If there is nothing in your past that makes you feel ashamed, save yourself some time and stop reading right now. This is a reflection for sinners only. In the first chapter of the first letter to Timothy, Paul says: “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy”. Paul starts off, as so often in his letters, saying how grateful he is for being who and where he is and being allowed to do his work and to meet such wonderful people. Details of his lifestyle, in and out of shipwrecks, prisons, floggings, and narrow escapes, make this remarkable. However, his utter confidence that his sins have been forgiven brings joy whatever the circumstances.
It is in this light that I read, in the sermons of John Wesley: “It is incumbent on all that are justified to be zealous of good works, and that these are so necessary that, if a man willingly neglects them, he cannot reasonably expect that he shall ever be sanctified.” But good works are not enough. It is possible to live a blameless life of good works and still be consumed by guilt for past real or imagined misdeeds and betrayals of love.
Some people speak of heaven and hell, some speak of being saved or damned, but everyone consumed by guilt knows how it feels to be estranged from love and forgiveness. Those who have made their peace with God and with themselves about wasted or destructive lives lived in the past, feel the same happiness and reassurance. This does not wipe out misdeeds; Stephen still died whilst Paul watched and approved, his mother still grieved, his girlfriend still wept, his children were still fatherless and poverty stricken, I am inventing characters here as you see but I hope we can all recognise the difference between being forgiven and the consequences of our sinful actions being deleted. A drunk driver may be forgiven but the child still dies and the parents still ache every day of their lives thereafter.
However, if hatred accompanies the parents’ grief, that is a second affliction from which they suffer and from which they can be delivered by forgiving.
The joy of forgiveness, for the sinner, is a spur to living a thereafter blameless life of spreading love abroad. The good works are not a qualification for entry to heaven, for being accredited a Christian, for becoming saved. They are a consequence. Many people who are undoubtedly good in their behaviour are nevertheless “miserable sinners” still, and can live in unresolved self-criticism. Everyone suffers for that. When people avoid you because you are sad and full of self-loathing, it merely compounds the lack of love in your life.
So, here this: your sins can be forgiven! It is a question of being prepared to confess and to ask. The forgiveness is free. As Christians are fond of saying, because it is a graphic reminder of the truth: Christ nailed your cancelled sins to his cross.