15. The Forgiving God
One of the fascinating passages of Scripture in the New Testament is the description of our Lord’s post-resurrection appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. On that journey, our Lord taught these men what must have been the most exciting Bible study of all time. In the course of that journey, our Lord spoke these words to these two men:
25 And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27).
A little later, Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples:
44 Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:44-48).
How we would love to have been there when our Lord taught this lesson. At least we would like to have had this study recorded in the Scriptures.94 Even from the few words Luke has recorded, there are some important truths to be gained. First, we are told that Jesus’ suffering and glory are a subject repeatedly addressed in the Old Testament, which Peter indicates elsewhere (see 1 Peter 1:10-12). Second, we learn that Jesus taught His disciples about His suffering and glory from the beginning of the Bible to the events of His death, burial, and resurrection. Third, notice that what Jesus taught the disciples is, in essence, the gospel. The basis for the “repentance for forgiveness of sins,” which was to be proclaimed (as the gospel) “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (verse 47) is the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord.
Our subject for this lesson is the forgiveness of God, or in terms of an attribute of God, “the forgiving God.” We shall seek to follow the pattern of our Lord when considering the forgiveness of God. We will first show that God is characterized by being a forgiving God. Then, beginning in the first Book of the Bible, we will show how God’s purpose of forgiving sins has been accomplished in Christ.
In this lesson, more Scripture is cited with less commentary and interpretation because the Bible is very clear on the subject of the forgiveness of sins (as it is on many other matters), and I want to allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves on our subject. I urge you to read the Scriptures carefully to glean the beautiful story of our forgiving God, who has accomplished the “forgiveness of sins,” by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Repeatedly in the Scriptures God is represented as the God who forgives sins.
5 And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. 6 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:5-7).
17 “And they refused to listen, And did not remember Thy wondrous deeds which Thou hadst performed among them; So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But Thou art a God of forgiveness, Gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness; And Thou didst not forsake them” (Nehemiah 9:17).
5 For Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon Thee (Psalm 86:5).
4 But there is forgiveness with Thee, That Thou mayest be feared (Psalm 130:4).
9 “To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him” (Daniel 9:9).
Forgiveness of sins is so important because everyone is a sinner, and the consequences of sin are devastating:
15 Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:15-17).
22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. 24 So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every direction, to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24).
4 “The soul who sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:4b).
23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
12 Therefore, just as through one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—(Romans 5:12, parenthetical comment mine).
23 For the wages of sin is death, . . . Romans 6:23).
14 For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.… 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:14, 24)
12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:12-15).
From the first sin of mankind—the sin of Adam and Eve—it has become increasingly clear that only God can forgive sins. The words of the curse spoken by God in the Garden of Eden implied that He would remedy the problem of man’s sin through the offspring of Eve, who would defeat Satan:
15 And I will put enmity Between you [Satan] and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He [the woman’s seed, who will be the Messiah] shall bruise you on the head [a fatal wound], And you shall bruise him on the heel [a non-fatal wound]” (Genesis 3:15).
This is the first prophecy concerning man’s salvation by means of the forgiveness of sins and the defeat of Satan. It speaks of the coming Messiah, who will be of the woman’s seed (human), and who will defeat Satan while incurring injury to Himself.
God later clarified that the “seed” of the woman would be Abraham’s seed, and that through this “seed” all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). Through Abraham’s grandson, Jacob (later named Israel), the nation Israel was formed. The Israelites went to Egypt during Joseph’s life and stayed on some 400 years, until God led the Israelites out of their slavery to the Egyptians and brought them into the promised land of Canaan. God made a covenant with the nation Israel, giving them the Law on Mount Sinai. During Moses’ absence, the Israelites committed a great sin against God, making a golden calf and worshipping it as their “god” (Exodus 32). Only after the intercession of Moses did God consent to continue to be in the midst of this people as they entered into the promised land. When Moses sought to know God more intimately by seeing His glory, God revealed this about Himself to Moses:
18 Then Moses said, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” 19 And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exodus 33:18-19).
