The correct understanding of the teaching of Scripture on forgiveness will go far in the direction of clarifying other doctrines of the Bible. Because of the fact that this theme is so constantly misunderstood, special attention should be given to it. Forgiveness on the part of one person toward another is the simplest of duties, whereas forgiveness on the part of God toward man proves the most complicated and costly of undertakings. As seen in the Bible, there is an analogy between forgiveness and debt and, in the case of that forgiveness which God exercises, the debt must be paid—though it be paid by Himself— before forgiveness can be extended. Thus it is learned that while human forgive ness only remits a penalty or charge divine forgiving must require com plete satisfaction for the demands of God's outraged holiness first of all. This doctrine may be divided into seven important particulars.
1. In the Old Testament. This aspect of divine forgiveness, though rich in typical significance, is nevertheless a complete forgiveness in itself. The all-important feature which enters into all divine remission, namely, payment of every obligation to injured holiness as the preliminary to forgiving, is included in the offering of animal sacrifices. First, the sacrifice itself was deemed by the one who offered it a substitute in that upon it fell the just penalty of death. It was only when a sacrifice had thus been presented that the offender could be forgiven. Accordingly, it is declared in Leviticus 4:20, as always in the Old Testament: "The priest shall make an atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them." But, since the sacrifice served only typically and as a covering of sin until the appointed time when God should deal finally or righteously with sin in the death of Christ, the transaction was in complete on the divine side, sin necessarily being pretermitted. However, divine forgiveness as such was extended to the offender perfectly. Two New Testament passages shed light upon the nature and fact of this temporary divine dealing with sin. In Romans 3:25 reference is made by the word napeoiq to the pretermitting or passing over of sins aforetime, that is, before the cross; likewise in Acts 17:30 by the word unepeiSov—translated "winked at"—reference is made to the fact that in times past God did not then fully judge sin. It should be remembered, however, that the vast array of divine promises for full and perfect dealing with every sin thus passed over was all gathered up and accounted for by Christ on the cross eventually.
2. For the Unsaved. In this aspect of the general doctrine of forgiveness there is need for emphasis on the truth that forgiveness of sin is extended to the unsaved only as an integral part of the whole divine undertaking called salvation. Of the many transformations wrought by God in response to simple faith in Christ, the remission of sin is but one. Hence it should be observed that the forgiveness of sin can never be claimed by itself on the part of those who are unregenerate. Forgiveness is provided for them to infinite completeness, but may be secured only as a phase of God's whole work in salvation. Though too often supposed to be the truth, remission of sin for the unsaved is not equivalent to salvation. Forgiveness connotes subtraction, indeed, whereas all else in salvation is glorious addition. It is therefore written, "I give unto them eternal life" (John 10:28), and in Romans 5:17 reference is made, for example, to "the gift of righteousness."
3. For Christians Who Sin. The foundational truth respecting the believer in relation to his sins is the fact that when he was saved all his trespasses (the past, present, and future)—so far as condemnation may be concerned—were forgiven. This must be the meaning of the Apostle's word in Colossians 2:13, "having forgiven you all trespasses." So complete proves this divine dealing with all sin that it can be said, "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). The believer is not condemned (John 3:18), and therefore shall not come into judgment ("condemnation," John 5:24). It need only be remembered that, since Christ has borne all sin and since the believer's standing is complete in the risen Christ, he is perfected forever by reason of being in Christ. As a member in the household and family of God, the Christian—should he sin—of course is, as any child, subject to chastisement from the Father, but never to be condemned with the world (1 Cor. 11:31-32).
The cure for the effect of his sin upon himself is confession thereof to God. By this he is returned to agreement with God respecting the evil character of all sin. It is written: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). The simple act of penitent confession results with absolute divine certainty in the forgiveness and cleansing of the sin. The believer thus exercised about evil conduct should not wait until some change of feeling respecting the sin is experienced; it is his privilege to accept by faith that restoration which God so certainly promises as following at once. It may be added here that, though confession is always directed to God (cf. Ps. 51:4; Luke 15:18-19), there are times and situations when such admission should be extended to the person or persons wronged also. This will be especially true when those wronged are aware of the evil. However, it must be emphasized that confession is primarily made unto God and should in the vast majority of experiences go no further.
