UNDER the present conditions of imperfection forgiveness is something that affects both men and God: it affects man in relation to his fellows and man in relation to God. Although we may think of forgiveness as something inwrought in human behaviour and universally recognized, it is really a Biblical idea. It has its roots in the problems that arise from the disregard of the two great commandments, from man’s sin in disobeying his Creator’s command, and also in man’s failure to do right to his fellow man. The pagan world regarded the sentiment of forgiveness as a weakness. The “large-souled” man might think of resentment as beneath him and treat a slight with disdain. But the spirit he displayed was aloof, and left out of account many aspects of duty which emerge from a study of Biblical principles. With no sense of sin as set forth in the Scriptures, the pagan could not feel the responsibilities that inhere in relationships that are interrupted by wrong actions. Even the Jews could interpret the enactments of God’s law as being adequately expressed in love to neighbour, but in hatred to one’s enemies. This we believe to be a perverse interpretation, doing violence to the spirit and intention of the law; but one which nevertheless illustrates the natural tendencies of human nature.

God and sin

Sin ruptures the good relationship between God and man, a relationship which is illustrated by the change from living in the garden of Eden to exclusion from its paradisaic life. At first “God walked in the garden in the cool of the day”; afterwards a flaming sword barred entrance to it. In this was exhibited the altered relationship that sin had caused. And sin affected man’s world as well as the man himself. A cursed ground, a life of toil and sorrow, thorns and thistles remained as continual reminders that sin leaves its after effects.

The change in man’s relationship to God raises the question of forgiveness of sin. Under whatever conditions this may be effected, it remains a divine act of forgiveness and redemption. We may reason that sin which altered man’s standing before God and which involved man in a return to the dust, also laid upon God the necessity in some way of redeeming man. Since God could not allow sin to frustrate His purpose in making man, and man was unable to redeem himself, salvation must come from God. Some thought like this lies behind the challenge to idol-worshippers that the god they worshipped was “a god that cannot save”. The God of Israel on the other hand invites men, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God – a just God and a Saviour.” But while sin has the effect of ruthlessly hemming man in a course from which he cannot escape, without regard to his desires or intentions, we must not think that man’s sin has imposed upon God something that is in any way opposed to His nature. As God is love and His redeeming work springs from love, so too as an essential feature of redemption, His forgiveness is the outflowing of love. God is a forgiving God, while the moral necessities impose conditions and limit the extent to which man can receive of His mercy.

The wonder of forgiveness

Many times in the Old Testament the wonder of God’s forgiveness is set forth. “Thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back”, Hezekiah wrote after his recovery (Isa 38:17). There is awe at the ways of God in the cry of Micah: “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18–19). The Psalmist declares the graciousness of God in unforgettable words: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. 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. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him” (Psa 103:8–12).

And if the first of these verses looks back to Exodus 34:6, the reference to “sins”, “iniquities” and “transgressions” recalls the High Priest’s confession on the day of Atonement: “And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness” (Lev 16:21). Although God declared through Isaiah that Israel had wearied Him with their hypocrisies, yet God also said: “Thou hast bought me no sweet cane with money, neither hast thou filled me with the fat of thy sacrifices: but thou hast made me to serve with thy sins, thou hast wearied me with thine iniquities. I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins” (Isa 43:24,25).

Here again the threefold enumeration of sins is set forth

Jeremiah has a statement that colours many a New Testament passage: God will yet make a new covenant which will be distinguished by two features in particular on Israel’s part: “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:33,34).

David has some penetrating words when he reflects on the goodness of God in putting away his sin. The relief and joy at the divine favour is manifest in the words: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile” (Psa 32:1).

We cannot follow the Psalm in detail, but must note verse 5: “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” Once again the three words for sin occur.

Closely connected with Psalm 32 is Psalm 51. There was no provision in the law for removing David’s sin and only by God’s mercy could the situation be met. Convicted by Nathan (see heading of Psalm) of his sin, David then declared: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. 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” (Psa 51:1–4).

Matching the three words for sin are three words in Psalm 32:1,2 that describe God’s action. Transgression is forgiven; sin is covered; iniquity is not imputed. The words for the wrong-doing are all in Exodus 34:7. The remedy God provides variously expresses what happens when sins are passed by. The first word in the lxx is to “bear away”, the word used by John of Jesus (John 1:29); “to cover” is related to the hiding of sin on the day of covering or atonement; to “reckon not sins” is to cancel the sin, to blot out the record.

What forgiveness involves

It is possible to think of forgiveness as a casual outflowing of good nature. In fact sin imposes very real ethical problems. We can see this on a human plane in a family life. If a well loved son of a godly home should fall on evil ways, and defraud his employers, he brings a disgrace which his parents cannot avoid sharing. After the first blow which the knowledge inflicts upon the parents and as they face the grim tragedy of life in their own home, there comes an awareness of the vastness of the problem they have to meet. They wish well for the wrongdoer and want his recovery. But they cannot meet the position by passing by the sin as though it had not happened. It has brought pain to them and further pain is before them as they grapple with the problem. There are conditions to be fulfilled by the erring one; essentially in the recognition first that his ways were sinful, then in the contrition that must follow; then there comes also the question what reparation can be made. Every one of the conditions has its particular difficulty.

The Scriptures which lay bare human behaviour as no other book does, show that the human heart is deceitful, and in nothing more than the transforming of the messenger of satan into an angel of light. It is possible for sin so to blind the sinner that he cannot see the light. It is a part of God’s moral judgment that the idolaters “have not known or understood; for he hath shut their eyes that they cannot see, and their hearts that they cannot understand. He feedeth on ashes; a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?” The New Testament teaches the solemn truth: “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness, even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:11).

If sin has long continued and the sensitiveness of the mind has been blunted, what can be done to awaken a sense of wrong? The sin by the law of habit may have become a part of a man himself. How then can recovery and forgiveness be possible? If the first step of recognition is so difficult, confession is not less so. It involves a sincere facing up to the wrong; seeing it for what it is as an offence to God and man. When a man has so awakened, there comes a realization that he has no rights of forgiveness; and the intractableness of the problem becomes more evident.

It is even more so when reparation is contemplated. A man might have stolen wealth beyond his earning capacity within the span of human life; but beyond that, how can a measure be designed to determine the personal suffering caused? And what repayment is available when the effects of sin have blighted the lives of others? In the words of Donne, of three hundred years ago,

“Wilt thou forgive that sinne which I have donne

Others to sinne? and, made my sinne their doore?

Wilt thou forgive that sinne which I did shunne

A yeare, or two; but wallowe in, a score?”

The problem cannot be here considered at length; but it must be apparent that the issue is not simple from the point of view of redeeming the offender.

Neither is it easy for the offended. To ignore the sin and treat it as not having occurred is to violate all principles of righteousness and to make a mockery of sin. Yet love must anxiously seek a way to help, and the wound cannot be healed until the right solution has been reached.

The sinner and God

When we pass from human to divine relationships new factors are added. It has to be recognized that all men and women, with the best efforts for righteousness, yet come short. In fact there is a spiritual counterpart to the moral blindness which can follow long continued sin; when men seek after righteousness they become more aware that they have serious shortcomings. The man who is most acutely aware of his sinfulness is the one who his fellows might think lives so good a life that such a thought should not afflict him. Yet Paul could describe himself as “chief of sinners”; and when men have come close to the divine life they have been compelled to say, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” “Woe is me, for I am undone.” All men, offended and offender, differ only in response to sin and not in the fact of sin. When we consider the position of the Almighty, there are important differences: we must remember that He is man’s Creator and Sustainer: that God’s will for man has the force of law to be obeyed: and that God has punished sin with death. It is when these and related features are kept in mind that we see that the problem is not one between sinful men. It concerns a holy Creator whose law has been violated, and His will contemned. These are higher issues than offences between sinful men. Because of these essential differences an element in God’s forgiveness is the atoning work of Christ.

God’s forgiveness is set forth in the gospel in God’s offer of a share in a future in full fellowship with Himself. The forgiveness is linked with repentance and baptism: “Repent, and be baptized for the remission of your sins” (Acts 2:38); “Arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins.” The baptism is into the name of the Lord: “To him give all the prophets witness that through his name, whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins”; “Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood.”

If it should be objected, as men have objected, that if God required the death of Christ as the condition of forgiveness, it takes away the quality of forgiveness; it has to be answered that the very provision of Christ is an act of love. John says: “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:8–11). The love of God is spontaneous; it is redeeming because it provides the conditions of redemption. It is a love that gives – for God so loved that He gave His only begotten Son. It may be a daring thought, but it is implied in more than one scripture, that the gift of Christ was at a cost to God. He spared not His own son – as Abraham spared not Isaac; and must we limit the suffering to the two sons? Did not Abraham suffer? And was then the sacrifice of the Son of God of indifference to God? “In all their affliction he was afflicted … in his love and in his pity he redeemed them”, Isaiah declares.

The fact of God’s forgiveness as a matter of testimony is clear; its appreciation as a fact can be felt, even when all the finer problems of forgiveness are not understood. But when a man knows himself to be forgiven by God, he knows that the sin which separated has been “covered”, “cast away”, “not reckoned”: and with the sin goes the separation. In place of alienation is reconciliation: in place of enmity there is peace; wrath has given place to friendship. Forgiveness in fact has changed the personal relationship between a man who is forgiven and God. That is something that evokes in each one the prophet’s words: “Who is like unto thee that pardoneth iniquity?”