How do we Obtain Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a state that we are in due to our relationship with God. Walking in the light, we still sin, but God is with us. We obtain forgiveness as part of our state.
David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.2 Sam 12:13 (ESV)
I have committed a great sin, adultery and murder, and I am burning up from it. David says “when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long”.
Have you ever felt that? Ever tossed and turned all night long or even for a stretch of the night, knowing that you have put yourself in a wrong position with God and yet unable to unburden yourself in prayer? Have you ever despaired, thinking that you could not obtain forgiveness?
Do you know the joy of finally unburdening yourself, opening yourself to God in prayer, crying your heart out and becoming aware that He hasn’t left you and He is as anguished as you are about this state of mind that is separating you from Him?
Note that it is your state of mind that separates you, not God’s disapproval.
What many people think is that you must obtain forgiveness to return you to a right position with God. This article explores this concept.
Walking in the Light
In another article, I have probed into the state of those who walk in the light. John discusses this in his first epistle, chapter 1.
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.1 Jn 1:7-10 (ESV)
One thing that gives me comfort when I know that I have sinned is that last sentence. “If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us”. As Paul reminds us in Romans 3:23 and again in 5:12, everyone sins and comes short of the glory of God.
It is possible to walk in light and sin
The fact is that it is possible to continue to walk in the light and yet sin. Sin is the evidence of our old self’s dying gasps as he is being purged from us to be replaced by our new creation in Jesus.
Does this idea of walking in the light and yet still sinning, conflict with Paul’s words in Rom 6?
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.Rom 6:1-4 (ESV)
John seems to suggest that you can sin all you like and still walk in the light. Paul says those who are baptised are dead to sin.
No Longer Slaves to Sin
Of course, the answer to this is clarified by considering both texts in conjunction. There is an attitude that endures in those who are of the light and who have formed a covenant relationship with God (symbolised in the obedience of baptism). This is a repudiation of sin in all its forms. It doesn’t mean that you don’t sin, it means that you hate it, repent of it and always return to God. You obtain forgiveness, but you also live in a state of forgiveness.
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.Rom 6:6 (ESV)
We are no longer slaves to our sins. Our sins have no hold over us. They are put aside from us “as far as the east is from the west”. You obtain forgiveness.
as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.Psa 103:12 (ESV)
How does God feel about this?
To get a sense of how God feels about us when we do sin, read the next verse here:
Brown-Driver-Briggs tells us that “racham” means:
to love, love deeply, have mercy, be compassionate, have tender affection, have compassionDriver, Charles A. Briggs, James Strong, and Wilhelm Gesenius. The Brown–Driver–Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic : Coded with the Numbering System from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996
It has the sense of a father cuddling and comforting his child.
So in our sins, God cuddles us, He comforts us and holds us tight. What a way to obtain forgiveness!
This is an innate part of our wonderful God:
And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy (racham) on whom I will show mercy (racham).Exo 33:19 (ESV)
How do we obtain forgiveness?
So far, I think it is evident that God extends forgiveness to us according to His grace, but one area that I think we are often less cognisant of is how we access this grace and mercy.
Matthew’s gospel is a good place to start. In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus invites us to pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others”, and here is his commentary on this:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.Matt 6:14-15 (ESV)
I would hesitate to say that this is truly a prayer for forgiveness as many seem to think. He is merely suggesting that we ask God’s mercy on us as we have mercy on others. This is a well-established principle as identified in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18.
The parable ends with a scary declaration:
So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”Matt 18:35 (ESV)
An Attitude that obtains forgiveness
So, in some sense, forgiveness is predicated on an attitude in the one forgiven. This is pretty well portrayed in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:
Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.2 Cor 2:5-8 (ESV)
How do we respond to someone who has caused us “pain” (perhaps similar to Matthew 18’s “sinned against you”)?
By reaffirming our love for that person.
Unconditional, ethereal, otherworldly love such as is extolled in First Corinthians:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.1 Cor 13:4-7 (ESV)
That’s pretty huge, and it is what God expects us to demonstrate for others, including those who have “wronged” us.
Indeed, if someone has fallen into transgression against God, then our response should be to rescue that person:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.Gal 6:1-2 (ESV)
So there is a predisposition that allows God to freely forgive us – for us to obtain forgiveness:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.Eph 4:31-32 (ESV)
But is it actually a predisposition? Note that last phrase “as God in Christ forgave you”. Not, “as God will forgive you in Christ.”
