Are you aware of your need for to be forgiven? How to be forgiven is what I want to talk about this evening. And the Bible passage that I’d like you look at is the one we’ve just heard. So that’s 1 John 1.5 – 2.6. Verse 9 really sums it up:
If we confess our sins, he [that is, God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins…
But we need to do some groundwork before we can really get to grips with that. I need first of all to say a word about debt, hopefully without causing too many of you to break out in a cold sweat.
A recent survey says that graduates leaving university last year had average debts of over £13,000, a 5% increase on 2005. 62% of graduates left university owing more than £10,000 apiece.
But it’s not just students who get into debt. On average, people seeking help from Citizens Advice were £13,000 in debt – the same amount as those graduating students, as it happens, though I don’t think that’s because all students as soon as they graduate rush off to Citizens Advice! The charity said the number of people seeking counselling for credit card and loan debt had doubled in the past eight years.
By the end of last year, says the Bank of England, personal debt had reached a total of £1.3 trillion. Of this, £1.1 trillion was in the form of mortgages and £200bn was in the form of consumer credit, such as credit cards, bank loans and hire purchase agreements.
Why am I going on about debt? Because it’s one of the ways that Jesus illustrated what God’s forgiveness is all about. So let’s follow that illustration through by asking four questions about forgiveness.
First, WHAT IS FORGIVENESS?
To be forgiven is to be released from indebtedness.
Jesus once told this little story in a very tense situation. It’s in Luke 7:
“Two men owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
And the reply came: “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.” And Jesus said, “… he who has been forgiven little loves little.” To be forgiven is to be released from indebtedness. And indeed, to be forgiven draws out a grateful response of love – but more about that later.
Some debts – even large debts - can be paid off. It may be very hard, require massive self-discipline, immense effort, and a great deal of time. Take the case of the 19th Century novelist Sir Walter Scott, who lived up the road in the Scottish borders. You might even have visited his beloved home at Abbotsford.
He was already a famous and prolific author when he underwent the great crisis of his life in 1826. Scott was a partner in a publishing company that failed that year, and he found himself in debt to the tune of £120,000 – many millions today. Scott refused what he regarded as the easy way out - bankruptcy. To his mind, debts should be paid. It seemed an impossible task, but from then on he worked slavishly, and everything he earned went to pay off his debt.
This heroic effort undermined his health, and seven years later he died at Abbotsford after a series of strokes. After his death the last of his debts were cleared by the sale of copyright on his works.
Scott was not forgiven his debts. He did not want to be. He considered it his duty to pay them. He thought he could. He was right – just.
But some debts are just too large for the resources available. Not everyone has Scott’s earning power, and a report says it could take 77 years on average for people asking Citizens Advice for help with debt to get back into the black. People were condemned to a "lifetime of poverty" burdened by debt, the charity said, with many unable even to afford the fees payable for declaring bankruptcy.
"Citizens Advice bureaux dealt with 1.4 million debt problems in the last financial year," said Sue Edwards, of Citizens Advice. And she added: "There are thousands of people who have substantial debt and will never be able to pay it off." They have unpayable debt.
The debt we owe to God is unpayable. Admirable as Walter Scott’s determination was, his debt was nothing to that which we owe God. And if we imagine, as so many do, that we can pay it off by our own attempts at being religious or good or both, then not only are we kidding ourselves, but we’ll be turning our backs on our only hope of having the burden lifted. We need to be forgiven by God. We need our debts to be cancelled. And our only hope is Jesus.
What is forgiveness? It is having your debts cancelled.
Secondly, WHY DO WE NEED FORGIVENESS?
We need forgiveness because we are deeply in debt as a result of our sin. And every one of us is a sinner. 1 John 1.8:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
And on to verse 10:
If we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. [Why? Because God tells us we are sinners.]
What is sin? It is our rejection of God and his will for our lives. He has been like a loving Father to us. And we have wanted nothing to do with him. He has shown us the way to go. And we have gone in the opposite direction. Many others get hurt by our particular sins. But they are like symptoms of a disease. And when you get to the root of all sins, you find our sin against God.
And what would it take to repay the debt mountain that we have created by our sin? The Bible says ‘the wages of sin is death.’ And by that is meant not just physical death but eternal death. That’s what the Bible calls hell. Unless our debt is cancelled one day we will have to begin to pay. Our debt will catch up with us. Debts have a habit of doing that.
One 28 year old woman who built up massive debts on a an expanding collection of credit cards said: “Although many people are able to control their spending, many people bury their heads in the sand like me - and don't actually admit they have a problem until it is too late. For me, it was £38,000 too late.”
