The Hope of Forgiveness
I recently asked a group of church members if they had ever struggled with assurance of salvation. There was an overwhelming affirmation that all had struggled in the quest for that sweet subjective assurance for which believers often long in their souls. This is not at all a strange thing in the history of the church. Many of the Reformers, Puritans and other Reformed theologians wrote volumes to address the intricacies of this important subject. For instance, John Owen's The Forgiveness of Sin, William Guthrie's The Christian's Great Interest, John Colquhoun's Spiritual Comfort, David Dickson and James Durham The Sum of Saving Knowledge, Gisbertus Voetius and Johannes Hoornbeeck's Spiritual Desertion, and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure were all products of pastoral concern to help believers gain and maintain the assurance of salvation. Many who have trusted in Christ struggle deeply in their consciences over their post-conversion sins. How can a true believer commit a particular sin--sometimes repeatedly--after he or she comes to Christ? How do I know whether I have really repented of my sin if I have committed it on a recurrent basis? Have I really and truly repented if I fall into it again? How do we reconcile the fact that the Apostle John says "whoever is born of God does not sin" (1 John 3:9) with the fact that the Apostle James says, "We all stumble in many ways" (James 3:2)? These and a myriad of other questions are bound up with the issue of the subjective assurance of salvation.
God has redeemed us so that we would walk in paths of righteousness. Jesus died to both the guilt and the power of sin so that those for whom he died can walk in newness of life. "The grace of God, which brings salvation" writes the Apostle, "teaches us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in this present age" (Titus 2:11-12). Paul reminds believers, "you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." The Apostle Peter explains, "If you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot" (1 Peter 1:17-19). We should have the singular goal of pursuing holiness since Christ has set us free from "the guilt of sin, and condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law...this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation" (Westminster Confession of Faith 20.1).
While no serious minded Christian will ever dismiss the severity of the sin in his or her life, the reality of indwelling sin is something with which he or she will have to grapple throughout the entirety of life. The greatest saints have been the first to acknowledge the greatness of their sin. David, on more than one occasion, admitted the multi-variegated dimensions of his sin. For instance, in Psalm 31:10, he wrote: "My life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away" (Ps. 31:10). When considering just how much sin he had committed, David concluded, "My iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me" (Ps. 40:12). And, when he finally came to confess his post-conversion sin of adultery and premeditated murder to the Lord, in Psalm 51, he confessed: "I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me" (Ps. 51:3). The Prince of the Puritan theologians, John Owen, wrote, "As no man had more grace than David, so none had a greater instance of the power of sin, and guilt upon the conscience." Owen himself battled for assurance of salvation throughout various seasons of his life. It was on account of this that he wrote his magnificent discourse on Psalm 130. Toward the end of that work, Owen wrote:
"Notwithstanding all your sins, all the evil that your own hearts know you to be guilty of, and that hidden mass or evil treasure of sin which is in you, which you are not able to look into; notwithstanding that charge that lies upon you from your own consciences, and that dreadful sentence and curse of the law which you are obnoxious unto; notwithstanding all the just grounds that you have to apprehend that God is your enemy, and will be so unto eternity;—yet there are terms of peace and reconciliation provided and proposed between Him and your souls...There is a way whereby sinners may come to be accepted with God; for 'there is forgiveness with Him, that He may be feared.'”1
When our hearts are weighed down with a sense of the guilt of our sin, we must necessarily turn the eyes of our hearts to Christ crucified. Owen illustratively painted the grounds of forgiveness when he wrote, "pardon flows from the heart of the Father through the blood of the Son." The Apostle John emphasized this truth when he wrote, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness...If anyone sins we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous--and he himself is the propitiation for our sin." (1 John 1:8-2:1). Believers must be confident in the fact that "there is a fountain opened...to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness" (Zech. 13:1). David was confident in the promise of God to forgive and cleanse through the blood of Christ, when he cried out, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (Ps. 51:7). Jesus holds forth the cup in the Supper to assure the hearts of his people that his blood "was shed for the remission of sin."
The more we are convinced of the truth that the Father has already provided legal forgiveness through the shedding of the blood of the Son, the more readily we will go to him for the paternal forgiveness of our particular sins. The Apostle Peter explained that when growth in grace and holiness is lacking it someone's life it is because he has "forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins" (2 Peter 1:9). When we return to God in brokenness and in confidence that He has already provided forgiveness in the blood of Christ, we will make it our renewed aim to be well-pleasing to Him. And, we will repeat this processes again and again, all the days of our life, until we are "saved to sin no more."
1. John Owen, The works of John Owen. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 6, p. 516). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.