May 20, 2012

Does God Keep a Record of Our Sins?

LORD, if you kept a record of our sins,
     who, O Lord, could ever survive?
But you offer forgiveness,
     that we might learn to fear you.

My friend Nick grew up in a church that was very eager to keep him from sinning. Leaders in the church were fond of reminding him and his friends that, someday, when they stood before the Lord, all of their sins would be "shouted from the rooftops." Yes, if they had faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they would be saved, but only after being publicly humiliated before all creation. This threat might have kept Nick from sinning in some cases, but mostly it filled him with terror and with a desire to hide from God.

As it turns out, this threat finds little support in Scripture. It is based on a passage in Luke where Jesus warns his disciples about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. They think their sinful expressions will be kept secret, but the time is coming when these secrets will be "shouted from the housetops for all to hear" (Luke 12:1-3). Even if we were to take this language literally, it still refers only to things we say in secret, not to all of our sins.

The bigger problem with the threat of public humiliation in the judgment is its lack of fit with biblical teaching on God's amazing grace. Psalm 130, for example, recognizes that if God kept a record of sins, we'd be utterly without hope of surviving (literally, of "standing" before him in the last judgment). But the good news is that God offers forgiveness. Implicitly, God does not keep a record of sins. As he promises through Jeremiah, concerning "the least to the greatest": "And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins" (Jer 31:34). Of course, God has the ability to know every sin we have ever committed. But, as he forgives us, he chooses to look upon us as if we had not sinned.

Now, one might fear that this kind of forgiveness might lead to unbridled disobedience. If God doesn't keep a record of my sins, then am I free to sin all I want? In a sense, the answer is yes. But notice again what it says in Psalm 130:4: "But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you." This is not fear of God as in, "Oh no, I'm afraid God is going to wipe me out because of my sin. I'd better hide." Rather, this kinds of fear is profound respect and reverence. The more we comprehend the wonder of God's forgiveness, the more we will freely offer our lives to him in service. We will seek to avoid sin, not because we are afraid of cosmic humiliation, but because we want to honor and glorify the God who has forgiven us so completely.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: In your Christian experience, did you ever hear anything like Nick heard? How did you respond to this? How do you respond to the good news that God does not keep a permanent record of your sins?

PRAYER: Gracious, merciful God, thank you for your forgiveness. Thank you for choosing not to keep a record of my sins. Thank you for offering me full, complete forgiveness through Christ, whose death erased forever the penalty of my sins.

Help me, dear Lord, to live in light of the reality of your grace. May my gratitude and awe move me to serve you, both in what I do and in what I do not do. Give me, I pray, a growing disdain for my sin and a growing desire to offer my whole life to you.

All praise, glory, and honor be to you, God of grace and forgiveness. Amen.

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