How May I Know That I Am Forgiven?
George Everard, 1874
The more earnestly a soul is seeking after God, the more intense will be the interest felt in this question. It is a matter that ought not to be left in uncertainty. It is certain that many and grievous sins may justly be laid to the charge of each of us. It is certain that every act and word and thought of evil is registered in God's book of remembrance. It is certain that death will soon come, and then that judgment follows! Is it not then most needful that we have a sure testimony and witness that our debt is paid, and our account with God settled forever?
But is it the will of God that Christians should know for a certainty that their sin has been cancelled and blotted out? Is it His will that the Christian should be able, with full assurance, to rejoice that his own sin is forever put away?
False humility would demur to this. Men admit that we ought to believe in a general way that God forgives sinners; but to believe positively, "God has forgiven my sin" — "I am safe in Christ, and for me there is no condemnation" — for any Christian to say or feel this, they would imagine borders very closely on pride or presumption. "It is not good to be too sure," is often the language we meet with from those who do not understand the ground of a Christian's hope.
But can we be too sure of anything which God has positively declared? Can it be wrong to rest with certainty on that for which we have the plain warrant of God's Word?
Holy Scripture makes it very clear that God would have His people rejoice in the full assurance of His pardoning mercy. David, speaking by the Holy Spirit, has said, "Blessed is the man whose iniquity is forgiven, and whose sin is covered." But why is this blessedness revealed, but that God's people may know it and rejoice in it, and that others may see their joy and seek for the same happy privilege?
When Christ was upon earth He loved to relieve the burdened consciences of sinners by giving them this assurance. To the woman who was a sinner, He spoke the word of absolution: "Go in peace — your sins are forgiven." To the palsied man He gave first of all the great blessing of a full remission of guilt: "Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven." We have a picture of the forgiveness granted to sinners, in the touching story of the Prodigal's return and welcome. Could there be room for a single doubt whether or not his father had forgiven him, after the embrace of the fatherly arms and the kiss of fatherly love?
And what do we find to be the tone of early Christianity, as set before us in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Epistles? Was it fear and doubt and uncertainty? Or was it not, for the most part, the comfort and joy of a sure and present salvation, sealed upon the heart by the Holy Spirit?
Those who believed on the day of Pentecost "ate their food with gladness and singleness of heart," which they could only do for the joy of sin forgiven.
The Ethiopian Eunuch and the Philippian jailor, when they heard of Christ and believed in Him, at once rejoiced.
The Corinthians, aforetime sinners beyond most, were addressed as being "washed, justified, and sanctified."
The Apostle joins the Ephesians with himself, as being in possession of a present salvation: "In whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace."
He assures the Colossians that the Lord had "forgiven them all trespasses."
The Apostle John writes even to the youngest in the faith in the same strain: "I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for His name's sake." And again he tells those who believe, that he writes to them that "they might know they have eternal life."
And as we must believe that a true assurance of salvation is according to the teaching of Holy Scripture — so too it is not difficult to see that it brings glory to God.
It exceedingly magnifies His free and abounding mercy, when a vile sinner once far off, self-condemned for innumerable sins and transgressions — can look up to Heaven with holy confidence and joy, and praise Him for turning away His anger, and blotting out all his iniquities!
It magnifies also His justice, for as we see the medium of forgiveness — the finished work and perfect Atonement of the Cross, we rejoice that He is just, as well as merciful to forgive us our sins.
It magnifies equally His faithfulness and truth. It becomes manifest that He fails not to fulfill His gracious promises, when the word on which we have trusted is accomplished in us.
Another thought also has often occurred to me, in answer to those who question the right of a Christian to know assuredly that he is accepted by God. Has not our Father bidden us come boldly to the throne of grace, and there pour out before Him our heart's cravings, sorrows, and desires? But how can I possibly do this, without a certainty of a present forgiveness?
If I had to go and make my request to a King, and I was uncertain whether the crime of rebellion, in which I had taken part, had been forgiven, or whether he were still angry with me on account of it — how could I approach him with any assurance of being heard and favorably received?
