The type of forgiveness put forth in the Old and New Testament sets Christianity apart from all other faiths. Forgiveness is spoken of on a human to human basis and a God to human basis. While forgiving one another is an extremely important concept, I am seeking here to illumine some important ideas of God's forgiveness towards us in this article.
In Exodus 34:6-7 God defines himself. He descends in a cloud on top of Mt. Sinai to Moses, declaring his name and character. While I've written about all of the character traits he lists elsewhere, I am being struck deeply with the concept of forgiveness. Moses records that God forgives "iniquity, transgression, and sin" (ESV). The NIV puts it a little better when it says he forgives "wickedness, rebellion, and sin". Wouldn't it suffice for God to just say he forgives sin? Doesn't that encapsulate everything? Thought "sin" is a word nowadays that describes any wrong doing, their are interesting differences in the Hebrew words used in the text.
Wickedness: wrongdoing, with a focus of liability or guilt for this wrong incurred
Rebellion: revolt, i.e., to rise up in clear defiance to authority
Sin: to miss a mark or a way; what is an offense to a moral standard
God reveals that he is the one who forgives all of these things! He forgives guilty people who willfully and knowingly do wrong to others; he forgives those who clearly and intentionally rise up in defiance of his rightful authority, and he forgives those who miss the way he has laid out for mankind to live. God has a moral standard, we fail to meet that standard, and he is willing to forgive it. This is good news!
But, as you may imagine, there's more. The fact of the matter is that God makes it clear that he will "not let the guilty go unpunished", and this is a concept repeated throughout the Bible in one way or another. So, how can we guarantee God's forgiveness? Faith in the cross of Jesus Christ.
First, the cross. The cross says, basically, "your sin is this bad". It must be justly punished and death is the just punishment for sin. Death is the result of sin - from the first sin of Adam and Eve to every other person - all death can ultimately be explained by sin. It would not be wrong to say that even though there are thousands of "causes" for death ranging from murder to cancer to accidents, the foundational cause of death is the existence of sin. And so, God deals with sin perfectly in death. And this is why the death of Jesus on the cross, in my place, means so much to Christians. We realize that not only does God faithfully give the punishment for sin, but he graciously substituted his only Son in our place, dying for the forgiveness of our sin. In forgiveness God "lifts up", or takes away, our sin from us. He placed it on Jesus and gives us Jesus' righteousness as a gift (Romans 3:21-26). Martin Luther famously referred to this as "The Great Exchange".
Second, faith. We must receive this good news (Gospel means good news) as true and respond by repenting of sin. Repenting means basically to turn around, to do a 180 from the direction you were going and head in a new direction. To repent of sin and trust in Christ's death on the cross for you is what it means to place your faith in Jesus. It begins in an instant, when you acknowledge it as true and acknowledge your need for Jesus, and continues for the rest of your life as a Christian. Indeed, we must "live by faith", believing constantly that God's promises are true and his ability and willingness to forgive is as great as he says it is.
God's forgiveness runs deeper than you know, deeper than I know. It is impossible to overstate the importance of God's willingness to pardon us, to lift up our guilty sentence and give us, free for us but costing his Son, forgiveness. If you are a Christian, dwell on God's forgiveness in your life. If you are not a Christian, I plead with you to consider this good news, this Gospel. Do not assume God will wink at your rebellion, your disobedience, or even unknown sin in your heart. The way to a right relationship with the creator God who has made the earth and all that is in it is through faith in Jesus Christ. Trust that he is just in all his ways and will punish sin, and trust that he is gracious enough to freely forgive you in the name of Jesus.