God’s steadfast love and mercy and his willingness to forgive, are intrinsic to his very character and were proclaimed as his glory passed before Moses (Ex 34:6–7).
The Psalmist praised the Lord, “who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy” (Psa 103:2–4).
A number of Hebrew words are translated “forgive” or “forgiveness” and these words themselves have their own ranges of meaning. So we find the ideas of covering, lifting up and carrying away, sending away, letting go, propitiation, having mercy and “remembering not” applied to what it is that God does with his people’s sins. Psalm 103:8–13 continues with a description of God, in tune with God’s declaration of himself in Exodus.
The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.”
Sin is the transgression of God’s commandments, rebellion against his authority. God is the judge of what constitutes sin, and the Judge of all the earth. God and God alone is the one offended by our sin (Psa 51:4) and only God can forgive those sins. Without that forgiveness, no one could stand and none could live. Our iniquities have separated us from God (Isa 59:2) and reconciliation is on his initiative (Psa 130:3–4; Rom 5:10–11; 2 Cor 5:18–19; Col 1:19–22).
So it must have surprised and outraged Jesus’ hearers when he claimed the prerogative to forgive sins. When Jesus confronted the paralytic (Mark 2:3–12) he perceived a greater need than physical healing. Instead of immediately curing the man’s paralysis, in response to the faith displayed he said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” On face value this was blasphemy; “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” reasoned the teachers of the law. Jesus challenged them; which was easier to say; “Your sins are forgiven?” or “Rise, take up your bed and walk?” Of course, both were just as easy to say, as mere words, but for anyone but God they would be hollow and meaningless and the epitome of presumption. Only God could heal a paralytic, and only God could forgive sins (Psa 103:2–4). Nevertheless, the healing was readily demonstrated, and would prove the credibility of the forgiveness: “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . .”
A similar challenge was met in Luke 7:36–50. The promiscuous woman had been forgiven, and showed her love in response by anointing Jesus’ feet in an act of worship. When challenged by his Pharisee host, he explained that her many sins had been forgiven, as demonstrated by her love. He made it clear to all present; “Your sins are forgiven,” to which those present responded, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” These are Jesus’ own claims, which demonstrate his self-understanding. When we read them today we can gloss over them, because the claims are so familiar — of course Jesus can forgive sins and raise the dead and speak with divine authority! But if we put ourselves in the perspective of the first century Jews who first heard these claims, they are astounding. Unedited and unqualified as they are, from the lips of Jesus, they are no less than the exercise of the unique prerogatives of God. CS Lewis puts it delightfully:
Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time . . . God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.
One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toes and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history. Yet (and this is the strange, significant thing) even His enemies, when they read the Gospels, do not usually get the impression of silliness and conceit. Still less do unprejudiced readers. Christ says that He is “humble and meek” and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of his sayings.” (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, in Selected Books (Great Britain:HarperCollins, 1999), 352–3).
The Greek word most commonly translated “forgive” in the New Testament is aphiemi, which has quite a wide semantic range; dismiss, release, remit, cancel, divorce, separate. This is the word used by Jesus in the two incidents described above and the vast majority of references to forgiveness in the synoptic gospels; the Lord’s prayer, Jesus’ teachings on forgiving others, the parable of the unmerciful servant and the command to forgive “seventy times seven.” John uses the word in his first letter: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9) and tells us our sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus the righteous, who is the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2,12).
In contrast, Paul uses the word charizomai, to be gracious to, give freely, cancel a debt, forgive wrongdoing. Paul’s emphasis echoes that of Jesus, in that forgiveness of others is the appropriate response to the forgiveness we have received. “Freely you have received,” said Jesus, “freely give.” Grace is not something to be received and hoarded away, it is something to reciprocate and pass on. Someone who is ungracious and mean, unforgiving and selfish has not really understood the grace he or she has received. It is an undeserved gift, by definition. God’s forgiveness is totally undeserved. We all deserve his wrath, not his compassionate forgiveness. It’s another angle on the “grace, not works” theme. It is by grace we are saved, through faith and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8–10). Good works are the response to that grace. God is a God of love, having existed eternally in a relationship of love he now calls us to share in that relationship. Our sins have prevented us having a relationship with the Holy God, so God himself provided the way of reconciliation, through his Son. It was wholly God’s initiative, which means it is secure.
“For the law was given through Moses,” says John, but “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”. He continues, in what might first appear to be an off-track statement; “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1: 14–18). Why did his readers need reminding of the fact that no one had ever seen God? Because John is telling us that now they have. Moses pleaded to see God, and God granted his request. He let all his glory pass before him and proclaimed his gracious character, merciful, gracious, loving and forgiving. John is not saying that when Jesus came to earth that was the first time grace and truth had appeared. On the contrary, this has always been the character of God. But as God with us, the Word made flesh, we have now been able to see, hear and handle him (1 John 1:1–2). “The one and only God, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” He who has seen Jesus has seen the Father (John 14:9).
Therefore, instructs Paul, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph 4:32)
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive (Col 3:12–13).
Only the sinless Son of God was qualified to bear our sins in our place and impart to us the gift of righteous standing before God. It wasn’t that God needed a reason to love us, he always loved us (John 3:16, 1 John 4:10, Rom 5:6) but he needed a means of reconciliation, achieved through Christ. “Behold the Lamb of God,” said John the Baptist, “Who takes way the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) John was in the mould of the Old Testament prophets, and he used two Old Testament referents, the sacrificial lamb (Gen 22:8) and the idea of carrying away sin, one of the major ways the Old Testament speaks of forgiveness.
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18–19). In Christ, God was reconciling, or as the KJV expresses it, God was in Christ, reconciling.
Of course Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, come from the Father’s side, bringer of grace and truth, of course he can forgive sins! Christ can do everything he sees the Father do (John 5:18–23), for he and his Father are one and we see God’s character, the very glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6).