6 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7).
Several important facts emerge from these verses. First, forgiveness is the outworking of God’s compassion and grace. The God who “forgives iniquity” (34:7) is the God who is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (34:6). Forgiveness is a matter of divine grace. Second, because God’s forgiveness is a matter of grace, it is a gift of God’s sovereign grace. God bestows forgiveness on those whom He chooses to forgive. None are worthy of this grace, and thus no one has any claim on God’s grace as manifested in the forgiveness of sins. God said to Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (33:19). God forgives those whom He chooses to forgive. Forgiveness is something which we, as guilty sinners, have no right to expect or demand.
Third, the grace of God in forgiving sinners in no way sets aside the justice of God which requires the punishment of guilty sinners.
7 Who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:7, emphasis mine).
Some think they are being gracious when they overlook sin—when they simply refuse to deal with it. Many parents think they are gracious when they do not punish their children for disobedience. God’s grace does not set aside punishment for sins; it substituted the One who was punished for sin. Even at this very early point in the history of God’s dealings with His people, God makes it very clear that His grace does not mean He takes a soft view toward sin. God deals severely with sin. When He forgives men for sin, He still punishes that sin. The punishment for sin, as we shall see, is borne by the Lord Jesus Christ in the sinner’s place.
Finally, note that the forgiveness of sins in no way removes any obligation from the object of God’s grace to obey God. Based upon God’s self-revelation of His glory, and the declaration of His grace and compassion by which He forgives sin, Moses appeals to God for the Israelites :
9 And he said, “If now I have found favor in Thy sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession” (Exodus 34:9).
Moses pleads for divine forgiveness for his people and receives the assurance that God will be present with His people as He leads them into the land of Canaan. But immediately we see that the outgrowth of forgiveness is an obligation to live in accordance with the covenant God has established with His people:
10 Then God said, “Behold, I am going to make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform miracles which have not been produced in all the earth, nor among any of the nations; and all the people among whom you live will see the working of the Lord, for it is a fearful thing that I am going to perform with you. 11 Be sure to observe what I am commanding you this day: behold, I am going to drive out the Amorite before you, and the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite. 12 Watch yourself that you make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land into which you are going, lest it become a snare in your midst. 13 But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim 14 for you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God—15 lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and they play the harlot with their gods, and sacrifice to their gods, and someone invite you to eat of his sacrifice; 16 and you take some of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters play the harlot with their gods, and cause your sons also to play the harlot with their gods. 17 You shall make for yourself no molten gods” (Exodus 34:10-17, see also verses 18-26).
To be God’s people, and to have God dwell in your midst, requires a solution for sin. It also sets a standard of righteousness, which serves to define just what sin is. Thus, we find the declaration of the terms of the Mosaic covenant given immediately after Moses’ petition for grace and forgiveness for his people. They are the very commandments God sets down in Exodus 34:10-26, which are summed up in the ten commandments, and which the Israelites quickly begin to disregard and rebel against, as we shall soon see.
If sin cannot be overlooked but must be punished, how can this be accomplished? Under the Old Testament Law, men could offer sacrifices to God for their sins. In particular, the annual Day of Atonement was the occasion when the sins of the nation Israel were dealt with for the past year:
29 “And this shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; 30 for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you shall be clean from all your sins before the Lord. 31 It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute. 32 So the priest who is anointed and ordained to serve as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement: he shall thus put on the linen garments, the holy garments, 33 and make atonement for the holy sanctuary; and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar. He shall also make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 Now you shall have this as a permanent statute, to make atonement for the sons of Israel for all their sins once every year.” And just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so he did (Leviticus 16:29-34).
The annual Day of Atonement did not really put away sin; it simply put off divine judgment. Were we to liken the sins of Israel to a financial debt, the sacrifice offered on the Day of Atonement did not pay off the principle; it only paid off the interest for the past year. Sin was not put away; it was put off for another year. Year after year, the debt increased. Someday, somehow, there must be payment for the sin. And so there would be.
