Our God is a forgiving God. From the beginning of the Scriptures to the end, God is praised as a God of pardon. Moses can exclaim that the God of Israel “keeps lovingkindness for thousands” and “forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:7), and Paul can speak of the same Lord who has “forgiven us all our transgressions” (Colossians 2:13). And it is a good thing too, for every believer knows that he must cry out with the Psalmist: “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3).
But there are many misunderstandings of God’s forgiveness in the Church today, and most of these errors tend to cheapen our estimation of the glory of God’s forgiveness, to rob us of precious Christian experience, to undercut the fulness of our assurance, to restrict our own practice of forgiveness, and to tempt many to presume on God’s forgiveness. Since, then, good theology leads to healthy Christian experience and fruitful Christian practice, perhaps we should spend some time reflecting on several important Scriptural truths about God’s forgiveness.
We ought, at the outset, to note that God’s forgiveness is central to the Gospel message and based on the finished work of Christ. The Gospel preached by the Apostles consistently stresses the forgiveness of sins as one the chief benefits of Christ’s work (Acts 2:28, 3:19, 4:12, 5:31, 10:43, 13:38-39, 1 Thessalonians 1:10, 1 Corinthians 15:3). Furthermore, though this forgiveness is freely offered to us, it was paid for with a price. Christ literally bought the forgiveness of all His people. Paul reminds us that “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses”(Ephesians 1:7). Jesus Himself, while instituting the Lord’s Supper and explaining the significance of His death the night before He was crucified, said “this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
What does divine “forgiveness” mean then? Well, it is a part or consequence of justification (which is a judicial act or declaration of God in which he pronounces us “not guilty” of our sin). It means that God pardons or remits sin (Psalm 85:2). He absolves the repentant sinner from the condemnation of the law. He deals graciously with us and not as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10), as we trust on and rest in Him for salvation.
These precious truths lead us to several others. First, forgiveness is always expensive, and God’s forgiveness is the most expensive forgiveness of all. It cost the life of the very Son of His love (Colossians 1:13-14).The fact that it is freely offered to us should never be allowed to obscure that fact. The Gospel message is not that “God forgives” but that “God forgives at the price of His Son.” Derek Thomas has put it more eloquently: “The Gospel is not that He has not counted our trespasses against us; but that He has not counted our trespasses against us but against Christ.” When we leave the basis of forgiveness out of our preaching, we cease to preach the Gospel.
Second, the Scriptures stress that God does not have to forgive. His exercise of mercy is discretionary or optional. God’s forgiveness is, thus, not a right. It may not be presumed upon. The Bible expresses this truth in four ways. It emphasizes that God is both merciful and just, and therefore He both forgives some and condemns others (Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18). It (terrifyingly) indicates that God does not pardon certain offences (Deuteronomy 29:20, Matthew 12:31-32) [by the way, this does not mean that there are numerous “unpardonable” sins out there, but rather that some sins reflect a recalcitrant heart that will never repent and thus never be forgiven]. It speaks of those who will not be pardoned and thus who are everlastingly condemned (Matthew 6:15, John 17:12). It always records the contrite believer’s prayer for forgiveness as a plea rather than a demand (Psalm 25:7) and his response to God’s forgiveness as one of gratitude, wonder, and awe rather than presumption (Psalm 130:4). Have you ever heard someone say, “Sure God will forgive you. That’s His job!”? Such a flippant exclamation is a sure sign of a misunderstanding of God’s grace and forgiveness.
This point cues a third one. For though God does not have to forgive, He is willing to forgive and delights to forgive even sinners like us. This is the most surprising message in the world, and humbled saints revel in the surprising nature of God’s forgiveness. We don’t deserve it. He doesn’t owe it. But, paradoxically, it is precisely when we have realized that we don’t deserve God’s forgiveness and that He has no obligation to give it that we enjoy it (Psalm 32:1). Only the humbled heart which has experienced the Spirit’s grace-work penitently seeks and finds God’s forgiving mercy. Many today make fun of what they call “wormology” (the frank expressions of a believer’s sense of humility before the face of a righteous Lord) and mock at the lines of hymns that they consider to be morbid (like Isaac Watts “Alas! and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die! Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I” and John Newton’s “Amazing grace! – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me!”). Persons who deride these sentiments miss the point of them and perhaps betray that they themselves know little of the unexpected character of Gospel forgiveness. These phrases (and others like them) beautifully and Biblically stress the Christian’s appreciation of the gracious, free, unmerited, and astonishing forgiveness of God. Only those who have known it can comprehend the pulses of joy and rejoicing that flow through the hearts of self-effacing believers who have experienced and understood God’s undeserved forgiveness.
Lastly (although there remains much more to be said!), we do well to remember the finality of God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is once-and-for-all-time forgiveness, because it is grounded in the finished work of Christ. As John Murray has reminded us: “our debts haven’t been canceled. They’ve been liquidated.” God has not simply repealed our penalty because of Christ’s work. He has assessed our penalty to Christ. It is a debt paid, not merely set aside. And so the forgiveness based on it is irreversible (Psalm 103:12). That is why the Lord can say “I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 45:25). Thus our forgiveness is sure, and we bask in a double-aspect of our pardon. (1) Our forgiveness is judicial, that is, it is forensic. By it we are cleared of the legal consequences of our offences against God (this is a benefit of our justification). (2) It is also relational, that is, it is covenantal. By it our fellowship with and enjoyment of God is restored (this a benefit of our adoption).
Do you lack the pardon of the Almighty and fear that you will receive His final condemnation? Then listen to the promises of God, who says: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Are you a believer struggling with sin and aching for assurance? Then remember the forgiving power of “Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood” (Revelation 1:5).