The Grace of Forgiveness
The context of our text is one in which there is both great sin and great grace on display. Israel, though having experienced an amazing and awe inspiring revelation of God, has chosen to commit the sin of idolatry. While doing so, they fell into gross immorality along with it. God’s wrath was kindled, Moses’ wrath was kindled, the people experienced much death and plague that day, and yet God forgave them. As Moses pled for the LORD’s continued presence with Israel, and the performance of His promise to lead them into the land of promise, he also asks for God to show him His glory. God responded that He would do so, and that He would be gracious to whom He would, and show mercy on whom He would (Exodus 33:17-20). It is soon after this that Moses ascends again into the mount sees the visual glory of God, hears the proclamation of His most excellent name, and learns that God’s glory is seen in His mercy, grace, forgiveness, goodness, truth, holiness, and judgment (Exodus 34:1-8). It is my desire to direct our focus to God’s glory in His forgiving grace.
First of all, let us always remember the nature of grace; because the nature of grace is essential to our understanding of the grace and nature of forgiveness. Grace is free and unmerited favor to those who deserve the wrath of God (See Ephesians 2:1-9). Grace will always be free, and it will never be earned or deserved (Romans 11:6). Furthermore, grace is never given to those who are dependent upon self (Romans 4:1-6) or the arrogant (James 4:6;1 Peter 5:6).
Forgiveness is a gift of grace: “in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.” (Ephesians 1:7) Forgiveness, being a gfit of grace, is by nature free. It is not given to those who forgiveness, or else it would not be forgiveness. Forgiveness is the free gift of God, and He is Lord of forgiveness, both in to whom He gives it and in the manner in which He gives it (Exodus 33:19). Note that forgiveness is through the blood of Christ (Ephesians 1:7;Colossians 1:14; Revelation 1:5), which is the price paid once and for all for our sins (Hebrews 1:1-3;9:22-28;10:11-14). If we are ever to be forgiven of our sins, it will be through the merits of the eternal righteousness of Jesus who died for our sins and rose for our justification. This forgiveness is given freely to all who repent and trust Jesus (Mark 1:13-15;Luke 24:47;Acts 13:38-39;Romans 5:1-11).
Forgiveness is also the Divine prerogative, and God forgives that He might be glorified. Notice that Jesus recognized that it is only God who can truly forgive sins against Himself (Mark 2:1-12). We often hear people say, “Only God can judge me!” The reality is that God is the supreme judge and savior. Only God can save you! Only God can forgive and have mercy upon you. “There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?” (James 4:12) Apart from the God who gives mercy and forgiveness, mercy and forgiveness would never exist. Thankfully God does forgive. That is His glory, as we see in our text.
Notice that our text also closely relates forgiveness to mercy. Mercy is when judgment is averted. “For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.” (James 2:13) David also praises God for His mercy in delivering Him from hell (Psalm 86:12-13). One of the most emotional proclamations of forgiveness and mercy is seen in the Lamentations of Jeremiah: “It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22–23) Rather than utterly destroying Israel, God was merciful to them. How wonderful it is to know that we are the recipients of the free mercies and forgiving grace of God!
Let us recall once more that forgiveness comes because of the intervention of a mediator. Moses prayed for Israel and God forgave them. Jesus is the one who mediates for us that we might be forgiven. “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” (1 Timothy 2:5–6) Jesus, when He shed His blood, paid the price for our sins forever. “And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us: for after that he had said before, This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.” (Hebrews 10:11–18) Notice that forgiveness comes because a payment is made for sins, Jesus died to secure forgiveness, and God accepted that sacrifice as being worthy of His forgiving us forever. There is no remission of sins without the shedding of blood, which is the giving of the life of a substitute (Hebrews 9:22). Thankfully Jesus stood as that substitute for us that we might be forgiven.
As we consider all of the above truths, we have yet to truly define forgiveness. The word literally means, to take away. This is why John introduced Jesus as follows: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) We again read, “And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;” (Hebrews 10:11–12) Forgiveness is the taking away of sin.
How is sin taken away? We still live with sin. We are told, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8–10) In this life we shall always be plagued with sin, it seems. Paul stated that sin was ever present with him (Romans 7:21), and that our bodies are dead because of sin despite our being saved by God’s grace (Romans 8:10). Sin is not literally taken away in this life as if we will never have to deal with it again. Sin is taken away in the sense of it never being held against us in the judgment. This is why we read, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1) And remember, “mercy rejoiceth against judgment.” (James 2:13)
We also read of sins being forgotten. Micah rejoiced in this (Micah 7:18-20), Jeremiah prophesied of it (Jeremiah 31:31-34), and the writer to the Hebrews spoke of it also (Hebrews 8:12;10:17-18). What does this mean? Does God literally forget our sins as if they are no longer in His memory at all? That would be impossible, for God is omniscient, knowing all things. In fact, the idea of God acting as if sins never happened at all minimizes sin and shows disrespect to the grace and glory of God. What is meant, then, by sins being forgotten? Sins are forgotten in that they will never be held against us in judgment: we will never be punished for them, nor pay for them by suffering God’s wrath. Notice how David speaks of forgiveness: “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.” (Psalm 32:1–2) The sin is not literally removed or forgotten, but it is covered: God does not see it on our record. God does not impute iniquity to us. That is, He does not keep the sin on our account as though we are still chargeable for it. The forgiveness of sin and the forgetting of it are judicial things. Our slate is clean before God. We have no sins on our account. They are forgotten. Paul spoke of this when he wrote, “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;” (Colossians 2:13–14) The account of my sins has been blotted out because Jesus paid the debt in full. This is what is meant by sins being forgotten.
Considering the truth that forgiveness is God’s prerogative, and freely given that we might glorify Him, there are two important things to keep in mind. First, the forgiveness of sins is not given to the proud, arrogant, self-righteous person who demands it. God resists the proud (James 4:6;1 Peter 5:6). He will not forgive those who will not confess and truly repent. It is the broken-hearted one who repents of his sins whom God will forgive (2 Corinthians 7:7-10). “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: Thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psalm 51:16–17) Forgiveness can never be earned nor demanded. We must with a broken heart plead with God, trusting Him to give it to us. Finally, forgiveness is for God’s glory. “I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.” (1 John 2:12) He forgives us for the glory of His grace (Ephesians 1:1-14), so we should worship Him because of being forgiven by Him. Moses worshiped the LORD when he saw and heard His glory. So, too, must we. Let us never forget our own sinfulness, and let us humbly seek to exalt Him in our lives because of His great forgiveness.