It didn’t matter if it was the dead of winter or the height of spring, a frown was frozen on this man’s face. He was a customer on my delivery route, so I saw him regularly. At first, I figured he’d just gotten out of the wrong side of bed or was going through a bad time. But as weeks dragged into months, nothing changed. I tried joking with him. Found out his hobbies. Inquired about his family. Little by little, through snippets of conversation, I found out he led a relatively ordinary life.
He was one of those people who wasn’t happy unless he was unhappy. When things were going well, he was on the lookout for something to bellyache about.
He saw a dark lining in every silver cloud.
There’s a shadow of this man in me, and perhaps in you, but in a different—and more dangerous—sense. He nursed negativity. He clung to bad things. Us? We tend to cling to the bad things, too, the bad things we’ve done.
So when we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses,” what we really mean is, “Forgive us our trespasses…except our special ones.” There are some sins we don’t want to hand over to our Father. Not yet anyway. They are our precious. We relish wallowing in the guilt they generate.
We feel better knowing how bad we feel.
There’s something very sinister happening. We’ve come to believe that:
our anguish is our atonement;
shame is our absolution;
tears are our baptism;
a body racked with regret is our eucharist.
This kind of repentance is anti-repentance, for it actually clings tightly to the sin over which it sorrows, because that sorrow is its consolation. If God forgives these sins, if he takes them away and tells us that we can’t have them back, on what will we rely? Then we’d have only his promise. Then we’d have to rely on someone else.
When it comes to atoning for our wrongdoing, we’d rather take care of that ourselves, thank you very much.
Now that takes us to the heart of the issue: that the Gospel of Jesus Christ excludes every hint of a do-it-yourself forgiveness. We want to do our part, especially when it comes to “big sins.” The little transgressions, well, God can take care of them. But when it comes to the big ones, they take a little extra effort on our part.
So we try to sorrow ourselves into salvation, to repent ourselves into redemption.
We hang on to our sins not despite the fact that they hurt, but precisely because they hurt. We need to hurt, to fret over them, to feel ashamed over them, to make amends over them, because by doing so, we will grease the wheels of God’s forgiveness.
If he sees how repentant we are, and what we’ve done to make things right, he’ll be much more likely to give us forgiveness when we’re adequately worthy to ask for it.
But here’s the shockingly beautiful truth: our special sins, to which we cling, they are all mere phantoms. The weighty bag of precious transgressions we carry around is full of nothing but air. Someone has taken them away, even before we asked him to, even before we wanted him to, even before we committed them.
“I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins" (Isa. 43:25).
While we were out attempting a do-it-yourself atonement, the true atonement had already taken place, long ago. There is nothing more to be done.
You might ask:
But what about that time I did _____?
Yes, it’s taken care of.
What about all those years I did _____?
But what about that deeply shameful thing I did?
Yes, absolutely, that too has been taken away.
All our precious sins are gone. God came along and snatched them away. And he won’t give them back. He gathered up all—and I mean, all—the transgressions of all the people who have ever lived, and who will ever live, and he put them on Jesus.
This Son of God, who knew no sin, became all sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. All humanity shrunk down into this one man. It was as if a funnel was placed over Jesus, God took the sinful world in his hand, and squeezed it over that funnel. Out oozed every single drop of iniquity, every imaginable horror that people have committed, every good deed they have left undone, and it filled from head to toe this Savior who loves us so. He drank it all in when he polished off the cup of judgement.
When he was done, when atonement was complete, he said simply, “It is finished.” And he meant it.
The absolution is absolute.
Forgiveness is final.
God doesn’t keep score.
It really is finished.
Your special sins are not yours. Jesus took them away.
And he will never, ever give them back.
That is his profound and precious promise.