by Thomas W. Currie
One might think it a bit strange that all the Apostles’ Creed has to say about the Christian life is that we are called to believe in the “forgiveness of sins.” In the third article whose subject is the Holy Spirit, one might expect something to be said about the spiritual life or a commitment to social justice or practicing the virtues of grace-filled living, but instead there is this simple affirmation: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
Such an affirmation does not seem to be made on the basis of empirical evidence that “forgiveness of sins” is a readily acquired virtue or a gift naturally abundant among those who confess the creed. Like confessing faith in the “resurrection of the body” or in the “life everlasting,” faith in “the forgiveness of sins” requires a miracle of its own, a miracle upon which the whole creed is based and to which it is a summary witness. The “forgiveness of sins” as a description of the Christian life can only be understood then not as a statement about the phenomenon of “forgiveness” or the capacity of those who confess this faith to forgive, but as a witness to that One in whom the forgiveness of sins is wrought out and revealed. To believe in “the forgiveness of sins” is to affirm Jesus Christ as the strange center of the believer’s life, a life into which one is baptized and that acquires through water and the Spirit its own mysterious shape. The Apostle Paul attempts a description of precisely this strange, other-centered life when he writes to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 3:19b-20).
If Paul is right, then “the forgiveness of sins” far from being an acquired skill or even a hoped for human achievement, is rather the gracious reality into which we are baptized and with which we must struggle. In that connection, we should remember that what the creed is inviting us to confess is not a belief in “sins” or even “sin,” but rather faith in the “forgiveness of sins.” It is this forgiveness that constitutes the reality of the life Christ has made. And just so, it is this forgiveness that reveals the presence of sin in the world, defining and limiting it. Not the other way around. The light shines in the darkness. And it is the light that enables us to see the darkness as darkness, in all its shadowy depth and sad unreality. But the darkness does not master the light or define it. The darkness is not what is being affirmed here. The evil it unleashes seeks to define us, longs to write the meaning of our lives, even desires our worship, but it cannot do any of the things it really wants to do because in Jesus Christ it is the “forgiveness of sins” that has triumphed and it is this gift that determines and shapes the Christian life.
To believe in “the forgiveness of sins” as a description of the Christian life is to say that the Christian life has at its center not me, but Jesus Christ. He is the only righteousness we have, the only hope that permits us to receive ourselves and others as God’s forgiven children. But in him, our forgiveness is real and we can dare to venture into that ridiculous comedy that is the Christian life, set free to rejoice in the grace that refuses to damn us or let us go.
There is a danger here, however, one that many theologians have called to our attention, none more perceptively than Paul himself, and none more sharply than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” The danger consists in the fact that because the grace of “the forgiveness of sins” is so extravagant in its largesse, we will come to think of it as permissive and even cheap. Like children who have inherited great wealth, we are tempted by this grace of forgiveness to think that it is quite un-miraculous, easy and without cost. Worse, we will be tempted to think that the sins for which we have been forgiven are rather harmless things, things that can be managed with a good will and some effort on our part. We will try to hide from ourselves the true horror of our death-dealing ways by cultivating less theological categories: good management, effective habits, academic success, good people skills and technological expertise. But the sins for which we need forgiveness are not harmless things at all; rather, they are mercilessly destructive. And as the Study Catechism reminds us (Q.81), the God who forgives such sins, does not condone what is forgiven. There is judgment. That is what is on display in the cross of Jesus Christ, where the One who knew no sin became sin for us, taking on himself our lethal and soul-destroying ways, and revealing the true horror of our efforts at self-sufficiency.
Sometimes novelists are better at describing this cost than theologians. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, “Crime and Punishment,” a sometime student convinced of his own Nietzschean superiority decides to kill an old lady pawnbroker, whose life he deems worthless. He can use her money for “good” causes, causes that will really help people and change the world. The murder will actually constitute a heroic act, he thinks. The student’s name is Raskolnikov and in killing the pawnbroker, he has also to kill her half-sister, who has unfortunately blundered into the room. The result, however, is not elation but dread, anxiety and guilt. The burden of the novel has to do not with the murder, but with the slow, gradual, obstacle-filled path to redemption of a fevered soul whose sin is not so much the murder he has committed, but the conviction that he exists above and apart from the web of moral and theological threads that bind the rest of the world together. He is different from the mass of humanity. His superiority is almost solipsistic in this regard. Others do not really exist for him. That is the “solitary confinement” that sin inevitably decrees. Raskolnikov, however, is happily burdened by the love of an “other,” a young woman who has been forced into prostitution through her family’s poverty. She is the “other” whom he cannot escape. One night he comes to her room and desperately asks her to read the story in John 11, the raising of Lazarus. Whatever forgiveness there might be for him can only come through being raised from the dead. Only then will he be liberated from the prison of self and set free to walk into a humanity constituted by that shared property of all sinners, namely, the forgiveness that names us and redeems us as sinners. The One who called Lazarus out of the tomb into life is Raskolnikov’s only hope. And Raskolnikov’s later imprisonment, his being sent to Siberia, his unheroic life among other convicts, and above all, his being loved by the prostitute, Sonia – these are stations on the way to his freedom. They slowly work to introduce him to a life shaped by “the forgiveness of sins.” Redeeming him from the prison of self is the way he is introduced to that life together which is life in Christ. Perhaps that is why in the creed, “the forgiveness of sins” is immediately followed by “the communion of the saints.”
