God is pure, blazing, sinless, moral perfection – 'light'. Read on, verse 6:

"If we say we have fellowship with him [God] while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practise the truth."

So 'fellowship with God' means a relationship with God where you treat him properly as God – where you turn to him and say, 'You are King; I will live your way.' So here's a picture of that (where the crown stands for God – because he's our rightful ruler – and the stickperson stands for someone genuinely in fellowship with God and whose direction of life – the arrow – is to aim to do God's will):

God's Will

And that's really a picture of repentance – of a life turned to God. But look at verse 6 again:

"If we say we have fellowship with him [God] while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practise the truth."

So 'light' is a metaphor for God's sinlessness; 'darkness' is a metaphor for sin. So, verse 6 is telling us that if we say we're in relationship with God, but walk in sin, we're kidding ourselves. Now you may instantly be thinking, 'But I still do sin – so does that mean I'm not really a Christian?' To which the answer is, 'No, it doesn't mean that.' Because that phrase 'walking in darkness' means that living your own way, turned away from God, is your habitual direction of life. So that's not talking about the sins which the person in Picture 1 (above) falls into while trying to go God's way. Instead, 'walking in darkness' describes this next person in Picture 2:

My Will

The person in Picture 2 has crossed God completely out of their thinking and is going in totally the opposite direction. So just think of that student I mentioned who got drunk and ended up in bed with that girl. He said to me, 'I thought I was a Christian, but having done this, I can't be.' So I said to him, 'Look, the truth about you is not seen in one fall, but in your overall direction of life. And having watched your life this year makes me sure you are a Christian – and that this fall was completely out of step with the real direction of your life.' In 1 John terms, I was reassuring him that he was in fellowship with God – even though he'd just done something majorly inconsistent with that.

By contrast, I think of another guy in his twenties who professed to be a Christian but was habitually sleeping with his girlfriend over the course of a couple of years. And I challenged him with verses like this. And he said, 'No, I'm sure God's fine with it.' So I said, 'Well, in that case, this bit of the Bible is warning you you're probably not yet a real Christian.' In 1 John terms, I was warning him that he was giving every sign of being someone still walking in darkness. So let's read on to verse 7 to see what the opposite of walking in darkness is:

"But if we walk in the light, as he [God] is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."

Now we've actually already seen what walking in the light is: it's Picture 1 (above). It's someone living a life turned to God and saying, 'You are King, I will live your way.' That's their direction. That's their aim. That's what they want to do, in their heart of hearts. But do they always do it? No. Because look at the end of verse 7 again:

"… if we walk in the light, as he [God] is in the light…the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us [or you could translate that 'goes on cleansing us'] from all sin."

So that makes it crystal clear that God knows and expects that Christians will still sin – even though they're now wanting and aiming to do his will. And he knows Christians will still sometimes sin in very serious ways, with very serious consequences. So to be more accurate, Picture 1 should look like this:

God's Will (but still sin)

But notice that word 'all' in verse 7: "the blood of Jesus his Son [in other words, the death Jesus died to pay for our forgiveness on the cross] goes on cleansing us from all sin." So don't make the sin on your conscience an exception to that, however big it feels. We need to trust that all means all. So now here is picture 3 to put verses 6 and 7 together:

My Will to God's Will 1

So, by nature, we all start out on that bottom arrow. But then Picture 3 shows someone who has heard the gospel – that Jesus died for them, so that they can turn and be forgiven back into relationship with God – and who has turned to God (or repented - and remember, repentance means turning to God for his forgiveness and his enabling of a fresh start). And Picture 4 shows that not only are all that person's past sins forgiven thanks to Jesus' death on the cross – 'covered' by his blood, as the Bible put it – but their sins up to the present moment are forgiven, too:

My Will to God's Will 2

And that will continue to be true tomorrow, and next week, and next year, and in ten years time, and until the moment they're finally accepted into heaven at the end of their life. Because, at the cross, God anticipated every sin you and I would ever commit – including the ones that leaves us shocked at ourselves – and did what was necessary for them to be forgiven.

I was once waiting for the Metro here, and this cleaning lady had just mopped the entire platform, which was gleaming. And there was no-one else there and we were chatting, when this man came down the stairs and started walking along her platform with incredibly muddy shoes. And as he passed us, she looked at me and rolled her eyes wearily. And then she set off after him, a few steps behind, mop to the floor, him muddying and her mopping all the way to the far end. And that's a picture of verse 7:

"the blood of Jesus his Son goes on cleansing us from all sin."

We mess up by sinning daily; and he mops up by forgiving daily. So the first thing John says here is: you can tell a real Christian by the overall direction of their life – which is not sinless, but sincerely aiming to go God's way. The other thing he says here is:

2. You can also tell a real Christian by their reaction to having sinned

Look on to verses 8-10:

"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."

So verse 8 shows that John knew some people were saying, 'We have no sin to confess, no sin we're guilty of – in fact (verse 10) since turning to God, we have not sinned.' Now you may be wondering, 'How could anyone think like that?' But in the history of the church, they have. For example, the Donatists were pretty close to thinking that. And movements like theirs, which have encouraged holy living have often gone wrong by saying that perfect holiness is possible in this life ('If only you discover the secret', 'If only you submit yourself more to God'…). But it isn't.

