Saturday, 30 July 2011

How can God forgive wicked people (like me)?

My friend Mary has a question. ‘How could Myra Hindley be forgiven?’ Do you remember Hinley? She was involved in the terrible Moors’ murders. She was found guilty of despicable crimes. Yet there were claims that she has found God. If that is true then she is a sister of every other believer. How do we feel about that?

What about Andres Breivik in Norway? Supposing he arrived into court one day and said, ‘I am sorry for what I have done, I have asked God to accept and forgive me, and I want to give thanks for his love’? How would the people in Norway feel?

This was the problem Jonah was struggling with (see the book of Jonah). The city of Nineveh was a feared and hated place. Its people were responsible for all kinds of atrocities. As one preacher says, ‘Nineveh had been keeping undertakers in Israel busy for years’. Now God calls Jonah to speak to these people. Jonah knows what God is at. In God’s warnings there is mercy. God’s threats of judgement are kindness. He is telling them what he will do if they do not repent. In so doing is calling them to turn to him and experience his forgiveness. Jonah does not want these wicked people to have their sin forgiven (Jonah 4:2).

So how can God forgive wicked people like Myra Hindley? How could God desire the salvation of Andres Breivik (2 Peter 3:9)? How could God invite a wicked city like Nineveh to experience his forgiveness? The question is actually more personal. How could God forgive sinful people like us? After all, the Bible tells us that there is none who has not sinned (1 Kings 8); that we all turned our backs on God on gone astray like sheep (Isaiah 53), and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3). I love the realism of the old spiritual hymn that goes ‘were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ Don’t think that we would not have been amongst the crowd shouting ‘crucify’. Yet later on the cross Jesus looked at those who despised him and prayed ‘Father, forgive them.’

If we were only to see how utterly holy God is, and how abhorrent he sees our sin to be, then we would realise the question becomes ‘How could God forgive me?’ The undeserved forgiveness that Myra Hindley needed, the unmerited forgiveness that the people of Nineveh would experience, is the same unearned forgiveness that each of us has been offered.

God forgives wicked people like us because of the cross.  The whole of the Bible points to the cross. On the cross God demonstrates that he is both just and the one who justifies (Rom. 3:26). There we see that God has not turned a blind eye to sin. His forgiveness does not mean that he thinks that the crime does not matter. But he has dealt with the demands of justice by taking the divine penalty of guilt upon himself. Justice is done. Now he has the right to forgive anyone he wishes as he moves people to turn their lives back to him.

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