“The story is not so much about how to simply clean up the mess, but how creative you can get with the mess you have. This is what God seems to be up to — creating good, mysterious things out of messes.” ~Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul
Peter and the apostles are announcing, they’re proclaiming in Acts 2, that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus has inaugurated the eternal Kingdom of God. Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah! This holy one you killed but God has now raised to eternal life, this Jesus, is the bringer of God’s salvation for all people and he is now both Lord and Christ!
“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit!” ~Acts 2:37-38
Forgiveness happens at baptism. So does God’s Holy Spirit taking up residence in your soul. Peter says “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins” just like John the Baptist said “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.” In both cases, people are being cleansed on the inside and being made holy. People are being prepared for the coming presence of God.
That’s how people are saved: baptism. It’s a critical part of the Christian conversion process. The conversion stories in the New Testament are soaked with baptism. Men and women, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor — they hear the Good News, they believe it, and they’re baptized.
That’s what we believe and practice regarding baptism. We believe that is the biblical view: baptism is the time and place one is united with the crucified and risen Lord and receives eternal forgiveness of all sin and the gift of God’s indwelling Spirit.
But there’s something else we believe about baptism that we don’t talk about as much or as well. We believe it, we just don’t make it clear. So, let me be very, very clear: Baptism only works by faith in what God through Jesus has done and is doing for the sake of the world.
“You have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority… having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” ~Colossians 2:10-13
God made us alive with Christ and forgave our sins when we were buried with him in baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God. Baptism is faith — faith is baptism. Baptism is not effectual for salvation because we believe in baptism or because of what we believe about baptism or because of how we believe baptism ought to be practiced. It’s got nothing to do with that. Baptism works through our faith in the work of God in Christ. It’s effectual only by faith. Otherwise, it’s just a quick bath; you’re just getting wet.
Baptism is God’s work, not ours, not yours. God is the One doing everything. It’s got nothing to do with my goodness or correctness or the right words being said or the right amount of water being used or how much or how little I know about what’s going on. Baptism is a divine act of pure grace. And anything that undermines that or adds to it is legalism and denies the Gospel of Christ.
Wait. But isn’t baptism itself legalistic? If we’re saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, why is baptism necessary? That’s a human work, right? Surely we’re not saved by human works.
Boy, those are all great questions. Thank you for asking them in that way.
Martin Luther, during the Reformation in the 1500s, gave us the language of saved by grace only through faith in Christ only. He taught and preached that human works have nothing to do with our salvation — it’s 100% faith and 0% works. He was so hard-core about that, he wanted to have the book of James struck from the New Testament. But Luther put baptism in the category of faith, not works. He called faith “the beggar’s hand.” It’s how we receive God’s gifts. And baptism is where we do the receiving. Luther put it in his church catechism in 1529:
“As our would-be wise new spirits assert that faith alone saves, and that works and external things avail nothing, we answer: It is true, indeed, that nothing in any of us is of any avail but faith. But faith must have something it believes, that is, of which it takes hold and upon which it stands and rests. Thus, faith clings to the water and believes that it is baptism in where there is pure salvation and life.”
Baptism is an expression of faith. It’s only effective through faith. In baptism we die and are raised with Christ, through faith. In baptism, we can’t do anything, we don’t accomplish anything or effect anything. In baptism, we receive everything.
For the past two thousand years we’ve developed dozens of intricate theories as to why Jesus HAD to suffer and die on the cross to forgive our sins. The ransom theory says Jesus had to die to pay our debt of sin. The substitution theory says I belonged on the cross but Jesus took my place. Propitiation says God’s wrath had to be satisfied so Jesus took the punishment instead of us. The apostle Paul uses legal language and sacrificial imagery and military terms and financial lingo to explain WHY Jesus HAD to die on the cross.
But in the Gospels, in the story itself, it’s not about what Jesus HAD to do; it’s about what Jesus DID.
He died for us.
He died a terrible death.
What kind of love does our Lord have for us — knowing our sin, knowing our failure, knowing our past and future betrayals — to still willingly die for us?
Remember, Jesus the Christ is God. This is God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. So, God doesn’t inflict pain on someone else to appease his wrath. God is on the cross, absorbing all the pain and violence and evil of the world into himself. He becoming our sin for us. Our God is nothing like the pagan deities who demand the blood of humans for their anger to be satisfied. No, our God becomes human and offers his own blood.
This is how he saves you. This is how he loves you, to the point of absurdity. He loves you all the way to the cross — purposefully, willfully, stubbornly, dying on the cross.
“God is not a man, that he should lie
nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act?
Does he promise and not fulfill?”
What God says, he will do. What God promises, he will fulfill. God is faithful to his Word. What God has said about your life, what he has said regarding your past, what he has promised related to your right now, what he has promised concerning your home, your family, your job, your well-being — he is faithful. He can be trusted to keep his Word.
There are a lot of promises in the Bible. God promises to do a lot of really great and eternal things. But I think we struggle sometimes to believe his promises are for “me.” Church people, Christians, — us! — believe God in the abstract, but we struggle to believe him personally. We believe in theory. But it doesn’t always translate to “me” very well.
