When we are forgiven for our sins, there are two fundamental aspects to this. First we are delivered, definitively, all at once, from the penalty of sin. Our sins and our lawless deeds God will remember no more. They are forgiven, meaning they won’t come up at all in the Day of Judgment. You need to think about this as though the angel of the Lord Himself was appointed as the foreman of your jury, and he entered the heavenly courtroom and read out the verdict. Pointing to the altar where Jesus sprinkled His own blood, he says, in a bright clear voice that the whole cosmos hears, “not guilty.” This is forgiveness proper.
But we are also delivered from the power of sin. There is a stark break with what might be called reigning sin (Gal. 5:24), which is followed by a progressive and unrelenting campaign against all remaining sin (Col. 3:5; Rom. 8:13). This is progressive; it is our ongoing sanctification. But if you think of this primarily as moral improvement, it is very easy to slip into a “peddle harder” approach to your sanctification, which is deadly. Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now going to finish in the flesh? An ongoing experience of grace—and a corresponding awareness that your sins are forgiven—is going to keep your growth in Christ fresh. When someone is not really growing in grace, one of the problems is forgetfulness of forgiveness. “For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (2 Peter 1:9, ESV).
Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it (Is. 1:10-20).
Summary of the Text:
Now as a minister of Christ, the message I have entrusted to deliver to you is a message of free grace, radical grace, nothing but grace. The message of the cross of Jesus, and the resurrection of that same Christ, is a message of everlasting and undeserved kindness. That being the case, and because our thought processes are so corrupted by sin, we have a hard time getting our minds around what God is actually offering to us.
Either we say that God is the only one doing the lifeguarding, and so He must be saving us from drowning by leaving us on the bottom of the pool, or we acknowledge that we must be saved from drowning by actually getting out of the pool, and concluding that we must by our own efforts help the lifeguard to save us.
Now being saved by grace means being saved by grace from sin (Rom. 6:14).
Being under law means being under condemnation for those sins that have you in bondage. Being under grace means you are liberated from that. The grace of God saves us from it all.
So consider how the prophet Isaiah presents this glorious reality. First, he addresses the Jews under the figure of Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 10). He asks the first what their intentions were in bringing Him “all these” sacrifices (v. 11). He asks them (sarcastically) who required you to show up here in my courts (v. 12). This thing you are doing, who told you to? He tells them to pack up all their liturgical gear, and get out (v. 13). Solemn meetings and iniquity do not go together. God hates their religiosity (v. 14). When they spread out their hands in a pious gesture, God turns away. Their hands are covered with blood (v. 15). Repent, turn away, and learn a different way (vv. 16-17). And then comes the glorious promise—a promise that only God could fulfill (v. 18). God makes them a most reasonable offer. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Though their sins be like crimson, they shall be like wool. The sins are blood red; the salvation is blood red; the forgiveness is pure white.
If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good of the land (v. 19). If you are stubborn and kick, then you will be destroyed (v. 20).
Forgiven Means Forgiving:
Now remember our issue with the horse and the cart. A sheep bleats because it is a sheep, and does so necessarily. But you don’t become a sheep by bleating. An apple tree produces apples because it is an apple tree, and does so necessarily. But a bramble bush can’t become an apple tree by growing apples. A person rescued from the bottom of the pool will be dried off, but we don’t hand him a towel on the bottom of the pool. You cannot rescue yourself by drying off under water.
And forgiven people forgive. That is just what happens. That is simply a description of what it is like.
“Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).
“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).
This is how absolute forgiveness is simultaneously absolute grace, free grace, and at the same time is morally rigorous. This is because God does not just give us cleansing from the defilement of sin—He also liberates us from the power of sin to defile. And one of the central defilements of sin is the refusal to forgive others. Someone who does not forgive others is someone who is demonstrating a profound spiritual cluelessness.
In His grace, God not only gives us forgiveness to cover our sins, He also gives us forgiveness to cover the sins of others. He gives us more grace than we thought, not less. So do not be like the foolish slave in the parable, who had his debt of millions forgiven, and then tried to choke a fellow slave over pocket change.
So be mindful first of the relational structure of forgiveness. God always gives forgiveness, and enough to share. If you don’t have enough to share, then this is evidence that you don’t have any at all.
What It Is Like:
Now with that warning registered, with that particular kind of moral blindness challenged, what is it like for a believer who has experienced the complete and entire forgiveness of God?
The first thing is to realize that the experience of forgiveness for our sins is a reality that comes to us from outside ourselves. We do not generate it. We do not manufacture it. We do not simply realize it. We do not come up with it ourselves. Our new status, that of being cleansed, that of put being right, that of being declared perfectly righteous, is a reality that comes to us from Christ. Our righteousness is grounded in realities that were manifested in Israel two thousand years ago.
“No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord” (Is. 54:17).
So our forgiveness is objectively grounded. What does it feel like subjectively? When objective forgiveness is granted to sinners, it has subjective consequences. What does it feel like to be forgiven? It is as though God were to take a hot and soapy sponge, and run it over every square inch of your internal gunk. There is not one filthy spot left.
“I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins. Put me in remembrance: let us plead together: Declare thou, that thou mayest be justified” (Is. 43:25–26).
Not only does He cleanse us from all unrighteousness, there is a glorious element of divine blood-bought forgetfulness. Isaiah says “will not remember thy sins.” In your prayers, you bring up (again) the fact that you cheated on that test in high school, that you lusted after your neighbor’s wife, that you envied the success of your older brother, that you were lazy when given hard physical job labor. And God looks at you as much as to say, “What are you talking about?”
As if that were not enough, we are given other glorious images of this. Who is a God like the Lord? There is no other god like Him. Why? Because we serve and worship a God who pardons iniquity. We serve and worship a God who, when confronted with the transgression of His heritage, walks right by it. He is a God who is not just “okay’ with mercy. The prophet tells us that He delights in mercy. This is all in the prophet Micah.
“Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, And passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He retaineth not his anger for ever, Because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; And thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18–19).
And notice what else God does according to Micah. He takes our sins . . . how many of them? . . . all of them, and He plunges them to the depths of the sea. To take an old Navy expression, He deep-sixes them. Where are your sins right now? They are at the bottom of the ocean. They will never be heard from again. Does any creature know about them? Maybe some blind deep sea critter will swim right by them, but we must reckon with the force of the illustration. Your sins are gone.
One last illustration in order to bless your soul.
“As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12).
If you go north for long enough, then at some point you will find yourself going south again. But if you head due west, there will never be a time when you find yourself going east. You will be going constantly west. As Kipling put it, in a completely different context, “east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall met.”
How far has God removed your sins from you? The answer provided in these illustrations from the prophets has a straightforward point. Your sins are gone far enough that you will never, ever encounter them again.
Your crimson sins are now white. Your bosom sins are now light years away. Your besetting sins have lost their grip on you. Your regrets have gone deep sea diving, someone cut the rope, and they are now lost somewhere on the bottom. Your bad and pernicious habits have, like Pharaoh’s army, got drown’ded.
And one last point to make, the final point, the ultimate point. The only way for your sins to be that far away from you is for the Christ who carried them to be close to you. And there is a mystery here. Christ is the one who bore our sins. Christ is the one who was made sin on our behalf. So if that sin-bearer is close, then the sins themselves are the utter opposite of close.
Hear the good news. If Christ is absent, our sins are not absent. If Christ is present, then our sins are absent. And how is Christ present? He is present in the Word proclaimed, and in the Word on this Table here, and He is apprehended as present by evangelical faith alone.