The nation Israel very quickly began to sin against God by disobeying His covenant. Over and over again the Israelites sinned, and over and over God graciously put up with this willful and disobedient people (see Deuteronomy 1-3; Nehemiah 9:6-38; Psalm 78; Daniel 9:4-15). Finally, the first generation was forbidden to enter into the promised land. They died in the wilderness, and their sons and daughters were about to enter that land as the Book of Deuteronomy begins. The Mosaic Covenant is once again reiterated, the ten commandments being repeated in Deuteronomy 5. But there is no note of optimism here. The problem underlying Israel’s rebellion is the condition of the hearts of the Israelites:
29 ‘Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever! (Deuteronomy 5:29).
4 “Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4).
In Deuteronomy, it is clear that the Israelites will not keep God’s covenant with them and that the nation will experience the “cursings” spelled out in the book, especially in chapter 28. In spite of their disobedience, there is still hope for the nation because God is a forgiving God, and His forgiveness is not based upon man’s worth or merit. Consequently, Moses tells the people that after they have been driven out of the promised land and lived in captivity among the nations, God will fulfill His promises and bless this nation:
1 “So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind in all nations where the Lord your God has banished you, 2 and you return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, 3 then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back. 5 And the Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers” (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).
God promises to bring about His promises to His people when they have repented and returned to Him. He goes on to indicate that the repentance of the Israelites is the result of His work in their hearts, giving them a new heart and soul, which seeks to please Him and which loves to keep His commandments:
6 “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. 7 And the Lord your God will inflict all these curses on your enemies and on those who hate you, who persecuted you. 8 And you shall again obey the Lord, and observe all His commandments which I command you today. 9 Then the Lord your God will prosper you abundantly in all the work of your hand, in the offspring of your body and in the offspring of your cattle and in the produce of your ground, for the Lord will again rejoice over you for good, just as He rejoiced over your fathers; 10 if you obey the Lord your God to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this book of the law, if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 30:6-10).
The words which follow these verses seem difficult to square with the Law and what it requires:
11 “For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ 14 But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:1-14, emphasis mine).
How can Moses possibly say the Law is “not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach” (verse 11), especially when compared to the final words of Joshua written some time later:
14 “Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
16 And the people answered and said, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17 for the Lord our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and who did these great signs in our sight and preserved us through all the way in which we went and among all the peoples through whose midst we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites who lived in the land. We also will serve the Lord, for He is our God.”
19 Then Joshua said to the people, “You will not be able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” 22 And Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves the Lord, to serve Him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 “Now therefore, put away the foreign gods which are in your midst, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and we will obey His voice.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made for them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be for a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord which He spoke to us; thus it shall be for a witness against you, lest you deny your God” (Joshua 24:14-27, emphasis mine).
It seems strange for Joshua to urge the Israelites to choose to serve the Lord and then, when they do, tell them that doing so is impossible. How strange to urge the Israelites to submit to the Mosaic Covenant and then tell them doing so is not possible. His words to the people of Israel make it sound as if choosing to follow God is suicide. How can we square the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 with the words of Joshua in Joshua 24:19-27?
We need look only a little further in the Book of Deuteronomy.95 We have already seen from Deuteronomy 5:29 and 29:4 that the problem is one of the heart. The Israelites need a heart inclined toward God, a heart that loves His commandments and delights to obey them. The Israelites need a heart to see beyond the commands to the principles which underlie them and to grasp what the Law is all about.96 In Deuteronomy 30, God looks to a distant time far down the corridor of history, a time when the nation has experienced the cursings of the Law, when they have been driven from the land and made captives in another distant land:
64 “Moreover, the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known. 65 And among those nations you shall find no rest, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul. 66 So your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life. 67 In the morning you shall say, ‘Would that it were evening!’ And at evening you shall say, ‘Would that it were morning!’ because of the dread of your heart which you dread, and for the sight of your eyes which you shall see. 68 And the Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships, by the way about which I spoke to you, ‘You will never see it again!’ And there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer” (Deuteronomy 28:64-68).
