How May I Know That I Am Forgiven?
Adapted from a Sermon by George Everard, 1874
Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Act 16:30
The more earnestly a soul is seeking after God, the more earnest interest will there be in these questions:
- What must I do to be saved?
- How may I know that I am forgiven?
When a soul, such as the Philippian Jailor’s, is awakened, these questions suddenly become alive and central, and vitally important. These are matters which cannot not to be left to tomorrow in uncertainty. It is certain that each of us can be justly accused of many and grievous sins. 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 will follow!
Is it not then most absolutely necessary that we have a sure testimony and witness that our debt is paid, and our account with God settled forever?
But, someone may wonder, is it the will of God that Christians should know for certain 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 raise objections 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 underlying thought of 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 statement of God's Word? Again, can there be such a thing as being too sure of anything which God has positively and plainly declared?
No, 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 one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered." (Ps 32:1) For what other reason 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 on 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 pardon: "Go in peace ... your sins are forgiven." (Luke 7:48,50) To the paralytic He gave first of all the great blessing of a full remission of guilt: "Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven." (Matt 9:2) We have a picture of the forgiveness granted to sinners, in the touching story of the Prodigal's return and welcome. Picture it in your mind: 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 "received their food with glad and generous hearts," (Acts 2:46) which they could only do for the joy they experienced of sin forgiven.
The Ethiopian Eunuch hearing “the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35) from Philip is so overjoyed that at once, at the first sight of water he desires to be baptized as sign and token of his loving obedience to his savior.
The Philippian jailor having heard and believed the “word of the Lord” (Acts 16:32) lovingly washes the wounds of his new brothers, is baptised at once and “rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” (Acts 16:34)
The Corinthians, who at one time were among the worst of sinners, were addressed as being "washed ... sanctified ... justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Cor 6:11)
The Apostle joins the Ephesians with himself, as being in possession of a present salvation: "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace." (Eph 1:7) It is clear and present. We have redemption; We have the forgiveness of our trespasses.
And listen with what words of blessed encouragement he addresses the Colossians: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col 2:13-14) He assures the Colossians that the Lord had forgiven them all their trespasses.
The Apostle John writes even to the youngest in the faith in the same strain: " I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name's sake." (1 John 2:12) And again he tells those who believe, that he writes to them that ‘they might know that they have eternal life.’ (1 John 5:13)
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 also magnifies His justice, for as we see the way 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 also magnifies His faithfulness and truth. It displays and makes evident that he does not fail to fulfill His gracious promises, when the word on which we have trusted is accomplished in us.
And here is another thought to consider in answer to those who question the right of a Christian to know assuredly that he is accepted by God: Has not our Father encouraged us to come boldly to the throne of grace, and there pour out before Him our heart's longings, sorrows, and desires? But how can I possibly do this, without being certain that I have been forgiven?
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 favourably received?
In the same way, 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 un-forgiven, is like a heavy stone weighing on the heart — but the assurance of forgiveness removes the weight, and unlocks the lips. Only 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 iniquity, who heals all your diseases." (Ps 103:1-3)
But if it is God's will that Christians should be able to rejoice in the assurance of His mercy — then how can they best attain it? Remember, you must be forgiven — before you can know it. You must have wealth — before you can be aware of being in possession of it.
To be forgiven is the first thing; and this comes through trusting the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross. He who condemns himself, and accepts as the punishment due to himself, the punishment inflicted on Christ, and in this way 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 no longer remembers his sins and iniquities. What an amazing and wonderful thing this is!
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. "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life." (John 3:36.) "By him everyone who believes is freed from everything." (Acts 13:38.) "To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (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 truth, 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, it is to be feared, is a counterfeit of true peace; a very dangerous delusion.
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 it is applied by the Spirit, it is totally ineffective 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.
Let us try 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. First, the Spirit comes as the Spirit of conviction of sin.
See how it was at Pentecost: men who had been up until then rejecting the Son of God, even joining together to crucify and mock Him — are pierced to the heart. They see their sin; they see their fearful danger; they are pricked in their heart, and exclaim, "Brothers, what shall we do?" (Act 2:37) 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. In the second place, 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.
In the third place, the Spirit has yet another work in bringing full peace.
3. He comes as the Spirit of sealing — the Spirit of Adoption.
Hear what the Apostle Paul says to the Ephesians: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth ... and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance.” (Eph 1:13)
And to the Galatians: "because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts." (Gal 4:6)
And hear what he says to the early Christians of Rome: "You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!" The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God." (Rom 8:15-16)
The teaching of Paul in these passages is very plain. There is an inward voice which testifies to believers of their relationship to God — a voice within the heart, a new voice which comes to life at the moment of the new birth, a voice which 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 riches 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 "sons of God, through faith ... in Christ Jesus," (Gal 3:26) and that "to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." (John 11:2) 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, 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 on God for the power of the Spirit to seal the truth more and more upon your 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 man such as is the practice of the Catholic church. 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 taking on the role of judge, or of giving such an absolution that the sinner can rely on it as a ground of assured forgiveness.
There are also other 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 against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit." (Ps 32:2) The unforgiven soul needs a cloak, and numberless excuses, and a self-righteous covering for its sin and neglect. But the forgiven man wants to plainly lay out before the eye of God, every evil in thought, in motive, in word, and in deed. If you had a closet filled with only old clothes you might wish to make the best of them, however ragged and unfit they were — but— if you were given a new and clean wardrobe, you would be quite willing to throw the old clothes away.
He who has in his possession the new and clean robe of a perfect justification in Christ, recoils from 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. "How much more will the blood of Christ ... purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God." (Heb 9:14.) Those “have died to the law through the body of Christ,” and so now belong to him will “bear fruit for God.” (Rom 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 even the angels who ever obey His commandments, hearkening to the voice of His Word.
And now, please take a moment to examine yourself. If you trust that you have been graciously forgiven — is there something of all this evident in your own life and conversation?
If not, then you have to fully acknowledge it. You must face the matter squarely and see your danger and run to Christ at once. For this assurance you may have, that unless you have been graciously forgiven, you are yet under the wrath of God and are held back from the eternal miseries of hell only by the very thin and fragile thread of your life.
But it may be that an earnest hearer among us has not yet found full assurance. Still, if you are humbly drawing near to God through Christ, do not be discouraged. Do not count yourself a non-Christian because you 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 weight to despairing thoughts.
We can easily imagine many an Israelite, though securely sheltered beneath the blood of the Passover Lamb, trembling in fear as he thought of the angel of destruction passing through the land. Be sure you take shelter beneath the blood, and before long 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 claim 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 do not have — 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. Balance joy with a holy fear of grieving the Spirit, or dishonouring the Savior. Do not let your joy become mere excitement, or always be speaking 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 producing any good result — or it may move machinery to produce much useful work. 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 use the joy and peace that the Lord has granted you.
Think of your friends who are yet without Christ, and pray for them — and endeavour to win them for Christ. Think of the myriads in our large cities, and scattered throughout this nation in the grips of such tangible darkness — and strive to guide the footsteps of some among them into the way of peace.
And "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope."