When the angel appeared to Joseph at the birth of God’s Son, he instructed him to call the child’s name “Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). In that simple declaration we have defined for us mankind’s greatest need—deliverance from personal transgressions. We all fail, we all sin, we all are in desperate need of forgiveness. But in Christ there is plenteous redemption. As Paul put it: “In Christ we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:14).

This work of redemption is something that we need to treasure and fully appreciate. We must also understand that forgiveness does not come without some conditions, some prerequisites on our part.

In Psalm 130:3-4 we read: “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” This gives us a sense of the gravity of what God has accomplished in His Son. The Hebrew word translated “mark” is shamar which means to keep watch, to keep guard and to observe. If God should scrutinise our lives, if He should allow nothing to escape His watchful eye, if He should overlook nothing, we would have no hope. No one would be able to stand acquitted in His presence.

But as verse 4 states: “But there is forgiveness with thee.” This is where forgiveness resides—it is with God. This is where we need to go to find it. He has set the terms. He has done the work in providing His only begotten Son. He has taken every necessary step to bring about our redemption. In fact as verse 7 states: “For with Yahweh there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.”

And the purpose of this redemption? “That Thou mayest be feared.” We might have expected the verse to have read “loved” or “honoured,” but instead it says “feared.” If all our sins have been forgiven, then there should be no fear. But the psalmist is speaking of a different kind of fear. He is not talking about the fear of being condemned. He is talking about a profound respect for Him. He is writing of a reverential fear of His majesty.

We sin and we stand before the Almighty God of the universe and humbly ask for His forgiveness. This ought to produce in us a profound respect for Him. He is just and holy and we approach Him with a recognition that under normal circumstances we would not be able to stand before Him. We are in desperate need and all we can do is seek His mercy! Hence forgiveness should deepen our honour for Him, strengthen our belief in His greatness and intensify our awe of Him.

But too often we take this forgiveness for granted. Too often we can become blasé about the matter. Too often we brush aside the wonder and un-deservedness of it all. Let us appreciate the magnitude of what we are asking God to do and bow before Him in respectful humility. As Psalm 89:7 states: “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him.”

So, what is the pathway to forgiveness?

  1. Proverbs 28:13 – Owning up to sin

In Proverbs 28:13 we are presented with two believers: one who seeks to hide his sins, the other who openly confesses them. “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper.” We are self-deceived if we think that we can conceal our lives from God, but sometimes we are very adept at hiding our sins. We conceal them by keeping them secret, or by making excuses for them, or by blaming someone else, or by denying them. Sometimes we hope that if we forget about it, then hopefully God will also forget about it. Sometimes we skilfully plead special circumstances or, like Adam, avoid the reality of sin and deflect: “the woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat,” he argued. And worse, we are very proficient at justifying our wayward behaviour.

Why are we sometimes so vigilant in hiding our sins? Pre-eminently it is linked to our pride. We might have a reputation and standing to protect. It is humbling to come to the light where our faults may be exposed. There is that fear of being exposed for what we are. We may not want to be seen as weak and failing, consequently we may go to great lengths to avoid shame and embarrassment.

There are a number of examples of people lying to conceal their sin. We witness the brazen lies and deceit of Cain, of Achan, of Gehazi, of David and of Ananias and Sapphira.

But the quotation in the Proverbs goes on to say that people who hide their sin “shall not prosper.” The Hebrew word means to push forward and advance. It is used in the sense of advancing in spiritual ways under the providence of God (cp Gen 24:21,40,42,56), of advancing in material ways (cp Joseph, Gen 39:2-3; Solomon, 1 Chron 29:23), of succeeding in battle (2 Chron 13:12).

There can be no advancement in spiritual things; there can be no ultimate victory if we conceal our transgressions. Our life will be undone and ruined. Our conscience will torture us. Our hymns and prayers will seem false and hypocritical. Our sense of joy and fellowship will wither. Unconfessed sin hardens the heart. By slow and almost imperceptible degrees, the conscience will lose its tenderness, until eventually the heart is hardened to think nothing of sin. As the psalmist wrote: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psa 66:18).

  1. Proverbs 28:13 – The significance of confession

Proverbs 23:18 expresses a divine paradox: to have your sins covered, you first have to uncover them! Confession is another mandatory step along the pathway leading to forgiveness. Having owned up to our responsibility, having owned the sin, we must now confess. We must make a clean breast of our failings and admit to what we have done.

Why is confession so important? The answer is found in Psalm 51:1-4 where David confessed his sin in the matter of Bathsheba and recognised that only God’s mercy could save him. He wrote in verse 4: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.”

David’s confession declared God to be righteous in all His pronouncements; it justified Him. It proclaimed to everyone that God’s judgments against sin were holy and pure and right.

This is amplified in Romans 3:4 where Pauls quotes Psalm 51:4 as follows: “God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings [ie: that God might be declared righteous in His decrees], and mightest overcome when thou art judged [RV: ‘and mightest prevail when thou comest into judgment,’ ie: God would gain His cause in contending against sin].”

Indeed, the whole of Paul’s treatise in this chapter elevates the righteousness of God in contrast to man’s unrighteousness:

v5—our unrighteousness serves to exhibit the righteousness of God;

v9—we are all under sin;

v10—there is none righteous, no not one;

v12—there is none can do good;

v19—all the world is guilty before God;

v23—all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (ie: His righteousness).

The apostle goes on to demonstrate that because man constantly failed, God had to reveal His righteousness in another way—through the declaration of that righteousness in His Son’s death (v25-26).

