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Credo XV

“(I believe in)…the forgiveness of sins,”

I was consulted to see a patient in the ICU who was an inmate transferred from the Department of Corrections for a complex illness. The problem I found was that he was so bound by shackles and restraints that I could not adequately examine him. I insisted the officers remove some of the restraints during part of my examination. Then I wrote up my recommendations for further tests and made arrangements for a follow up visit.

When I returned the next day, the the corrections officer supervisor intercepted me. “Doc,” he said, “there’s something you gotta know about prisoner X.”


“He killed three people to get in prison and got a life sentence. He wanted a death sentence. So he killed two more people in prison–other inmates. Now he’s on death row. He tells us he wants to kill more. So when you ask those guards to take off those restraints, it’s a risk–a risk to the officers and a risk to you. If he gets a chance, he’ll rip your throat out with his teeth.”

Well. I’m sure he meant to add, And have a nice day.

How do we explain evil? Sometimes, like in the case of the psychopathic multiple murderer, I come face to face with it. Sometimes I hear about it in the stories of friends and relatives. I can always see inexplicable evil every day by turning on any news feed. I live at this end of human history that tells the story of man’s violence against man. We like to talk about misunderstandings and mental illnesses and cultural differences. We even talk about hate and prejudice and sexual violence. We propose solutions like a war on poverty and better education and more laws against racial discrimination and wider access to mental health care. But the root problem is really, and simply, evil. Our world is full of sin and sinners.

In the book of Genesis, sin originated from consuming forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. I have a tendency to trivialize this and call the fruit an apple and treat it like a dietary no-no, like having a bowl of ice cream before bed. No, you shouldn’t do it, it’s a bad health choice, the only reason for doing it is that it tastes good at the time and the bad consequences are delayed. There are some good parallels here, but in the Garden, the fruit was not an apple or ice cream but the fruit from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Eve didn’t get ice cream; she got the knowledge of good and evil and all the consequences of that knowledge. This is the origin of sin.

This confuses me. Knowledge is good, yes? Knowing good from evil is very good, yes? I take pride in knowing right from wrong. I teach my children right from wrong. I expect everybody else over the age of five to know right from wrong. Eve ate this fruit that gave her the knowledge of good and evil. It was so good she shared it with Adam. And what happened then?

They started making fig leaf clothing, not because they became naked, but because they were ashamed of being naked. Then they were alienated from God, not because God didn’t visit the Garden, but because they were ashamed and hid from God.

Our world is locked into a destructive, moralistic cycle that began with taking into ourselves the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, an attitude of pride and arrogance that allows us to believe that we make better decisions than God about what gives us joy and purpose. We are all naked and ashamed, physically and spiritually. We are all alienated from our creator. And out of this shame and alienation, we commit sins, all the many acts that separate ourselves from our creator and His creation, and all the many acts that separate ourselves from each other. Some acts are little things like eating ice cream before bed, self-indulgences that lead to mostly self harm. Some acts are bigger, like murdering a few people and planning to rip the throat out of the next person that gets close.

So, yes, I believe in sin. But can I believe in the forgiveness of sins?

Forgiveness doesn’t seem like a good plan. What good would it do if the rapist said, “I’m sorry,” got his bit of forgiveness, and went out and raped another girl the next night? How about the robber who holds up the convenience store, spends the money on dope, gets, high, asks for forgiveness, and holds up another convenience store the next day? Or  the megalomaniac who starts a war, commits genocide, steals an entire country’s wealth, then goes to confession, says he’s sorry, gets the forgiveness chip, and starts planning the next invasion? Forgiveness alone does not stop the dark and dismal cycle of evil.

What takes the rapist, the thief, the drug addict, the megalomaniac, the murderer from the dark path to turn around and look toward the light? There’s likely lot of inertia on that dark path, a feeling that what you’ve done is what defines you, and that you’ll do it all again because that’s who you are. Maybe you’ve already rationalized what you’ve done as only reflective of the world around you, and you feel nothing no remorse. Maybe you are not even lonely, now locked into a solid companionship with the rest of the damned.

