STUDY TEN: FORGIVENESS - Part 1
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014
God’s forgiveness is an immense concept; its implications reach into our every moment. It is the goal of the study of forgiveness in these two sessions to give you deeper insight into the incredible unexpectedness of God’s act of forgiveness, and the liberating, motivating impact this undeserved act of God has on our lives.
To understand this grand truth, we will discuss various images used in the Scripture to portray the many faceted meaning of forgiveness. As we look at these images we must remember that the promise of forgiveness is given to people with genuine faith in the biblical God.
A. OLD TESTAMENT IMAGES OF FORGIVENESS
We have seen when we studied substitutionary atonement that the law of God contained the provision of a way of escape. John Piper comments on this in his book Future Grace:
‘[God] also promised future grace in the very centre of the law-giving revelation on Mount Sinai. When he came down to speak with Moses, he identified himself this way: “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” [Exodus 34:6-7]. In other words, at the head of the law stands a future provision for failing to keep the law. The law says that God “forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.” This is God’s promise of future grace; I will be this kind of God to you: “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”
‘This future grace in the law of God is a forgiving grace. He says in effect, “I make ample provision for pardon and restoration if you stumble. I do not delight as much in punishment as in reconciliation. My wrath does not have a hair trigger – I am slow to anger. My judgment falls upon those who sin with a high hand and do not turn from their sinning to receive my abundant compassion and grace.” ‘ [p145]
The Old Testament images of forgiveness are many and varied – most of them are images which have the potential to remind us of his forgiveness as we go about our daily lives.
A.1 In the sacrificial system
The sacrificial system, which we have already looked at in the previous study on substitutionary atonement, sees forgiveness of sins as the outcome of the atonement for sins achieved by the sacrificial offering:
‘If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands even though the community is unaware of the matter, they are guilty. When they become aware of the sin they committed, the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering … [then follows five verses describing the sacrificial ritual] … In this way the priest will make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven.’ [Leviticus 4:13,14, 20; compare verses 22-35 for similar statements about unintentional individual sins.]
‘If a person sins because he does not speak up … or if a person touches anything ceremonially unclean … or if he touches human uncleanness … when anyone is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess that he has sinned, and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed he must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat … as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin. … and he will be forgiven [Leviticus 5:1-10, see also 5:13,16, 18; 6:7; 19:20-22]
In all of this [and in a parallel passage in Numbers 16:22-29], forgiveness follows, and is conditional upon, the making of atonement.
The penalty for sin must be borne – either by the sinner or by a substitute. Forgiveness is not ‘out of the blue’, but comes after atonement for the sin has been made. This awareness of the need for atonement as a prerequisite of forgiveness is evident in the action of Moses in Exodus 32. Here the Israelites have sinned greatly against the Lord by making and worshipping an idol. There, even after limited judgment has been meted out [verses 27-28], Moses is acutely aware that that has not been sufficient to remove the guilt of the whole community. Look at what occurred:
‘”You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses went back to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.” And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.’ [Exodus 32:30-35]
Moses offered himself as a means of atonement, so that the people could be forgiven, but God did not accept his offer.
A.2 On the Day of Atonement
Although ‘forgiveness’ is not specifically mentioned in the instructions concerning the Day of Atonement [Leviticus 16], the concept of forgiveness is very much present. Atonement is made with the blood of the first goat ‘because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been’ [verse 16]. Then the high priest ‘is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert … the goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place …’ [verse 21-21]. Summing up what was achieved on this day: ‘on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins’ [verse 30].
Note that there are two images here: the image of atonement through the blood of a substitutionary sacrifice, and the image of forgiveness – in which a substitute bears away the sins of the whole community.
A.3 Images of forgiveness in the Psalms
David and other Psalm writers had an acute awareness of their sin and their sinfulness. They were also aware that any hope for forgiveness rested in God alone. They know that their only source of help is God’s mercy not their merit – referring to God’s mercy, compassion and lovingkindness about 120 times. In whatever situation they find themselves they cast themselves on his mercy – they do not expect his help, even his physical help, on the basis of their own achievements but only on the basis of his compassion.
Task #1: Study the passages from the Psalms below.
List the phrases that speak of forgiveness. Discuss and describe the concept of forgiveness in these passages.
Psalm 32:1-2 [there are three different images of forgiveness here]
Psalm 51:1,2,7,9 [Again, there are three distinct images of forgiveness]
Psalm 103:10-14 [one image of forgiveness]
A.3.1 Forgiveness is God covering our sins
Psalm 32 begins:
‘Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.’