Just so, if i don't know whether God has pardoned the guilt of my rebellion against Him in years that are past, what comfort can I have in pouring out my heart before His mercy-seat?
Still more, without an assured forgiveness, is it possible to abound in praise and thanksgiving, and to rejoice in the Lord always. A guilty conscience, sin unforgiven, is like a heavy stone upon the heart — but the assurance of forgiveness removes the weight, and unlocks the lips. Then can we sing with David, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me — bless His holy name, who forgives all your iniquities, and heals all your diseases."
But if it is God's will that Christians should be able to rejoice in the assurance of His mercy — then how may they best attain it? Remember, you must be forgiven — before you can know it. You must have wealth — before you can be conscious of its possession.
To be forgiven is the first thing; and this comes through trusting the blood-atonement of our Surety. He who condemns himself, and accepts as the punishment due to himself, the stripes laid on Christ, and thus draws near to God — that man is at once completely absolved from all his transgressions. He stands clear from all guilt — he is justified by faith in the atoning-blood — God remembers no more his sins and iniquities.
We have God's own testimony, confirmed and repeated in every possible way, to the complete forgiveness and justification of those that are thus trusting in Christ. "He who believes on the Son has everlasting life." (John 3:36.) "By Him all who believe are justified from all things." (Acts 13:38.) "To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whoever believes in Him shall receive remission of sins." (Acts 10:43.)
And here it is that we see the true ground of assurance. It is the Holy Spirit sealing upon the heart the reality, the eternal verity, and the personal application of such truths as these — so that they become to the soul a pillar of strength, a foundation of immovable security.
It is not the Spirit without the Word. It is not some undefined feeling that we are forgiven, without knowing how or why. This is sometimes found — and we fear it is usually a very perilous delusion — a counterfeit of true peace.
Neither is it the Word without the Spirit. It becomes merely a dead letter, a sealed book — unless the Spirit brings home the truth to the heart. It may be read by the eye, it may be heard by the ear — but until applied by the Spirit, it is totally ineffectual for the salvation of the soul. But where there is true solid consolation and good hope through grace, the Comforter has been the teacher, and has brought the sinner by the Word home to God.
Try distinctly to see the steps by which the Spirit works. Sometimes they are very distinct, sometimes one accompanies the other; but we may easily discern the difference between them.
1. The Spirit comes as the Spirit of conviction of sin. See how it was at Pentecost: men who had been hitherto rejecting the Son of God, yes, and joining together to crucify and mock Him — are pierced to the quick. They see their sin; they see their fearful peril; they are pricked in their heart, and exclaim, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" And it is still the Spirit's work to humble men by convincing them of their sin. Often has it been that those who have been altogether careless, are led to feel the burden of their sin, and seek to know by what means they may be forgiven.
2. The Spirit comes also as a Spirit of revelation in the knowledge of Christ. He opens the spiritual eye to discern the suitableness, the all-sufficiency, the readiness of Christ to save. He reveals the power of His blood to cleanse — and the might of His arm to redeem and save even to the uttermost!
Then comes faith — the anxious soul looks up and trusts. Still unbelief may suggest its varied doubts and possibilities of rejection, but faith takes hold of Christ in spite of them, and takes refuge under the shadow of His Cross.
3. The Spirit has yet another work in bringing full peace. He comes as the Spirit of sealing — the Spirit of Adoption. "After you believed, you were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the pledge of our inheritance." "Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts." "You have not received the Spirit of bondage again to fear, but you have received the Spirit of Adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father!" "The Spirit also itself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God."
The teaching of Paul in these passages is very plain. To believers an inward voice testifies of their relationship to God — a voice within the heart, responds to the voice of God in the Word. God says to each of those who trust in the atoning sacrifice and mediation of Jesus, "You are in Christ my son, my daughter, my well-beloved child." Then comes the echo from within: "You are my Father, my God! You have brought me near to You by the blood of Your Son. Behold, what manner of love You have bestowed upon us, that we should be called Your children!"
