I don’t need to read it on the page anymore because I have it memorized. I’ve said it a thousand times and will continue to say it as long as I have breath. Still, the other morning as I sat in the quiet of my room praying the Morning Prayer (from the Liturgy of the Hours, aka the Divine Office), I did read it, carefully.
The Canticle of Zechariah comes from the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. It is a burst of prophecy from the man whose tongue had been silenced until the birth of his son, John. Here Zechariah praises God for the deliverance that he knows will soon come to pass. God has not forgotten His covenant with Abraham, and the time has finally arrived. The Messiah has come, and Zechariah knows his own infant son, John, will be the one to “prepare His way.”
And you, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His way, to give His people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.
And suddenly there it was. “…by the forgiveness of their sins.” It jumped off the page: salvation comes by the forgiveness of sins.
There is a great need for the Church to return to this simple, core truth, and to sweep away everything else that obscures it.
There is no salvation apart from the forgiveness of sin. That means we must first confess that we have sinned. We must first recognize that we have transgressed against God’s holy law, and against God Himself.
It makes no difference that certain sins have become fashionable and accepted in our time. We may fancy ourselves more enlightened, more knowledgeable, more tolerant of “complexities” these days, but God’s law has not changed. Nor has the effect of sin in our lives. Fashionable sins will still kill us, as all sin kills, and without exception. The wages of sin is death still today. Sin earns us death. It is the just and proper payment for our sins.
Repentance Unto Life
These are wages God has no desire to see us earn, and no desire to give us. He desires to forgive and save. Which is why He sent John the Baptist to preach “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3)
God forgives when we repent. More than merely admitting and regretting it, repentance involves turning away from sin. It means leaving sin behind in order to do what is holy.
Ye blind and deluded children of men, contemplate the Wounds of your Crucified God, and see in what manner the gates of the kingdom of glory have been opened to you! See what it has cost Him to place you in possession of it, and understand, if possible, how infinite a benefit was bestowed upon you by the Son of God when He purchased for you Heaven, which you had lost by sin!” — Fr. Ignatius of the Side of Christ
Forgiveness needs repentance because sin is so fatally costly. What does John call Jesus? “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) In one sentence, John summarizes Christ’s purpose and how He will accomplish it.
God’s Costly Remedy for Sin
In God’s covenant with Israel, the lamb was slain, its blood poured out, for the atonement of sin. John identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God. The meaning of that is that He will be sacrificed and His blood poured out, this time to take away the sin of the world.
Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations…. (Luke 24: 46-47)
Only the blood of the Lamb washes away sin. What a costly remedy! To expect the gift of salvation and the promise of heaven without repentance is to mock Christ’s passion and to spit on the Cross. Grace is not cheap.
Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)
Repentance Leads to Peace
The glorious conclusion of Zechariah’s prophetic praise adds even more emphasis: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us; to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
What is sin if not darkness and the shadow of death? And what is the way of peace if not repentance and holiness?
It’s not a cleverer gospel or a more welcoming gospel we need today, but this very simple one: Salvation comes by the forgiveness of sins. Repent and believe. Bear fruits that befit repentance. Turn away from sin, and you will not walk in darkness. Repent and your feet will walk in the way of peace, and you will live.
The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
Jennifer Hartline is a Senior Contributor to The Stream. She is a proud wife and mother of four daughters. You can follow her at @jenniehartline.