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A Story about Forgiveness
When you first glance at our story this morning, you might be quick to say that this passage is about the gentiles, or it’s about the gospel going to the gentiles, or it’s about global missions, or about God saving Cornelius and his household. Some call this passage the “gentile Pentecost”, as the Holy Spirit fell upon the gentiles as it did upon the Jews and Jewish proselytes at Pentecost.
It is about those things—but what’s underneath all that? What’s underneath missions, and the blessing of the Holy Spirit? The answer is God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness of sins is what our story is really all about this morning. What makes this whole passage so astonishing is God’s astonishing forgiveness, as he offers it not just to the Jews, but to the nations who have rebelled against him ever since Adam (or the flood, or the tower of babel). The more you think about that, the more I trust you’ll feel awestruck at God’s patience, forbearance, and mercy. This morning I want us to understand the gravity of God’s forgiveness, and what that means for us today.
Forgiveness is only mentioned once in our passage. Verses 43—the last words in Peter’s sermon to the gentiles that they might receive the Holy Spirit, “to [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Everyone who believes! No partiality, whatsoever, to the Jews or any other nation on earth. So, that’s where you see forgiveness specifically referenced in our passage.
But, I’ll remind you that Peter was basically preaching Jesus’s words, here. Peter was reiterating one of the last words Jesus ever said to Peter and the apostles, before ascending to heaven. Luke—who wrote Acts and the gospel of Luke as two volumes of one work—tells us in Luke 24:47 that Jesus said “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” That was Jesus’s marching orders for his disciples at the end of Luke’s gospel. His forgiveness must be proclaimed to the nations. That’s our story this morning.
It’s not just Christ’s kingdom or his Spirit that’s hitting the gentiles in this passage. The fundamental blessing underneath all these blessings in our passage is forgiveness of sins.
Jesus emphasized the same thing again when he first commissioned Saul to be his apostle to the gentiles. When Paul tells his conversion story to King Agrippa in Acts 26, Paul tells us how Jesus said to him, “I am sending you [to the gentiles], 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” I love those words. There, you see that forgiveness is associated with things like God’s light rather than darkness; deliverance from the power of Satan, and a place that’s sanctified—cleansed, acceptable and holy—before God. Jesus also makes the connectioin that we see in our passage between cleansing and forgiveness—being cleansed is associated with being forgiven. So, forgiveness is associated with the gentiles. That’s a jarring development in the Biblical story.
Discovering, Receiving, and Enjoying God’s Forgiveness
So, let’s jump into our passage this morning. You might say there are three developments that pertain to Christ’s forgiveness to the nations in our passage this morning. First, Peter discovers God’s forgiveness. Then the nations receive God’s forgiveness when Peter preaches the gospel to them. And last, the nations enjoy God’s forgiveness as they receive the gift of the Spirit and baptism.
1. Peter Discovers God’s Forgiveness
2. The Nations Receive God’s Forgiveness
3. The Nations Enjoy God’s Forgiveness
By the way—while we move along in this story, the application here shouldn’t be too difficult. As Peter discovers God’s forgiveness, and then the nations receive and enjoy God’s forgiveness—I pray we would follow that same path as we discover, receive, and enjoy Christ’s forgiveness afresh, in our souls, this morning.
To that end—I remind you that nothing we find in this passage this morning will mean anything to you if you are the kind to hide your guilt, or say you’re not guilty. Spurgeon once said “forgiveness is for the guilty. Do not attempt to touch yourself up and make yourself something other than you really are; but come to him as you are to him who justifies the ungodly”. So, if there’s a sin you’ve been hiding or feeling particularly guilty over this morning—prayerfully pull it out of your pocket before God right now as we press into this passage this morning.
Peter Discovers God’s Forgiveness
So first—let’s consider how Peter discovers God’s forgiveness. It’s a strange thought, really—that Peter essentially discovers the weight and power of God’s forgiveness in this passage this morning, only after 3 years of following Jesus around as his disciple. Peter discovers God’s forgiveness afresh in this story, only after receiving the Spirit of power and of revelation at Pentecost—and, even after he had been proclaiming God’s forgiveness to the Jews and Samaritans and all who were in Judea.