It is both important and helpful to realise that Hebrew poetry was written in parallel thoughts, not in rhyming words. Poets and song writers placed two or three similar thoughts after each other, each expressing the same idea but using different words or images, sometimes with each thought containing a deeper shade of meaning than the previous one. Here in Psalm 32:1 David firstly says ‘Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven’, then with the phrase ‘whose sins are covered’ repeats the same thought using different words, thus teaching us that when sins are forgiven they are covered. The same parallel thought occurs in Psalm 85:2:
‘You forgave the iniquity of your people
and covered their sins.’
Again in this image we understand that forgiveness means that God chooses to no longer see our sins, he has chosen to remove them from his sight, he chooses to no longer take them into account. From the New Testament perspective we understand that what covers our sins is the blood of Jesus Christ our Saviour.
A.3.2 Forgiveness is God hiding his face from our sins
In Psalm 51:9 David prays:
‘Hide your face from my sins
and blot out my iniquity.’
Here we have yet another image teaching us that God no longer sees sins he forgives. He hides his face from them. He no longer looks at our sin, accusing us, judging us, condemning us. This not because he inadvertently overlooks it, or happens to blink his eye, but because the cross of Jesus Christ is his marvellous purpose and plan which at the one time upholds both his love and his justice. In this grand plan of salvation God took all our sin, put it all on his Son, and accused him, judged him and condemned him for all of our sin. For this reason, and only for this reason, it is his deliberate decision to overlook, or hide his face from, our sin.
A.3.3 Forgiveness is God removing our sins from us as far as the east is from the west
Psalm 103 is a song of praise to the Lord. David’s reason for praise is the forgiveness [103:3,10,12] which issues out of God’s great love and compassion [103:4,8,11,13,14], in a way totally undeserved [103:10]. When we were in the pits [103:4], when we deserved his anger [103:8,9], when we stood accused [103:9], he, in an act of immeasurable love [103:11], ‘removed our transgressions from us’ as far as the east is from the west.
What is David saying here? Does he mean that God removes our sin out of our hearts so that there is no more sin there and we will never sin again? No. We do not stop being sinners and we don’t stop sinning [1John 1:8,10]. When God removes our sin from us as far as the east is from the west he is demolishing the sin-barrier that stands between him and us; he is annulling its right and ability to separate us from him. [The Greek word frequently translated ‘forgive’ in the New Testament [as in Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:14] literally means to take away, and is used of the lifting of the barrier at a race track, freeing the horses to race.] In terms of the earth’s geography, there is nothing further than the east from the west. This indicates the sureness of what God has done, the impossibility of our sin interrupting and destroying our relationship with God.
God has forgiven our sins: therefore we should consider them out of sight, out of mind, and not allow them to dog our footsteps with on-going guilt and condemnation.
A.4 The Year of Jubilee - Forgiveness is God setting us free
Sin erects a barrier between us and God [Isaiah 59:2a]. When God forgives us because of the death of Jesus Christ, he removes that barrier. Instead of our sin barring our access to the presence of God, forgiveness means we have free access into his presence. Instead of our sin holding us captive in the death of eternal separation from God, forgiveness sets us free to eternal life with God. Instead of our sin holding us bound to an unpayable debt, forgiveness releases us from that debt.
This concept of freedom is prophetically depicted in the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25:8-54. In every fiftieth year every debt was cancelled, every property previously forfeited because of non-payment of debt was returned to its owner, and every person sold into slavery because of debt was set free. All of these, while being very meaningful in themselves, also symbolise the forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ. The passage from Isaiah that Jesus read at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-19; Isaiah 61:1,2), ended with ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’, which is an allusion to the Year of Jubilee. He then said: ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ (Luke 4:21). In other words, with the coming of Jesus Christ the real Year of Jubilee comes - the year, or time, which the regulations of Leviticus 25 prophesied. Here, in Jesus Christ, is the ultimate freedom: not freedom from physical slavery, not freedom from financial bondage and debt, but the freedom of forgiveness of the sin that separates us from God, that holds us bound in an inescapable spiritual poverty and debt.
A.5 Images of forgiveness in the Prophets
Task #2: List, discuss and describe the meaning of the images of forgiveness in the verses below.
Include reference to the attitude of God that is behind his forgiveness.
