A friend of mine recently asked me some questions about forgiveness. If God forgave everyone at the cross, what use will sinners have for Jesus? Why will they care about the good news if there is no bad news? And aren’t we giving sinners a false sense of all-is-well by saying “all are forgiven”?
His concern was that if we go around proclaiming forgiveness as a done deal, as I have done, some sinners are going to respond with “Meh.” They will not be motivated to do anything. That is certainly a possibility. Tell a sinner he’s forgiven – that the grace of God has been revealed at the cross – and you risk casting your pearls before swine. You risk indifference and apathy. But that doesn’t change the truth of the gospel, merely the way we present it.
You need to understand that there is a huge difference between what God has done and how we respond to what God has done and that difference is the difference between life and death. Allow me to illustrate:
Let’s say that I do something truly wicked to you. Maybe I run over your cat or spread malicious lies about you. However, out of the goodness of your heart you decide to forgive me. I don’t deserve this – your act of forgiveness is entirely based on your gracious character.
Now if I continue to act wickedly towards you, then your forgiveness of me has no effect in my life. From your side there may be no offense – all is forgiven – but from my side I am the same cat-killing, gossip-spreading sinner I always was.
Or perhaps I feel bad about what I did but I can’t forgive myself for doing it. I did such awful things! What is the solution? It is not asking you to forgive me – you did that already! It is receiving the grace you have already put on the table. From your side I am forgiven, but as far as I’m concerned I either don’t want your forgiveness or I don’t know that I have it. The truth of your forgiveness has no effect in my life because I have not received it.
Every sinner has a distorted image of God. What is true and good about their heavenly Father is not seen by them because their minds are veiled. Truth filtered through a distortion no longer appears like truth. This is why the mind of the sinner is incapable of receiving the things of God. Unconditional forgiveness and grace sound like foolishness. The solution is not to use carrots and sticks to motivate sinners to turn from sin (that’s John the Baptist). Neither is the solution to argue with them on the basis of reason (their minds are veiled). The remedy is to preach the pure and undiluted gospel and pray they get a Holy Spirit revelation of grace. Truth dawns only by revelation.
The gift that needs to be received
At the cross, the sins of the world were sent away. This is what forgiveness literally means: to send away. Our sins have been removed as far as the east is from the west and God is not counting men’s sins against them (2 Cor 5:19). This is why the Risen Lord said we are to proclaim forgiveness as a done deal, rather than sell it as a favor to be earned. Forgiveness is a gift that needs to be received (Acts 26:18) and in Him we have it (Eph 1:7, Col 1:14).
The opposite of forgiveness or remission is sin retention (see John 20:23). Although the sins of the world were taken away at the cross, people still carry their sins. They are crippled by their sins and sinning gives the devil the opportunity to accuse them mercilessly. Many remain slaves to sin. The only thing that can free them and empower them to sin no more is a revelation of God’s grace.
From His side, forgiveness is a done deal. There are no more sacrifices for sin. But from our side sin may be a very serious problem indeed. So why do you need to receive the gift of forgiveness if you are already forgiven? For the same reason you need to receive the grace of God that has appeared to all men – it will change you. It will free you from guilt and condemnation and being a slave to sin. It is not enough that God has forgiven you. Grace unmixed with faith is worthless. You have to receive it. You have to quit beating yourself up over sin and start trusting Jesus and His perfect work.
If a sinner asks, “Am I forgiven?” What do you tell them?
This is another good question and it is motivated by the fear of casting pearls before swine. I guess it depends on where they are at. If the person asking were a scribe or lawyer trying to impress me with their clever arguments and self-righteous logic, I would speak the only language they understand – the language of conditional forgiveness. I would say, “Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps He will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart” (Acts 8:22). In other words, to the self-righteous I would preach the law in order that their proud mouths would be silenced. Let the law do its proper work and then they will be ready for grace.
Or if the person asking was under the delusion that they were utterly sinless, I would say, “You are deceiving yourself. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7-9).
But if the one asking was genuinely open to the grace of God, I would say, as Paul did, “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:38). I would tell them the good news of grace – you are forgiven! – and I would encourage them to put their faith in Jesus and believe it.
There are a lot of self-righteous people in the church but most sinners aren’t like that. They don’t need the law to tell them they are not perfect – they already know. They live with guilt and regret and their consciences condemn them. Sinners like this desperately need to hear that their sins have been forgiven and it is our responsibility to tell them. Indeed, this is the privilege of preaching the gospel.
The ministry of reconciliation is not telling people that a huffy God waits for them to sooth His offended nature with a bunch of repentance flowers and a box of chocolates. It is the thrill of telling them the glad happy news that God loves them, His face is turned towards them, and He holds nothing against them.
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