So, confession is important because it announces the fact that we have sinned, we deserve to die, and that God is right in sentencing us to death. To confess is to declare God to be righteous in every judgment, whether it is against David or against Adam or against ourselves.

This is borne out by examining some of the great confessions of Scripture. In Daniel 9:4-7 the prophet Daniel poured out his heart in humble prayer for himself and for the captivity. “We have sinned,” he declared “and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments: O Lord righteousness belongeth unto thee!” Here was a confession that gave recognition to God’s righteousness. He highlighted the same principle in verses 16 and 18: “O Lord, according to all thy righteousness, I beseech thee, let thine anger and thy fury be turned away from thy city Jerusalem,” “for we do not present our supplications before thee for our righteousnesses, but for thy great mercies.”

In Nehemiah 9:1-3 the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers. As part of that confession, they exclaimed in verse 33: “Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us.” God was publicly acknowledged to be right.

In contrast, when Saul confessed before Samuel saying, “I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of Yahweh, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice” on the surface this seemed very genuine. But that admission of wrong-doing was tainted when he went on to say, “I have sinned: yet honour me now, I pray thee, before the elders of my people, and before Israel” (1 Sam15: 30). It was all about his own glory and honour—not God’s. Consequently, that confession was not acknowledged by God.

  1. Proverbs 28:13 – Forsaking sin

The next step in the journey continues: “whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” Forgiveness is given through God’s longsuffering and mercy if we are prepared to forsake our sins. The Hebrew word, azab, means to loosen or relinquish. We need to stop what we are doing and cut the ties that bind us to these evils. We need to leave them all behind and forsake them. Forsaking the deed is itself the proof of our genuineness.

In other words, it is not enough to confess and leave it there. There must be a forsaking likewise—a parting with sin, a denying of sinful self, a leaving the former course of sin, a quitting the company of wicked men, and an abstaining from all appearance of evil.

The same word, azab, was used in Isaiah 55:7 where the prophet appeals to all mankind, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto Yahweh, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” We are all called upon to forsake the inner principles as well as the outer walk; our “unrighteous thoughts,” no less than our “wicked ways.”

By forsaking sin, we are demonstrating true repentance by doing “works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20).

  1. Psalm 51:6,17; Psalm 32:2 – Truth, contrition and sincerity

When David poured out his heart to God and confessed the enormity of his transgression in Psalm 51, he was also teaching transgressors God’s way by demonstrating the way by which they could return to Him (v13).

One of these instructions can be found in verse 6: “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.” God will take delight in His people if He sees truth and honesty alive in their deepest thoughts. He seeks hearts that will learn wisdom from the mistakes and failings that they make.

Another principle can be seen in verse 17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Our heavenly Father seeks contrition and genuine remorse. This spirit is akin to Paul’s exclamation in Romans 7:24, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”

In Psalm 32 we have David once more speaking about his experiences related to his adultery and murder. He contrasts the blessedness he felt once he was forgiven, compared with the anguish he experienced when his sin was unconfessed. He describes his physical and emotional condition when he kept silence. He saw himself withering away, drying up, his conscience crying out night and day, wracked with guilt (v3-4).

But the point he underscored in this experience was that God was seeking genuineness, along with contrition. He sought one “in whose spirit there is no guile” (v2). By hiding his sin, David had become duplicitous. His hypocrisy knew no bounds as he sat there on the throne judging Israel when his own life was a betrayal of the very justice he promoted.

God desires sincerity. As Psalm 101:7 declares: “He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house: he that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight.”

  1. Numbers 5:6-7 – Restitution when required

Under the law, if a man or woman trespassed against a fellow Israelite, they were to confess their sin and make restitution. As Numbers 5:7 states: “Then they shall confess their sin which they have done: and he shall recompense his trespass with the principal thereof, and add unto it the fifth part thereof, and give it unto him against whom he hath trespassed.”

The purpose behind this law was to mend broken relationships amongst themselves. It was designed to heal and repair. This spirit motivated Zacchaeus when he declared: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (Luke 19:8). He went beyond the stipulations of the law—and we should too. Making good and restoring what has been lost is what our Lord expects from us when required.

  1. Matthew 6:14-15 – Forgiveness of others

When our Lord taught his disciples to pray he concluded the lesson with this singularly important principle, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15).

He could not have been clearer. When we pray to God “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt 6:12) the little word “as” is significant. If we only grudgingly forgive others, how can we expect free and unstinting forgiveness from God? If we harbour an unforgiving spirit, how can we expect to receive pardon from heaven?

Our disposition towards our brothers and sisters sets the pattern. How can we ask God to forgive us for something when we are unwilling to forgive someone else? We must be willing to forgive others, despite repeated transgressions against us. We cannot nurture grudges or bitterness towards others. We must from the heart forgive everyone his brother their trespasses (Matt 18:32-35). We who pray for mercy must also show mercy.

  1. 1 John 1:9 – Belief that God will forgive

We have now reached the end of our journey. All the conditions that God has set down have been met and we now stand before the throne of grace seeking forgiveness.

The Apostle John wrote: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). He is asking us to have full confidence that God can and will forgive all our sins. He is faithful. He has promised us forgiveness and salvation from our sins. He is also just. Our confessions have upheld His righteousness, and on that basis He is prepared to show mercy.

What a wonderful provision our Father has made! As the psalmist so wonderfully put it: “He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Psa 103:10-12).