What if we can’t forgive ourselves? What about the shame and self-contempt that drains the life out of us? If we believe our emotions, we may feel we have gone too far. Our self-contempt seems so deserved.
That’s what Kevin struggled with. As he began to understand the enormity of his sin, his personal anguish tortured him. But he found genuine, surprising hope as he grasped the overwhelming truth that God can forgive sins we can’t forget.
Does this forgiveness come automatically to everyone all the time? What about Tracy, who can never undo what she did? Or Lexie, who can no longer make restitution for a simple theft years ago? What about Justin, who seems oblivious to his serious problem with self-righteousness?
God’s offer of forgiveness extends to every sin we could commit, but it comes with conditions. He stands ready to forgive any brokenhearted sinner, but He does not automatically forgive, nor is He obligated to do so. His forgiveness doesn’t mean we won’t have natural or legal consequences. It doesn’t mean we can flippantly say, “I’m sorry,” while wallowing in the same selfish behavior. Yet the forgiveness God gives to us is a fresh-flowing river infinitely greater than any of our personal failures—no matter how far we’ve fallen.
Our minds have trouble with the seeming tension between God’s love and His anger and the balance between His mercy and His justice. Christ had to suffer personally to justify us in the eyes of God. His sacrifice for our sins made the way for the forgiveness that overpowers and eradicates our guilt. Through the wisdom of His love, God has provided a way of satisfying the demands of His law while still offering forgiveness to even the worst of sinners.
God’s love and His anger
In 1741 Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Its language and tone are dated, but the message merits consideration today. Edwards pleaded, “Oh sinner, consider the fearful danger you are in! It is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath that you are held over in the hand of that God whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it and ready every moment to singe it.”
An amazing thing happened as Edwards warned of God’s anger. Terrified people woke from their sin and saw their desperate need for God’s forgiveness. There is unmistakable good in God’s anger. His wrath shows us that He cares too much to ignore the harm we are doing to ourselves and to each other. God’s anger is one of His greatest gifts to us!
Woven into the greatest love story the world has ever known is the unfolding drama of a God who loves us enough to hate evil. He cares enough to be angry with religious people who trivialize their own sin while separating themselves from those who need mercy the most. He cares enough to be angry with us when we reduce sin to petty legalisms while ignoring the desperate needs of others. He loves us enough to grieve when we persist in self-destructive choices.
God’s mercy and His anger
The demand for justice is deeply rooted. Kevin went to prison because society is rightly troubled by crime. Victims deserve protection, and something in us demands that perpetrators face punishment. In the Old Testament, God established the principle of eye-for-eye, life-for-life justice within a setting of due process so that justice would be served (deuteronomy 19:21).
How then can this same God pardon sinners? How can justice be satisfied except by punishment of the guilty party? Who else can be held responsible for our sin? There is only one other possibility. Other than ourselves, the only one who can be held responsible is the One who gave us the freedom to sin.
God revealed Himself in Jesus (colossians 1:15). In Him we find the balance between holy love and holy anger. He loved us enough to warn of impending judgment, telling us, “Whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (john 3:36). Yet in that same verse Jesus showed us hope, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” In perhaps His most well-known statement, He assured us that His love is equal to His anger: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (john 3:16–17). Jesus came to save us from our sin—and from His own wrath.
Christ also had these words of caution: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (matthew 10:28). The truth about God’s love and anger is not found in one or the other. His love complements His anger in perfect balance. Because of His immense love, He made a way to show mercy to us.
But is it even possible for Him to pay for our damages? According to Scripture, that’s exactly what happened. At great cost to Himself, He made a way for the price to be paid. Looking back, we can see what God did when He set up the system of blood sacrifice for ancient Israel. He was showing them the cost of sin and giving them a picture of what He would do in the future. God said, “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Leviticus 17:11).
Like parents who give their growing children freedom to make their own choices, God gives us the freedom to choose between right and wrong. When Lexie’s parents gave her the freedom to go shopping with friends, their permission provided her with the opportunity to make wrong choices. When she chose to shoplift, she may have gotten a “free” magazine but she also acquired the need to repent and seek forgiveness.
Were her parents wrong to give Lexie freedom? Let’s consider a larger question. Was God wrong to give us moral capacity and freedom of choice? Certainly not. That freedom allows His beloved creatures to choose to love Him in return. If they had no choice but to love, that would not be true love. Genuine love can never be coerced.
God is holy in all He is and does. One day we will fully understand His wisdom in letting us discover the cost of sin and the consequences of our willful disobedience.
The payment for our sin came at His expense. In an unparalleled act of self-sacrifice, God built a bridge of mercy and justice over the chasm of sin that separated us from Him. As Roman executioners drove nails into the hands and feet of Jesus, the Father suffered as no human father has ever suffered. When it was finished, God accepted the sacrifice of His Son as full payment for our sin. In humiliating agony, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (matthew 27:46). As the apostle Paul said, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 corinthians 5:21). Justice was satisfied.
Three days later, Christ conquered death. He rose from the dead. The miracle of resurrection showed God’s acceptance of His sacrifice and laid the foundation for our justification.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul outlined how our salvation works. God is just (righteous) to justify (declare righteous) all who come to Christ in faith. He wrote:
No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (romans 3:20–26)
God’s forgiveness eradicates our guilt
Because of the unlimited scope of Christ’s death on the cross, we have received forgiveness not only for past sins but for all sins, including present and future. After all, when Christ was crucified, all our sins were in the future.
Once-for-all. When we trust Christ as Savior, we gain immunity from eternal punishment. The issue is settled. Our case is closed and God will not open the file of our guilt again. The court of heaven will not judge those whose sins have been punished in Christ.
The wonderful truth of justification is that God by His own authority acquits us. He declares righteous those who appeal to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as payment for their sin. Does this mean we are no longer accountable for our wrongs? No. We are still subject to natural and legal consequences. We risk our reputation, health, and relationships by careless living. But our restored relationship with our Creator is forever. We can still lose rewards and a “well done” at the judgment seat of Christ, where our Lord will hold us accountable as His children. But those of us who have trusted Christ will never be condemned for our sin.
Paul wrote: “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (romans 5:1–2).
Complete. The forgiveness God offers is comprehensive. It is complete and final—not just until the next inevitable sin. This is why in another letter Paul could quote Psalm 32:1–2 when he wrote: “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them” (romans 4:7–8).
Three important terms in this verse show the completeness of God’s mercy.
Forgiven. The word translated “forgiven” means “to lift off, to carry away.” That is what happens to our guilt when God forgives us.
When Tracy came to the awful realization that she could not undo her offense against life itself, she cried out in desperation to God for forgiveness only He could provide. And He gave it freely! The huge weight of guilt lifted from her spirit. She felt God’s healing presence and an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude.
Covered. When we trust Christ, our sins are removed forever. The Greek word here means “to cover over completely, to obliterate.” They are completely removed. God’s promise to Israel applies to all who trust Christ:
“I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (isaiah 43:25).
Never count against them. God charges our sins to Christ and charges to our account the righteousness of Christ. He will not hold our sins against us. This is the astonishing truth that enables Kevin not merely to endure his prison sentence, but to thrive behind bars, living in the joy of God’s complete acceptance.