Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
" THE LORD TEACHES US TO ASK FOR WHAT HE HAS PROMISED: THE FORGIVENESS OF OUR SINS ."
126. Q. What is the fifth petition?
A. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
That is: For the sake of Christ's blood, do not impute to us, wretched sinners; any of our transgressions, nor the evil which still clings to us, as we also find this evidence of Thy grace in us that we are fully determined wholeheartedly to forgive our neighbor.
 Ps. 51:1-7; 143:2; Rom. 8:1; I John 2:1, 2.  Matt. 6:14, 15; 18:21-35.
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 40:4,5 & Hymn 47:6
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Jesus told us to pray for the forgiveness of our sins. So we do it, have done it countless times over the years. But: we do not always feel forgiven. We rise from prayer, but the weight of our sins seems still to lay on our shouldersÖ.
Next Sunday we hope again to celebrate the Supper of our Lord. At the table weíre confronted with the gospel of forgiveness, told that the broken bread we eat and the poured wine we drink symbolize and seal that Christís body was broken and His blood shed "for a complete forgiveness of all our sins." But we know it from the past: those sins of long ago can still hound our conscienceÖ. Then we wonder: are my sins really forgiven? Or does God hold our sins in memory, hold them against usÖ; does the fact that my sins keep coming to mind not mean that God is angry with me still on account of what I did?
Jesus told us to pray for forgiveness of our sins. He told us too: "ask, and you shall receive." This is the promise: there is forgiveness for those children of God who ask for forgiveness. It is for me to believe it.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
THE LORD TEACHES US TO ASK FOR WHAT HE HAS PROMISED: THE FORGIVENESS OF OUR SINS.
1. The Old Testament background.
How did Adam and Eve know that their relation with God in Paradise was healthy, friendly, that there was nothing between them and God? The answer, surely, lies in the fact that the Lord God spoke to Adam and Eve, and permitted Adam and Eve to speak with God. There was communion between God and man, open channels of contact.
That changed radically with the fall into sin. Adam and Eve felt so vulnerable to the eyes of others that they covered their nakedness with fig leaves. And remember: there were no other people; Adam and Eve felt vulnerable before Godís all-seeing eyes. So vulnerable did they feel that when God came to them in the cool of the day, they hid themselves from His presence among the trees of the garden. An open relation still between God and man? A relation free of accusing eyes and guilty conscience? No, not any more. The brokenness of the relation between God and man was pointed up so graphically when God drove the man out of the Garden, and placed cherubim at the gateÖ. We understand: it was sin that drove God and man apart. For, as the prophet Habakkuk said it: God is "of purer eyes than to behold evil, And cannot look on wickedness" (1:13). Anything touched by sin cannot exist in His presence.
That God tolerates in His presence nothing touched by sin was driven home for Israel at Mt Sinai. The Lord wished to establish His gracious covenant with a nation of sinners, and thatís to say that God wished to live with man, and have man live with Him. But the iron barrier (cf Ezek 4:3) between man and God prevented this communion. When God came to Israel at Mt Sinai He displayed straightaway how high the iron barrier was. How He displayed that? By making His coming to His people-by-covenant so awesome, so terrible, so frightful. We read it: Godís coming meant thunders and lightnings, a thick cloud on the mountain, a loud trumpet blast. Yes, "Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; ...and the whole mountain quaked greatly." We note that Godís coming is described here so very differently from His coming in Paradise; there His coming was peaceful, friendly, welcome, here His coming is terrible, awesome, frightening. We know why the difference. Itís because of the presence of sin in the people. Such is the effect of the presence of sin in the people that Godís coming threatens to destroy the people; in 19:21 the people must be told to keep their distance lest "many of them perish", perish because "the Lord break out against them" (vs 22). The people realized: there was something between them and God. Thatís why "they stood far off" (20:18). What the problem was? That, of course, was sin" (cf vs 20).
But now see, congregation: what does the Lord do about the sin between Israel and God? This: God takes steps to do away with sin! Vs 24: "An altar of earth you shall make for Me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings...." By Godís righteous decree, the wages of sin had to be death (Gen 2:17; Rom 6:23), the death of the sinner. But such is His mercy that the Lord commands the sacrifice of an animal in place of the sinner so that the shed blood might be an atoning sacrifice. In the words of Lev 17:11:
"ÖI have given [the blood] for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life."
Or, in the words of the apostle to the Hebrews:
"Under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb 9:22).
There it is, beloved: sin stood between God and man as an iron wall and so prevented warm and open communion, prompted instead a critical gaze and a guilty conscience. But the shedding of blood took that sin away, the shedding of blood removed the barrier between God and man.