It is a time when the people of Israel repent and return to the Lord their God (Deuteronomy 30:1-2). Israel’s repentance does not originate with this “stiffnecked and stubborn people” (compare Exodus 32:9). Rather, it is the result of God’s working in them, giving them a new heart and soul to seek and to serve Him:
6 “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
When we look carefully at the words of Deuteronomy 30:11, we should make a very crucial observation:
11 “For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. 12 “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ 14 But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:1-14, emphasis mine).
The commandment is one commandment—not ten or more. This one commandment is being commanded, and this one commandment is not too difficult. What is this (one) command? It is, in effect, to “turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 30:10). If the Law were to be summed up in one commandment, what would it be? We know the answer from Scripture:
34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment” (Matthew 22:34-38, emphasis mine).
The commandments of the Law are impossible for men to keep to avoid sin or to bring about the forgiveness of sins. This is what Joshua tells the Israelites whom he is leaving behind at his death. History has shown that God’s people cannot keep the Law. If they suppose their law-keeping will bring about God’s blessings and assure them of God’s forgiveness, they are wrong. Law-keeping only proves men to be guilty sinners, worthy of death:
19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:19-20).
The one commandment God has for men is that they love God with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. Why is this commandment not difficult? It is not because men are capable of doing so on their own. It is because it is impossible, and thus God will accomplish this work Himself:
6 “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Paul emphasizes this in Romans 10:
4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. 5 For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. 6 But the righteousness based on faith speaks thus, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), 7 or ‘Who will descend into the ABYSS?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, 9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; 10 for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation (Romans 10:4-10).
The reason this commandment is easy is because God has accomplished forgiveness of sins for us; He is the One who enables men to love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. It is easy because all we need is to believe in Him, by faith, and even that faith comes from God!
Because the forgiveness of sins was not something men could bring about, men of God looked forward to the time when God would accomplish this task, as we see in the Psalms:
1 A Song of Ascents. Out of the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord. 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let Thine ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. 3 If Thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with Thee, That Thou mayest be feared. 5 I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, And in His word do I hope. 6 My soul waits for the Lord More than the watchmen for the morning; Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the Lord; For with the Lord there is lovingkindness, And with Him is abundant redemption. 8 And He will redeem Israel From all his iniquities (Psalm 130:1-8; see also Psalm 86).
In the Book of Deuteronomy, God foretold the consequences for turning from God and failing to keep covenant with Him. God foretold the defeat of the Israelites and that their enemies would drive them from their land and take them captive in a far away land (Deuteronomy 28:58-68). God then spoke of the future deliverance of the Israelites after He had given them a new heart (Deuteronomy 30:1-6). When the Jews were in captivity in Babylon, the prophets prayed and prophesied concerning the day when God would fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant. It soon became clear that this would not take place at the end of Judah’s 70 years of bondage in Babylon. It was revealed in prophecy:
31 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The forgiveness of sins was promised by God, not by means of the Mosaic Covenant, but by means of a “new covenant.” The exact nature of this “new covenant” was not yet disclosed, but more details would be disclosed through the prophet Daniel:
3 So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. 4 And I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed and said, “Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, 5 we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly, and rebelled, even turning aside from Thy commandments and ordinances (Daniel 9:3-5).
8 “Open shame belongs to us, O Lord, to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, because we have sinned against Thee. 9 To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him” (Daniel 9:8-9).
