Forgiveness should be a straightforward matter. When someone offends us, we are to forgive them irrespective of their response, just as we have been forgiven by God. You probably have heard many sermons on this subject.
Christ responded to Peter’s question, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’, with, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven’ (Matthew 18:21-22). Christ’s answer requires continual, unlimited forgiveness. But is it that simple?
The issue is one of vital importance, affecting our view of salvation. Getting it wrong will result in bruised and broken relationships within the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12) and mar our witness to outsiders (1 Thessalonians 4:12).
Consider first, man in relation to God, the sinner before the sinless one. Man’s pardon from a just and holy God is the most important issue of all and has eternal consequences.
We have all sinned before God and, while many of our sins are committed against other people, all sins are sins against God. This is what David meant when he said ‘against you, you only, have I sinned’, in Psalm 51:4.
David’s actions on this occasion were appalling and involved many others, but he knew that his sins had firstly been against God.
We should remember that the most important thing of all is that God forgives us our sins (Mark 2:7; Isaiah 55:6-7). We must understand how this happens, and only then will we know how to imitate God’s mercy (Ephesians 4:32 – 5:1; Colossians 3:13).
For those called by the grace of God, there is full and complete pardon in the finished work of Christ as our atoning sacrifice (Hebrews 9:12). Sin past, present and future is atoned for.
This is as true for those who died before Christ came, as for those who are yet to be born. We find full, unmerited pardon in the blood of Christ, which was purposed by God before time (Ephesians 1:4, 7).
Justification by faith
In addition, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer, who is now seen as in Christ, that is, in the perfection and glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). This imputation comes by faith, by complete dependence upon the finished work of Christ.
Salvation is by faith alone since that brings complete dependence on Christ as the object of our faith. This transaction is known as justification, a term referring to the change in man’s legal status before a holy God, at the point of faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).
Does this mean Christians are sinless? Definitely not! Will they be sinless in glory? Most certainly yes!
The state of Christians until they reach glory is described in the Westminster Confession of Faith: ‘God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and, although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and review their faith and repentance’ (XI.5).
How does God bring forgiveness to bear for the sins of those who are justified, but under his ‘fatherly displeasure’?
A sense of forgiveness is preceded by repentance. To repent is to hate and forsake sin. Too often preaching today fails to address the matter of repentance. But Matthew 18:3; Acts 3:19; and 1 Thessalonians 1:9, for example, make clear the need to ‘turn’ from our sins; Romans 6:1-2 emphasises that we are not to ‘continue’ in sin.
God tells Israel that the reason it is coming under judgement is because it refused to repent (Hosea 11:5). We cannot continue blithely in sin as if nothing was wrong. Sin is described as darkness and it is inconceivable that we should carry on in it as if nothing were the matter (1 John 1:6).
From the beginning, John the Baptist preached a message of repentance (Matthew 3:2, 8). One of our Lord’s final instructions to his disciples was to preach ‘repentance and remission of sins’ (Luke 24:47), and that is what they did preach (Acts 2:38).
Repentance isn’t merely regret for our wrongs as if lamenting we’ve been ‘caught out’, but it is a rejection of sin, for what sin means to a holy God and crucified Christ. We seek the Spirit’s help to avoid future sin and take steps to avoid temptation and exercise self-control (Galatians 5:23).
Repentance involves confessing and acknowledging our sin. ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9).
The words ‘say’ and ‘confess’ are explicit. If we say anything different or confess our sins insincerely, it is hypocrisy and makes God out to be a liar (1 John 1:10).
The psalmist’s words in Psalm 32:5 summarise the steps: ‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, I will confess my transgressions to the Lord, and you forgave the iniquity of my sin’.
Don Carson says of these verses that, in seeking forgiveness, ‘such a person will not pretend there are no sins to forgive … that is why the ensuing verses speak so candidly of confession’ (For the love of God, volume 1, April 21; Crossway).
The result of true repentance is always a complete and just forgiveness in the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 John 1:9). Assurance is given that our sins are ‘blotted out’ (Acts 3:19).
Some think God forgets our sins, but God cannot forget. Yet Scripture says that he will not remember them (Isaiah 43:25; Hebrews 8:12), which is quite different to forgetting. What it means is that God will not recall them. Satan will remind us of them often, but in Christ we are completely justified.
Because we are sinners, we come in repentance and confession to God — still only partly aware of our sins’ depth and gravity and hardly knowing a fraction of them — and we are fully forgiven (1 John 1:9).
We aren’t forgiven because we name our sins one by one missing none (which is impossible), but we are pardoned in Christ and entirely for his sake.
This is how forgiveness operates between man and God. Next month we shall look at how forgiveness should operate between believers.
To be concluded