The Apostles’ Creed: The Forgiveness of Sins is Fundamental

During the ancient Apostles’ Creed’s[1] development over time into one of the Church’s first sanctioned statements of faith some of its phrases were inserted along the way into the completion of its final form; yet the belief of “the forgiveness of sins” was an initial part of this earliest confession.[2]  Primary and paramount to Christianity is God’s pardon of His people by propitiation—however, this early doctrine was (and is) an unwelcome witness by the watching world.

J. Ligon Duncan helps us see this primitive profession against its dark historical backdrop:

Some of us take for granted the morality of forgiving sins ... the ancient pagans accused the Christians of immorality in saying that God could forgive murderers and adulterers of their sin.[3] Pagans did not agree with that and attacked and mocked Christians as they taught the gospel of grace throughout the Roman and Greek world. Pagans often mocked the Christian teaching that sins could be forgiven by another, even by God. As far as a pagan was concerned, you either make up for your misdeeds ... or you’re forever guilty.  And pagans did not consider forgiveness a virtue ... Only the weak spirited—the weak willed—would forgive. We need to realize just how radical the Bible's message is of the forgiveness of sins. It's interesting that in Rufinus’ commentary on The Apostles’ Creed, written in the fifth century, pagans were still attacking Christians for this very reason.[4]

Considering that “the forgiveness of sins” was a cause for early persecution of Christians and that it was a part of the Apostles’ Creed from its inception, is the placement of this clause near its end significant?  Schaff’s observation of the Creed’s structure might illuminate: “It contains all the fundamental articles of the Christian faith necessary to salvation, in the form of facts, in simple Scripture language, and in the most natural order—the order of revelation ...” (emphasis, GVL).[5]

Perhaps Herman Witsius, in his impressive seventeenth-century commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, offers special insight on the order of the placement of this clause:

Although high encomiums are pronounced on the holiness of the Christian Church [a doctrine immediately preceding the clause of this discussion, which itself follows the lofty doctrines of the Triune God and Christ’s mediatorial work], yet while she continues in her militant state on earth, she is never without her blemishes; and is far from that perfection, which she hopes at last to obtain in heaven ... Nor does she always prosecute her pious course with uniform constancy, or with equal vigour and alacrity ... her faith and hope would utterly perish, were they not supported by the free FORGIVENESS OF SINS, which God promises in the Gospel, and the faith of which she herself professes.[6]

We are always forgiven!  Yet Witsius reminds us throughout this section of the Apostles’ Creed that in stating it we imply that our sin is the transgression of God’s law, multitudinous, and worthy of everlasting punishment.  He thus gives a wonderful summary of the doctrine of the remission of our sins that should move us deeply:

The FORGIVENESS OF SINS, therefore, is, the absolution of the sinner from guilt which Christ took upon himself; or, the declaration of God the Law-giver and Judge, that on account of the satisfaction made by Christ the Surety, the sinner shall not suffer the punishment which he has deserved.  Since that satisfaction, too, was of necessity accompanied with a most complete righteousness which obtains a title to life, it follows, that he who is absolved from guilt and condemnation as if he had never committed any sin, has a right to eternal life adjudged to him, no less than if he himself had fulfilled all that righteousness which the law requires.  They whose sins are forgiven are accordingly pronounced blessed.[7]

Witsius does exhort that to believe “the forgiveness of sins” is to forgive others[8] and to live a progressing holy life of repentant consecration.  Still, to confess this belief, “... We ascribe this glory to God, that he can grant us the pardon of our sins in a manner that will reflect no discredit on any of his attributes, but on the contrary, afford a bright manifestation of them all ... it is not altogether beyond the range of possibility, that a just and holy God may be reconciled to a sinner.”[9]

Such a Christian confession of divine reconciliation with humans in the God-man is a witness both elementary and essential—to be first and fundamental.

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He and his wife, Fernanda, have four home-schooled covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, and Isaac.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.



[1] As a Presbyterian and full subscriptionist to the original Westminster Standards, the author is compelled to highlight here that while the Westminster Divines opted not to follow previous Reformed catechisms in explicitly teaching through the Apostles’ Creed as part of their formal written instruction, yet they included a page following the Confession and catechisms listing the words to the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and lastly the Apostles Creed with a footnote stating, “ ... albeit the substance of the doctrine comprised in that abridgment, commonly called The Apostles’ Creed, be fully set forth in each of the Catechisms, so as there is no necessity of inserting the Creed itself; yet it is here annexed, not as though it were composed by the Apostles, or ought to be esteemed canonical scripture, as the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer, (much less a prayer, as ignorant people have been apt to make both it and the Decalogue,) but because it is a brief sum of the Christian faith, agreeable to the word of God, and anciently received in the churches of Christ.”  Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 2001) , 319.

[2] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom: With a History and Critical Notes, 6th ed., vol. 1, The History of Creeds (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007) , 19-22.

[3] Psalms 32 and 51 strikingly come to mind with this statement. Psalm 86:5 as well in emphasizing that the Lord is “ready to forgive”.

[4] J. Ligon Duncan, “I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins,” First Presbyterian Church Jackson Mississippi. https://www.fpcjackson.org/resource-library/sermons/i-believe-in-the-for... (accessed April 7, 2018).

[5] Schaff, 14-15.

[6] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations On What is Commonly Called the Apostles’ Creed, trans. Donald Fraser (Glasgow: Khull, Blackie & Co., 1823) , 385-86.

[7] Ibid, 390-91.

[8] As Augustine also urges in his exposition of this clause in the Creed; see Augustine, A Treatise on Faith and the Creed [De Fide Et Symbolo.], trans. S. D. F. Salmond, in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 3, ed. Philip Schaff (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, date?) , 331.

[9] Witsius, 396.