Neither is there any room here for vain and groundless hopes and imaginations. The witness of the Spirit within. is in exact harmony with the witness of the Word — it only affirms to the soul that which is plainly written. The Word declares that men "are the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus," and "that as many as received Him, to them He gave power to become the sons of God, even to those who believe in His Name." And it is only when we know that by God's grace we trust in that precious blood, that we can have assurance of forgiveness and sonship in God's family. Here, then, as it seems to me, is the means whereby we may know that our sin has been forgiven. By the grace of the Spirit, take firm hold of God's testimony, and humbly wait upon God for the power of the Spirit to seal the truth more and more upon the heart.
From all that has been already said, we see that the assurance of forgiveness is not to be found through an absolution pronounced by a human Catholic priest. The only absolution which the ministers of Christ are warranted in giving is by the ministry of God's Holy Word. They are to declare to man the certainty of God's promises to those who truly repent and believe in Christ. But they have no warrant for assuming the position of judge, or of giving such an absolution that the sinner can rely upon it as a ground of assured forgiveness.
There are also auxiliary evidences of forgiven sin, which ought not to be overlooked.
1. Where sin has been forgiven, the conscience will be able to testify of its undivided reliance on the blood of the Cross.
2. Where sin has been forgiven, it makes men frank, honest, open with the heart-searching God. "Blessed is the man whose iniquity is forgiven — and in whose spirit there is no deceit." The unforgiven soul needs a cloak, and numberless excuses, and a self-righteous covering for its sin and neglect. But the forgiven man desires to lay bare before the eye of the divine Heart-searcher, every evil in thought, in motive, in word, and in deed. If you had but an old suit of clothes you might wish to make the best of them, however ragged and unfit for use — but if a new and clean suit were given you, you would be quite willing to cast away the former.
He who has in his possession the new and clean robe of a perfect justification in Christ, abhors and casts away his former coverings of vain and worthless dependencies.
3. Where sin has been forgiven, there will ever be an earnest desire to serve God. "The blood of Christ purges the conscience from dead works to serve the living God." (Hebrews 9:14.) "He who is married to Christ, will bring forth fruit unto God." (Romans 7:4.)
The faith which justifies, works by love — and love is a very diligent and active servant. The same Spirit, too, who witnesses of pardon and adoption, is the Spirit of zeal and obedience. And he who truly possesses it, cannot fail to catch the spirit of those heavenly hosts who ever obey His commandments, hearkening to the voice of His Word.
Dear reader, judge yourself. If you trust that you have been graciously forgiven — is there something of all this manifest in your life and conversation?
It may be that someone who reads these pages has not yet found full assurance. Still, if you are humbly drawing near to God through Christ, be not discouraged. Do not unchristianize yourself because your are not yet absolutely sure of your acceptance. Do not be content with uncertainty, but go forward to learn more of Christ and His free mercy, and pray for the presence of the Spirit in your heart. Meanwhile give no heed to despairing thoughts.
I can imagine many an Israelite, though securely sheltered beneath the blood of the Paschal Lamb, might have a trembling fear as he thought of the angel of destruction passing through the land. Be sure you take shelter beneath the blood, and by and by God will give you the full assurance of faith and hope by the power of the Spirit.
But if, on the other hand, you are enabled to rejoice and to appropriate to yourself, with full confidence, the blessing of Christ's salvation — let it have a very wholesome sanctifying effect. You have a joy that many Christians have not — therefore let the joy of the Lord be your strength in working, or in suffering for His name's sake. Watch against the uprising of anything like spiritual pride. Temper joy with a holy fear of grieving the Spirit, or dishonoring the Savior. Do not let your joy effervesce in mere excitement, or even in speaking always about it. But let it take the direction of much prayer, praise, and witness-bearing in an evil world.
When steam is generated, it may escape without effecting any good result — or it may work machinery which is fashioning valuable fabrics. Thus we may see the importance of the Christian's joy having a practical tendency. Let there be no waste of power. Let sound judgment, and a spirit of self-denial and willing toil come in and utilize the joy and peace that the Lord has granted you. Think of your friends who are yet without Christ, and pray for them — and endeavor to win them for Christ. Think of the myriads in our large towns, and the scattered ones of our villages and hamlets, who have no saving knowledge of God — and strive to guide the footsteps of some among them into the way of peace.
"Now, may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."