Us humans are very prone to try and escape from our responsibility for our debts. One way to do that is to try and hide them. Another is to run away from them. Then when the debts are exposed, yet another is to try and shift the responsibility for them.
Nick Leeson is a fine example of that. He was, as you may remember, a trader for Barings, Britain’s oldest merchant bank. In 1995 his dealings on the Singapore International Monetary Exchange brought down Barings. By the time he was caught, he’d piled up debts of £800m, almost the entire assets of the bank.
He’d tried to conceal them fraudulently. But in the end the scale of them was so great that his cover was blown. He ran. But he was found. Leeson blamed senior management in London. They blamed Leeson. He went to jail.
When he was released and came home to Britain, his lawyer said that Leeson felt he "was the only one who really paid a serious price" for the bank's collapse. Barings shareholders - many of whom lost their life savings - disagreed with this.
He tried to hide his debts. He tried to run. He tried to shift responsibility. In the end his debts caught up with him. Debts do.
And the day will come – it will be the Day of Judgement – when our debts will catch up with us, if we haven’t been forgiven them. There is no way that we can even make a dent in the task of paying them back ourselves, any more than Nick Leeson’s personal savings could have paid off the £800 million that Barings owed because of him. Our only hope is to have our debts cancelled. In other words, we need forgiveness.
Thirdly, HOW IS FORGIVENESS POSSIBLE?
After all, when debt is cancelled, it’s not as if it vanishes into thin air. When a debt is written off, the cost is still paid. It’s just that the burden of the debt falls on someone else. So our debt to God can only be paid by someone who is not indebted himself – indeed someone who is massively in credit.
And the only person that applies to is Jesus, God’s Son. How can we be forgiven? Through what Jesus did when he died on the cross. Look at 1 John 2.1-2:
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin [and he’s already made clear that we all do], we have one who speaks to the Father [that is, God] in our defence – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
When John speaks of Jesus as ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins’, what does he mean? The sacrifice he’s talking about is the way that Jesus deliberately, out of love for us, laid down his life when he was executed on the cross and cut off from God his Father.
And in what sense was that an ‘atoning’ sacrifice? In the sense that Jesus was paying what had to be paid in order for our sin to be dealt with. And it is a measure of how great our sin is that that is what it took to deal with it. When Jesus died, he took on the whole of our debt and paid it himself, in the currency of his own blood. That’s how forgiveness is possible. There is no other way.
Fourthly, HOW DO WE RECEIVE FORGIVENESS?
There are five steps we need to take. They’re all there in those verses in 1 John.
First, we must recognise how deep in debt we are. If we don’t, we won’t see that anything needs to be done, nor will we see that our debt is totally unpayable by us. 1.8:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves…
Secondly, we must realise that Jesus paid our debts on the cross. If we don’t, we won’t know that anything can be done, and we won’t know who to go to. 2.2:
[Jesus Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins…
Thirdly, we must make a request to God to cancel our debt because it has been transferred to Jesus. If we’re not prepared to ask, we’re effectively saying that we don’t want God to cancel our debt thank you very much. We’ll deal with the situation ourselves. 1.9:
If we confess our sins…
Fourthly, we must receive forgiveness and believe God’s statement that our debt is cancelled. If we don’t believe that promise that God gives us, even though our debt is cancelled, we’ll carry on living as if we are still indebted. But the promise is crystal clear - 1.9:
If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins…
Fifthly and finally, we must respond by committing ourselves to a debt-free lifestyle from now on. That’s what John here describes as ‘walking in the light’ or ‘walking as Jesus did’. That’s the Christian life. And he says in 2.3:
We know that we have come to know [Jesus] if we obey his commands.
If we don’t obey Jesus, we’ll show that we’re ungrateful and we haven’t really begun to understand what Jesus has done for us. But what does it mean to live a debt-free lifestyle? What will we do from now on? If you’re going to take the plunge, then you need to know. So let me mention five aspects of this new way of living. We’ve had five steps. Now five marks of the Christian life.
One: we’ll listen to God’s advice about how to live. God’s advice isn’t take it or leave it advice. It’s the command of our creator, who knows what works and what doesn’t. How do we hear him speak? He speaks to us through the pages of the Bible. Get some advice from Christian friends about how to get into it, and then start reading the Bible. Then make the Bible a book which is your constant companion for the rest of your life.
Two: we’ll pass on our experience to others. We’ll tell others the good news that their debts with God can also be cancelled because of Jesus. Don’t try and tell the whole world to start with. I suggest you think of two people who you could tell what God has done for you: one of them a Christian; the other not.
