‘The forgiveness of sins…’
The confession of the forgiveness of sins was a relatively late addition to Christian statement, the Apostles’ Creed. The earliest baptismal confessions spoke simply of “the Holy Spirit, the holy church, and the resurrection of the flesh.”
But a dramatic debate arose among third-century believers about the nature of sin and forgiveness. Christians in those days were still subjected to periods of bitter persecution under the Roman emperors. In 250, the emperor Decius decreed that all inhabitants of the empire would have to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Christians who performed the sacrifices would be issued certificates declaring their loyalty to Rome. Those who refused to sacrifice would be put to death.
By publicly sacrificing to the Roman gods, such Christians were effectively renouncing their baptism. But things soon returned to normal, and the apostate believers – known as ‘the lapsed’ – soon came back to church.
This situation created a pastoral crisis for many churches. What is to be done with believers who have renounced their baptism? Even more awkward was the question about clergy who had made the pagan sacrifices. When ministers of Christ invalidate their faith, does it mean that their ministry has been invalid all along? Would you need to get baptised again by someone else?
These were difficult questions. It was a time of intense soul-searching for many believers. Through this struggle over ‘the lapsed’, the deepest questions of Christian identity came sharply into focus. What is it that makes you a follower of Christ? And what can you do if you’ve strayed from Christ’s path?
The third-century crisis led to some clear answers to these questions. The Church is for everyone who confesses Christ and receives Christ’s baptism. It is not only for the pure, the upright, and the spiritually successful. Failures in discipleship – even dramatic public failures – do not exclude a person from the grace of God.
There is no need to be baptised more than once, since that would imply that we need to be forgiven more than once. The forgiveness of sins has taken place once for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His one act of grace is fully sufficient. Baptism can never be repeated because forgiveness never needs to be repeated.
These conclusions were so important that the ancient church began to include “the forgiveness of sins” as part of the baptismal confession – or as the fourth-century Nicene Creed says, “We believe in … one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
A church that takes a stand on the forgiveness of sins can never be a church of the pure. It will always be a pilgrim church; a community that is patient and understanding towards the timid, the doubting, the unsure. Whenever a judgmental, elitist, puritanical spirit enters into the Christian community, we need to hear again the confession: we believe in the forgiveness of sins.
We believe that we stand not by our own achievements but by the achievement of Jesus Christ. We believe that the spiritually strong and the spiritually weak are both sustained by the same forgiving grace. We believe that we rely solely on grace, not only in our worst failures but even in our best successes. We believe that if ever we should turn from this grace, if ever our hearts grow cold and we forget Christ and become unfaithful to his way, Christ will not forget us. His faithfulness is deeper than our faithlessness. His ‘Yes’ is stronger than our ‘No.’
As explained by a seventh-century teacher, Isaac of Nineveh: ‘Like a handful of sand thrown into the sea, so are the sins of all humankind compared to the mercy of God.’
Ben Myers is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at United Theological College