As for the effect of the believer's sin upon God, it may be observed how, were it not for that which Christ has wrought and that which He undertakes when the Christian sins, the least sin would have the power to hurl the one who sins from the presence of God and down to eternal ruin. In 1 John 2:1 it is asserted that Christ advocates before God for the believer without delay at the very time that he sins. By so much it is revealed that He enters a plea before God the Father in the court of heaven that He bore that very sin in His body on the cross. This is so complete an answer to the requisite divine judgment which, otherwise must fall upon the believer that by such advocacy He wins here the exalted title, "Jesus Christ the righteous." There was a specific and separate dealing by Christ on the cross with those sins which the believer would commit. It is written, consequently, "He is the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 2:2). It is true, also, that he has become the propitiation "for the sins of the whole world." However, in any right understanding of the doctrine of divine forgiveness, a wide difference will be observed between the propitiation which Christ became for Christians and that which He became for the world of the unsaved.
4. In the Coming Kingdom. Being itself the manifesto of the King respecting the terms of admission into the Messianic kingdom as well as of conditions which are to obtain in that kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1-7:27) affords a specific indication of the terms on which divine forgiveness may be secured during the extended period. This indication is found in the prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) which Christ taught His disciples to pray during the period of His kingdom preaching to Israel—a time when His ministry was wholly confined to the proclamation of that kingdom. It is therefore imperative, if any semblance of a right interpretation is to be preserved, that this prayer, including the disclosure respecting divine forgiveness, be confined in its doctrine and application to the age unto which it belongs. In that age much is made of man's relationship to his fellow man. It is then that what has become known as the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12) has its proper place. The specific phrase in the prayer which discloses the terms of divine forgiveness reads: "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." No misinterpretation should be permitted here regardless of sentiment or custom pertaining to this prayer formula. The passage conditions divine forgiveness upon human alacrity to forgive. This could not apply to one who as a believer has been forgiven all trespasses already—past, present, and future; nor could it apply to the Christian who has sinned and who is subject consequently to chastisement, since of him it is written that if he but confesses his sin he will be forgiven and cleansed. The acts of confession and of forgiving others have no relation to each other whatsoever. This is the one petition in the prayer which Christ took up afterwards for a special comment and interpretation. It is as though He anticipated the unwarranted use of the prayer in this age and sought to make its character all the more clear. The comment of Christ reads: "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:14-15). No unprejudiced contemplation of this petition or of Christ's interpretation of it has ever rescued it from being in complete disagreement with the fact of divine forgiveness in the grace age. It is written, for example, in Ephesians 4:32: "And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you." Here a contrast between law and grace is again set up. To be forgiving because one has already been forgiven of God for Christ's sake is quite removed from the condition wherein one will be forgiven only in the measure in which he himself forgives. The latter belongs to a merit system such as will obtain in the kingdom; the former is in harmony with the present riches of divine grace.
5. The Obligation Between Men. Though, as stated above, the terms upon which divine forgiveness may be secured in the kingdom is that of having forgiven others, the motive for forgiving others in the kingdom proves similar to that under the present reign of grace, namely, the fact that one has been forgiven. This principle of action as one related to the kingdom requirements is declared by Christ in Matthew 18:21-35. A certain king forgave a debt of ten thousand talents—an enormous sum of money, whereupon the one thus forgiven refused to cancel a debt in the paltry amount of one hundred pence. That such an incident could have no place in the life of all who are perfected in Christ and therefore secure forever is learned from the closing verses of this portion, which reads: "And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (Matt. 18:34-35). The believer who belongs to this age is enjoined to be kind unto other believers, tenderhearted, and forgiving to one another even as God "for Christ's sake hath forgiven you."
6. The Unpardonable Sin. When Christ was on earth ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit, a peculiar sin was possible and might have been committed, namely, attributing to Satan the power of the Spirit thus manifested. For this sin there could be no forgiveness either in the age then present or the age immediately following (Matt. 12:22-32). It is evident that no such situation exists in the world now. It is wholly without warrant to suppose that any human attitude toward the Holy Spirit is a duplication of this evil and hence as unpardonable as the one sin of which Christ gave warning. An unpardonable sin and a "whosoever will" gospel cannot coexist. Were there an unpardonable sin possible today, every gospel invitation in the New Testament would have to exclude specifically those who had committed that sin.
7. A Sin Unto Death. The Apostle John writes of a sin resulting in physical death which believers may commit. The passage reads, "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it" (1 John 5:16). It will be remembered that, according to John 15:2 and 1 Corinthians 11:30, God reserves the right to remove from this life a believer who has ceased to be a worthy witness in the world. Such a removal does not imply that the one thus removed is lost; it only means a form of drastic chastisement and to the end that such may not be condemned with the world (1 Cor. 11:31-32).
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