Peter still had more to learn about God’s forgiveness. Does that sound about right? Specifically, he referenced the particular lesson he learned, when he opened his sermon up in verse 34, “Truly now I understand that God shows no partiality”. Some translations don’t quite pick up the full nuance that I think Peter is saying, here. He’s not just saying “you know, I understand (and always have) that God shows no partiality”. No—he’s saying “in light of recent events, now I understand.” I understand who God is—he’s totally impartial when it comes to his forgiveness and salvation, so long as a person repents and believes upon Christ. So that’s the lesson God taught Peter, here.
There’s always more to learn about God’s forgiveness, folks. Even this distinguished apostle—this preacher who preached the sermon at Pentecost—had more to learn about God’s gracious character, and therefore his forgiveness. I do pray that the Lord would draw us to learn more of his infinitely forgiving character every day, and all the blessings of peace and power which it brings to us who believe.
Why Was Peter Confused About This?
Now, having said that, let’s ask the question that I sort of just inferred. In one sense, ther’s always more to learn about God’s forgiveness—but, shouldn’t Peter have known better? Shouldn’t he have expected Christ’s forgiveness to extend to the gentiles, just as Jesus said it would?
In fact, there is clear evidence in this passage that Peter already understood God’s love for the unclean nations, and that Christ was intent on serving them without a thought to their unclean status. Peter understood this even before the vision and the visit from Cornelius’s servants. Perhaps you remember the last little observation I made in our sermon last week on the previous passage. We learn in the last verse of chapter 9 that Peter stayed in Joppa with “one Simon, a tanner”. That detail is actually mentioned twice—the last verse in chapter 9, and then in chapter 10 verse 6 of our passage. The reason that detail is so special is because it means that Peter was staying in the house of an unclean person. The profession of a tanner was by definition unclean—it was leather working, handling dead animals. So, the Pharisees made certain laws about this sort of thing to keep them and Israel clean from folks like a tanner. At the very least, it would have been unsettling for many Jews like Peter to enter a tanner’s house, much less sleep in it “for many days” (as 9:43 tells us). No doubt, Jesus rubbed off on Peter. For three years, Peter witnessed the Messiah minister among unclean rags. He touched the unclean and traveled north to the pagan territories of Tyre and Sidon, and he spent time with tax collectors.
Perhaps you remember the story that’s described in Mark 7. After chastising the Pharisees for their legalism, Jesus says in Mark 7:15, “Hear me, all of you, and understand”—that is, I’m going to provide some clarity on something for you, here:
“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him…. Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
So there, in Mark 7, Jesus had already declared all foods clean, for all intents and purposes. He spelled out the principle we need to hear today—sin inside you makes you unclean before God, not things outside of you. Jesus then goes on to list things like “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” Food, or being a gentile, has nothing to do with whether your clean or unclean in Jesus’s kingdom
So as I’ve said, Peter had Jesus’s example in this regard, as Jesus ministered among the unclean. Yet, Peter also heard Jesus teach on exactly this matter, when Jesus declared all foods clean during his ministry!
You have to wonder why Peter needed this vision and revelation, don’t you? And of course, more than all this—again, Jesus told Peter and the apostles to proclaim forgiveness of sins to the gentiles (Luke 24:47, as I read earlier). So, Peter seems to understand the trajectory in some ways, yet we find that he still has much to learn as the story unfolds. What lesson did Peter need, before he preached that sermon to Cornelius’s household at the end of our story? He needed a lesson of clarity, and a lesson of conscience.
