How do you know if your sins have been forgiven? It would be practically impossible to overstate the importance of knowing the answer to that question for oneself.
In his book, Old Paths, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) offers five (5) distinguishing characteristics or “leading marks” of those who have truly found forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ:
- Forgiven souls hate sin. If you hate only the consequences of your sins, and would really much prefer to continue in them if only the consequences were once removed, then you have good reason to question whether or not you have truly experienced the grace of forgiveness. As Ryle adds, “If you and sin are friends, you and God are not yet friends” (p.188).
- Forgiven souls love Christ. As Jesus says of the woman who wiped His feet with both her tears and her hair (!) in Luke 7:47, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (ESV). She loved Jesus much because she had been forgiven much. The better we know the greatness of the forgiveness that is only to be found through faith in Jesus Christ, the more and more we will love Him for it!
- Forgiven souls are humble. Forgiven souls know that they owe all that they have to the grace, love, and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our sin is an infinite debt that none of us could ever hope to repay, and so those who have had an infinite debt of sin forgiven on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have infinite cause for humility.
- Forgiven souls are holy. This goes hand-in-hand with #1 (i.e. Forgiven souls hate sin). Ryle goes so far to say that anyone who is “deliberately living an unholy and licentious life, and boasting that his sins are forgiven” is, in fact, “under a ruinous delusion, and is not forgiven at all” (p.190). As is often said, justification and sanctification go together and are “inseparably joined” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q.77). You cannot have one without the other. As Hebrews 12:14 tells us, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (ESV, emphasis mine).
- Forgiven souls are forgiving. As Ryle adds, “They do as they have been done by.” How can someone who has been forgiven an infinite debt of sin, then turn around and persist in refusing to forgive the much lesser debts of their fellow servants? (See Matthew 18:21-35.) Ryle concludes by stating, “Surely we know nothing of Christ’s love to us but the name of it, if we do not love our brethren” (p.190).
Of course, Ryle’s objective here is not to disturb the tender consciences of sincere believers in Christ, but to awaken the false professor of faith, those who claim to know Christ and forgiveness in His name, but yet exhibit none of these “leading marks” of having actually experiencing that forgiveness.
If you are reading of these things and do see the presence of them in your life (even if also certainly seeing your ever-present need to grow in them), take heart and thank God for His grace in your life. As Ryle puts it, “saving faith in Christ is consistent with many imperfections” (p.191).
If you consider yourself a believer in Jesus Christ, and claim to be forgiven in His name, but honestly do not see the presence of these graces in your life, then (to use Paul’s words) “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5, ESV). Let this serve as a wake-up call if you find that you are not yet in Christ by faith. Turn to Him by faith, and you will at last know the joy of sins freely forgiven.