When it comes to God’s forgiveness there is a wide diversity of beliefs. The prominent view among mainstream Christianity as well American culture is that forgiveness is something that God must do. The thought process goes something like this: God is love, and it is unloving to not to forgive someone, therefore God must forgive. There are even some (probably more than some) that would even deny the necessity of the death of Christ for God to forgive. Rather, His death was just an example for us on how we ought to live. The problem with both of those views is that they do not represent the biblical narrative. From the sacrifice of an animal in the garden to cover the guilt and shame of Adam and Eve’s sin against God to the institution of the sacrificial system in Leviticus, God has been revealing the truth about forgiveness: all forgiveness requires death.
Look with me at a few verses:
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. – Hebrews 9:22
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. – Matthew 26:26-28
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. – Colossians 2:13-14
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. – Colossians 1:13-14
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace... – Ephesians 1:7
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. – Hebrews 10:11-13
So, from these verses, and many others that could be cited, what did God’s holiness and wrath require to forgive? Death. Specifically, forgiveness required the death of Jesus Christ as an atoning sacrifice to take away God’s wrath and satisfy His righteous requirements. You see, because of who God is (righteous, holy, just, love, etc.) He could not merely forgive without the debt of sin (death – physical, spiritual, eternal) and His wrath being satisfied. Without the perfectly righteous life and substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God would not be just in forgiving anyone but now that Christ has come, died, and resurrected God is now “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).
Much of this misunderstanding of forgiveness comes from a less-than-biblical view of sin. Sin is not a mere blemish on our otherwise outstanding record. Sin is not just a set of rules that God would really like us not to break for our own good. Sin is not only the things that we do. Rather, we sin because it is who we are – sinners. We are fallen creatures whose “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5; cf. Psalm 58:3). It’s not that we merely do bad things, we are bad. The prophet Jeremiah proclaimed, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9 ), and Jesus said that it is not merely the things that we do that brings guilt but who we are: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (Matthew 15:18-20, cf. 12:34-35). Not only are we utterly sinful, we are unable to do anything to save ourselves or to please God (Romans 8:6-7; Ephesians 2:1-3, 11-12). So we are lost, helpless and hopeless on our own.
But that is not the end of the story for mankind. God in His glorious wisdom set forth an ancient plan to rescue a people unto Himself through the work of Christ. If you ever wondered why God in Christ became a man, this is the answer – He came to save sinners because we could not save ourselves. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) said it this way in his work Cur Deus Homo:
[It] was not right that the restoration of human nature should be left undone, and that it could not have been brought about unless man repaid what he owed to God. This debt was so large that, although no one but man owed it, only God was capable of repaying it, assuming that there should be a man identical with God. Hence it was necessary that God should take man into the unity of his person, so that one who ought, by virtue of his nature, to make the repayment and was not capable of doing so, should be one who, by virtue of his person, was capable of it.
It had to be God who paid the price because only He could pay it but He had to come a a man so as to satisfy the debt for us. We are forgiven by grace through faith in Christ.
So what does this mean personally to us? If God’s ability to forgive us required death how does that apply to us in our daily lives? Ephesians 4:32 commands, “ Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” How are you to forgive who have been forgiven? As God in Christ forgave you. How did God forgive you? Through the satisfying substitutionary death of His Son. So what is required of us to forgive others? Death. If our being forgiven by God required death, we should not be surprised that our forgiveness of others requires death as well – it requires our death. I do not mean that you or I must bear the sins of others on a cross but I do mean that you must die to self if you are to forgive. You must put to death your:
- Prerogative to be right
- Entitlement to revenge (gossip, slander, unrighteous anger, bitterness, criticism, condemnation)
Look back at Ephesians 4 and now to verse 31 and 32: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” As those who have been forgiven an infinite debt by an infinitely holy and righteous God we are called to forgive others their comparatively minuscule offenses against us without reservation. When we withhold forgiveness from someone we forget and even reject the forgiveness we have received, putting us at odds with God’s work in Christ. If we are to forgive we must die for all forgiveness requires death.
Just as God’s people can and are to love because He first loved us, we can and are to forgive others because we have been forgiven so much in Christ. This is all the more important to us as we realize what is at stake in forgiving others. Matthew 6:14-15 declares, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Our willingness to or our withholding of forgiveness reveals the true condition of our hearts before God and others. C.S. Lewis wrote in the essay “On Forgiveness” in The Weight of Glory:
To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you. This is hard…. How can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it means to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves.
We forgive because we have been forgiven. We die to self because He died in our place that we may live, for without death there is no forgiveness of sin.