Jesus’s Lesson for Peter’s Clarity Through Cornelius
Consider how this story reveals this to us. In verse 1, we meet Cornelius of Caesarea. Caesarea was a port city on the Mediterranean Sea, and it served as the capital city (so to speak) where Rome ruled over Judea and Samaria. So, there’d obviously be a strong Roman presence, complete with the military. That’s where we meet Cornelius—“a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort”. In other words—this guy had some influence. He commanded companies, not just individual soldiers at boot camp. Then verse 2 tells us that he was a “devout man who feared God with all his household, [he] gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God”. He’s praying to Yahweh, the true God, by the way. I honestly had read a few folks who suggested that this is describing his as a religious person, generically, who prayed to any God he felt like praying to. That’s not Cornelius. Verse 4—God says, “your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God”. Cornelius was praying to Yahweh, the God of Israel, and God heard him.
Now, many regard Cornelius as the first gentile converted in Acts. Yet the problem we might face with this is that Cornelius, here, doesn’t seem to be any different from the Jews we’ve met in Acts. He’s praying, giving alms, fearing God. If he wasn’t ethnically Jewish, we might think he was a proselyte—a convert to Judaism. If that’s the case, he wouldn’t be the first gentile conversion. Gentile converts to Judaism were regarded in Israel as Jews. What makes us think Cornelius is a gentile? There’s actually a lot of debate about this.
It’s helpful to know that there were many gentiles throughout Rome who worshipped Yahweh, but—for whatever reason—they wouldn’t formally join God’s people through circumcision. To be a Jew was ultimately a matter of circumcision, not race. That’s what the Old Covenant required, and the people in Jesus’s day did understand it. The mark of God’s people wasn’t Jewish blood, necessarily—it was circumcision. However, many gentiles wouldn’t go there. For whatever reason, they worshipped God without that formality. Even then, however, it’s noteworthy to mention that verse 22 further describes Cornelius as a man “who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation”. So, these God-fearing gentiles who wouldn’t undergo circumcision weren’t always despised by the Jews. Some of them were respected, it would seem.
That was Cornelius, for what we can tell. It becomes particularly telling that he’s regarded as a gentile in verse 28, when after entering Cornelius’s home, Peter says “you yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown to me that I should not call any person common or unclean”. Peter is referencing a custom (not a Biblical law, by the way) that Jews couldn’t associate with gentiles, and they especially shouldn’t enter their homes. Verse 22 tells us explicitly that this whole thing happened in Cornelius’s house. Yet that’s what Peter was doing in associating with Cornelius—and there in verse 28, he explains why he took the big “leap of faith” and entered Cornelius’s house. God provided some clarity on the matter through some visions. All this to say—Cornelius wasn’t a circumcised Jew. He’s still regarded as an unclean gentile, and therefore he’d be the first gentile convert along with those with him that day.
So, that’s Cornelius. Then, we learn in the first 8 verses of our passage, an angel appears to Cornelius and tells him to “send men to Joppa” to meet up with Peter and bring him back to Cornelius. That all sets the stage for God to give some clarity to Peter concerning his forgiveness to the gentile nations.
Two Visions Which Led to Peter’s Clarity
Now the next day, as those men were traveling, Peter receives his own vision. He sees (verse 11)—
…something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air [i.e., some clean, some not]. And there came a voice to him: Rise, Peter; kill and eat”. But Peter said “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean”. And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
It’s quite a peculiar vision. Notice that it leaves Peter completely “perplexed”, verse 17. Notice also that “it happened three times”—repetition again, for clarity. You must wonder if Peter actually said “no, I’m not eating that” to the Lord three times. He denied the Lord’s person three times out of cowardice, and here it seems he denied the Lord’s instructions three times out of confusion. Our Lord is a patient teacher, is he not, as he brings clarity to our hearts and opens our stubborn hearts?
Peter finally finds clarity when Cornelius’s men show up, and the Spirit tells Peter to go with them. He goes with them, and as we read before, he explains to them that the only reason he entered their house is because “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean”. The unclean animals was an object lesson to teach Peter that not is all food clean in Christ, but so also are all peoples. “What God has made clean, do not call common”. To be cleansed is to be set apart from the common—to be sanctified, to be made acceptable before God. Of course, for the gentiles, this means they’d need to be cleansed from sin. They’d need forgiveness of sins, and that’s exactly what Peter preaches to them.
