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ON THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS.
ON THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS.
GOD, who has formed us for happiness, and who leads us unerringly to this end by obeying his laws, be with us in this hour! Amen.
My Christian hearers, amongst the important doctrines of religion, in which we are instructed in our youth and in after-life, that of forgiveness of sins is unquestionably one of the most momentous. Who is not sensible that he needs this forgiveness? Who does not wish to be worthy of it and to secure it? And on what point is the instruction of the Christian religion more express, than concerning the manner in which we ought to reform ourselves, to seek forgiveness of God, and to keep ourselves worthy of it? Important, however, as this doctrine is, and abundant the instruction respecting it, yet it appears as if prejudices of various kinds prevailed, which have so much the more injurious consequences, as virtuous zeal is apt to be weakened thereby, and men are placed in a state of 166excessive, and yet fruitless anxiety. The first take; place, when persons not only consider forgiveness of sins as a gift easily to be obtained, but are also of opinion, that all, even the natural consequences of sin are done away, when they feel an assurance of this gift, and a certainty that God is not angry, and begin to think sin and vice, whose consequences are so easily obviated, less to be dreaded. Man passes easily from one extreme to the other; and so there are others, who, influenced by erroneous representations of God, give themselves up to the most tormenting fears, and tremble before God with the most serious intention of amendment, and are slow to believe that He, the All-gracious, can be disposed to forgive. Since we all need pardon of God, and it is desirable that we neither too readily hope for it, nor expect too much from it, nor give way to too great apprehensions about it, I think I shall offer somewhat not unworthy of the attention of all those who are willingly reminded of the essential parts of religious instruction, if I speak more fully on this important subject, on the occasion of our Gospel for the day. God grant that we may here also discover the truth!
And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith, said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee, &c.
WITHOUT being led by this narrative to enter on the apparently difficult question, whether Christ could only announce and assure forgiveness of his sins, like other teachers of religion, to the sick man, who probably suffered the consequences of his sins in this sickness, and was dejected and sorrowful on this account; or whether he could really and of his own power forgive them, and make the punishments attached to them cease; and firmly convinced that he will have said nothing which is not perfectly correct, and that, devoid of all arrogance, he will not have attributed more to himself than was actually his right; let us only make use of this Gospel to remind us of the instruction we have received concerning forgiveness of sins, to form correct notions of the thing itself, and then to apply these admitted and lively notions for our information, and for the destruction of various prejudices. And then, perhaps, the before-mentioned question will be more easily decided by reflecting persons. But, whilst I speak of the forgiveness of sins, I shall give an answer to two questions in particular. First, what it is, and how it is obtained? And, Secondly, 168what effect it has? The first will secure us from too great anxiety, and the last from a carelessness which is far more injurious than that anxiety.
When we speak of forgiveness of sins, our thoughts turn to God, who has a right to punish and is said to forgive, and to man, who needs and desires this forgiveness. The representations that God punishes, that man intreats God for pardon, and that the punishments of sin are removed, have certainly a character of truth which human reason must acknowledge, and with which the holy Scripture agrees. The following seem to be the fundamental notions of this truth. We cannot look upon this world, in which so much order and connexion prevail, and especially the moral world to which we, as men, belong, in any other light than as under the superintendence of a superior Being, by whom it is governed. This government is carried on according to certain laws, which are no other than the understood moral precepts of the intellectual world in general, and the human race in particular. Now as often as man transgresses one of these laws, which, by means of the liberty granted him, he has the power to do, whether from ignorance, or want of consideration, or from wilful design, he remains at all times exposed to the consequences, which the Ruler of the world has attached to such a transgression, and which we are doubtless justified in calling punishments; and we may assert with reason, that 169 no violation of the Divine commandments, and, therefore, no sin, remains unpunished. But hence very false notions of God easily arise, especially of anger and revenge; because we are not able to conceive the Deity otherwise than as bearing some similarity to us men, and because it is too natural and easy for us to transfer our affections and passions to God.
