Forgiveness — the unmerited Gift of God’s Free Grace
A couple wrote to a Radio Bible Class counselling department: ‘My husband and I are born again, but we both sinned before our marriage. I even had an abortion. We want our lives to count for the Lord, but we cannot forget how terribly we sinned against him. I am not sure God has forgiven us.’
Many a sensitive soul knows how they felt. Accepting God’s offer of unconditional forgiveness without years of remorse seems to reflect a callous disregard for the sinfulness of sin — as if we are too flippant about God’s righteous law. Somehow it seems more pious to flagellate our consciences, bemoan our past, and face the world with faces darkened by despair. After all, how can someone who catches a glimpse of the horrors resident in his own selfish heart be joyful?
Too good to be true?
Grace does not ignore the importance of this kind of self-knowledge. In this column, I am assuming an audience of humble believers who make a practice of confessing their sins to God and who know what real repentance is. Those who are obstinately rebellious and unrepentant cannot know peace of heart.
People have always found free grace too good to be true. Augustine struggled with his immoral past. Martin Luther’s lacerated conscience drove him to seek solace through crawling on his knees up the twenty-eight steps of the Scala Sancta in Rome. John Newton was tormented by despair over his career as captain of a slave ship.
But then God won each of their hearts and forgave their sins for Jesus’ sake. Newton wrote his ode to ‘amazing grace’. Luther rediscovered justification by faith alone and sparked the Protestant Reformation.
We will never be able to forgive ourselves properly without understanding how justification transformed their lives. In his lectures on Galatians Luther wrote, ‘If we lose the doctrine of justification, we lose simply everything — Grace and peace — these two words embrace the whole of Christianity. Grace forgives sin, and peace stills the conscience’.
In a born-again child of God, failure to forgive oneself is the fruit of an untaught conscience. It is a failure to trust in the finished work of Christ. Admittedly, the fact that the thrice holy God could cast our sins into the deepest sea, clothe us in the righteousness of Christ, adopt us into his family, and call us saints, is incredible! But it is true. Concerning that ‘sea of forgetfulness’ where God has cast our sins, Dr John Moore comments: ‘God has erected a sign. It reads, “No fishing”’.
In his commentary on Galatians, Luther describes how we vainly try to justify ourselves by doing something — instead of accepting that we can do nothing. The cleansing of our record in God’s sight he calls ‘passive righteousness’, and continues: ‘for here we work nothing, render nothing to God; we only receive and permit someone else to work in us, namely God. Therefore it is appropriate to call the righteousness of faith, or Christian righteousness, “passive”. This is a righteousness hidden in a mystery, which the world does not understand. In fact, Christians themselves do not adequately understand it or grasp it in the midst of their temptations. Therefore it must always be taught and continually exercised. And anyone who does not grasp or take hold of it in afflictions and terrors of conscience cannot stand. For there is no comfort of conscience so solid and certain as this passive righteousness’.
God is greater than our hearts
Our sense of being forgiven is proportional to our appreciation of the justifying grace of God, who credited ‘passive righteousness’ to our account the moment we were saved. Conversely, our misery is proportional to how much we look to our own works to justify us.
When we tread this latter pathway, the devil leads us to flagellate ourselves for our sins and failures — past and present. The Accuser hates the truth of justification. If he cannot drown us in blatant licentiousness, he entangles us in a web we construct from our own efforts to please God. The only escape is to flee to Christ with an appeal to his atoning blood — a move that makes Satan flee in alarm.
Whether we can forgive ourselves or not boils down to several simple questions. Do we believe the devil? Do we believe our feelings? Or do we believe God and embrace unmerited forgiveness with the joy that is our heritage?
Paul urges us to protect our hearts with the breastplate of righteousness; that is, we are to soothe our emotions by faith in God’s provision of ‘passive righteousness’. Instead of focusing on whether we feel forgiven or not, we need to look to what God has said.
And he says of all who are in Christ Jesus, ‘You are forgiven for Jesus’ sake’. Therefore, ‘whenever our hearts condemn us’, we need to remember that, ‘God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything’ (1 John 3:20).
‘There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 5:1; 8:1). Then let us celebrate forgiveness, the unmerited gift of God’s free grace! If God has forgiven us for Jesus’ sake, it is safe 1. Martin Luther,
Lectures on Galatians (1535); Chapters 1-4, Luther’s Works, Volume 26, Saint Louis: Concordia, 1963, p. 26.