So, that’s how God provided clarity to Peter on the matter of gentile Christians. The question remains, then—why didn’t Peter understand this before? The answer is because it hadn’t been revealed this clearly yet, with this much clarity.
Up to this point Jesus had been saying, generically, that the gentiles would receive forgiveness and be included into his kingdom. Any Jew hearing those words would assume that meant the gentiles would be circumcised, or that they’d become associated with the Jewish people through some other means of proselyte conversion. I imagine Peter pictured the gentiles flocking to Jerusalem, much like many Psalms describe.
Yet, what hadn’t become so clear up to this point is that the gentiles would receive these blessings as gentiles. It is at this moment, and no sooner, that God clearly reveals to Peter that Christ’s kingdom is a multi-ethnic kingdom, not a Jewish kingdom. Paul calls this “the mystery hidden for all ages, but not revealed to his saints” (Col 1:26; cf. Eph 3:3–9). Between the vision of the unclean foods, and the Spirit’s command to go preach the gospel in a gentile’s house, Peter finally understands it. God was intent on forgiving the gentiles as gentiles, and cleansing them through Christ’s baptism.
Understanding the Gentile's Sins
Think about the awesome patience and purposes of God here. We learn a lot about the sins of Israel in the Old Testaments (the prophets, for example). Israel rejected their God who redeemed them from Egypt, made a covenant with them, and promised them blessings. That’s one form of evil. Yet, the gentile nations are downright godless. Paul describes the sins of the nations in Romans 1 when he says that “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him”. The gentiles—that is, every person on this planet—knows God exists. Deep down, everyone knows we are all God’s creatures, and that we are responsible to God. It’s written in our hearts, as we have the image of God pressed upon us, and the evidence of God clearly shown to us in creation. Yet, due to our sin and curse, we suppress the truth and exchange the truth of God for a lie. That’s how Paul describes the sinfulness of gentile nations in Romans 1. In fact, it’s in Romans 1 that I think we find the most terrifying verse in the Bible—verse 32, "Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Isn’t that sickening? To know deep down that certain, sinful behaviors lead to death—we commend and welcome people to practice them, to their deaths. Perhaps you can recall a time in your life when you were the “bad influence” on someone.
God’s forgiveness is great, folks. It’s the nations, who are characterized by that sort of perpetual sin, which God is ready to declare forgiven, clean, and acceptable before him.
This was quite the lesson for Peter. “Now I understand that God shows no partiality” (verse 34). God isn’t constrained by ethnicity, much less the severity of one’s sin. That’s not what God is concerned with. Rather, verse 35—“but in every nation anyone who fears him [like Cornelius] and does what is right [like Cornelius] is acceptable before him.” That person, who loves God but won’t get circumcised, is acceptable as they receive Christ and his Spirit by faith.
So, God provided clarity in all this to Peter. But, there was another obstacle keeping Peter from understanding God’s intent for the nations. God didn’t just need to provide greater clarity for Peter. God also had to tend to Peter’s conscience, which was likely troubled over this whole matter.
Jesus’s Lesson for Peter’s Conscience
The conscience is a tricky thing. Our Bibles talk about it quite a bit—it’s that little voice inside your head, or deep down in your soul, that tells you what’s right or wrong. It’s the metaphorical “shoulder angel”, commending the good and condemning the evil. Your conscience can be your best friend, or your worst enemy. A clear conscience is freedom, a troubled conscience is miserable death to the soul. A conscience that affirms truth and goodness is a friend, a broken conscience that can’t discern right from wrong—or even commends the wrong—will destroy a person with all sorts of evil.
