What does it mean that God ‘forgives?’

*I began to write this post several days ago, planning to post it sometime in the near future. However, after reading this article this morning about the decision by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. to reject the hymn “In Christ Alone,” I had to go ahead and get it out. If you haven’t read this short article yet, please do so before you read what I have written below.

What does it mean that God ‘forgives?’ As believers we must be able to articulate this very important aspect of the Gospel. We must also understand it for ourselves if we are to experience gospel growth in our own lives.

First, we must understand that God’s forgiveness is not some capricious form of forgiveness. Many people live their lives with the hope that when God one day stands before them he will simply be ‘nice’ enough or loving enough to simply forgive them of any wrongdoing or guilt. They see themselves as relatively good people, but that is the problem…relative to what? The Bible does not allow us to measure our own goodness according to people around us. God will not judge our morality based on the goodness of others. After all, how good is good enough? The Bible clearly states that God’s standard for every person’s life can be found in his own moral perfection. As he states in Leviticus 11:44 (and Peter reiterates to us in the first chapter of his first letter), “…be holy for I am holy.” God’s forgiveness is not based on some willy-nilly feeling he has toward certain individuals. Nor is it based solely on his love, as if that is his only or supreme attribute. He is also completely just. He is a good judge who will not and cannot allow sin to go unpunished. His love and justice go hand in hand.

Second, God’s forgiveness is not based on anything that we have done. It is not as if he will forgive us based on our good works vs. our bad. There will be no scales on judgment day. Because his standard is moral perfection and holiness, there are simply not enough good works that we can do to attain that status. This is why the Scriptures tell us that “…none is righteous” (Rom 3:10), and that our righteousness is like “filthy rags” in light of God’s perfect holiness. God’s forgiveness cannot be earned.

So, how then does God forgive sinners and rescue them from the punishment for their sins and his wrath? One glorious word is important to insert here: propitiation. I love that word. It may even be my favorite theological word. It is an intimidating word because of its length, but I believe we desperately need to give it more air time. At the end of the day, the word can very easily be explained, and must be explained in order for anyone outside of Christ to understand why there can be NO forgiveness outside of what Jesus has done. Here is what it means.

  1. ALL sin is punished. It must be. God is bound by his own moral perfection and holiness. No sin can simply be overlooked. God is a good judge.
  2. Jesus made atonement for us. (Both through his perfect life and his sacrificial death)
  3. The Father was completely satisfied in the atonement Jesus made; therefore, Jesus became our propitiation. (propitiation = satisfaction)
  4. Jesus rose from the grave proving 2 important things: (1) He is who he said he was. (2) The payment he made on our behalf was accepted. The Father is completely satisfied in the payment made, and Jesus alone has accomplished complete victory over not only sin, but also its implications (death).
  5. Forgiveness is only available because the debt of transgression has been completely paid/punished AND accepted. This forgiveness is available through repentance of sin and placing trusting faith exclusively in Jesus and what he has accomplished.
  6. We, therefore, find ourselves in only one of two positions. (1) A child of wrath, having God’s punishment for my sins remaining upon me (Eph 2:3 clearly teaches this is who we are before faith in Christ) and destined to spend an eternity in Hell experiencing God’s wrath in punishment. (2) An adopted son of God, having right standing before God because my sin debt has been paid by a satisfactory substitute (Jesus), completely satisfying the Father and bringing reconciliation.

We can only be forgiven because God the Father has been fully satisfied by the sacrificial offering made by Jesus. The best illustration I have ever heard for this is a lightning rod. A lightning rod is placed at the top of a tall building for one purpose…to bear the fury of a lightning bolt in order to spare the building in the occurrence of a strike. Well, Jesus, in accomplishing what he did, willingly went to the cross, becoming sin even though he knew no sin (2 Cor 5:21). On the cross, the Father poured all of his anger and wrath toward our sin upon him, diverting it away from anyone who would come to repent of their sins and trust Jesus for salvation. Jesus absorbed every drop of our punishment for sin to the point that the Father was fully satisfied that justice had been upheld. Jesus is our lightning rod. As Ephesians 2 says, he absorbed the Father’s wrath so that we can become objects of his kindness for eternity. He was banished, his relationship broken temporarily with the Father, so that we could be brought near to the Father. God acted in hostility toward Jesus so that the hostility that existed between us and God might be killed, bringing reconciliation to all who would approach God through faith in Jesus.

I saw a quote on twitter not long ago posted by one of my professors at Southeastern. The quote was by A. W. Tozer, in which he says,

“Were I asked to focus the New Testament message in three words, my proposal would be ‘adoption through propitiation.'”

So, if Tozer were to summarize the entire New Testament message in 3 words, this word propitiation would be one of the key words he would choose. That is how important it is. To understand God’s forgiveness, we must understand propitiation! The more we come to understand it, the more we will come to glory every time we hear it spoken!

Here is also a very well written article I found dealing specifically with the PCUSA/Getty issue. http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/07/no-squishy-love

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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