I totally believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross and that he was raised from the dead for the forgiveness of sins. Yes, I believe God promised to forgive sin and I believe God worked through Jesus to accomplish it. Amen, yes, I believe in the forgiveness of sins…
…unless we’re talking about your sins, maybe.
Well… I’ve got some really bad sins. I don’t know. I mean, I still sin. I’m not a good person. I can’t believe my sins are totally taken care of. Not all of them.
Look, I’ll be honest here. I can have a hard time with this, too. It doesn’t always take much. Bad things can start happening and I can question and doubt the faithfulness of our God.
“No matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ!” ~2 Corinthians 1:20
Everybody loves to hear “Yes.” You’ve never heard anybody say, “If I could get a few more ‘NOs’ in my life, I’d be a happier person.” Two children talking together in a bedroom have never said, “Let’s don’t ask dad, let’s ask mom; she always says ‘No!'” We all want to hear “Yes.” We love to hear “Yes.”
Scripture reminds us that all of God’s promises find their “Yes” in Jesus. Not half of God’s promises, not some of God’s promises, not a conditional percentage of God’s promises — the answer to every single promise God has ever made is “Yes” in Jesus!
How do you really know God’s promises are true for you? Can you really trust that all your sins are truly forgiven? How do you know?
Scripture says if we look to ourselves for the answers to these profound and valid questions, we’ll struggle and doubt for our entire lives. The solution is to look to Jesus. Find the answers in Jesus. Fix your eyes on Jesus and your confidence and faith in God will grow.
How do you know God is fully in charge and he really is going to fix everything that’s wrong with the world and me? Look at Jesus. Look how he heals the lame, how he gives sight to the blind, how he feeds the hungry, how he drives out the tormenting demons, how he raises the dead. God will fix you. It’s a promise.
How do you know God can really forgive my worst sins? Look at Jesus. Look how he loves the prostitute at Simon’s house and says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Look how he saves the woman caught in adultery and tells her, “I don’t consider you guilty.” Look how he forgives the tax collector in the tree, the best friend who betrayed him, the paralyzed man. Look how Jesus prays from the cross for his accusers and executioners; how with his dying breath he prays for his killers: “Father, forgive them.” God will forgive you. It’s a promise.
How do you know that God is really for you, that he’s not indifferent toward you, that he really loves you and he’s in tune with you and paying attention to you and he wants the very best for you? Look at Jesus on that cross. He died for you. He suffered and died for you.
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” ~Romans 8:31-32
There is no event in salvation history, there is no promise made by God to his people, that is not coming true in Jesus. God is faithful to keep his Word to you. It’s a promise.
I’ll occasionally use this space to pass along something I wanted to use in Sunday’s sermon but, for whatever reason, didn’t. While preparing for last week’s lesson on the line about forgiveness in the Apostles’ Creed — “We believe in the forgiveness of sins” — I came across this excellent passage in N. T. Wright’s “How God Became King.”
“[Forgiveness of sins] includes, of course, just what it says to most of us: we are all overdrawn at the moral bank, and need to know again and again that God wipes out the debt and fills the account with his own freely given treasure. But when we step back from our own personal anxieties and awareness of guilt, we recognize that the world as a whole needs, longs for, aches and yearns and cries out for forgiveness — for that collective, global sigh of relief that means that nobody need seek vengeance ever again; that nobody will bear a grudge ever again; that the million wrongs with which the world has been so horribly defaced will be put right at last; that in God’s ultimate new world there will be no moral shadow, no lingering resentment, no character warped by another’s wrong. ‘Forgiveness of sins’ is not a purely negative term, getting rid of the moral stain and guilt that we all incur, though it is that, too. It is the positive presence of God and the Lamb, the Lamb whose shed blood has wiped the record clean.”
“We believe in the forgiveness of sins” doesn’t just mean we’re forgiven by God’s love and grace in Jesus. It also means we believe forgiveness is the way God is fixing the world. Forgiveness is the key to everything our God is doing. It’s how he’s decided to make everything right. So, as his children and disciples of his Son, we join him in his salvation work by forgiving. If we desire to mend the things that are broken, if we want to help people, if we want to change the world the way our Father is changing the world, we will forgive.
In the Bible there are more than fifty different words for “sin”: debt, evil, wickedness, trespass, unrighteousness, guilt, transgressions, disobedience, rebellion, etc., But exposing the sin and naming the sin is not what matters. That’s not what fixes the problem. Keeping score is not the Gospel. Witch-hunting is not the Gospel. Shaming people and punishing people is not the Gospel.
Forgiving sin — that’s the Gospel, because it’s the only thing that works.
If something’s going to be done about sin, it’s not going to be with laws and commands or with judgments and punishments. Do we really think what’s wrong with the world is something we can fix with more rules or more creative ways to practice judgment? No, forgiveness is the only way.
The ancient Apostles’ Creed reminds us that disciples of Jesus believe in and practice forgiveness. We are eternally blessed by God’s merciful forgiveness and we, in turn, bless the world by generously sharing our own forgiveness.
God forgives. And we, his people, are the stage where that divine forgiveness is made visible and real in the world.