These incorrect notions have no little influence on the idea we form of forgiveness of sins itself, and particularly on the manner of seeking this forgiveness. For the most part (at least this is the idea of a great number of Christians) we imagine God in wrath, when man commits an offence, and disposed, not only to make him feel the natural consequences of sin, but also to inflict on him additional and eternal penalties; we fancy that his offended Majesty can only be appeased by satisfaction being made, and that in general God can be moved, not so much by inward contrition and steady improvement, as by continual and painful, supplication, slowly and gradually to pardon, to mitigate his anger, and to remove his punishments. Hence men tremble when they seek forgiveness; hence have they so much anxious fear whether they shall obtain it; hence they commonly take a wrong method in seeking it; and, chiefly because they consider punishment as the operation of the wrath of God, promise themselves a greater effect from it, 170than from the nature of the thing it can possibly have. But this is founded on extremely erroneous notions, inasmuch as God is never in anger, and forgiveness must be regarded, not as a change in God, but as a change in man. Little as we can deny that God disapproves, when man transgresses the Divine precepts, yet as little ought we to believe that he is angered, that he is filled with wrath and vengeful feelings against man, and that he is not inclined to forgive him, and to take away the punishments, as far as the happiness of man himself permits. For the injunctions and commandments, which God has given to the world and to us man, are not given for his own sake, but for our happiness. He is not made happier by the observance, nor less happy by the violation of them; for his blessedness is independent of the world. When man transgresses them, he injures only himself; and, therefore, is not an object of hatred and condemnation, but of regret and compassion, like the unfortunate, who does not regard the warning voice of a friend. Here also the image of a father teaches us the truest conceptions. As a wise father enjoins nothing to his child but what is profitable for the child itself; as he must pity him if he offends against his injunctions and injures himself; as his corrections serve only to make the evil consequences the more sensibly felt, and to warn the child the more strictly against a similar transgression; 171as also he is disposed immediately and heartily to forgive the repentant and intreating child, and to remove the discretionary punishment, which he had added to the natural consequences; so it is with us men and God. When man transgresses a command of God, he violates a precept, which God gave him for his benefit, he does injury to himself, he draws upon himself the prejudicial consequences which are more or less connected therewith, and prepares his own misfortunes and his own punishment. But God delights in this punishment as little, as he is inflamed with passion against men; on the contrary, the only sensation which we may attribute to God, is compassion, regret, and a wish that man should be converted and become wiser; and if this takes place, if a man confesses the sins he has committed, if he purposes to forsake them, if he is really resolved to avoid them, and gives proofs of his amendment; God is well pleased with this change, and it is scarcely necessary for a man to implore forgiveness, because God, who knows the heart, already and before his intreaty, had forgiven him. Yes, we can and indeed must maintain, that on such occasions no change is effected in God, but only in man; for God, the immutable, is always inclined to forgive; and it is only requisite for man to be convinced of this disposition, and to manifest a genuine reformation.172
These are the representations which reason gives us of the forgiveness of sins and the manner of obtaining it, and which alone are acknowledged by her as correct, unless God is to be thought imperfect, and actuated by human passions. In this view of the subject the instruction of the Gospel, and Christ himself, who has imparted to us the truest notions of God, coincide. Although our human language, and consequently Holy Writ which is composed in this language, cannot speak of God otherwise than with expressions which properly and with truth can only be spoken of man; yet Christ is so far from applying the expressions of anger and revenge to God, that he rather attributes to him feelings of benevolence and love; and, on the subject of the conversion of man especially, he is so far from encouraging this idea, that he rather attributes to him only the sensation of compassion and pity, and describes him as invariably disposed to forgive man, and to assure him of his gracious and pardoning inclination.
We have a narrative of his in reference to this point, which may supply the place of all direct instruction; I mean the story of the lost and returning son. Since this narrative exhibits in the most correct view in all its parts the manner in which forgiveness is sought and obtained, and as this instruction proceeds from the mouth of Jesus himself, permit me shortly to mention it. 113When the Prodigal, disregarding the warnings and advice of his father, had plunged himself into a state of misery, which he was no longer able to bear; when now at last sensible of his folly he repented, and took a resolution to return to his father and solicit forgiveness; how does Christ pourtray this father, by whom God is signified? Does he let the son intreat long for pardon and without success? Does the father in his anger overwhelm him with indignant reproaches for his ingratitude? Does he leave him in the agonizing doubt, whether he shall find favour, or must return again to his wretchedness? Or must he seek an intercessor, who may soften the heart of the father and incline him to forgiveness? Nothing of all this. The tender father’s heart, as our Saviour paints him, was never turned from his son; he ever felt his folly, and cherished the warmest sympathy for him. Apprehensive of the distress into which he had thrown himself, fearful only that he was for ever lost, and constantly wishing his restoration, he hastens to meet him on hearing of his actual return, spares him every word of shame and remorse, heaps upon him every mark of tenderness, and is elated with joy that the lost one has returned, and his son supposed to be dead is yet alive. Here is no trace of revenge and anger, here no change is perceptible in the disposition of the father, who at all times entertained for him the tenderest affection. But 174so much the greater is the change, which takes place in the mind and sentiments of the son. He fears lest his father should have no pity, and rather be provoked and enraged against him; he doubts whether he shall be able to prevail on him to pardon, and he considers how he may best more his heart to compassion by the most penitent confession and the most modest request, because he dares not hope for so easy a forgiveness for such offences. But how is this apprehension shamed by the father’s treatment, whose unchanged heart had ever been constant in its affection; and how the alarm of the son now appears as the natural effect and the just punishment of such conduct!
