[A disclaimer: The following is intended to be observational only and not to be used as a suggested approach in presenting the Gospel nor is it intended as a correction—theological or otherwise—to the four spiritual laws or any other proven method of evangelism.]
In a study of Acts 26 a question was raised regarding the Savior’s words to Paul on the road to Damascus. God was choosing Paul as His minister and witness “To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God.” Who exactly is “they/them”? Jesus continued, “that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.” [Acts 26:18]. Since Paul was being “sent to the Gentiles” [Acts 26:17] it seems obvious that the Savior’s words were meant for both the Jew and the Gentile. In speaking of “darkness” and “the power of Satan,” Paul assuredly spoke of both groups.
But the question might still be asked, “Is there a relevance to Israel in phrasing the call of salvation in this way that might have less of a meaning to the Gentiles? Was it only incidental that Jesus chose Aramaic to relay this message [Acts 26:14 NIV]? Was Ananias’ interpretation of the Savior’s wording significant in this regard, when he referred to having our sins washes away? [not just forgiven] “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins” [Acts 22:16 ]. Or is the washing away of sin a metaphor for forgiveness?
The word “forgiveness” is a Christian term coming from the idea of releasing or letting go of something—in this case, our sins. But the importance of this singular act of God is often confused with God’s tolerance or forbearance [Romans 3:25-26 NIV] which is not the same! God tolerated His people in the wilderness [Numbers 14:20-21] but now requires our repentance [Acts 17:30] which is vitally linked to forgiveness—as we know [Acts 3:19].
Questioning the language does not in any way suggest that forgiveness of sins is not equally important to both Jew and Gentile. It most decidedly is! The question raised here is simply: “Is the idea of having one’s sins forgiven more meaningful to Israel? The Savior’s work on the Cross was intended not only to forgive sin but to bring it to an end [Daniel 9:24]. We might ask it this way: “Does the significance of forgiveness—what it really means and entails—need to be explained more fully to the Jew, whose understanding was associated with the Mosaic Law and the sacrifices and not Calvary [Hebrews 9:22; 10:18].
Peter’s defense before Gamaliel was specifically directed at Israel: “Him [Jesus] hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” [Acts 5:31]. But the apostle’s language should never be so limited in scope as to suggest this message should not be shared with the Gentiles.
Even though the subject never—to our knowledge—came up between the Savior and the thief being crucified beside Him, this doesn’t erode its importance, nor is that man any less saved than we. Nonetheless, to us, forgiveness remains a critically important announcement [John 20:23].
In letters to both the church at Ephesus [Ephesians 1:7] and again to those in Colossi [Colossians 1:14] Paul spoke of “the forgiveness of sins” as part of the plan of redemption. Even here, however, Paul’s thoughts hinge upon the Old Testament understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice for sin. Paul was speaking about “circumcision” in Colossians 2:11, “trespasses” in Colossians 2:13 (which is the Jewish word for “sin”), and the handwriting of ordinances [also referred to as a spiritual debt] in Colossians 2:14—all more significant to the Jew than the Gentile. Clearly in Romans 4:7 (taken from Psalm 32:1) Paul’s words are very Jewish! “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered.”
“The forgiveness of sins is the ground of the Christian life” explains 1 John 2:12: “I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.” “The reference is not to Him Who forgives sins, God the Father, but to Him [Jesus], for whose sake the Father forgives” [Lange]. In other words: our redemption which included forgiveness came by way of the Cross. There is great meaning in John’s words, not just for the Jews, but for all. Here is a nonagenarian, in his 90’s, addressing us as his little ones, who should take comfort and joy in knowing that our sins have been completely forgiven [the tense or form is a perfect—meaning “complete and forever.” 1 John 1:9]. In Ephesians 1:7 Paul has the entire church in mind—including the Gentile converts—when he spoke of our adoption and forgiveness as part of the plan of redemption—God’s gift of an unmerited favor [grace].
A co-worker once confided in me about something that they did that could be misinterpreted by the church they attended. I thought it most regrettable that they didn’t sense a spirit of forgiveness there but feared being ostracized and even excommunicated.
A prima facie argument might be made that we need the Spirit’s guidance in sharing this “good news” because words can have more or less significance to the listener depending on their life’s experience. The message of our salvation must never become cliché. Nor should we speak in esoteric or confusing terms when someone’s soul hangs in the balance.
Lord, give us what to say! And allow us the privilege as Your servants to let them know that indeed there is forgiveness with You in Christ!