Three: we will continually be asking God for his help. We can only live this new life with God’s help. And he’s promised he’ll give it to us. But he wants us to be in constant communication with him about our needs. How do we ask? Just by talking to him. We can’t see him. But we know he’s listening and that he’ll give us what we need when we ask because that’s what he tells us in the Bible. So ask. That’s what we call prayer.
Four: we’ll join with others who’ve had their debt cancelled. Then we can encourage one another and work together for God. We cannot go it alone. In other words, get stuck in to church.
Five: we’ll cancel the debts of those who owe us. I don’t mean cash, of course. I mean the sins that other people commit against us. We cannot be serious about asking God to cancel our debt if at the same time we’re not prepared to forgive the far smaller debts that others owe us.
So what’s involved in the debt-free life that follows forgiveness? There are five marks of Christian living: reading the Bible; praying; belonging to the church; telling others about Jesus; and forgiving sins committed against you.
So then, how do we receive forgiveness? By going through those five R’s:
First, we must recognise how deep in debt we are.
Secondly, we must realise that Jesus paid our debts on the cross.
Thirdly, we must make a request to God to cancel our debt because it’s been transferred to Jesus.
Fourthly, we must receive forgiveness and believe God’s statement that our debt is cancelled.
Fifthly, we must respond by committing ourselves to a debt-free lifestyle from now on.
Now maybe after that you really feel like saying to me that quite frankly you don’t understand a word of what I’ve been going on about. You’re not aware that you owe God anything much. You don’t see at all how Jesus and his death can possibly be as significant as I’ve been saying. In that case I simply urge you to read more about Jesus and get to know him and what he says about you for yourself. He cannot be ignored. We have here in the Bible the eyewitness accounts of him. Nothing more important has been written in the whole of human history. And what is more they’re short. And we lay on short courses to help you with that – they’re called Christianity Explored. There’s a new one of those particularly for internationals that starts on Thursday 22 February. But, international or not, do pick up a leaflet about Christianity Explored. And while you’re about it, you could also take a free copy of this booklet called ‘Why Jesus?’ That’s a straightforward and brief explanation of the heart of the Christian faith. Here’s a snippet:
[Jesus] satisfies our hunger for forgiveness… Our greatest need, in fact, is for forgiveness. Just as someone who has cancer needs a doctor whether they realise it or not, so we need forgiveness whether we realise it or not. Just as with cancer, those who recognise their need are far better off than those who are lulled into a false sense of security.
Please get gemmed up on Jesus.
But maybe you’ve become clear in your own mind that your situation is rather different. Maybe you’ve begun on those five steps to forgiveness, but you know in your heart of hearts that you haven’t yet completed them. It’s become clear to you just how massively you’re in debt to God; that there’s no way you are ever going to be able to deal with that debt yourself; that if it’s not dealt with now you’ll be faced with it on the Day of Judgement and be required quite rightly to pay what you owe. Maybe you know these things are true – and you’re also now convinced that when Jesus died on that cross, he was paying the debts of the world, including your own. All this you know.
But you also know that there’s a step you haven’t yet taken. You haven’t yet come clean with God and in your heart knelt in front of him and begged forgiveness.
Maybe you’ve just been too proud. Because it is humiliating to do that – rightly humiliating: it puts us in our place.
Maybe you’re afraid of what it will mean for you when you owe your life to Christ and you commit yourself to going wherever he leads you. But he is trustworthy. He wants what’s best for you. He’s proved that. He died for you, as the atoning sacrifice that you need. He is our rightful ruler. We can’t trust ourselves even with our own lives. But we can trust him.
So if this is you, then surely the time has come for you to stop hesitating. It is truly extraordinary that God should have to urge us to ask him to write off the massive debt we owe him. But that’s what he does. So if you’re ready to take that step, you can do it now. All you need to do is ask, and you can do that at any time. Except that the best time is always now. Once you’ve understood the truth about your situation, there can be no good reason to delay.
Here’s a simple prayer that you can pray. I shall say it through, and then if you’ve decided that this is the point you’re at and you’re ready to pray like this, then I’ll pray it through again to give you that opportunity.
This is what I shall pray:
Lord God, I see how great the debt is that I owe you because of my sin. I can never pay you what I owe. But I know now that when your Son Jesus died, he paid my debt for me. Please forgive me. Thank you that because of Jesus, all my debt to you past, present and future is wiped away. From now on I want to live for Jesus, debt-free. Please help me by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
So let’s now all bow our heads, and any of you who are ready to pray that can say those words after me in the quietness of your own hearts. The rest of you can use the time to talk to God in whatever way is appropriate for you. Let’s pray.