Forgiven! (LD 21, q&a 56)


If you believe in Jesus, you share in all his benefits, said the catechism. But what are those benefits? What things do you get from God when you are a believer?

There are many such things; the Apostles’ Creed mentions three, and on top of the list is the forgiveness of sins. The Heidelberg Catechism also mentions it often, starting in the very first question and answer: “[Jesus Christ] has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood.”

There is a good Biblical reason for that. Psalm 32 says: “How blessed is the man whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” When God has the prophet Jeremiah announce the new covenant, he concluded: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Jer. 31:34) When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he gave them six short petitions, and one of them was: “Forgive us our debts.” (Mat. 6:12) And when Jesus gave his disciples some final instructions before he ascended to heaven, he summarized the gospel as follows: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46-47)

Clearly, forgiveness of sins lies at the heart of the gospel. What does it mean? 


1. Past guilt covered
2. Present weakness opposed
3. Future acquittal ensured

1. Past guilt covered

The Bible has many words for sin: transgression, trespass, iniquity, rebellion, disobedience, lawlessness. The fact is that we often do things that are not right. They are opposed to God’s will and violate his law. They are out of line with the good life for which we were created. Sin is a violation; it is a serious failure. It brings dishonour to ourselves and offends our God.

Sin comes in many forms: blatant crimes, such as premeditated murder; moral perversion, such as sexual debauchery; bad attitudes, such as greed and hostility; and subtle sins, such as secret pride and selfish manipulation of others. But whether big or small, whether public or hidden, our sin is an offence against God. When we sin, we become guilty. We owe God satisfaction; we owe something to make up for our sin, something that makes it right. As long as we don’t do this, our guilt remains and grows.

The Bible often talks about sin as a debt. In the Lord’s prayer we ask: “Forgive us our debts.” If you owe a debt, you have to pay something. At any time, your debtor may come and demand of you what you owe. So it is with sin. God has a perfect right to demand of us what we owe him. And, as we discussed before, we have nothing to offer. There is nothing we could give to God that would even begin to make up for our guilt. If you owe millions of dollars and you can only spare at best a few pennies, you know you are in deep trouble…

When God forgives us, he cancels the debt. The word for “forgive” in the New Testament literally means “let go”, or “dismiss”.  God declares that we owe him nothing. The debt is simply gone. The guilt is simply removed. The poetry of the Bible uses an amazing image to describe this: “So far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” (Ps. 103:12) “You will cast all our sins in the depth of the sea.” (Mic. 7:19) The catechism says that God … will no more remember my sins. That, too, is Biblical language. In Is. 43:25, the Lord says: “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will remember your sins no more.” Here we also have the imagery of wiping out, erasing. In the modern language of computer technology: the record of our debt is completely deleted from the database. Not just: let’s pretend for now that you have no sin or guilt. But: completely gone, and not even the all-knowing God himself will remember it.

Why would God do this? Nobody deserves to have debt forgiven. If you had any right not to pay your debt, you wouldn’t really owe it. When God cancels our debt, it is his free decision to do so. He doesn’t even forgive because of how sorry we are—even though we should be sorry about our sin. But that is not the reason why forgiveness happens. It is purely out of the goodness of his heart. This is what it means that God is gracious!

And yet there is a basis for our forgiveness, a reason why our sins can be forgiven in the first place. The catechism says: because of Christ’s satisfaction. You may remember from LD 5 that “God demands that his justice be satisfied.” Sin and guilt cannot simply be ignored; that would not be right. It must be dealt with, made up for. The debt must be paid. What we, poor sinners, could not do ourselves, our Lord Jesus Christ did in our place and on our behalf. That is why he sacrificed himself on the cross. The Bible says (1 John 2:2): “He is the propitiation for our sins,” that is, a gift offered to an offended ruler to appease him, by making up for the offence.

Jesus’ satisfaction does not deny that forgiveness is a gift of grace. After all, Jesus’ willingness to die, and the Father’s initiative to send him into the world, are things we do not deserve in the least. They are all the more reason for us to be thankful for all the Lord has done for us.

The forgiveness of sins is a most precious gift. But you will only appreciate it if you first understand how much you need it. When you look at your past, what do you see? If you think of yourself as a pretty good person because you always meant well and never did anything really evil, you have not yet understood forgiveness, because you don’t understand sin, or the great holiness of God. If you say: “Well, yes, we’re all sinners, but that’s okay now because of Jesus,” you have not understood the steep price he paid on your behalf. Maybe those with the darkest past will understand it best: how much guilt they had, how much debt they owed God, how desperate their situation was—and then, how amazing it was to hear God declare that all was forgiven, for the sake of Jesus Christ!