Thus, my friends, it is with man and his Maker. No change takes place in God, when he forgives, who always continues benevolently inclined towards man, ever pities him when he transgresses his commands, and willingly affords manifestations of his grace as soon as he amends; but man can with difficulty subdue that terror of God, which his condemning conscience creates, and encourage in himself a filial confidence towards him. And this confidence is entirely dependent on the actual improvement of man himself. This must be so from the nature of the thing, and the holy Scripture confirms it. As fear and trembling before God arises from the consciousness of having done wrong and of transgressing his commandments; so this fear must necessarily abate, 175as soon as that consciousness gives way, and a better one takes its place; provided only that no unjust and simply human ideas are entertained of God. Thus St. John also in the well-known saying, “We have confidence towards God, if our heart condemn us not,” fixes the ground of trembling be. fore God, plainly not in God, but in the human heart; and so it is also in the story of the Prodigal Son, in which Christ represents pardon to be subsequent to the return. Our own feelings also corroborate this truth. Who dares to look up with confidence to God, with an assurance of his approbation, when he knows that an evil heart, resisting the regulations of God, beats in his bosom, and that he is able to do what he acknowledges to be unlawful without repugnance?
And thus it seems to me perfectly clear, that forgiveness of sins cannot be a softening of the anger of God, to whom every angry emotion is foreign, nor in general any change in God, the Immutable; but that it is a change in the human soul, according to which it is convinced, or cheerfully renews the conviction with application to itself, that God is gracious: and that this assurance of the favour and approbation of God, or, which is the same thing, the conviction of pardon, can only be cherished in our minds, and is only acquired, by effectual amendment.
Important as it is for us men to form correct notions 176of forgiveness of sins, and of the manner in which it is obtained, it is equally important further to know what is its effect, in order to guard against expecting more from it than it is really able to perform, and being misled by these too high expectations into a pernicious carelessness. If we put the question, “Why do we seek pardon for our sins?” I believe we shall all agree in the answer; “That the penalties of them may cease, that we may again rejoice in the favour of God, and may be peaceful and comforted in our conscience.” This last is the result which the conviction of forgiveness affords, although a considerable limitation takes place in the removal of the punishment itself. Certain as it is, that he who reforms may be assured of the approbation and grace of God, much reason as he has to rejoice in it and in his better condition, confidently as he may hope that God will not inflict on him extraordinary and arbitrary punishments from a wrathful excitement, yet should we err exceedingly in believing, that all the consequences of sin committed are taken away at the time of conversion, and of the assurance of God’s favour, and that it can be looked upon as if it never had been committed. This observation may appear singular, but a reflecting mind will own it to be true; and it is much to be wished, that it were rightly understood, and rightly laid to heart.
We may divide all the punishments of sin into two 177kinds; first, the natural, necessary, and inseparable consequences, which never fail; and secondly, the discretionary chastisements which God may inflict in addition and in an especial manner, either in this or in the future life, for the amendment or the punishment of men. These last are immediately suspended, when reformation takes place; since it is impossible that God should still and for ever continue to punish a man who sincerely endeavours to please him, who is cured of his thoughtlessness and his follies, and now strives to do right on all occasions.
To apprehend severity like this would be to destroy the nature of God himself. But however true and undeniable this must be, it would be as great an error to hope that the natural consequences are immediately and at once abolished on forgiveness, and that therefore the sins could become as things which had never happened. This will be best illustrated by examples. The young man who lavishes the season of youth, and neglects the opportunities of informing himself, will he not feel the consequences of his lost time and his ignorance, even when arrived at an age when he has long acquired knowledge, and more justly estimates the value of time, and has accustomed himself to greater diligence? Does repentance alone remove ignorance? Can wishes bring back the past? Does the remembrance of it entirely vanish from the soul? Are not rather 178these consequences and the sense of them of very long continuance? Is it possible, is it in the power of God himself, to remove them? Or the voluptuary, who has debilitated his body, enervated his mind, dissipated his fortune, and sacrificed his civil advancement in society by a disorderly mode of life; will he, because he is brought to a knowledge of his folly, because he implores God for pardon, and is convinced that he has forgiven him, and will not eternally condemn him, will he thus be enabled to annihilate the consequences of his way of living? Will his enfeebled body be again invigorated? the lost strength again imparted to his enervated mind, his impoverishment be at an end, and he once more be put in put in possession of the prosperity which had been destroyed? Or rather, does not this condition and the consciousness of it remain? Can this consciousness be relieved otherwise than slowly and by degrees And can those consequences, even after complete forgiveness, be otherwise than gradually, and perhaps never entirely, removed? Thus, therefore, with some reflection, and from experience it is made clear, that remission of sins delivers us from an anxious fear of God, but does not put an end to the natural consequences of sin; and that we should expect too much from it, if we looked for more than a conviction of the favour of God.
