Experiencing forgiveness and freedom

We come to a really important and sticky question today, and that is the question of how do we experience the forgiveness and the freedom that comes through the gospel? How do we apply that to our conscience, even in cases where we have done something that we feel so awful about and feel we don’t deserve forgiveness?

For some people, that is the sin of abortion. For others, it’s other’s sins. John and I happen to have really extraordinarily similar stories in our background. Mine comes from a man that I knew when I was in college. His name was Edmund and he was in his fifties. He worked in the cafeteria of the university that I attended. He refused the gospel on the basis that he was a murderer. When he was 19 years old, two men jumped him in an alley with a knife demanding his wallet. He ended up with the knife, and stabbing both of these men so aggravatedly and so many times that he was sent to prison for many, many years for aggravated murder and assaults. He read the Bible multiple times and theologians while he was in prison. There’s a verse in 1 John 3 that indicates that there is no eternal life available for the murderer and that is in the context of saying that all people who bear hatred toward their brother in their hearts are murderers. As far as God is concerned, there really is no difference. God is concerned with the heart issue that motivates hatred and murder. So the man was taking out of context this idea that because he had murdered these men, eternal life and grace was unavailable to him ever again. It was actually an excuse to hold the gospel at arm’s length because the gospel applies to the murderer the same way it applies to the hater of one’s brothers.

It applies because God has done something on our behalf that we don’t deserve. So when Edmund said to me, “Mark, I don’t deserve eternal life” (almost as a taunt), he was saying, “You’re such an evangelist, show me how I can get past 1 John chapter 3. I don’t deserve eternal life. God would never forgive me. He can’t forgive me and remain just as a God.” My disarming answer to him was, “I agree. I agree with you. You do not deserve eternal life. You do not deserve forgiveness. You do not deserve grace. And a loving, perfect, righteous God can’t just dole out forgiveness to such a horrible transgressor as you are because you have murdered two men made in His image and He is angry.”

Now at this point Edmund is thinking to himself, now is this guy sharing the gospel with me or is he condemning me to eternal damnation? And the answer is I am doing the first thing that all people need to do. In order to be able to experience God’s forgiveness and the freedom that comes with the gospel, we totally agree with God that He is right to condemn us to death. We see this in David’s Psalm 51. He’s such an amazing articulator of what it feels like to experience sin, grief and guilt. He tells us what it feels like to experience shame and what it feels like to experience God’s forgiveness. But in Psalm 51 verse four, he says: “against you, against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” In other words, David is saying to God, I have sinned against you. When you condemn me, you are right and justified in condemning me to death because I have done the wrong thing. thOur first step is to agree with God. We are deserving of eternal damnation and punishment. Apart from His doing something to save us, His intervening with some sort of miracle to save us, we will indeed experience eternal separation from God in hell forever. It’s a terrible thought. Where’s the gospel in that?

Well, after we have number one agreed with God that our sin is heinous and we deserve to be condemned to hell, there is step two: we confess with our mouths that we have done that which offends Him. And because we have confessed, uncovering and exposing our fruitless deeds of darkness to God, we turn away from them in repentance. God is just to hear our humble and repentant hearts. In Psalm 25 David says, “For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.” Again, he is agreeing, but he’s not only doing that, he’s turning to God and saying, For your name’s sake, pardon me, because if you can do this, if you can pardon me, then you are indeed going to be famous. Your name is indeed going to be great because it’s going to take a miracle for me to be forgiven. In 2nd Corinthians chapter 7, verse 10 we read that godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret. When we grieve over our sin, confess it to God and turn from our sin, then we can experience a repentance that God gives us that leads us to salvation. And that’s the experience of knowing that our repentance leads to salvation. Salvation leads to forgiveness.

Number three, we trust. We trust that what God has said, He can bring it about even if we don’t feel worthy of it. Even if in our minds we don’t fully understand how a loving and perfect God can possibly forgive us, we trust ourselves to Christ’s work on the cross of forgiveness. Remember, this trips a lot of people up. God forgives in a way that we don’t commonly forgive as humans among one another. Commonly we experience forgiveness as someone is saying to us, you know that you did the wrong thing, but don’t worry about it. I forgive you. I’m not going to count it against you. God doesn’t do that. Actually God can’t do that. He doesn’t just say: I forgive you. You did the wrong thing. Try not to do it again. And don’t tell anybody else that I forgave you because they’ll be wanting forgiveness too, and they may not deserve it like you did. No, that is not the experience of forgiveness. The experience of forgiveness comes through Christ as he has experienced God’s wrath on the cross. What we forget about the cross is that the cross represents not only the love and the forgiveness of God, but it represents the wrath of God against our sin. God is pouring out on Jesus all of the damnation, destruction and the condemnation that we deserve because we transgress God. Jesus stands in our place because He lived a perfect life. He’s the only one who could do it. But God did not just say to me, I forgive you. No, He punished Jesus and poured out the full payment of His wrath on Him for the bill that I had incurred against God. That’s where we get from Isaiah chapter 53 the long and involved messianic passage where we understand that Jesus was punished. He was bruised. He was stricken. He was afflicted. Picking up in verse five: “He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. Upon Him was the chastisement. With His wounds, we are healed.” He stood in our place. He bore our punishment and He paid the bill in full. Now we can’t pay it again. We trust that that is what Jesus has done. Ephesians says: because of that, we have in Him the redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace. The only way He forgives is that Jesus pays.

So number one, agree with God. Number two, confess your sin to God and repent and turn from it. Number three, agree that God can accomplish these things for us because He has paid the penalty through Christ on the cross. And number four, apply that good news to God. What we now know intellectually and we know from the Bible, apply it in our hearts to our own consciences. Allow that to cleanse, purify, release, and set our consciences at liberty. A passage from Hebrews that sometimes is overlooked explains to us how this works. From Hebrews chapter 9, verses 13 and 14, where He says: “for if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer sanctify for the purification of the flesh if it’s possible that these things could cause some temporary propitiation for the guilt and the iniquity of sin, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” We have purification of conscience, to say that I can accept what you’ve done for me. I’m not going to hold it against myself anymore. I’m not going to pretend like it’s between you and me anymore. I will serve you with confidence, joy, freedom and liberty of conscience. I will live in the reality of my forgiveness. That is my thanksgiving, my offering of thanksgiving to you, God.

How do we, as human beings, experience forgiveness and freedom? We experience it by agreeing with God that we’ve done wrong. We confess and repent and turn from our sin. We trust that God has paid our sin debt in full on the cross of Jesus Christ. And we apply that to our conscience so that we don’t live in guilt and shame anymore, but we turn to God to serve Him with joy and confidence and liberation. That’s the gospel. That’s the experience of the gospel that every human heart longs for. It’s the good news and the reason we want to get out on the streets to proclaim this good news. It’s why we enter into relationships with friends that we love, who have not found Christ, and we open our mouths and we explain to them the goodness of the forgiveness that comes through Christ that can come no other way. This, brothers and sisters, is the gospel.