This series was first published in April 2016. -ed.
God doesn’t change (Malachi 3:6). But man’s view of Him frequently does—driven by man’s own fluid emotions and flexible morality. And as the world around us becomes increasingly permissive, it expects God to adjust with that moral shift.
Specifically, sinners count on the Lord to take sin as carelessly and casually as they do. And they expect His forgiveness to be equally casual. That should not surprise us—if you don’t take sin seriously, how can you ever fully appreciate what it means to be truly forgiven?
A Corrupt Caricature
But when God’s forgiveness is reduced to blind acceptance it reflects a corrupt caricature of His holy character. God cannot and will not acquit transgressors by blithely dismissing or ignoring the evil they’ve done. To do so would be unjust, and God is a God of perfect justice.
The Bible repeatedly stresses that God will punish every sin. In Exodus 23:7 God says, “I will not acquit the guilty.” Nahum 1:3 is unequivocal: “The Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” In the gospel message itself, “The wrath of God is revealed . . . against all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).
Scripture describes the relationship between God and the sinner as enmity (Romans 5:10; 8:7). God hates sin, and therefore all who sin have made themselves God’s enemies. “God is angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11, KJV).
Those who violate some minor point of God’s law are as guilty as if they had broken every commandment (James 2:10). No sin is trivial (Romans 3:10–18). All people are born with an insatiable penchant for sin (Psalm 58:3). They are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1), objects of God’s holy anger (Ephesians 2:3), and utterly without hope (Ephesians 2:12). From the human perspective, this is a truly desperate state of absolute futility.
God, on the other hand, is perfect, infinitely holy, absolutely flawless, and thoroughly righteous. He cannot violate His nature by blindly pardoning sin. He says: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 17:15). His justice must be satisfied by punishing every violation of His law. And the due penalty of our iniquity is infinitely severe: eternal damnation.
What About the “Good News”?
The gospel is good news because it tells us that God does justify the ungodly (Romans 4:5). But how can God grant such forgiveness without compromising His own standard of justice? How can He forgive sinners without breaking His own Word, having already sworn that He will punish every transgression?
The answer is: God Himself has made His Son, Jesus Christ, the atonement for our sins. This truth lies at the very heart of the gospel message. It is the most glorious truth in all of Scripture. It explains how God can remain just while justifying sinners (Romans 3:25–26). And it is the only hope for any sinner seeking forgiveness.
Perhaps the most important single passage in all of Scripture about Christ’s substitution on sinners’ behalf is found in 2 Corinthians 5:
God . . . reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18–20)
The truth is glorious: God has a plan by which He can accomplish the very thing that seemed so completely impossible. There is a way to satisfy His justice without damning the sinner. He can both fulfill His promise of vengeance against sin and reconcile—extend complete forgiveness to—sinners. He can remain just while justifying the ungodly (Romans 3:26).
Too many people think of divine grace as a sort of benign forbearance, by which God simply excuses sin and looks the other way—as if grace involved a lowering of the divine standard in order to accommodate what is unholy. Scripture teaches no such thing. Again, God Himself has sworn that every transgression and disobedience will receive a just penalty (cf. Hebrews 2:2), and He cannot relinquish His perfection in order to indulge the wicked. To do so would compromise His own righteousness.
So how does God reconcile sinners to Himself? On what grounds can He extend forgiveness to sinners? Here we are brought face to face with the need for atonement. If God’s wrath is to be satisfied, if God is going to be propitiated to the sinner, a suitable atonement is required. God must fulfill the demands of justice by pouring out His wrath on a substitute who bears the sinner’s punishment vicariously.
And that is precisely what happened at the cross.
The apostle Paul distills the whole gospel in one simple statement in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Grasping Divine Forgiveness
This profound truth is the key to understanding divine forgiveness: God made the sinless Christ to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become in Him the very righteousness of God. In simple language, the apostle Paul’s point is this: God treated Christ like a sinner and punished Him for all the sins of all who would believe, so that He could treat them as righteous and give them credit for Christ’s perfect obedience.
Isaiah makes this staggering statement: “The Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief. . . . He would render Himself as a guilt offering” (Isaiah 53:10). The death of Christ “pleased” God? That is exactly what Scripture teaches. Repeatedly the Bible says Christ died as a “propitiation” for our sins (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). The word propitiation speaks of an appeasement, a total satisfaction of the divine demands on behalf of the sinner. This is a marvelous truth. It means Christ paid the full price—the ransom—for sin on behalf of those He redeemed.
The notion of imputation is also important in explaining 2 Corinthians 5:21. Imputation speaks of a legal reckoning. To impute guilt to someone is to assign guilt to that person’s account. Likewise, to impute righteousness is to reckon the person righteous. The guilt or righteousness thus imputed is a wholly objective reality; it exists totally apart from the person to whom it is imputed. In other words, a person to whom guilt is imputed is not thereby actually made guilty in the real sense. But he is accounted as guilty in a legal sense.
In the same way that the guilt of sinners was imputed to Christ, His righteousness is imputed to all who believe.
As early as Genesis 15:6 we read that Abraham “believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” And Romans 4 uses Abraham’s justification as the model for how all believers are justified. That means every believer is forgiven immediately, just like the thief on the cross. Forgiveness costs us nothing, because it already cost Christ everything.
And if God justifies the ungodly solely through faith (Romans 4:5), of what does this faith consist? It is a refusal to trust anything but Christ for salvation. It means the abandonment of self-righteousness and a single-minded reliance on Christ alone for salvation. It therefore involves a sincere love for Christ and a turning away—repentance—from sin.
If you understand that you are a sinner and long for freedom and forgiveness from your sin, turn to Christ even now. He won’t cast out any who come to Him (John 6:37). He is eager to forgive and reconcile sinners to Himself. All else that we have to say about forgiveness is moot if you don’t know the forgiveness of God for your sins.
All Christians are forgiven an unpayable debt solely on the basis of what God Himself has done for us. That inestimable gift of free forgiveness becomes the ground on which all other kinds of forgiveness are based, and also the pattern for how we are to forgive others. If we keep in perspective how much God forgave, and how much it cost Him to forgive, we will soon realize that no transgression against us can ever justify an unforgiving spirit. Christians who hold grudges or refuse to forgive others have lost sight of the price paid for their own forgiveness.
God’s forgiveness is the pattern by which we are to forgive. That is the foundational truth on which all godly relationships are built and developed. It is the dominant example for all who honor God through ministry to a fallen world. And it is to those implications of God’s forgiveness that we will turn in the days ahead.
Used with permission from John MacArthur.