THE FORGIVENESS OF SIN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-19-78 10:50 a.m.
You are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Forgiveness of Sin. It is an exposition of the latter part of the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Acts. In our preaching through the Book of Acts, last Sunday we left off in chapter 13 with verse 12. And today we begin at verse 13 and conclude at the end of the chapter.
“Now when Paul and his company loosed from Paphos,” the capital of the Roman province of Cyprus, “they came to Perga” [Acts 13:13], the capital of the Roman province of Pamphylia. “And when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in the Roman province of Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and sat down [Acts 13:14]. After the reading of the Law and the Prophets,” the formal program of the synagogue service that we copy today, follow today, in our own church:
after the reading of the Law and the Prophets the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.
Then Paul stood up, and beckoning with his hand said, Men of Israel and ye that fear God—
the Greek proselytes—
And then follows through verse 41, the long and extended message that Paul delivered at the city in Antioch [Acts 13:17-41]. As I read this message, it sounds strangely familiar to me. I have heard it before. I have followed that kind of an argument and exposition before. Where is it that I have heard it?
The sermon follows a very definite pattern. Paul here is recounting the dealings of God with Israel that consummates in the fulfillment of prophecies in the coming of Christ Jesus the Savior of the world [Acts 13:16-41]. And I have seen that, and I have heard that, and I have followed that before. Where is it that I have heard this?
Then it comes to my mind. This is the sermon, and the reasoning, and the presentation, and the message delivered by God’s first martyr, Stephen. This is the message he preached in the Cilician synagogue [Acts 6:9-15], and this is the message he delivered before the Sanhedrin [Acts 7:1-53], recounting all of the dealings of the Lord with His people Israel, and finding the consummation of the promises in Christ Jesus our Lord [Acts 7:52]. Evidently, that young rabbi from Cilicia, from its capital city of Tarsus [Acts 22:3], had listened well to Stephen as he spoke in the Jerusalem Cilician synagogue and before the Sanhedrin [Acts 6:9-7:53].
I come to know then what the Lord meant when He said to this persecuting Saul on the way to Damascus, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” [Acts 9:1-5]. The message of Stephen had entered deeply into the heart of that persecuting and volatile, young rabbi [Acts 6:9-7:51]. And it is a strange psychological turn of fortune that when a man is being convicted, so many times does he war against the conviction.
What an amazing come to pass; Saul—Paul is now preaching Stephen’s sermon—he’s delivering Stephen’s message [Acts 22:20-21]. He picked up the torch that fell from the hands of God’s first martyr [Acts 7:55-60], and he is now holding it high, delivering the same gospel, in the same message, in the same format, rising to the same consummation [Acts 13:16-41]. The heart of the message is in this verse; “To you is sent the word of salvation” [Acts 13:26].
Look at that just for a moment. “For to you is the word of this salvation sent” [Acts 13:26]. “The word,” logos, I have met that before. “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God” [John 1:1]. And I read at the conclusion of the message, “Then they were glad, and glorified the logos of the Lord” [Acts 13:48], the logos, the name of God, and the name of the Holy Scriptures of the Lord—the Word of God. “For unto you is the word of this salvation sent” [Acts 13:26].
This is an astonishing putting together of some of the great words of the revelation of the Lord. This salvation, sōtēria—sōtēr means “savior” and is a word applied to God and is applied to the Lord Jesus, Savior. Sōtēria is what He saves us from: eternal death! [John 3:16, 6:40]. “To you is this word of the good news of deliverance and salvation sent” [Acts 13:26]. Exapestalē—passive voice from exapostellō, “to send out a messenger,” apostolos, “the one who is sent, an apostle.”
So the messenger of the Lord stands to declare to this throng that to you is the word of this salvation sent, to you! [Acts 13:26]. What is the word of salvation? Paul defines it here first that in Christ Jesus we have a Savior, a Deliverer [Acts 13:23]. In verse 33, “God hath confirmed and affirmed that salvation in that He raised Christ from among the dead” [Acts 13:33].
That’s the great thought that the Lord has revealed to us in Romans 1:4, the Lord Jesus is horizō. He is pointed out, designated, as the Savior because God raised Him from among the dead. And then the glorious consummation of the message, “For in this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins and justification” [Acts 13:38-39].
To whom is this message sent? Paul says, “I have given thee a light to the nations that thou shouldest be salvation unto the ends of the earth” [Acts 13:47]. The message of this gospel is addressed to every family and tribe and people and nation under the sun. None is omitted. All are included. The Great Commission is to the whole world and every soul that is in it [Matthew 28:19-20].
