Sunday, 21 April 2013

How can a holy God forgive?

(The following is partly adapted from John Stott's 'The Cross of Christ', chapter 4).

The question might be asked, why does God need the cross in order to forgive?  Why does he demand the payment of such a price?  Why can't he simply forgive and forget?  After all if we are sinned against we are told simply to forgive.  No price needs to be paid.  No-one's death is required before we forgive each other. Why can't God do what he commands us to do?  Why can't he practise what he preaches? Why is it impossible for God to forgive us without his Son's sacrifice for sin?

John Stott states that such questions betray our shallowness rather than our sophistication.  We are simply private individuals and any sin against us is simply a personal offence.  For us to forgive does not alter the balance of justice in the world.  We can leave the issue of justice to God.  But God is the creator of all morality.  He is both the injured party and the divine judge.  He is the king against whom all wickedness is treason.  He is the one who gave us life and to whom we owe our life.  He is the God of immeasurable love, love that we have spurned.  Indeed, the central problem with our opening questions is that they fail to give due weight to the fact that God is God and we are not!

The crucial issue is actually how it is possible for him to forgive.  How does our God, who has been stirred to righteous anger, come to peace with those who have acted as his enemies?  How does our God, who lovingly yearns to embrace sinful people, do so in a way that does not condone our evil?  How can he express his love without compromising his holiness?  How can he both be a righteous God and a Saviour?  

1.  The gravity of sin
A couple of years ago, on the BBC news, there was an item on a particular mega-church in America.  The church has tens of thousands of attendees.  Everything is professional and polished.  We might be impressed.  But even the news reporter noticed something was missing.  He said something along the lines of, 'you will not hear much talk about traditional doctrines like sin and judgement here.'  Writing a few decades earlier, A. W. Tozer said, 'There is a strange conspiracy of silence in the world today - even in religious circles - about man's responsibility for sin, the reality of judgement, and about an outraged God and the necessity for a crucified Saviour.'

The New Testament speaks of sin in terms of missing the mark, inward corruption, stepping over a known boundary, and as lawlessness.  The emphasis is on the 'godless self-centredness of sin.'  When we sin we are not just failing to love God with all our being, we are actively refusing to acknowledge and obey our Creator and Lord.  It has been described in terms of 'getting rid of the Lord God' in order to put ourselves in his place in a spirit of 'God-almightiness.'  'Sin is defiance, arrogance, the desire to be equal with God ... the assertion of human independence over against God' (Brunner).  Sin is utter terrible and God is utterly holy.

2.  God's holiness and wrath 
People today feel the freedom to make God look the way they want him to look.  They rightly claim that he is compassionate, good and kind.  But they wrongly assume that he is tolerant of human sin.  They think that he would not be bothered about their everyday offences because they neither see the seriousness of all wrongdoing nor understand the utter holiness of a perfect God.  Even in churches people have lost vision of the majesty of God.

The Bible speaks of God being transcendent, the high and lofty one.  The Bible speaks of a God who is inapproachable light and a consuming fire.  The Bible speaks of God standing at a distance from sinful humanity.  It even portrays God as being made nauseous by our moral compromises, they are distasteful and repulsive to him, and he vomits out of his mouth those who refuse to give him their full allegiance.

You cannot read the Bible properly and fail to see that God is good and angry.  But we do him a great disservice if we imagine that his divine anger is like our human anger.  'What provokes our anger (injured vanity) never provokes his; what provokes his anger (evil) seldom provokes ours' (Stott). 'God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is.  It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil' (Packer).  'His anger is neither mysterious nor irrational.  It is never unpredictable, but always predictable, because it is evoked by evil and by evil alone ... [It] is his steady, unrelenting, unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations' (Stott).


Sin is serious.  It is 'cosmic-treason' (Sproul).  It is hostility towards God.  It is deep-rooted rebellion.  God is angered by every act of sin and refuses to condone any of our wrongdoing.  What's more the Bible tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  So how can their be hope for any of us?  How can we escape the Day of God's Vengeance?  How can a God who has a red-hot antagonism to all that is evil, accept us as dearly loved children, given the evil in our past and the fact that we fail him every single day?

The answer, as John Stott puts it, is that
At the cross in holy love God through Christ paid the full penalty of our disobedience himself. He bore the judgement we deserve in order to bring us the forgiveness we do not deserve. On the cross divine mercy and justice were equally expressed and eternally reconciled. God's holy love was 'satisfied.'
One writer says that 'only he who knows the greatness of God's wrath will be mastered by the greatness of mercy' (Gustav Stahlin).  We used to be objects of God's wrath, but God, who is rich in mercy, has made us alive in Christ in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:1-10).  We are rescued by grace through faith.  God's forgiving, justifying, reconciling love is extended to us as we admit our moral bankruptcy, hold out our empty hands to receive the free gift of eternal life, and now live in Christ our risen king.

One final question: what is the relationship with sin now?  Well, if we have been born again we are no longer slaves of sin.  We have been forgiven. We have been justified.  We need not fear the Day of Judgement.  God has given us a new heart and has placed the person of the Holy Spirit within us, transforming us from within.  He promises that we will not be tempted beyond what we can bear and that he will give us an escape route when we are tempted (1 Cor. 10:13).  Sin is not our master anymore.

Yet, the Apostle John tells us that we lie if we say we have no sin and that thankfully the blood of Jesus goes on cleansing us from all sin.  But when the Christian sins it is more of a lapse than a lifestyle.  If we refuse to enter the battle sin, if we redefine what is sin to justify how we live and if we ignore God's moral commands, then we are simply demonstrating that we have not yet enthroned Christ as our king, we have not yet received his forgiving grace, he has not yet entered our lives, and we are not yet born again.  So the Apostle Paul can write:

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral [which includes sex outside marriage] nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. [We could also add Jesus' warning about not forgiving or James warning about not controlling our tongues]. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Friends, may each one of us know what it is to be washed, sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus.  May we grow in the assurance that we have been saved from the wrath of God as we witness the transforming presence of Jesus within us.  May we produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  May we keep close to God as we confess our sins every day.  May we delight in the fact that our God of perfect holiness has acted, through the death of his Son on the cross, to save sinful wretches like us!

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