The Problem of Forgiveness

Easter's Gospel

Series: Easter's Gospel

by D. Marion Clark March 26, 2014

During the weeks leading up to Easter our pastoral staff will tackle theological topics related to the resurrection in a series we're calling "Easter's Gospel."


"To err is human; to forgive, divine," wrote Alexander Pope in his "Essay on Criticism." Pope wanted literary critics to be good natured in their criticism of poets, to be somewhat forgiving of writer’s mistakes. We want the same—we expect the same—of God.

  • "No one is perfect."
  • "God knows my heart."
  • "I’m only human." 

All three statements are true; and that is the problem of forgiveness.

No One is Perfect

No human being is perfect, but God is. He is not merely perfect in power and knowledge, but more to the point, he is perfect in holiness and righteousness. We may forgive offenses committed against us, if only for the reason we are sinners in need of forgiveness. For God to forgive sin, without retribution carried out for the sin, would make the righteous God act unrighteously. And though we may forgive offenses committed against us, we cannot forgive offenses that harm others, nor can we declare an offender innocent, especially if he has broken the law. No one would applaud a judge who waved off the crimes of murderers and rapists. We would accuse him of being unjust. How then can we expect the Judge of all the earth to wave off the sins of his human creatures? We may want him to wave off our sins, but we would be appalled at his waving off the sins of those we consider wicked. No, no one is perfect—how then can God the Judge grant forgiveness for anyone?

God Knows My Heart

We are quick to own up to not being perfect. We acknowledge that we do make mistakes, maybe even sin; but in defense of ourselves, we will say that God nevertheless knows our heart. He knows we did not intend to harm anyone; we did not mean to sin. But Jesus said, "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander" (Matthew 15:19). The "mistake," the "unthinking word," is what comes from inside of us. Our very dilemma is that God does know our heart. He knows everything that is within our heart—every evil, immoral, shameful, self-centered, spiteful feeling. If the evidence against us only amounted to the actions and words that we remember doing and saying, perhaps we might have confidence in our ability to make up for the wrong. Maybe we could amass enough good deeds and kind words to offset the sins we have stacked up over the years. But God knows our heart. How can we stand up against what he sees? How can we even know all the sin that he sees?

I’m Only Human

And so we fall back on the last line of defense: "I’m only human." How can God expect us to live perfect lives when we don’t have it within us to do so? But God had originally made us with the capability. It was lost in the fall of our parents—Adam and Eve. But though the human condition changed, God’s condition did not. He remains holy and he cannot abide with sin. What then can we do? If God cannot forgive our sins and remain righteous; if we cannot atone for our sins; what hope do we have?

The Problem Solved

Our hope is in the One who said, "I have come to do your will" (Hebrews 10:7). And so Jesus Christ did come. He took on our flesh, and in that flesh lived the perfect, holy life. He achieved all righteousness. He then, as a righteous offering, made atonement for our sins. He took our sins and their guilt upon himself and received the just punishment for them, thus permitting righteous justice to take place. Our sins were paid for. They were forgiven. Not only that, he transferred to us—he covered us—with his righteousness, so that God the Father sees us, not as guilty sinners, but as righteous sons and daughters.

God remains righteous even as he provides forgiveness of sin through the righteous work of God the Son. The righteous God is the merciful God even as he upholds the demands of justice. And us? We are forgiven—truly forgiven. Our sins are not merely overlooked; they are forgotten. We are not merely tolerated; we are accepted as belonging to our Father. That is real forgiveness.