Who is to deliver this marvelous message? Who is sent with it? The chapter begins [with] the Holy Spirit saying, “Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” [Acts 13:2]. The message of this salvation is carried by the apostles, and by the disciples, and by their successors, the evangelists and the missionaries, crossing the seas, crossing the continents, preaching the gospel unto us, finally to my father and mother, and finally unto me.
And now we are gathered in this sacred place, not adventitiously, not by accident, but by the Holy Spirit of God. The Lord has brought you to this place and to this hour, and the Lord has anointed this pastor to deliver the message of salvation unto you. And that’s why the apostle closes his exhortation with an appeal, “Beware how you listen” [Acts 13:40-41]. As the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 2:3, “How can we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” This is the message of God to them and to us and to all the peoples of all time.
Now the consummation of that sermon is in this last verse of it, “Unto you in this Man is preached the forgiveness of sins: And by Him all that believe are justified” [Acts 13:38-39]. The message has to do with the forgiveness of sins and with our justification before God. Sin is a universal experience. There is no one who has reached the age of accountability but that knows what it is to do wrong and to feel the guilt of that transgression: all of us [Romans 3:23]. There is no tribe, there is no family, there is no people in the world but who have in their souls the sense of wrong, of sin. Job cried in Job 7:20, “I have sinned; what shall I do?” We do wrong against others and sometimes these whom we love the most.
One time listening to an uneducated, untrained mountain preacher in eastern Kentucky, a man who could not read and could not write but who moved my soul as I listened to his message; he was speaking of the wrong that we do other people. And he said there was a mountain man who wanted to make more money, to buy more land, to raise more corn, to feed more hogs, to make more money, to buy more land, to raise more corn, to feed more hogs, to make more money, to buy more land. He gave himself to that.
And his wife who toiled and worked by his side would ask him for a new dress. No, no, money to buy a new dress. He had to have money to buy more land, to raise more corn, to feed more hogs, to make more money, to buy more land. And anything she would ask of him, a new hat, a new dress, always: more money to buy more land, to raise more corn, to feed more hogs, to make more money for more land.
As the years passed, the toil of the way brought death to his wife. And somehow her death broke his heart and his mind. And his mountain people found him one day in the graveyard, there over the grave of his faithful wife with bolts and bolts of silks and satins, wrapping it round and round and round her tombstone.
The wrong we do others. The wrong we do God. Crime is a wrong against a person and an individual. Vice is a wrong against society. Sin is a wrong against God. David cried, in the fifty-first Psalm, “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight” [Psalm 51:4]
All of us experience wrong and sin in our lives [Romans 3:23]. Nor are we able to overcome it. It is a universal weakness. I have sinned; what shall I do? We are incapable and unable in commission and in remission [Romans 7:14]. All of us do wrong. All of us sin. We’re all alike in the presence of God, lost sinners! [Romans 3:9].
In the eighth chapter of the 1 Kings is presented the beautiful prayer of King Solomon as he dedicated the Solomonic house of the Lord in Jerusalem [1 Kings 8:22-53]. And in the prayer, Solomon is imploring God’s forgiveness because—and I quote, Solomon says, “There is no man that sinneth not” [1 Kings 8:46].
In the seventh chapter of the Book of Romans, the apostle writes, “When I would do good, sin, evil is ever present with me” [Romans 7:21]. If I say I want to be perfect, every day is a frustration. If I say from this moment on I will do right, what of the sins of the past? Always those weaknesses and mistakes hound my steps. I cannot be righteous and holy and pure.
Nor am I any more able in the remission of my sins [Galatians 3:22]. How do I cleanse the stain of wrong out of my soul? How do I find overcoming ableness and forgiveness in what I have done that is wrong? How do I remiss my sins?
Last night and for the first time in many years, I reread Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The thane Macbeth has an illustrious guest in his castle, none other than the king of Scotland, Duncan. And in a nefarious conspiracy, Lady Macbeth and the thane plan to murder the king that he might seize the throne and the crown. And in the nighttime, with a dagger raised, Macbeth plunges it into the heart of King Duncan of Scotland. But when he draws out the dagger, it is followed by a fountain of blood that stains his hands. When he comes back into the chamber before Lady Macbeth, he comes with his hands dripping in human blood.