15 “And now, O Lord our God, who hast brought Thy people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and hast made a name for Thyself, as it is this day—we have sinned, we have been wicked. 16 O Lord, in accordance with all Thy righteous acts, let now Thine anger and Thy wrath turn away from Thy city Jerusalem, Thy holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Thy people have become a reproach to all those around us. 17 So now, our God, listen to the prayer of Thy servant and to his supplications, and for Thy sake, O Lord, let Thy face shine on Thy desolate sanctuary. 18 O my God, incline Thine ear and hear! Open Thine eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Thy name; for we are not presenting our supplications before Thee on account of any merits of our own, but on account of Thy great compassion. 19 O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and take action! For Thine own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Thy city and Thy people are called by Thy name” (Daniel 9:15-19).
24 “Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy place. 25 So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. 26 Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined. 27 And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.” (Daniel 9:24-27).
Daniel confesses his sins, and the sins of his people, and asks God to forgive his people and bring them back into the promised land, to Israel and Jerusalem, based upon His covenant promises and upon the prophecy of Jeremiah (Daniel 9:1-2; Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10). In response to Daniel’s prayer (9:3-19), the angel Gabriel appears after some delay (9:20-23) and explains how the promise is to be fulfilled (9:24-27). It was becoming more and more clear that some time was yet to pass before the forgiveness of sins was to be accomplished. Israel’s release from her Babylonian captivity and her return to the promised land was not synonymous with the fulfillment of God’s promise of Deuteronomy 30:6.
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the return of the former captives to Jerusalem and the promised land. Nehemiah 8 and 9 record the response of the Jews to the Law, and their acknowledgment of their sin and of God’s faithfulness. In spite of all this, the people of God took little time to return to their old ways, the ways of their fathers. The closing chapters of Nehemiah, and the writings of the later prophets, indicate that the work of God in creating a “new heart” in men has not yet been accomplished. The day of salvation is still future. The prophet Isaiah told of the coming of Messiah. It was He, in His sacrificial death, who would accomplish the forgiveness of sins:
4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:4-6).
The closing words of the Old Testament, recorded in Malachi 4, are words of warning concerning the wrath of God on sinners and words of hope, of renewed hearts.
At the very outset, it was clear that the Lord Jesus Christ came to fulfill God’s promise to forgive men’s sins and to create a new heart within. At the birth of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah, Zacharias, the father of John, said by the Holy Spirit:
76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on before the Lord to PREPARE His ways; 77 To give to His people the knowledge of salvation By the forgiveness of their sins, 78 Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high shall visit us” (Luke 1:76-78).
When John the Baptist commenced his public ministry, his message was simple:
3 And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; 4 as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight. 5 ‘Every ravine shall be filled up, And every mountain and hill shall be brought low; And the crooked shall become straight, And the rough roads smooth; 6 And all flesh shall SEE THE SALVATION OF God’” (Luke 3:3-6).
When John the Baptist saw Jesus, who presented Himself as the promised Messiah, he said:
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me’” (John 1:29-30).
In saying this, John the Baptist was identifying Jesus as the promised Messiah prophesied in type by the passover lamb and numerous other aspects of the Mosaic Covenant (see Colossians 2:16-17), and especially as spoken of in Isaiah 52:13–53:12.
When Jesus began His public ministry, it did not take long for Him to make it clear that His mission was to forgive sinners:
17 And it came about one day that He was teaching; and there were some Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing. 18 And behold, some men were carrying on a bed a man who was paralyzed; and they were trying to bring him in, and to set him down in front of Him. 19 And not finding any way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down through the tiles with his stretcher, right in the center, in front of Jesus. 20 And seeing their faith, He said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” 22 But Jesus, aware of their reasonings, answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins have been forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,”—He said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, and take up your stretcher and go home.” 25 And at once he rose up before them, and took up what he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God. 26 And they were all seized with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen remarkable things today” (Luke 5:17-26).
29 And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax-gatherers and other people who were reclining at the table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:29-32).
47 “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” 49 And those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:47-49).
1 Now all the tax-gatherers and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. 2 And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 And He told them this parable, saying, 4 “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ 7 I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:1-7).