That came out so pointedly in the instructions God gave Moses after the awesome events on Mt Sinai. For the God who established His covenant with sinful Israel told Moses on the mountain the specifics of how to build a tabernacle, a tent in which holy God might dwell in the midst of His covenant people; those instructions are written in Ex 25-31. Central to that tabernacle was to be the altar; indeed, the altar was to be located strategically between where God would dwell and where the people could stand. That altar, with the sacrifices and hence the blood that was to be spilt on it, removed the barrier between God and man, made it possible for God and man to live together. So, once the tabernacle with its altar was completed - what happened? Ex 40: "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (vs 34). The meaning? God actually came to dwell with His people! Holy God, sinful Israel: together. Here the expulsion from Paradise was undone! How that was possible? That could be possible only because sin Ėthat iron wall between God and man- sin was gone, forgiven, taken away through the sacrifices on that altar. So God could be with man, Immanuel: here is the gospel of reconciliation, the gospel of the forgiveness of sins.
Over the years, the people of Israel prayed for reconciliation with their covenant God, prayed for the forgiveness of sins. How could Israel of old know whether their sins were in fact gone? The evidence, brothers and sisters, lay in the fact that God dwelt in their midst Ė the tabernacle. As long as their sins remained, God could not dwell in their midst, for God cannot stand sin in His presence; He is too holy for that. That God dwelt in that tabernacle, dwelt among His own people, was intended to assure the people that their sins were gone, forgiven.
Thatís also why Israel could be happy, could celebrate, have feasts at the tabernacle. Why be happy, be happy at the tabernacle? Thatís because the sins that so troubled their conscience before were gone, gone. So they could rejoice before the Lord, rejoice in the happy assurance that God and man were reconciled, that the God whom they had offended by their sins was no longer angry with them, rejoice in His holy, gracious presence.
So: David says in Ps 103 that God "has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities." In fact, "as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us" (vss 10ff). Why David could be so sure that his sins were so totally gone? Wasnít he too cocky on the point? No, he wasnít. David worked with the fact of that tabernacle, David worked with the fact of its ongoing sacrifices; he knew: here God dwelt with His people, and that means that He is not offended anymore by the sins of His people Ė Heís forgiven them.
Years later the prophet Micah could speak in equally lofty terms of the forgiveness of sins. Said he:
"Who is a God like You, Pardoning iniquity And passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, Because He delights in mercy. He will again have compassion on us, And will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins Into the depths of the sea" (7:18f).
And again we wonder: how could Micah be so sure?! Just as with David, congregation: Micah worked with the fact of that God had made His home in the Holy of Holies in the temple, worked with the fact of the sacrifices in the temple; he knew: here God dwelt with His people, and that means that He is not offended anymore by the sins of His people Ė Heís forgiven them, no longer sees those sins as a barrier between Himself and us.
Now thereís Jesus, and His instruction to His disciples is this: ask your Father in heaven to forgive your sins. Was this hollow advice Jesus gives His disciples, something to pray that they may or may not receive? Not at all; for Jesus told them that they who ask receive. Why Jesus could be so sure that God would indeed answer that prayer? Itís because of Godís Old Testament track record. Godís promise was to forgive the sins of His children, and God has demonstrated in the past that thatís what He did. Very well, then the disciples may know that their petitions for forgiveness of their sins will certainly be answered too.
That brings us to our second point:
2. The New Testament fulfillment of this petition.
For, as it turns out, brothers and sisters, Jesus can assure His disciples that their prayer will be heard on more grounds than only Godís Old Testament track record. Jesus Ėthe name means ĎSaviorí- received His name from God because He would "save His people from their sins" (Mt 1:21). More, Jesus was Immanuel, Himself true God who had come to live with man on earth. Certainly He, then, was in a position to assure His disciples that their prayers for forgiveness would definitely be answered.
He told them to pray, and then set about demonstrating the grounds upon which this prayer would be answered. For this Jesus went to the cross, and on that cross took on Himself the sins of all Godís people Ė of Old and New Testament alike. He was made to be sin personified, and therefore was rejected by God; after all, God cannot stand sin in His holy presence. So it was that on the cross He had to cry out His anguish: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"
But though rejected by God, beloved, Jesus-become-sin obtained reconciliation with God! Sin could be atoned only through the shedding of blood, and so Jesus shed His blood to pay for all the sins piled onto Him. In the words of Hebr 9: Jesus "appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself" (vs 26b). Through His death He put away sin, and so the Reject was accepted by God again. "Father," said He when He was about to die, "into Your hands I commit My spirit." And having said that He died, and went to heaven, into the presence of His God, accepted. Three days later He rose from the dead, walked the face of this earth another forty days, and then ascended, true man that He was, into the presence of His holy Father. He ascended, and that means that man came to live in the presence of God in heaven. He ascended, that man who had once been one and all sin, and now was welcome in the presence of holy God Ėwelcome why?- because that iron wall of sin which stood between Himself and God was now gone.