Micah 7:18-19 [two images of forgiveness]
A.5.1 Forgiveness is God throwing our sins behind his back
Hezekiah realised this and rejoiced in it, linking it with God’s love, knowing that it meant being saved from destruction:
‘In your love you kept me
from the pit of destruction;
you have put all my sins
behind your back’ [Isaiah 38:17].
Hezekiah knew that if God kept account of his sins it would be his undoing; but he knows that God, in an act of unexpected love, has thrown (that is the significance of the word) them behind his back - out of sight, out of mind - like a piece of unwanted, insignificant rubbish. [An added insight into this image comes from Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. Their cultural concept that anything behind your back is seen to bear no relationship to you, nor you to it, makes this Biblical image of forgiveness very meaningful to them: God, when he forgives our sins, ceases to relate to them. In other words, our sin ceases to impact God; it no longer affects either his actions towards us or his attitude to us. He no longer takes it into account. He has thrown it behind his back.]
A.5.2 Forgiveness is God throwing our sins into the deepest sea
This image is similar to the ‘east-west’ of Psalm 103. It speaks of great distance. It speaks of the impossibility of our sins ever being held against us again: they are non-recoverable. There are depths in the oceans which modern man with his sophisticated machines has not been able to explore. When Micah records that God ‘will hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea’ [7:19c], he is telling us that God has thrown them beyond our reach. They are not thrown just into the waves at the shoreline, where the tides would wash them in again, but into the depths of the sea. Too deep for fishing. Too deep for dredging. This image teaches us that when God forgives sin it can no longer impede our acceptance into his presence.
When we forget that we are forgiven, when we allow ourselves to wallow in the pits of guilt, when we fear that we have cut ourselves off from God by our sin and failures, when we think that the absence of physical or financial blessing is directly due to some personal sin, then we are saying that God is a liar, that his Word is not true, that he still holds our sin against us, that it is right here, separating us from him, that it is not hurled by his own hand into the depths of the sea. We are, in fact, living as though it had not been nailed to the cross.
A.5.3 Forgiveness is God stamping on our sins
Before Micah stated that God throws our sins into the sea, he wrote:
‘Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry for ever
but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us ...’ [7:18-19a].
Then he said:
‘you will tread our sins underfoot’ [7.19b].
That is how we treat an insect that walks on our floors. We stamp on it. We terminate it. We disempower it. We remove its ability to harm us and our family.
When God forgives our sins, he stamps on them, just as surely as we do on the insect, disempowering them, terminating their ability to ever again separate us from him, removing their right to condemn us. When Jesus died on the cross he terminated sin’s tyrannical reign [Romans 5:12-21], and rescued us from its devastating penalty. When our sins accuse us, when we are tempted to fear that God will or does reject us, when we allow our sin to rob our moments of the joy and peace of the salvation we have because of the death of Jesus Christ, then we are forgetting this image of forgiveness: God has stamped on our sins, he has disempowered them, by means of the death of Jesus. Though they exist, they can never again cut us off from God, they are as powerless as a flattened cockroach on the floor. That is forgiveness.
B. NEW TESTAMENT IMAGES OF FORGIVENESS
B.1 Forgiveness is God cancelling our debt
This image is graphically portrayed in the parable in Matthew 18:21-35. Here Jesus makes several points essential to an accurate understanding of forgiveness:
Verse 23 - our accountability in the presence of God
Verse 24 - the immensity of our debt
Verse 25 - our utter destitution and inability to pay; the Greek text actually says the servant had nothing with which to pay;
Verse 25 - the inevitability of the judgment and penalty
Verse 26 - our failure to realise or acknowledge the immensity of our debt, the extent of our destitution and our inability to pay; [note that the servant thought he had the ability to save up the money given enough time - he asked for ‘patience’];
Verse 27 - the unexpected, unasked for, mercy and compassion of our Master; [the NIV translation ‘pity’ does little to convey the meaning of the Greek word, which means, literally, ‘to be moved from one’s bowels’; it is a very strong word]
Verse 27 - the comprehensiveness of the Master’s action. He cancelled the debt. He wrote if off. It is not that he extended the due date. It is not that he reduced the amount. No. He cancelled it in its entirety. He stood the loss.
Verse 27 - the liberation [freedom from ever having to pay, from ever being held to account] that followed.
All of this is involved in forgiveness, and it is important that we each grasp hold of all of the above points, if we are to really receive God’s forgiveness.