But there are other ways than movements encouraging holiness by which people end up saying things like in verses 8 and 10. One way is to rationalise sin. Take for example, the guy I mentioned who was sleeping habitually with his girlfriend. He said, 'I'm sure God's fine with it.' And when I asked, 'What makes you say that?', he said, 'Because we're going to get engaged soon, anyway.' In other words, 'It's not sin if I'm going to propose in the next six months.' That's called rationalising sin. And the next step from there is redefining sin altogether. And, as you know, that's the direction the liberal leadership of the Church of England is taking when it comes to sexuality. 'Let's call every kind of behaviour good,' is becoming the party line. But look at verse 8 again:

"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."

And verse 10:

"If we say we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us."

Because his Word, the Bible, is crystal clear that we are sinful – and remain sinful, even after we've turned to Jesus and he's begun to work on us. And that's why Article 16 goes on to say:

"After we have received the Holy Spirit, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin [i.e. we still can and do sin – sometimes seriously], and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives.
And therefore they are to be condemned, who say, they can no more sin as long as they live here [i.e. who say, 'I'm now beyond sinning – I'm perfect.]"

So how does a real Christian react to having sinned? Well look at verse 9:

"If we confess our sins…"

So we don't deny our sin or pretend we haven't done it. Real Christians know they're still deeply sinful and still do sin every day. But whenever they become conscious of having sinned, they confess it to God – which means owning up to it, taking responsibility for it, expressing our sorrow about it, and asking his forgiveness for it. And look down again at the promise in verse 9:

"If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

And there are three assurances there.

Assurance no.1, if you're a real Christian, is that God is 'faithful' – in other words, utterly committed to you, like a perfect husband. And he knew from the start, from the moment he 'married' you, that that would involve forgiving you every day of the rest of your life. And he's committed to doing that. So whenever we wonder, 'Have I sinned once too often or once too big for him to forgive me?', the answer is always, 'No: he is faithful to forgive.'

Assurance no.2 is that he's also 'just to forgive.' One big reason why we doubt that God can forgive us is the sneaking feeling that, when we ask him to do so, we're really asking him to do something unjust. It's the feeling that we're really asking him to overlook our sins, to pretend they didn't happen or don't matter – which is obviously something a just God shouldn't do. But that's not what we're asking him to do. We're asking him to forgive our sins on the basis that Jesus died for them. We're asking him to spare us the judgement our sins deserve on the basis that Jesus has already taken that judgement on himself, in our place. And when we do that, God is able to say, 'Yes, I can forgive you – and do that justly – because justice has been done on your sins, in my Son, on the cross.'

And assurance no.3 is that wonderful word 'all', again. Verse 9:

"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

And 'all unrighteousness' includes not only the sin we do notice in ourselves, and do confess – but also the sin we don't notice – and therefore can't confess. So 1 John is telling us: there is nothing we can confess to God which he is unable or unwilling to forgive. Now you might be thinking, 'But doesn't the Bible talk about an 'unforgivable sin'?' So, to end with, would you turn back in the Bibles to Mark 3.22 where Mark has just been describing Jesus' healings – including the way he freed people from personal, evil powers called demons:

"And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, "He [Jesus] is possessed by Beelzebul [in other words, by Satan, the devil]," and "by the prince of demons [in other words, by Satan, the devil] he casts out the demons.""

So these 'scribes' (religious leaders) had pretty much already made up their minds against Jesus: they weren't going to believe in him, because of all the implications that would have for their lives. So when they saw Jesus freeing people from these evil powers, they chose to say, 'This isn't a sign that he's from God. We don't think he's doing it by God's power; we think he's doing it by evil power – by devil power.' And look on to verses 28-30 for what Jesus says in response to that:

"Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"— for they were saying, "He [Jesus] has an unclean spirit."

That's the very specific sin which Jesus was talking about here. These people were seeing the work of God's Spirit through Jesus, but deliberately closing their minds to the evidence and saying it was the work of Satan, because for them, anything was preferable to the truth about Jesus and its implications for their lives. And Jesus tells them, 'If you really mean what you're saying, you'll never be forgiven.' The reason being: that if they really mean what they're saying, it shows they've hardened their hearts to the point where there's nothing more that God can possibly do to turn them back to himself. After all, if you've seen the evidence of the work of God's Spirit through his Son, and you've written it off as the work of Satan, what further evidence is there that could possibly lead you to turn back?

Now Jesus wasn't saying that these people had reached that point of no return. But he was warning them – and us – that it's possible to do so. The warning is that it's possible to harden your heart against Jesus to the point that you do lose all spiritual sensitivity, so that you will never acknowledge who he really is, and how sinful you really are, so that you will never turn to him for forgiveness and a fresh start – and so you will, therefore, never be forgiven.

That's the unforgivable sin (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say 'the unforgivable person'). And if you're worried you might have committed that sin, that's an absolutely sure sign that you haven't. Because if you're worried about it, it shows you do still have spiritual sensitivity and that you are aware of your capacity for sin, and that you're actually nothing like the people Jesus was warning here. And that's why Article 16 says:

"Not every deadly [i.e. serious] sin, willingly committed after baptism is sin against the Holy Spirit, and unpardonable."

In fact, you can put it far more strongly: not by a very long way is that the case. Because however serious the sin, where there is spiritual sensitivity, and conviction of sin, and sorrow for sin, and sincere confession of sin, there is always, always, always the opportunity for forgiveness and a fresh start. Just as there was for that student who fell into bed with that girl. Just as there was for that friend who walked away from Christ for those years after uni. And just as there was for that sister in Christ who'd had the abortion. And the very fact that all three were so worried that they couldn't be forgiven showed that they all had precisely the attitude towards God that we need in order to be forgiven and start afresh in our relationship with him. Because, as someone once very shrewdly put it to sum this whole topic up:

"If you're not worried by your sin, you should be.
But if you are worried by your sin, you needn't be."

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