One of my seminary professors used the illustration of a compass to describe how a conscience works. You want it to always point north, correct? Our digital compasses today need to be calibrated every so often, because they can get a bit off centered. Perhaps you’ve had to calibrate the electronic compass in your car. I’ll never forget the first time I did it in our Ford Expedition—I didn’t realize that it would have me drive in circles until it was too late. Digital compasses need to be shaken around in circles to be calibrated—so in a car, you must literally drive in circles. In the parking lot of a small town grocery store, I distinctly remember someone giving me an odd look as I made my circles until the truck told me to stop.
The conscience doesn’t always point north. Your conscience can only convict you, or praise you, based on what you think is right or wrong. My professor defined the conscience this way—“The conscience is your consciousness [or your awareness] of what you believe is right and wrong.” If you believe it is wrong to take handouts from the government, for example, then your conscience would bother you if you took welfare.
Thus, we must always seek to calibrate our conscience according to truth. We have to pursue believing and praising what Scripture says is good and truthful, so that our conscience—with our thinking—would be captive to God’s word. That’s what it means to calibrate the conscience. Conform your mind to God’s word of truth, and your conscience will follow.
But that’s the catch—the conscience follows what you believe, and sometimes it follows quite slowly. Perhaps you’ve been in the situation where your mind knows something is good and acceptable, but your conscience still struggles with it. Food laws is a classic example in this. When I went to Ethiopia, nobody ate pork. Pork in many cultures is rendered dirty, or generally unacceptable. The Christians I worked with there knew it was permissible to eat, but they just couldn’t get themselves to do it. In America, there are foods we don’t eat for similar reasons. Some cultures eat dog meat—we won’t touch it, will we? We as Christians know it’d be permissible (“thus, he declared all foods clean”), but we can’t stomach the thought of eating ol’ Lassie.
Peter had some conscience issues to wrestle with, as God gave him clarity on this new revelation concerning his kingdom. His conscience was troubled when God declared all foods clean three times, and I imagine his conscience felt a bit uneasy as he stepped foot into Cornelius’s house. You get a taste of that in Peter’s first words upon entering the house—“I’m not supposed to be in here by my cultural standards, but God told me you guys are clean, so I came without objection” (cf. vv 28–29). You can almost hear uneasiness in Peter’s voice, there. For all of Peter’s life, he regarded the foods and the gentiles unclean. Yet Peter’s a good example for us, here. By faith, he listened to God rather than his weak and untrained conscience. He immediately sought to calibrate his conscience according to God’s word—so in obedience, he entered Cornelius’s house to preach the gospel. Calibrating your conscience according to God’s truth can be unsettling, but it’s rewarding and freeing.
By the way—this wasn’t just something Peter wrestled with. If you jump ahead to chapter 11 verse 3, we see that certain folks in Jerusalem criticized Peter for his actions at Cornelius’s house, but the criticism wasn’t about baptizing gentiles. The criticism wasn’t about including the gentiles into Christ’s kingdom. Chapter 11 verse 3, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them?!”. You entered their house?! It’s a bit awkward, isn’t it? The conscience is a powerful thing, and there was a collective conscience among the early Jews which struggled to render the gentiles clean, forgiven, and acceptable before God.
So all this to say—we see here that Peter received clarity concerning God’s intent to forgive and cleans the nations. And, the clarity likely stirred up a conscience dilemma within Peter, but Peter held himself captive to God’s word. Next, the nations receive God’s forgiveness.
The Nations Receive God’s Forgiveness
How do they receive God’s forgiveness? Peter preaches the word to them. He first preaches God’s character, as it had just been revealed to Peter—“truly, I understand [now] that God shows no partiality”. He’s an impartial God, Cornelius and company—you can receive him right now. Then, Peter simply preaches the gospel—the same gospel—which he has been preaching to the Jews. He doesn’t tweak it for these gentiles. It’s the same word. That why he then says in verse 36 “As for the word that he sent to Israel [that is to say, that word “that I’m not preaching to you”]…”, then he goes on to explain the gospel. He describes it as the “good news of peace through Jesus Christ”. We’re talking about peace with God—that’s the fruit of forgiven sins. After forgiveness comes peace and reconciliation.