Maybe there is no hope for them and the best we can hope for the world is better rules and better enforcement and worse punishment because we are full of the knowledge of good and evil.

God sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. There was no place in paradise for a couple who had that sort of knowledge. But He didn’t send them out naked. Nor did He send them out with the pitiful fig leaves that they had made for themselves. God personally made each of them clothes of wool and leather. This is a sign of how he really feels about them. This is the sign of His unconditional love. This is the beginning of the story of God’s redemption of the world.

I met an electrician named Bert while doing a home visit of newcomers who had recently attended our church. Years before, Bert’s sister had married a not very nice man who drank heavily, and during one of his rages he had murdered Bert’s sister. Shortly afterward, the husband pled guilty to second degree murder and received a fifteen-year sentence. Bert was angered that he hadn’t received the death penalty. Angry and embittered by the lack of justice, he started drinking heavily himself. Eventually he experienced the losses many drinkers do and found himself desperately short of cash. An opportunity arose for him to be an arsonist for an insurance fraud scheme. He made some money, and had another opportunity to do it again. Shortly after this, and a few weeks before my visit, he experienced the unconditional love of Jesus. I don’t know the details, but he recounted to me his amazement at deliverance from alcoholism. He went to church for the first time in over twenty years.

Bert’s story is representative of many of our redemption stories. We don’t suddenly have a clearer knowledge of right or wrong. We don’t suddenly become better at following rules. We are miraculously returned to our primary relationship with our creator. The unconditional love of our Father as demonstrated by the life of Jesus Christ is carried to us by the work of the Holy Spirit. When we no longer experience the alienation from our creator, the sins of our past are forgotten. God forgives our sins. We can turn from the dark path to the light, maybe stumbling along the way, but at least stumbling in the right direction. This is what redeems the world, one sinner at a time.

But that’s not the end of Bert’s story.

A few months later, he decided to confess his arson crimes and turn state’s evidence. He received a short prison sentence, and after his release signed up for a prison ministry, sharing the Gospel to inmates in monthly group meetings. He showed up at the state prison for one meeting and came face-to-face with his sister’s murderer, the man he had sworn to kill if he ever got the chance.

He describes what happened next as the second miracle of his life. He experienced shock followed by memories of rage and hatred. Bert could have hurt him badly–he has the size and temperament to make that possible. Instead, quite unexpectedly, he was overwhelmed by love and compassion. They hugged each other and wept.

Unconditional love and forgiveness by grace leads to unconditional love and forgiveness by grace. One man forgives another. This is what redeems the world, one sinner at a time.

For me, and maybe for a lot of Christians, our danger lies less in our temptations than our complacency. I mentioned before an afternoon when I sat in my room reading the Bible and thought about how little the appeal of Christianity has to those who are not imminently expecting hell and damnation for suffering from the consequences of sin. I felt pretty good about myself. I didn’t lie, cheat, or steal, had no plans to commit murder or adultery, didn’t covet much, and attended church regularly, even tithing. I figured I wasn’t much of a sinner. That’s when I prayed for God to show me my sin, and He told me, quite promptly, that I was greedy. That led to a chain of experiences where I learned a lot about God’s provision in all circumstances and the fear that drove my greed was quite unfounded.

My story is not a great one involving murders and addiction and felony level crimes. It’s a little story about a common sin, a sin not even thought of as reprehensible in our culture. But it’s still the story of a God who sees me going on the dark path and intervenes to let me know I am loved and I don’t have to be afraid and I can turn around and go back to the light. And all those missteps on the dark path? Forgiven by the Father.

So, yes, I believe in the unconditional love of the Father as demonstrated by the life of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, and, in other words, I believe in the forgiveness of sins. This is what redeems the world, one sinner at a time.

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