This contemplation, my friends, admits of the 179most important application, and is exceedingly rich in profitable inferences, if we pursue it further, and are willing to make use of it for this purpose. Permit me to call your attention to a few only of the instructive conclusions to be drawn from it.
In the first place, let us impress this consideration deeply in our minds, that remission of sin and its punishment is only obtained by amendment of life. It appears, almost, as if no small number of Christians were of a different opinion, and cherished the conceit, that nothing is requisite for this forgiveness but for a man, when opportunity offers, to acknowledge his misdeeds, to confess and deplore them before God, to believe in his grace, and only not doubt that he is a gracious Father, and inclined to reconciliation. True as this is, and certain as it is, that without confession, without repentance, and without trust in the mercy of God, there can be no forgiveness; yet we should be mistaken, if we supposed it to be attached to these alone, and that confession, contrition, and trust in God, can cause the chastisement to cease. However we may view the divine punishments, whether as discretionary or natural, in both cases the remission of them depends upon effectual amendment. For how can God withdraw his extraordinary corrections, which have no other object than to reform man so much sooner and more certainly than the natural penalties alone 180can do, until their end, namely reformation, is actually gained? Can the use of medicinal remedies, with which this sort of punishments is most justly compared, be left off, before the sick person is perfectly cured, and these remedies have had their due effect? It is the same with the discretionary correction of God. And as to the natural necessary consequences of sin, will they or can they be put a stop to by any thing else, but real amendment? Can the sick man be restored by any other means than by discontinuing his excesses? Is the spendthrift extricated from his difficulties in any other way, than by improved habits of life? Can he, whose heart condemns him, rejoice in the grace of God, until his conscience testifies, that he has forsaken the sins he used to commit, and practises the opposite virtues?
The remission, therefore, of the penalties of sin by no means depends on sorrow and good purposes alone; it is rather only the result of amendment, which, however, is not conceivable, without that confession and repentance. Important as this consideration is, especially for all those who deem a zealous improvement of life less necessary than remorse and faith; yet it is equally dangerous to expect more from forgiveness of sins, than it is able to perform. The times are past, when excessive fear prevailed, and the times of levity seem to have taken their place, when too much is 181hoped for, and even the removal of the natural consequences of sin is expected, from forgiveness. For a great part of mankind appears to presume, that they had no occasion to shun sin so much, because they could obtain pardon and a cessation of punishment. They persist in their opinion, because, to speak after their manner, they could at any time reform and receive forgiveness. Such persons are surely in a dangerous error. For although they may be brought by repentance and reformation to the conviction of God’s favour; although, when actually amended, they have no reason to fear that God will for ever condemn them, and make them completely miserable; yet will they be able also to remove the natural consequences of sin, which continue after forgiveness? Will it be in their power to eradicate the consciousness of their former follies from the soul, and to suppress the wish, ‘Oh that I had lived otherwise, that I had acted more wisely?’ Believe it unquestionably, my friends, impaired health is renovated, even after convalescence, but slowly and by a strict regimen; poverty oppressed with debt is removed only by persevering and regular industry; the reproaches of conscience are renewed by the memory, and many a consequence of sin, however earnestly we may beg pardon of God, is never to be retrieved. Lay that to heart, ye who think that a man needs only to intreat God for pardon, in order to be delivered from the penalties of sin. 182Lay that to heart, ye who on this ground are so little afraid of sinning; and may the reflection penetrate deeply into your souls! The consequences of sin last long after improvement, they accompany us to old age, they leave us not in death, they lessen our happiness even in the future world. But we also, who have right notions of the forgiveness of sin, we who know that it depends entirely on amendment, and that then a change takes place only in us, not in God the unchangeable; and that God himself cannot abolish the consequences of sin, and undo that which is done; we will not on this account believe, that we have no need of humiliation before God, of confession of our faults, of repentance, and prayer for pardon. Judge for yourselves, how worthy of man and how necessary such a humiliation is. Even the best amongst us must confess that we stand under God, the purest and most perfect Being; that we, like all rational spirits, are bound to obey his commands, and that our welfare and happiness depend on obedience. Who feels not this obligation? but who feels not also his deficiency, when tried in the sight of this perfect and omniscient Being? Is the purest amongst us quite pure? Is the best, one who combines all perfections in himself; or only one who has the fewest faults? Have we not all manifold infirmities Do we not all stand in need of improvement? And would one of us hesitate to pray, “Who can tell, 183 O Lord, how oft he offendeth?” “O pardon, All-gracious, pardon my secret faults, and assist me with thy strength to improve myself more and more, and to be constant in that which is good.” May this be our wish and our prayer! And God, who cannot disapprove of such a prayer, will hear us, will bless us with a sense of his approbation, and support us with strength to persevere in the good path unto the end. Amen.184185
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