For the servant didn’t:
He didn’t understand the size of his debt.
He didn’t understand his one hundred percent destitution.
He didn’t understand, therefore, the incredible compassion of his master, or the liberation of forgiveness.
He went out as one still unforgiven, still thinking as one who owed the debt, still grasping for a few paltry dollars with which to build up some credit of his own [verses 28-30].
This servant continued to live as one who had to, and eventually could, pay the debt. In his failure to understand each of the above facts, he did not even receive the forgiveness the master had announced.
B.2 Forgiveness is God washing away our sins
This concept of forgiveness frequently results in misunderstanding. When it is taken literally, instead of figuratively, it is understood to mean that God washes sin right out of our hearts. The trouble is that every one of us sins after God has supposedly done this. Then the question arises “What happened?” Some conclude that the ‘salvation’ they thought they had received is a great hoax that simply doesn’t give what it promised. Some conclude that God failed to do what he promised. Some conclude that the failure is on their part: that they didn’t believe properly, or they didn’t repent properly, or say the right prayer when they came to Jesus, or, that there were some sins, not confessed, that weren’t ‘washed away’. All of this ensues from taking this image literally.
As with the other statements of forgiveness which we have addressed so far, we have here a visual image, a figure of speech. When God tells us that he will ‘purify us from all unrighteousness’ [1John 1:9; ‘cleanse’ in KJV], and when David prays ‘wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin’ [Psalm 51:2], they are referring to the fact that when God forgives sin he wipes it off our record. This is evident in Colossians 2:13,14, where Paul teaches that God ‘forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code ... that was against us,’ where in the Greek text the word cancelled means ‘wiped off or away’, as one wipes a white board clean. It is the word that was used when speaking of wiping the ink off a papyrus scroll. Similarly, in Psalm 51:1 David prays that God will ‘blot out’ his transgressions. It is not that God washes sin out of our hearts and minds when he forgives us, but rather that the legal record of our sin is washed away or wiped off. God keeps no more record of our sin.
Let us be careful then that when we use this image of forgiveness that we do not expect for ourselves, nor promise to others, that God eradicates sin from our hearts and minds when he forgives us. It would be wonderful if this was the case - we wouldn’t need the commandments, we wouldn’t need all of the encouragements not to sin given to us by the New Testament writers, we would automatically always do the right thing, from the day of our conversion onwards. But that is not forgiveness, that is being just like Jesus - and that is something that is promised will happen to us, not now, but ‘when he appears’ [1John 3:1-3].
B.3 Forgiveness is an act of God’s grace
In Colossians 2:13 when Paul says that God ‘forgave us all our sins’ he uses a word that means ‘he graced over all our sins’. This teaches us that forgiveness is a gift. We do not earn it. We do not merit it. We do not deserve it. It is sheer gift: it is independent of anything we are or have done. It comes to us simply because God loves us. We cannot boast of it. We cannot increase it. We cannot diminish it. We cannot lose it. All we can do is believe it. Receive it. And stand in awe.
B.4 Forgiveness is God nailing our sins to the cross of Christ
Lest we should think that when God cancels our sin debt it is because he suddenly changed his character and became less than just, or even changed his mind and decided that love was more important than justice, he tells us that when he forgave all our sin, cancelling all that stood against us, he did it by nailing it to the cross of Jesus Christ [Colossians 2:13,14].
It was customary in the era when Jesus lived that when criminals were executed by crucifixion a list of the crimes they had committed was nailed above them on the cross. We know that the Roman governor, Pilate, had the sign ‘This is the King of the Jews’ nailed above Jesus. But in God’s mind and purpose, another list was nailed there: my list, and your list, and it was for that list that Jesus died. God nailed our list of sins to the cross of his Son.
As we have seen in previous studies, Jesus Christ took our place, bearing the entire penalty for our sin. For this reason, and only for this reason, God can forgive us. This is the deep and painful truth behind our forgiveness, a truth which at the same time teaches us:
 the awesome depth of God’s love for us,
 the abhorrence with which God views sin,
 the extreme consequence of unforgiven sin, and
 the completeness of the forgiveness he grants us.
If we understand this act of God, this act of Christ, for us, we will never again think that sin is okay, we will never again allow ourselves to doubt God’s love, and we will never again think that the forgiveness God grants on the basis of the death of Christ is variable – we will never again think that forgiveness is something that is on-again-off-again, dependent on some attitude or action or ours.