2. Present weakness opposed

But forgiveness of sins is not only about guilt from the past. In the early church, people made this mistake: they thought that their baptism removed their sin, but any sins after that would count against them. No wonder that so many of them waited with baptism until their deathbed! Thankfully, we may be sure of God’s willingness to forgive our sins throughout our lives. That is why we pray: “Forgive us our debts,” not just once, but regularly.

The catechism says that God not only forgives my sins, but also my sinful nature. This is an important reminder for us, that our sin is not an accidental problem, just some bad decisions in the past. Because sin comes from deep inside us and we cannot help ourselves. If you help a gambling addict by paying off his debts, you should not be surprised if a few months later he is in debt again. It would be naive, both of you and of him, to think that the problem is suddenly gone; because the addiction is deeply ingrained. In the same way, we are addicted to sin, and we will fall many times and need to be forgiven often.

The Lord is not naive about this. Jesus taught his disciples to forgive not just seven times, but seven times seventy times, that is, over and over and over (Mat. 18:22). Because God himself is that generous with us. He knows that we will offend him again and again, and yet he is ready to forgive and forgive.

Our sinful nature does not excuse our sin. It explains it, but doesn’t make it any less offensive. We certainly should not be careless about sinning: I can’t help it, and God forgives me anyway, so let’s just do it. Rather, understanding how deeply ingrained sin is, we realise that we need more than forgiveness. We need to get rid of our old self with its sinful nature. We need to become a new kind of people, driven by righteousness instead of addicted to sin. In other words, we need daily conversion; as the catechism will discuss in LD 33.

Forgiveness of our sins is therefore not a passive thing for us. It affects how we live, how we want to live. The catechism says that my sinful nature is something against which I have to struggle all my life. Our sin is stubborn and it is hard and painful to remove it from our life. But we must work on it. If we understand how much it means that we are forgiven, we will want to work on it. We have offended God, but we don’t want to offend him anymore.

Even here, it is not all just up to us. The Holy Spirit gives us strength to push the sin out of our lives. He shows us how to be our new self and distance us from our old self. It will be a struggle that lasts our lifetime, but in the life of a healthy Christian there will be progress. In Romans 7, the Apostle Paul speaks of his struggle with sin. He laments that he keeps doing bad things he does not want to do. Amazingly, he then says: “But it is no longer I, but the sin that dwells in me.” In other words, I no longer identify with my sinful self. I distance myself from my sinful nature; this is no longer who I want to be.

The Lord knows what we are: helpless sinners, inclined to all kinds of evil, even when we have come to believe in Jesus. But he is so kind and compassionate, he still forgives us; on top of that, he gives us energy for the battle against that sinful self.

3. Future acquittal assured

In theological language, we say that God does not impute our sins to us: he does not make them count, so that we are not punished as we deserve. But we may also say: God imputes Jesus’ righteousness to us. Our Lord Jesus did all things perfectly, lived up to God’s justice, and is therefore truly deserving of all God’s goodness. If we believe in Jesus, God makes this perfection of Jesus count for us. He graciously grants me the righteousness of Christ, says the catechism; later it explains: “He grants these to me as I had never had nor committed any sin, and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me” (q&a 60).

If our sin is not imputed to us, but Jesus’ perfection is, then God sees us as if we are sinless and perfect, pure and holy as he designed us to be. This is of the greatest importance. One day the final judgement will come. If God were to consider our sins, we certainly would come into condemnation, declared guilty because we have offended the most holy majesty of God. But as Christian believers, we need not fear. Our sins are forgiven. Jesus’ righteousness is ours. We will not be condemned but acquitted, declared innocent in the court of heaven.

Then our salvation will also be made complete. The struggle against sin will end, when our sinful nature is removed completely and we will be perfect, reflecting the pure glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Forgiveness of sins is an amazing gift of God. Without it, we could only live in fear and despair, because of our guilt in offending God and the weakness of our sinful nature. But our Lord Jesus has taken care of all of it. If only we believe in him, we can be confident even in the final judgement. How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sins is covered through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ!


  1. Where in the Bible is it clear that forgiveness of sins has a central place in the Christian gospel?
  2. What does it mean when our sin is forgiven?
  3. What is the basis of the forgiveness of our sins?
  4. Why must we realize that we also need forgiveness of our sinful nature?
  5. When God forgives us, he does not impute our sins. What does he impute to us?

Suggested Bible reading schedule

MondayPsalm 32. What was the psalmist’s experience while his guilt was not yet forgiven?
TuesdayPsalm 130. What does this psalm say about the forgiveness of sins?
WednesdayJeremiah 31:31-37. What was necessary for the New Covenant to be realized? (v. 34)
ThursdayLuke 7:36-50. How was it clear that the woman off the street understoof forgiveness better than the host?
FridayJohn 20:19-23. Does this mean that the church gets to decide who is forgiven?
SaturdayMatthew 12:22-32. What is the only unforgivable sin (v. 31-32)? (The preceding verses, esp. v. 28, may help you understand.)

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