Yet this man Jesus, ascended into the presence of holy God and welcome there too, was not to be the only human in Godís courts. In the Old Testament God and man dwelt together in the tabernacle of Israel Ėreconciliation!- and this is concept God wished to fulfill in the New Testament dispensation also. So the Christ who ascended into heaven poured out His Holy Spirit upon man. And, wonder of wonders: this Holy Spirit now dwells among men, more, dwells in people. Delight in it, congregation: true God in the Spirit lives in men - Immanuel!
How come?? Doesnít God know that we commit sin day by day? Most certainly He does, congregation, He does! But Jesus tells the disciples to pray for the forgiveness of sins, and He tells them to pray it on the basis of His own redeeming work, tells them to pray it because those sins are gone, forgiven. Just as much as Godís dwelling in the tabernacle in the Old Testament was evidence that God forgave Israelís sins, so the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and His dwelling in the hearts of Godís own today is evidence that God has forgiven the sins of His New Testament Israel. For God is too holy to dwell where He still sees sin.
So I come back to the question of the beginning: can you really be sure that you really are forgiven of all your sins? Yes, life has so many difficulties and disappointments, challenges that make us think that somehow God is still angry with us. Can you, then, be sure that God has really answered your prayer?
No, brothers and sisters, you cannot crawl into heaven to check Godís books and see what sins remain listed behind your name. Yet that does not mean that you canít find out whether God answers your prayers for forgiveness. Whatís in heaven is Godís business, not ours. We have to work with what happens on this earth, and interpret what happens in the light of Scripture. What has God revealed? This: sin is ever and always a barrier between God and us, for God remains too holy to look upon evil. And this: where sins have been taken away in Jesusí blood, there God is pleased to dwell with man. So the critical question becomes: does God dwell in you? Has God in the Spirit made His home in your heart? Where the answer is Yes, may you be assured that indeed your prayer for forgiveness is answered, your sins are gone.
So: how do you know whether the Lord in the Spirit has come to live with you? One knows that by oneís works, by whether one produces what Scripture calls the "fruit of the Spirit." What the fruits of the Spirit are? Paul gives the list: "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (cf Gal 5:22). "Love," says Paul under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thankfully, love in the Bible is not simply an emotion, a feeling of warmness to another, for my emotions are warped by the fall into sin. No, beloved, in the Bible love is action, love is the attitude you take to the other so that you do not treat the neighbor according to what he deserves. Listen to Jesus as He speaks about love:
"You have heard that it was said, ĎYou shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.í But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Mt 5:43ff).
That is: though my neighbor may have made himself my enemy through his evil deeds, the fruit of the Spirit called love means that I do not wish to clobber my neighbor on account of what he did; the fruit of the Spirit called love means instead that I willingly forgive, forgive even as God has forgiven me of my wrongdoings. Of grace Iíve received so much from Him while I was still His enemy (Rom 5); of grace I give as much to my enemy. And Iíll show it to him, not just in words but also in deeds.
That becomes, then, the question for our self-examination: do I readily, freely forgive those who offend me? Do I show to my enemies Ėand therefore to everybody that would fit in a scale between enemies and friends- do I show to my enemies the love and compassion that God in Christ has shown me? In the words of our Lordís Day: am I "fully determined wholeheartedly to forgive our neighbor"?
Where you can answer the question, congregation, with Yes, you have the evidence that God in the Holy Spirit dwells in your heart. And that, you recall, is the evidence in turn that sin Ėthat barrier between God and you- is gone. So you also have a place at the Table of the Lord next Sunday.
Then itís true: even our determination to forgive the other wholeheartedly is so weak, so marred by sin. Yet we may look back into our past, our lives this week. Do we see ourselves holding grudges, being unwilling to forgive others, refuse to forget the wrongs theyíve done to us, an unwillingness to look the other in the eye? The Lordís word is clear, congregation: where the answer is that weíre not wanting to look the other in the eye, not wanting to bless those who curse us, not wanting to do good to those who hate us, we have evidence that our sins are not washed away before Godís throne either; His wrath remains. As Jesus said: "if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Mt 6:15). So thereís no place for us at the Table of the LordÖ.
Jesus taught us to pray. He told us to address God as "Father", then told us to ask Him to forgive our sins. Will Father answer, forgive our sins? Certainly, brothers and sisters, He does. The evidence that He hears your prayer for forgiveness lies in the fruit of the Spirit you produce. Those fruits reflect what your heavenly Father is like. Amen.