The novel ends with Raskolnikov in a prison barrack retrieving a copy of the New Testament that has been placed under his pillow, the same New Testament from which Sonia had read the story of Lazarus, and which she had received from the murdered girl as a gift, a gift that now comes to Raskolnikov as a severe blessing, just as the “forgiveness of sins” comes to us from the Christ who was crucified. So also forgiveness binds us with its strange gift to those we have harmed, piercing our pretensions of sufficiency and drawing us, however reluctantly, into the lives of others through the life of Another.
As this novel indicates and as Scripture makes clear, such a transformation is not formulaic or strategic. We live the given life, Wendell Berry reminds us, not the planned. And just as there is a danger in assuming that the forgiving grace of God is cheap, so for us North American Protestants is there an even greater danger in attempting to make of “forgiveness” a smiley face, a reconciling strategy that smothers the real hurts that cut and wound and divide. Forgiveness is not the same thing as a contrived “happy ending,” or an apology, however sincere, or even a plea that we all just try to get along together and move on. The cross is not a strategy. Forgiveness is costly because it costs God something to forgive, and it costs us something to receive. Which is why it is as miraculous as being raised from the dead.
There have been serious efforts to claim this part of the story by the church in the past, efforts which, though not always complete or full, are nevertheless worth our attention. The Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, issued in October of 1945, though inadequate in many ways, was an effort by the Evangelical Church in Germany to confess its failure to live out the gospel during the Nazi years. Much was not mentioned in that statement, but there was a recognition that the “forgiveness of sins” could not simply mean “moving on.” More recently, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in 1994 by the government of South Africa, gave voice to those who had suffered grievously under apartheid, and also gave opportunity to those who committed acts of oppression to acknowledge their sin and to seek forgiveness. One can criticize these efforts as being inadequate or merely for show, but one has to admit that here faith in “the forgiveness of sins” found an echo that was not trivial or formulaic but disturbingly evangelical.
One final point: to believe in “the forgiveness of sins” is to affirm the eschatological nature of the Christian life, which is to say, that faith in “the forgiveness of sins” is an expression of Christian hope. Our lives, like our efforts to give and receive forgiveness, are unfinished things. We live in the hope of an Author and Finisher whose mercy will complete our baptism.
And that may be the most radical aspect of “the forgiveness of sins” as well as the most difficult to accept, namely, the liberating nature of Christ’s forgiving grace. To confess faith in such forgiveness is to declare that, as grievous and cruel and divisive as our sins are, we are not captive to them or to the past that would define us as sinners. Obsessing over our sinful failures, cultivating resentments, remembering petty slights – these things do not liberate. But the forgiveness that comes to us in Jesus Christ is liberating, both to the sinner and the sinned against. This gift turns us from the past toward the future and grants us an unexpected measure of forgetfulness. Not the forgetfulness of erasing the past, but that liberating forgetfulness that refuses to let us wallow in victimhood or cultivate resentments, inviting us instead to live as those whose sins have been taken away from us and are no longer our property but Christ’s.
It is true that we find it much easier to confess our faith in “the forgiveness of sins” than we do to forgive sins. Still, those hungering for a deeper “spirituality” would do well to look at precisely this affirmation as the true source of life in the Spirit. The saints who worship at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston have borne eloquent witness to the power of this affirmation, and have reminded us of the cost and the grace enfolded in “the forgiveness of sins.” Such forgiveness confesses that we belong to Jesus Christ, whose grace is the one reality with which we have to do, and which, the world will ever discover is the true locus of our common humanity.
THOMAS W. CURRIE is a retired pastor living in Georgetown, Texas. He taught at Union Presbyterian Seminary for 13 years and now serves as an adjunct professor at Austin Seminary.