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Wilt Thou Forgive That Sin?

Glorious and Holy God,
Provocations against thy divine majesty have filled my whole life.
My offenses have been countless and aggravated.
Conscience has rebuked me,
friends have admonished me,
the examples of others have reproached me,
thy rod has chastised me,
thy kindnesses allure me.1

The Resurrection was celebrated on Sunday, but now, it’s Wednesday. The festivities are over and a fresh week begun. And while this week provides new opportunities for faithful service, it also makes room for new failures. So it is that, once again, I need to practice repentance and seek forgiveness. Prayers similar to the one quoted from The Valley of Vision are rarely far from my lips. This brings up the question, how far does God’s forgiveness extend? Is it possible to sin so much that I am no longer forgivable? John Donne’s A Hymn to God the Father provides a beautiful meditation that points us towards Scripture’s answer to this question.

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still: though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou has not done,
For, I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin? and, made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year, or two: but wallowed in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou has not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou has done,
I fear no more.2

This is the first part of a series of posts focused on the topic of forgiveness. As we progress, I will refer back to Donne’s poem as a guide for examining several aspects of forgiveness. For the present, the big picture is worth consideration. Donne heads towards his conclusion through several stages of incomplete forgiveness. That God will forgive is not in question: rather the extent of God’s forgiveness is questioned. The ongoing tension is between, “Wilt thou forgive” and “I have more.” The resolution of the question comes as Donne approaches the foundation of forgiveness:

But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou has done,
I fear no more.

The foundation is Christ—his life and death. For most of us, the importance of Christ’s death is understood.3 However, at least in my experience, Christ’s life summed up as being necessary for Christ to be the perfect sacrifice. In reality, Christ’s life also plays a part in reconciling us to God. Wayne Grudem explains it this way: “He had to obey the law for his whole life on our behalf so that the positive merits of his perfect obedience would be counted for us.”4 Developing this thought, Grudem points the reader towards Paul’s reliance on Christ: “to be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9).5 As Grudem points out, Paul also develops this idea in Romans when, comparing Adam to Christ, he states, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). For Paul’s equation to work, Christ’s work cannot merely wipe the slate clean. Rather, Christ’s righteousness is passed onto us and, in God’s eyes, becomes our righteousness.

Donne highlights the impact for us again. In the poem, a second level of meaning is contained in a pun.6 When we initially read the poem, Donne’s questions center around God’s ability to quantify and deal with his sin. Donne raises layers of sin, asks whether God can forgive them, and then goes to raise further layers. The poem takes on a deeply personal meaning though, when becomes apparent that Donne is making a pun on his name.7 The fact that God “has not done” becomes a statement about Donne’s status—without forgiveness, Donne remains a rebel. Of course, this makes the final “thou has done” all the more glorious. Through Christ’s work—life and death—Donne has been fully reconciled. There is no more to fear, for he has become part of God’s household, beyond anyone’s ability change his status.

There is more to be said on this subject, and we will continue considering it in the coming weeks.8 In the meantime, the prayer we opened with points us forward in it’s closing:

At the cross that relieves my conscience
let me learn lessons of self-denial, forgiveness, and submission,
feel motives to obedience,
find resources for all needs of the divine life.
Then let me be what I profess,
do as well as teach,
live as well as hear religion.9

Christian, as you begin your fresh week, begin it looking to Christ. Boldly seek both forgiveness and grace from God, knowing that Christ’s work provides both.

When does seeking God’s mercy turn into taking it for granted?
How should resting in Christ’s work play out in our day-to-day lives?

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Jeff Reid

Jeff Reid

Stories fascinate me. In particular, I am enthralled with authors' ability to capture concepts and bring those concepts to life. Driving this delight is an interest in theology and philosophy. Ultimately, I am excited by opportunities to help others understand abstract ideas through skilled artistic work.

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