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4. How to know if sins have been forgiven?

Sibbes stops here and asks the question: if these blessings are true, how do I know if God has actually forgiven my sins?

Quest. But may some say, How shall I know whether or no my sins be, forgiven?

1. By something that goes before.

2. By something which follows after.

That is, what we do and the effect thereof.

Ans. There is somewhat which goes before, viz.:—


First, an humble and hearty confession, as, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,’ 1 John 1:9.

Therefore, whether I feel it or not, if I have heartily, fully, and freely confessed, my sins are forgiven. God in wisdom and mercy may suspend the feeling thereof, for our humiliation, and for being over-bold with Satan’s baits; yet I ought to believe it. For I make God a liar else, if I confess heartily, and acknowledge my debt, to think that he hath not cancelled the bond.

Why does he specify humble and hearty? To distinguish confession from bare “lip service” In Isaiah 29:13, the Lord says, “Because this people draws near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Thus, a confession can be mere lip service. In Isaiah 66:2, the Lord says that he will look to “he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” In Psalm 51:17, “a broken spirit and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” 

Thus, the confession of 1 John 1:9 must be read in light of the rest of Scripture speaking of the nature of what constitutes a true approach to God. John himself states that a true confession that Jesus is Lord comes from the Spirit of God. 1 John 4:2. The results of that confession are:

b. There are four post-confession results.

Since Sibbes numbers consecutively from one, these are 2-5 in the original and so I have kept them:

i. Resistance to sin

Secondly, sin is certainly pardoned, when a man finds strength against it; for where God forgives, he gives strength withal: as to the man whom he healed of the palsy, ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee; take up thy bed and walk,’ Mat. 9:26.

Sibbes does not argue that the man taking up his bed proves the point. Rather, he is using the event as an analogy to illustrate the proposition.

When a man hath strength to return to God, to run the way of his commandments, and to go on in a Christian course, his sins are forgiven, because he hath a spirit of faith to go on and lead him forward still. Those who find no strength of grace, may question forgiveness of sins. For God, where he takes away sin, and pardons it, as we see here in this text, after prayer made to take away iniquity, he ‘doth good to us.’

ii. peace of conscience

The third evidence is, some peace of conscience; though not much, perhaps, yet so much as supports us from despair, as, ‘Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,’ Rom. 5:1; that is, being acquitted from our sins by faith, we have peace with God; so much peace, as makes us go boldly to him. 

Richard Sibbes was known as the heavenly doctor, due to his remarkable concern for the peace of conscience. 

So that one may know his bonds are cancelled, and his sins forgiven, when with some boldness he dare look God in the face in Jesus Christ.

He proves this point by the counter example of those who killed themselves in their guilt.

A Judas, an Ahithophel, a Saul, because they are in the guilt of their sins, cannot confess comfortably, and go to God, which, when with some boldness we can do, it is a sign that peace is made for us.

iii. Love toward God

Fourth. Again, where sin is pardoned, our hearts will be much enlarged with love to God; as Christ said to the woman, ‘Her sins, which are many, are forgiven her, because she loved much,’ Luke 7:47. Therefore, when we find our hearts inflamed with love to God, we may know that God hath shined upon our souls in the pardon of sin; and proportionably to our measure of love is our assurance of pardon. 

Here we have again the encouragement:

Therefore we should labour for a greater measure thereof, that our hearts may be the more inflamed in the love of God. 

And then the proof by a negative example: We will not come God if we are unconfessed: our conscience will drive us to true confession.

It is impossible that the soul should at all love God angry, offended, and unappeased; nay, such a soul wisheth that there were no God at all, for the very thoughts thereof terrify him.

iv. forgiveness to others

The effect of true confession and forgiveness changes the way in which we relate to God and the way in which we relate to others. There is a change in our disposition if we understand what we have been forgiven. Moreover, to not forgive is to court serious reprimand. Matt. 18:21-35.

Fifthly. Again, where sin is forgiven, it frames the soul suitably, to be gentle, merciful, and to pardon others. For, usually, those who have peaceable consciences themselves are peaceable unto others; and those who have forgiveness of sins, can also forgive others. Those who have found mercy have merciful hearts, shewing that they have found mercy with God. And, on the contrary, he that is a cruel, merciless man, it is a sign that his heart was never warmed nor melted with the sense of God’s mercy in Christ. Therefore, ‘as the elect of God,’ saith the apostle, ‘put on bowels of compassion,’ 1 Peter 3:8, as you will make it good that you are the elect of God, members of Christ, and God’s children.

C. A Concluding Encouragement

Notice the tone of his call to repentance: Rather than demand repentance, he coaxes the sheep. It is not “you”, it is “us”. Let us repent. 

He has made repentance a beautiful, desirable thing. Don’t you want to repent? Its God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. Rom. 2:4.

Therefore, let us labour for the forgiveness of our sins, that God would remove and subdue the power of them, take them away, and the judgments due to them, 

There is a warning, but what would we seek to be miserable:

or else we are but miserable men, though we enjoyed all the pleasures of the world, which to a worldly man are but like the liberty of the tower to a condemned traitor [the right to walk around in the prison but never go outside], who though he have all wants supplied with all possible attendance, yet when he thinks of his estate, it makes his heart cold, damps his courage, and makes him think the poorest car-man or tankard-bearer, at liberty, happier than he, who would not change estates with him. 

He repeats the sorrow of not repenting:

So it is with a man that hath not sued out his pardon, nor is at peace with God. He hath no comfort, so long as he knows his sins are on the file, that God in heaven is not at peace with him, who can arm all the creatures against him to be revenged of him. In which case, who shall be umpire betwixt God and us, if we take not up the controversy betwixt him and our souls? 

If our confession will bring us with God, then we should not expect peace when we are unrepentant.

Therefore, it being so miserable a case to want assurance of the forgiveness of sins, it should make us be never an hour quiet till we have gotten it, seeing the uncertainty of this life, wherein there is but a step betwixt hell, damnation, and us. Therefore sue unto God, ply him with broken and humble hearts, that he would pardon all the sins of our youth and after-age, known and unknown, that he would pardon all whatsoever. 

He ends this plea with a final repetition of the God which can come: Notice the structure of the plea: Here is the good; here is the negative (why would you lose this good); look at this good:

‘Take away all iniquity.’

Notice how he moves between “good” and “grace”

‘And do good to us.’ For so it is in the original, but it is all one, ‘Receive us graciously, and do good to us.’ 

All the goodness we have from God, it is out of his grace, from his free grace and goodness. 

All grace, every little thing from God is grace.

As we say of favours received of great persons, this is his grace, his favour; so this is a respect which is put upon all things which we receive from God, when we are in covenant, all is gracious. 

Take we the words as they are, the more plain, in the original. 

‘Take good, and do good to us:’ take good out of thy treasure of goodness, and do good to us, bestow upon us thy own good. 

Here he repeats the two elements: take away iniquity and do good. This acts as an inclusio in the final plea and then as a introduction into the next section of the sermon:

First, ‘take away our iniquities,’ 

and then take good out of thy bounty, ‘and do good to us.’ 

Whence we see—

III.      Doct. That God’s mercy to his children is complete and full.

 See note b, vol. I. p. 289.—G.