Then, in verses 37–41, Peter simply tells the story of Jesus. Jesus came after John the Baptist, he went about continually doing good and healing all (verse 38). He was killed on a tree, but God raised him on the third day, and made him appear not to everyone, but only to his people. Isn’t that an interesting detail? You’d think it’d be a real blow to his enemies if Jesus appeared as risen to the Pharisees and roman authorities who put him to death. Only, that’s not how Jesus intended to advance his kingdom. He encourages, equips, and empowers his people to overcome his enemies through faith.
Notice that this gospel proclamation doesn’t include elaborate references to Scripture, or anything of the sort. It’s just the story of Jesus told in plain speech. I don’t say that to insinuate that God’s word isn’t powerful—it’s possible that this is a short summary of what Peter said, and that Peter’s actual sermon was more elaborate with references to the Old Testament. Either way, a summary is a summary. Peter simply retold the story of Jesus—and, that story is powerful. His name is powerful. It’s this sort of simple sermon that God used to pour his Holy Spirit out upon the gentiles. It reminds me of that old Hymn, “tell me the old, old story” (#625 in our hymnals). Elaborate sermons are nice, but the story itself, simply told, is often the means God uses to accomplish unbelievable blessings. I’m reminded of how Charles Spurgeon was saved when he heard a simple-minded blue collar worker who filled the pulpit for his pastor one Sunday morning.
In verse 44, we read that “while Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. The word of Christ’s forgiveness was preached, and received, and now we see it enjoyed.
The Nations Enjoy God’s Forgiveness
Forgiveness, ladies and gentlemen, is something to enjoy—is it not? I don’t mean you enjoy it like you enjoy a book in private solitude. I mean you enjoy it like you enjoy coffee over a breakfast table with the wife of your youth. Forgiveness means peace, fellowship, love, and mutual joy between you and your God.
Why did the Holy Spirit fall so powerfully and visibly upon new believers in the early church? Some people say the reason is because he still falls on new believers that way—speaking in tongues and other miraculous signs of the Spirit are to be expected when the Holy Spirit descends upon a person. The reality is that’s simply not true. The strand of Christianity which teaches that you must speak in tongues to be a Christian is teaching a false gospel. Nowhere does it say that in the Bible. These outpourings of the Spirit in Acts were unique.
if you turn back to Acts 5:31–32, you’ll see why. There, Peter is defending his ministry before the Jewish council, and Peter says that “God exalted [Jesus] at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give ... forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Peter is saying, there, that the miraculous outpouring of the Spirit served as a witness that forgiveness of sins through Jesus really is God’s forgiveness. It really does produces God’s peace, God’s power, God’s freedom—and it brings God’s fellowship. The Holy Spirit is a testimony to these things—and, as this is all new and fresh in the early church, the Spirit of forgiveness came upon the Jews, and then the gentiles in our passage, with unmistakable signs from God.
The reality is, I don’t think the Jews or gentiles were focused on the signs, the tongues, and the healings, when they received the spirit this way. The Spirit had just opened their eyes to the glory of Jesus, and persuaded them deep in their heart that they are forgiven, and in good fellowship with God. That’s something to be enjoyed forever.
It is at this point when Peter orders the gentiles to be baptized into God’s covenant people. This was an external sign of an astonishing reality that God worked on their behalf—they were washed, cleansed, and accepted into Christ’s kingdom. It reminds me of what Paul said to gentile believers in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11,
neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
That’s true of all believers in Christ.
So, we’ve seen God bring clarity to Peter (and his conscience) on the matter of Christ’s forgiveness to the gentiles. We’ve seen the gentiles receive God’s forgiveness through Peter’s preaching, and we’ve seen the gentiles enjoy God’s forgiveness through the Holy Spirit’s blessings. May God likewise give us more and more clarity as well, so that we might receive and enjoy his forgiveness, peace, and fellowship this week.