She says to him, “Go wash this filthy witness from your hands,” then adds, “A little water will clear us of this deed.” Macbeth makes his way to the fountain to wash the blood from his hands, and as he walks and looks at them, he cries, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood from my hand? No, rather this my hand will the multitudinous seas incarnadine making the green one red.”
All of the waters in all of the oceans and all of the seas in all of the world do not suffice to wash the stain of sin out of our souls. I have sinned, what shall I do?
This is the gospel. This is the good news of the grace of the Son of God. This is the purpose of a loving Father worked out through the centuries and through the ages. Our Lord Christ is the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world [Revelation 13:8]. And all of the sacrifices of the Old Testament pointed to His death [John 1:29]. And all of the promises of the old covenant presented Him. He was to come to die for our sins according to the Scriptures and to be raised from among the dead for our justification [1 Corinthians 15:3; Romans 4:25; Hebrews 10:4-14].
And to those who look in faith to Him, who receive His atoning sacrifice as their own [Acts 16:31], to them God hath promised two marvelous and wonderful and glorious things. One is positional and the other is experiential.
To the man who will receive in faith the atoning sacrifice of Christ for his sins [Galatians 3:22], God will do first something positional. He will justify him [Romans 5:1]. That’s a marvelous and unbelievable thing. It is a word of the courts. It is a word of the bench. It is a word of the chief justice. It is the word of jurisprudence: justification.
There is a Greek word dikaios, which means “just, innocent, right, righteous.” The verbal form, dikaioō, means “to declare just, to declare innocent, to declare guiltless, to be free from penalty.”
It is a positional thing that God does for us, in Christ, to the one who accepts the atoning sacrifice of the Lord. God declares him for Jesus’ sake, for the atonement’s sake, for the blood’s sake, for the cross’ sake, for the Son’s sake, God declares him righteous [Acts 13:39]. Not that he is righteous, not that he is not a sinner, not that he is not going to be continually a sinner, but in God’s sight, he is justified; that is, the Lord treats him as innocent and guiltless [Romans 5:9].
That’s one of the most amazing doctrines that you could think for, that the Lord God accepts us and treats us and receives us as being pure and innocent and without stain or without sin [Ephesians 1:7]. Sometimes the Bible will reach for the most extravagant images to describe what God does with our sins. For example, in Psalm 103 he will say, “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us” [Psalm 103:12].
How far is that? If you turn east and always east, and east, and east and then west and turn west as far as you could go west, think how far apart that is. That’s what God hath done. He hath done it with our sins.
In the thirty-eighth chapter of the Book of Isaiah, it says that God takes our sins and He puts them at His back [Isaiah 38:17]. He never sees them. He never remembers them. It is as though we had never, ever sinned. They are at His back.
In the forty-fourth chapter of Isaiah, there the Lord says that He has blotted out our sins as a thick cloud [Isaiah 44:22]. That could mean two things. As a thick cloud, He doesn’t see them beyond. Or as the mist of the cloud passes away before a morning sun, they disappear.
In the seventh chapter of the Book of Micah, God says He takes our sins and He buries them in the depths of the sea [Micah 7:19]. What images God uses to describe our justification! He looks upon us as He looks upon His Son. We are fellow heirs, joint heirs with Him [Romans 8:17]. And the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. It is given to us. It is placed to our account [2 Corinthians 5:21]. All of that is positional. That’s what God does for us who have found refuge and hope in the Lord Jesus [1 Corinthians 1:30].
The other thing that the apostle speaks of here, all of us who accept Christ as our Savior, the other is experiential. Justification is positional, something God does for us [2 Corinthians 5:21]. The other is experiential. It is something that we feel in our deepest souls [Acts 8:8, 39].
“For unto you in this Man is preached the forgiveness of sins” [Acts 13:38], and that we feel. If I were to ask each one of you to stand up in divine presence and say, “Tell us how you met the Lord,” each one of you would have a different story. “I met Him this way.” And, “I met Him this way.” And, “I met Him this way”—many different ways, many different confrontations at that point where our lives crossed that of the blessed Jesus.
But however different the circumstances and the stories, there is one thing we all would have in common. And that is this: that in Christ we have a sense of, a feeling of, an experience of the forgiveness of our sins. He has forgiven us [Ephesians 1:7]. And we rise from our knees feeling, experiencing that cleansing from the hands of our blessed Lord. That’s why in the Christian faith we sing a lot. Do you notice how this story ends?
