The following message was presented at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, PA on Sunday, July 17, 2011
Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich announced that he would pardon Michael Austin who “served 27 years for a crime he did not commit.”Austin had been convicted of killing a convenience store security guard in a 1974 robbery.
Records from Austin’s employer revealed that he was at work when the robbery took place. There was no other evidence placing Austin at the scene of the crime that day. Two years ago, a judge overturned his conviction saying the defense attorney was incompetent, that the prosecution had committed errors and the original judge had issued faulty instructions to jurors.
The governor said he talked with Austin and apologized, although he admitted words were very difficult to come by. By issuing a “full and complete” pardon, Ehrlich says Austin will be able to seek compensation from the state. The governor did not have a figure in mind, but asked, “What’s a year worth? What’s a month worth? What’s 27 years worth?”
Austin’s lawyer said the pardoned man felt good about the situation. He said, “He was personally touched that the governor had spent so much time looking at the matter and that the governor personally called him.”
It is good to see wrongs righted. Mr. Austin was wrongly convicted of this crime, and is now free. In this case, he was innocent of the crime, but the pardon Jesus offers is for people who are guilty of sin, yet we are pardoned just the same.
This morning, we turn to one of the Bible’s central themes. We have mentioned it in the Apostles’ Creed this morning; it is tied to both of the sacraments we practice as Christians, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is a must to mention every time we witness, or we have left out the greatest blessing to human kind. The item that I’m referring to is “the forgiveness of sins.” Being forgiven is something very practical, because, after all, sin is very practical. In a congregation this size it might be challenging to find one thing that is common to all ages and positions in life. But sin is a topic that is relevant to every age, every temptation, to every stage in life.
For a fuller explanation of this blessing, we must turn to a passage in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. What is this new covenant? What does it consist of? There are two very important lessons I’d like to share with you this morning. The first is that…
GOD HAS ALWAYS BEEN FAITHFUL AND FORGIVING.
Jeremiah prophesied during the last days of the kingdom of Judah. The book of Lamentations, a sequel to Jeremiah’s prophecy, was written to express the pain of the fall of Jerusalemin 586 B.C. During the prophet’s ministry, there was a constant spiritual struggle in the land. Many were torn between worshipping idols and worshipping the Lord. Reforms were instituted in Josiah’s reign 40 years prior, but these lasted only a short while. The Israelites wore down the patience of God, so He promised to judge them for their sin by sending them into exile. Judgment is a main theme throughout the book of Jeremiah, as God was calling His people to repentance.
It is in this backdrop that the new covenant is presented, contained within a section of comfort found in chapters 30-33. Notice that the new covenant is in some ways a contrast of the old covenant. Verse 32 states: “…not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.” Here, God describes Himself as a loving spouse to His people. He cares for and provides for those He calls His own. In the Old Testament, He gave them victory over their enemies, as in the case of their deliverance from the hands of the Egyptians, the most powerful army and nation in the world at that time; or the Amelikites or the Philistines in the days of David. Every enemy was defeated because God was with His people. And after their rescue fromEgypt, God would give them the Old Covenant upon Mount Sinai; an agreement between two parties with binding obligations. He safely guided them in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land. God fed His people manna for food and water from a rock. He redeemed them; and showed them how to live lives which glorified Him.
Their greatest need was forgiveness of sins. This was the case since the days of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Lot, and throughout their history. But when the Old Covenant was enacted, forgiveness had its ceremonial restrictions at the time. What more is that it was written in stone, but impossible to keep. But the new covenant would be different from the old one in several ways. Listen to verse 33: “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house ofIsraelafter those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, God would guide the church and the consciences of those who belong to it. That is how we can match the law of God with the people of God- it is a guide for our conscience, informing us of a life that pleases God and His revealed will for our lives. Jesus talked about the Holy Spirit being our teacher, guide and friend, which is possibly an illusion to Jeremiah 31:34 “And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
That last clause contains something very special. Unlike the Old Covenant that contained repeated sacrifices done by numerous priests, under the new, one sacrifice would be made. The New Testament quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 in Hebrews 10:12, describing the ministry of Jesus who perfectly kept God’s law. It states: “But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. …by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” This was stated to illustrate the ministry of Jesus Christ. Hebrews tells us that Christ is different than priests in the Old Testament in that He offered Himself. And all those who turn from their sin and put their trust in Him have the benefit of forgiveness. And so…
FORGIVENESS OF SINS IS OUR GREATEST BLESSING, AND SOMETHING BASIC TO THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS.
Just a few things about the forgiveness of sins. First of all, it is something basic to the gospel, because sin is basic to the human life. When Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, a true fulfillment of the Passover, He said in Matthew 26:28: “…for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” And in reflection of His ministry, Jesus said in Luke 24:47: “…and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in (My) name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Paul wrote in Colossians 1:14 about Christ, “…in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, preached in Acts 2:38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” That is why baptism is so significant in the lives of Christians.
What are the implications of the forgiveness of sins? Of these we ought to be aware. First, that we can have a new self. We are a new creation. 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us: ” Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” When someone genuinely places their trust in Jesus Christ and asks forgiveness for their crimes against God, they are given a clean slate with God and a new self. We can have clean hands and a pure heart, by God’s grace. Psalm 24:3 says: “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart….”
Secondly, forgiveness of sins cannot be reduced to a “do better next time,” sort of mentality. Nor can we cleanse ourselves. We need God’s cleansing! Scientology teaches a method of self-cleansing, a mind game of which they’ve made millions of dollars. Jesus says come to Me for cleansing and I’ll make you as new.
Thirdly, forgiveness of sins in Jesus liberates us from our dirty past, of which we are not defined. When we become a Christian, God’s calling defines our lives. Paul states in Philippians 3:13: “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead… .”
Fourthly, forgiveness of sins in Jesus reminds us that forgiving yourself is not most important, but communion with God is. I love the words of 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We must take responsibility for our actions. Pop culture would have us blame our parents, our upbringing, others, even our culture for the evil that has come upon us.
Fifthly, forgiveness of sins in Jesus means that we are free to live a new life. That we can live however we want. Romans 6:1 “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”
Sixthly, forgiveness of sins in Jesus enables us to forgive others. This is quite challenging, when we’re so predisposed to holding grudges and being unforgiving. Colossians 3:12 states: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Lastly, forgiveness of sins means that we’ve been reconciled to God. That is why it is our greatest need. 2 Corinthians 5: 18: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” Like an axe which causes a tree to fall, so the death of Jesus blows over the idea that we can be good enough to go to heaven. We cannot. That is impossible. Listen to the following quote, given to us by the 17th century John Owen. He said: ““Poor souls are apt to think that all those whom they read or hear of to be gone to heaven, went there because they were so good and so holy…. Yet not one of them, not any one that is now in heaven (Jesus Christ alone excepted), did ever arrive there any other way but by forgiveness of sins.”