Our Lord’s actions and words in Luke 5:17-26 are truly remarkable. Jesus boggled the minds of those who understood the implications of what He was doing. If we have learned anything from the Old Testament, it is that God alone can forgive sins. God’s solution for sinners was the coming of Messiah, who would bear the sins of men. When Jesus was confronted with a paralytic, lowered through the roof, He did not deal with his physical malady first, but with his greater spiritual dilemma—his sins. When Jesus told this man that his sins were forgiven, Jesus claimed far more than people expected. A mere man might be able to cast out demons or to perform miracles of healing. But only God can forgive sins. When Jesus healed this man and forgave him of his sins, Jesus boldly proclaimed that He was Messiah, the One who had come to accomplish the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation. It is He who can and will change the hearts of men to love God and men.
As the time came for our Lord to be crucified for our sins, He spoke these words to His disciples as He instituted the Lord’s Supper:
26 And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28, emphasis mine).
The writer to the Hebrews shows how the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus is superior to the Old Testament sacrifices. The Old Testament sacrifices put off God’s judgment of sin, the New Testament (new covenant) sacrifice of the Lord Jesus was the judgment of God on sin, thus accomplishing the eternal forgiveness of sins, for all who are in Christ by faith in His work at the cross of Calvary:
1 For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. 5 Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired, But A BODY Thou hast prepared for Me; 6 In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin Thou hast taken no pleasure. 7 “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (In THE ROLL OF THE BOOK IT IS WRITTEN OF ME) To do Thy will, O God.’ “ 8 After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices for sin Thou hast not desired, nor hast Thou taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), 9 then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Thy will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. 10 By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 And every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. 14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, And upon their mind I will write them,” He then says, 17 “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” 18 Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin (Hebrews 10:1-18).
The forgiveness of sins has been accomplished, once and for all, by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. He was sinless, yet He bore our sins, so that we might be forgiven. God did not overlook our sins, but punished them in Christ. The good news of the gospel is that those who believe in Jesus Christ can have their sins forgiven:
45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:45-48).
The apostles were to proclaim, both to Jews and to Gentiles, that God had provided forgiveness for sins through His Son, Jesus Christ. And this was the message they consistently preached:
31 “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31).
43 “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43).
38 “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:38).
7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1:7; see also Colossians 1:14).
The forgiveness of sins is not man’s work, but God’s. In Acts 5:31, Peter announced that God not only granted forgiveness of sins, but also repentance. Men are to repent, but it is God who brings men to repentance. Salvation is the work of God and not of men. Forgiveness of sins is entirely God’s work, and all we must do to receive it is to believe in Jesus Christ, to trust in His sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection. Forgiveness of sins is impossible for men to accomplish, but God has accomplished the impossible through His Son, Jesus Christ. In order to receive this forgiveness, we need to confess our sins, to acknowledge our rebellion against God and the fact that we are deserving of His eternal wrath.
9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
We receive the forgiveness of our sins by faith (Luke 7:48-50), by believing in the work of Christ on the cross of Calvary as the full and final payment for our sins (Acts 10:43; Hebrews 9 & 10). We are to confess our sins (Psalm 32:5-6; 1 John 1:9) and to repent of them (Psalm 32:1-7; 51 (all); Jeremiah 36:3; Luke 3:3; 17:3-4; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 5:32; 8:22). We then simply ask God to forgive us (Psalm 79:9), know that He is a forgiving God, who is ready to forgive (Psalm 86:5).
Salvation is about the forgiveness of our sins. How often the gospel is obscured on this very crucial point. “Sin and its consequences are such a negative, unpleasant, subject,” some seem to reason, “that I won’t dwell on them.” The word “saved” implies that those thus “saved” are in peril and are rescued from it. Unless men grasp the magnitude of their sin, and the even greater magnitude of its consequences, men will not sense the need for salvation. This is why the Holy Spirit was sent to convict men of “sin, righteousness, and judgement” (John 16:8-11). If the Spirit is to convict of these things, then surely our gospel must speak of them.