“And when they heard that, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord” [Acts 13:48]. And the whole chapter ends, “And the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Spirit” [Acts 13:52].
Twice you find that same thing in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts. In the great revival in Samaria, “And there was great joy in that city” [Acts 8:8]. And in the conversion of the Ethiopian treasurer, “And he went on his way rejoicing” Acts 8:39]. That is the Christian faith. It is a faith of gladness, and wonder, and joy, and praise, and singing. It has always been that. It always will be.
Did you ever think to compare the Christian religion with the other religions of the world? They don’t sing. They don’t raise glorious, exalting songs to the God in heaven.
I could not imagine Handel’s Messiah and the “Hallelujah Chorus” being sung in a Muslim mosque. They don’t sing in them. Or in a Buddhist pagoda, they don’t sing in them. Or in a Shintoist shrine, they don’t sing in them. Or in the temple of the Hindus, they don’t sing in them.
But you come to a house where the great Savior, the Lord Jesus, is loved and prayed to and worshiped and praised; there you will find people singing—gladness, happiness, “Glory to God, I’m saved.”
Saved by the blood of the Crucified One.
All praise to the Father, all praise to the Son,
All praise to the Spirit, the great Three in One.
Saved by the blood of the Crucified One.
[“Saved by the Blood,” S. J. Henderson]
In that fifth chapter of the Book of the Revelation, when the Lord is presented as the Lamb of God, worthy to break the seals and to open the book of redemption [Revelation 5:5], there are three immediately that burst into singing. First the cherubim and the four and twenty elders representing the redeemed of God all time. They burst into song saying, “Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof; for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every nation, and tribe, and family under the sun” [Revelation 5:8-9]. They’re the first.
And then next—this is where you started reading:
And I beheld, and heard ten thousand times ten thousands and thousands and thousands of angels;
Saying, Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive honor, and glory, and blessing, and dominion, and riches, and power forever and ever!
And then the third: all creation joins, singing. All in heaven, all on earth, and all under the earth it says. Jesus, to Him be glory, and dominion, and power, forever and ever [Revelation 5:13]. That is the Christian faith. It is a faith of rejoicing. It is a faith of gladness. It is a faith of praise and singing what God hath done for us.
I read this last week of an international throng, there from the ends of the earth, and they wanted to do something together. What they did was, to choose a song that all of them could sing, each in his own tongue. You know the song they chose? It was this:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be for sin a double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.
Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no languor know.
These for sin could not atone
Thou must save and Thou alone.
In my hands no price I bring
Simply to Thy cross I cling.
[“Rock of Ages,” Augustus M. Toplad, 1740-1778]
That is the gospel. That is the good news. All praise to Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood [Revelation 1:5].
I must close. As you know, for many years I was a country preacher. I was a pastor many years before I ever had a baptistery to baptize in. Consequently, I baptized my candidates, the souls God had given me, I baptized them in rivers, and creeks, and streams, and stock ponds. Never a time that I ever had a baptismal service out in the country, but that, as I led the candidates into the water, the saints of God standing on the shore would sing this song, always this song:
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!
He taught me how to watch and pray,
And live rejoicing every day.
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!
[“O Happy Day,” Philip Doddridge, 1755]
That is the faith! That is the gospel! That is what God hath done for us, and that we feel in our deepest souls. Bless His name! High and exalted be the Lord! Look what He has done for us, and there is no joy like it in the earth. That’s gladness that a child can experience. That’s rejoicing that a teenager can know. That’s blessing in effable, indescribable that will sanctify a young man and woman as they build their home upon the enduring rock of Christ. That’s the comfort of old age. That’s the strength and refuge in the hour of our death, and that is our eternal song in the forever of the golden tomorrow that is yet to come. This hath our Lord done for us.
And that is the invitation the Holy Spirit presses to your heart this solemn hour. To receive the Lord Jesus in all that He has done, in all that He has promised, “I come, to put heart and life with us here, in this dear church. I have decided to follow Jesus and I am coming today.” Down one of these stairways, down one of these aisles, “Here I am pastor, I am on the way.” Maybe for the first time, confessing your faith in the Lord Jesus, receiving Him as your own, maybe coming into the fellowship of the church with your family, bringing your wife and your children, or maybe just answering God’s call for you; in a moment when we stand to sing this hymn of appeal, when you stand up, stand up walking down that stairway, coming down this aisle. May angels attend you and the blessings of God rest upon you, as you answer with your life. Come now. Make it now. Do it now, while we stand and while we sing.