The Apostles’ Creed speaks of “the forgiveness of sins.” The Nicene Creed says, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins,”1 an echo of John’s ministry. John the Baptist preached “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4). Peter also connected repentance and baptism with “the remission of sins” in his sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). The remission or forgiveness of sins is basic to the Gospel: the coming of the Kingdom is not in itself good news for us unless we can be reconciled to the King. Christianity makes divine forgiveness the doorway to the Kingdom of God. The religions of the pagan world do not talk about forgiveness at all.
The Dying God: A Savior from What?
Pagan myths of the ancient world often speak of a virgin-born god, a savior, who died (sometimes on a tree) and came back to life, glorified.2 These myths locate man’s need for such a savior in man’s own mortality or in his environment. Man finds himself beset by grief, pain, and death. The dying-and-rising god has passed in triumph beyond these things, and he invites a spiritual elite to follow. What is required is a ceremony, a ritual, an experience, a series of actions, that will lift man out of his present existence onto a higher plane. The dying god is the forerunner; his followers are gods in the making.
Every now and then someone will point to the dying god myth as the original of the Christian Gospel. But a few formal similarities apart, the religion of the dying god could not be further removed from Biblical Christianity.3 The dying god saves men from pain and death. In other words, he saves men from the effects of sin and from the judgment of God; he does not deal with sin itself or with guilt. In fact, the pagan worldview has no conception of sin. For sin presupposes a sovereign Lawgiver, a Creator — nothing less. But in pagan mythology, there was no Creator. The universe was self-existent, and the gods were its offspring. They were finite powers, tutelary spirits, each with its own limited area of operation. The gods were powers to be avoided, placated, or used. One sought their forgiveness only as one might seek the forgiveness of a neighborhood bully or a disgruntled warlord. The issue was not justice, but self-preservation.
Gnosticism was an early rival of the Christian Gospel. It was kin to the various dying god cults and mystery religions that permeated the Roman Empire. It did not offer man any particular savior, though it did sometimes invoke the name of Christ. For Gnosticism, salvation meant escape from the material world and a mystical fusion of one’s soul into the divine essence from which it had come. There was nothing of grace or forgiveness in this salvation, no notion of propitiating an offended Creator. The holiness of “God” did not mean his justice, but his utter transcendence. He (or it) was abstract, remote, and wholly other — as incapable of holy wrath as he was of kindness or compassion. Salvation, then, was not a divine gift, but a human accomplishment. Through a special knowledge (gnosis), man transcended his mundane existence and ascended a stairway of self-deification.
John and Paul both addressed early forms of Gnosticism.4 The Church Fathers, particularly Irenaeus, wrote extensively against Gnosticism. The Apostles’ Creed rejected it out of hand by defining the faith in terms of the original creation; the virgin-born, slain-and-risen Christ; the forgiveness of sins; and the resurrection of the fleshly body.
Within the early church, each of the movements that attacked the Incarnation attacked the forgiveness of sins as well — if not directly, then at least by implication. The Arians, Nestorians, and Monophysites, in offering the church another Jesus, necessarily offered her another gospel, one unconnected with the forgiveness of sins. For if Jesus was not God, His sacrifice was finite and useless; if He wasn’t human, His sacrifice was unreal. In either case, His work could not be the ground of God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness logically passed into the realm of the mystical, the emotional, or the unnecessary.
Pelagius and His Legacy
Beside the early Christological heresies, we find a more direct attack on the forgiveness of sins: Pelagianism. Pelagius was a British monk who taught and wrote early in the 5th century. His chief theological opponent was Augustine of Hippo. Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin and taught that Adam had acted for himself alone. Adam by his disobedience had set a bad example for his posterity, nothing more.5 Pelagius would admit no sinful nature in man; he recognized only sinful acts. His argument was simple: because God commands obedience, man must be capable of rendering it. That is, man must be able to live without sin. Pelagius held that, in fact, many men had done just that. In his view, it wasn’t that hard.
Pelagianism was a rationalistic, unimaginative paganism. According to Pelagius, man did not need a Savior; he needed a better education and better examples. Pelagius allowed for the forgiveness of past offenses, but his gospel was primarily one of moral reform. Men ought to do better. Reform their social environment and enhance their moral education, and they will do better.
Eventually, Pelagius was condemned at the Council of Ephesus (AD 431). The Semi-Pelagians, who tried to mix human effort and divine grace, were later anathematized by the Second Synod of Orange (AD 529).6 In spite of this, the theological drift of the church has been toward Semi-Pelagianism, especially in the East, where Greek philosophy had stronger roots. Today, American evangelicalism is heavily infected with Semi-Pelagianism in many of its beliefs and assumptions.7
In the political sphere, Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism lead to the growth of state power and particularly to state control of education. After all, it takes a pervasive presence and a great deal of power to insure an environment conducive to morality. In the church, the effects are similar. Those in authority must make rule after rule to keep temptation and the world away from their churches (or families, or schools). But such rules are useless against the corruptions of the flesh (Col. 2:20–23). They neither convict nor quicken, and they only mask the real problem, the sin in every man’s heart (Mark 7:1–23).