What a disservice (I may be speaking far too kindly here—Paul would likely call it another gospel, heresy—see Galatians 1:6-10) we do to men in this therapeutic age when we speak of the great problems of life as sicknesses and phobias and addictions, rather than as damnable sins. How dare we speak in terms of long-term therapy (at a very high price), and not of instant forgiveness. How can we encourage people to “look within” for the power to escape sin, rather than to look to Christ.
The problem with men in this culture is not that they are too “sinful,” but that they are to “sick” or, worse yet, too self-righteous. There is a solution for sin. The cross of God is that solution. There is forgiveness for sins, a forgiveness which God has provided in Christ. You are never too sinful to be saved, you can only be too self-righteous. Have you confessed your sins and trusted in Jesus Christ as God’s provision for your forgiveness? Will you? There is no more comforting truth in all the world than this: Christ Jesus came into the world to forgive sinners. As the hymn writer put it, “Tis music to the sinners ears, tis life and health and peace.”
David said it even better:
1 How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! (Psalm 32:1).
The Basis For God’s Forgiveness
(1) God’s sovereignty—freedom to choose (Exodus 33:19)
(2) God’s compassion and grace (Exodus 34:6-7); God is ready to forgive (Psalm 86:5; 130:4)
(3) God’s covenant (Exodus 32:13; Ezekiel 16:60-63)
(4) God’s faithfulness, as evident in history of Israel (Numbers 14:19)
(5) God’s reputation (Exodus 32:11-12), His name’s sake (Psalm 79:9; Daniel 9:19; 1 John 2:12)
(6) God’s promise to forgive (Deuteronomy 30; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Jeremiah 18:5-8)
(7) God’s provision for forgiveness in Jesus Christ
(8) Jesus is God (Mark 2:3-12) 
(9) Jesus shed His blood—He made atonement for our sins (Matthew 26:28; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; 2:13—in marginal note of Isaiah 22:14, “forgiven” is literally, “atoned for”)
(10) God’s gift in Christ is repentance and forgiveness (Acts 5:31)
(11) The gospel is the offer of forgiveness (Luke 24:47-48; Acts 2:38; 10:43)
Man’s Responsibility and Forgiveness
(1) Faith (Luke 7:48-50); Belief (Acts 10:43)
(2) Confess (Psalm 32:5-6; 1 John 1:9)
(3) Repent (Psalm 32:1-7; Jeremiah 36:3; Luke 3:3; 17:3-4; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 5:32; 8:22)
(4) Ask (Psalm 79:9)
Those Whom God Will Not Forgive
(1) Those whose “repentance” is false—Exodus 10:16-17
(2) Those who sin willfully—Deuteronomy 29:17-21; Hebrews 10:26-31
(3) Those who reject God’s forgiveness and strive on their own—Joshua 24:19-20
(4) Those who persistently rebel against God, who refuse to believe in His Word, and who reject the inspired warnings God gives through His prophets—2 Kings 24:1-4
(5) Those who evidence that they have not experienced God’s forgiveness by their own lack of forgiveness—Matthew 6:12-15
(6) Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit, who is God’s instrument for convicting men of sin and of saving them through faith in Christ—Matthew 12:22-37
(7) Those whose sins have been “retained” by the church, acting on God’s behalf (in effect, those who refuse to repent when confronted and rebuked for their sin)—John 20:22-23
94 In fact, it is recorded in Scripture, but it comes from the pens of the inspired authors of the New Testament. We find a great deal of our Lord’s material in Peter’s preaching in the Book of Acts and much further insight from the writings of men like Paul.
95 If we were to abandon our progressive study of the Scriptures, we could go straight to Romans 10, where Paul cites from Deuteronomy 30. But we shall look to Deuteronomy itself for the answer.
96 This is what the psalmist seeks, as evident in Psalm 119.