The Biblical Doctrine of Forgiveness
For Biblical Christianity, sin is ethical, not metaphysical. That is, sin is not in things. It is not in man’s society or environment. It is not a flaw or inadequacy in man’s being. Sin is man’s willful transgression of the law of God. The sinner is guilty before God; that is, he has broken God’s law and is worthy of punishment.8 Because God is just and holy, He will not overlook sin or receive the sinner as a friend. Yes, God is gracious, but His grace will not overturn His justice.
This is where the cross comes in. On Calvary, Jesus Christ took upon Himself the penalty due our sins. He died in our place. We speak of this as substitutionary atonement. It is what makes God’s forgiveness possible. But there is more. The Belgic Confession (XXIII) says,
We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied; as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same Apostle saith, that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ. And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in any thing in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours when we believe in him.
Notice that Confession equates remission of sins with justification. Ursinus argues along similar lines in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism:
Evangelical justification is the application of evangelical righteousness; or, it is the application of the righteousness of another, which is without us in Christ; or, it is the imputation and application of that righteousness which Christ wrought out for us by his death upon the cross, and by his resurrection from the dead. It is not a transfusion of righteousness, or of the qualities thereof; but it is the acquitting, or the declaring us free from sin in the judgment of God, on the ground of the righteousness of another. Justification and the forgiveness of sins are, therefore, the same: for to justify is that God should not impute sin unto us, but accept of us and declare us righteous; or, which is the same thing, that he declare us righteous on the ground of the righteousness of Christ made over unto us. That this is the proper signification of the word is clear from these passages of Scripture in which it occurs: “In thy sight shall no man living be justified,” that is, no one shall be acquitted, or declared just by inherent righteousness. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity,” &c. (Ps. 143:2; 31:1, 2.) Paul, in accordance with this declaration of the Psalmist, interprets justification to be the remission of sins, where the word impute is repeated seven times. (Rom. 4:7.)9
God forgives us because Jesus has borne our punishment and legally clothed us with His perfect obedience, His righteousness. We receive this gift with the empty hands of faith. The Heidelberg Catechism expresses it this way:
Q. 60. How art thou righteous before God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and that I am still prone always to all evil, yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me, if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.
Furthermore, faith is not a good work; it merits nothing. Christ is our righteousness and our salvation. Faith is simply the way we receive Him.
Q. 61. Why sayest thou that thou art righteous only by faith?
A. Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith; but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God, and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (XI:I) explains it with these words:
Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sin, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone: not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith: which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.
We are saved by grace. Forgiveness is God’s gracious act grounded wholly in what Jesus has done. We do nothing to earn our forgiveness — not by our faith and certainly not by our works. Faith is the gift of God, wrought in us by the Spirit of God through the Gospel; obedience is the fruit that follows. And even that obedience is imperfect and flawed, tainted by sin, except as it is covered by the righteousness of Christ and forgiven through His blood (Ps. 143:2; Isa. 64:6; Rom. 7:18; 1 Pet. 2:5).
In the late 20th century, “the forgiveness of sins” nearly disappeared from the American evangelical gospel. In its place came offers of peace and acceptance and purpose. Men were promised the love of God and a place in heaven. They were rarely called to repent. Undoubtedly, this sort of evangelism was smoother and easier for sinners to swallow; after all, it did not remind sinners that they were, in fact, sinners.
But the forgiveness of sins is not incidental to the Gospel. The apostles knew this. As we read through the sermons of Acts, we find the apostles offering their audiences the forgiveness of sins, the remission of sins, the blotting out of sins, and, yes, even justification by faith. The apostles knew no gospel and no kingdom apart from the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.
As we begin the 21st century, “the forgiveness of sins” is still in danger of neglect, contempt, and redefinition. Often the justification is sensitivity or relevance or unity. But nothing is more insensitive, irrelevant, or divisive than a “gospel” that leaves sinners to wallow helplessly in their sins. The remedy for sin is divine forgiveness. All other treatments reek of hell.
1. We don’t use the word “remission” much anymore except where disease is involved. In Scripture it means release from the punishment rightly due sin.
2. The standard work on the dying god myth is Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. For an interesting though sometimes paranoid Protestant treatise on the subject, see Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons (1914). See also Colonel J. Garnier, The Worship of the Dead (1904).
3. And those similarities are not hard to account for, given the profound effect that the witness and worship of the Patriarchs must have had on the ancient world. Propitiatory death and bodily resurrection were key elements in Abraham’s faith and in Job’s. And “seed of the woman” (Gen. 3:15) surely hinted at a virgin birth. But in Biblical faith, the virgin birth points to the failure of humanity and the sovereign intervention of God; in paganism, the “virgin” birth asserts the creative potential of humanity apart from God.
4. See 1st and 2nd John and Colossians chapter 2, for example.
5. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. III, sec. 150.
6. This was less than a complete victory for Augustinian orthodoxy since the Council rejected double predestination, failed to affirm irresistible grace, and taught that man’s free will is restored in baptism.
7. See R. K. McGregor Wright, No Place for Sovereignty, What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996).
8. As Francis Schaeffer pointed out so often, the issue is not “guilt feelings,” but “true moral guilt”: man has broken God’s law and deserves God’s wrath.
9. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, rpt. of the 1852 American ed.), 326f.
- Greg Uttinger
Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.