We don’t need to “obtain” forgiveness
In a sense, we don’t “obtain forgiveness” because forgiveness is a present possession. We access it through Jesus. As people who walk in the light, “the blood of Jesus, His son, cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7)
There is no vending machine in which we pop a coin of prayer and in response we receive a can of forgiveness. We do not obtain forgiveness like this.
The passage in 1 John 1:7-10 references us confessing our sins and Jesus forgiving them. But what does this really mean? For each specific sin, we must remember to pray and confess it and only then will I obtain forgiveness? If that’s the case, then I am dead. I have no chance of salvation. I do not obtain forgiveness and perhaps liable to the punishment of Hebrews 10 for the unrepentant sinner.
What is Confession?
Or perhaps confession means something else in scripture.
Perhaps confession is what the Psalmist writes of in Psa 51.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.Psa 51:17 (ESV)
Or in Isaiah 55.
“Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.Isa 55:6-7 (ESV)
Was the woman in Luke’s gospel forgiven in prayer or was it something else?
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”Luke 7:47-49 (ESV)
Consider for a moment her attitude towards Jesus.
Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.Luke 7:44-46 (ESV)
What was her attitude? It had to be that she understood who Jesus was, she clearly understood her inadequacy, she rejected her own pride and threw herself on Jesus’ mercy. Her attitude called for his mercy and she found it in abundance.
Those who walk in the light have a particular attitude that exhibits itself in our behaviours towards our God and towards others. A relationship with God places us in a state of forgiveness. Our confession is our “proclamation” of our utter reliance on God in everything we are and do. Our confession of sins is an acknowledgement of our desperate need for God.
The principal acknowledgement of our state is when we are buried with Christ in baptism that we might live with him. Our continued confession is revealed in our treatment of others in humility. Though rightly (according to the laws of this world), someone owes us something, an apology or some other rectification, we remember the great gift that has been given us in Jesus and we readily and with love, freely forgive the person who owes us.
We don’t need to obtain forgiveness through asking
We don’t need to pray for forgiveness. I don’t think the scripture teaches us this. We need to demonstrate that we understand that without God’s grace, without Jesus, we are dead in trespass and sins. I think it a reasonable response, when we realise that we have sinned that we acknowledge this to God, that’s the logical approach of someone who is always seeking to live with God and Jesus in their lives. God’s forgiveness, Jesus’ forgiveness is not predicated on this specific acknowledgement.
Authentic living with others in the light means that we might even go further than this. We might find a need to acknowledge our state to others and seek their prayers. James talks about this in his epistle:
And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.Jas 5:15-16 (ESV)
We must be merciful
When someone pours out their heart to us, it is incumbent on us that we have mercy. Living in a state of constant mercy towards others requires the sacrifice of our egos and this is difficult. I am really cognisant of this in my life. A large personal ego is one of my many failings and I do battle with it all the time. I am very grateful that the Psalmist reminds us:
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.Psa 103:8-12 (ESV)
The fact is that we often fail in our mercy towards others. We often are difficult and unpleasant towards those who have crossed us. The human psyche tends towards revenge (even if in a passive aggressive way) towards those who have “done us wrong”. Therefore, we need the support of others who seek to walk in the light. Therefore, we should be open to confessing our state to one another and seeking their prayers of healing.
Forgiveness is not a Pattern
Forgiveness therefore is not a pattern of sin, pray, confess, receive forgiveness. It is a state that we are in due to our relationship with God. As forgiven, we are called on to live accordingly.
The writer of the Acts supports this:
And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”Act 10:42-43 (ESV)
Belief is the predicate of forgiveness according to the prophets. Thus, we might cry out in our joy as Micah did:
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.Mic 7:18 (ESV)
Or we can consider the words of Nathan to David:
David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.2 Sam 12:13 (ESV)
Nathan didn’t say “The Lord will also put away your sin”, it had already occurred. David was a believer and in his belief, he had access to forgiveness immediately. Nathan tells him that he already has God’s forgiveness (for murder and adultery!)
Forgiveness is a state that we are in due to our relationship with God. Walking in the light, we still sin, but God is with us.
We obtain forgiveness before we sin
Now this is challenging. Living in a state of forgiveness means that even before we commit a sin, we are forgiven. That’s wonderful for our sins of omission where we might not really be aware of our sin but consider our sins of commission.
In some degree, this means that as we head towards sin, as we succumb to temptation, we know that God will forgive us our sin.
Now for those who walk in Darkness, this might mean (in the words of Paul) that we “sin that grace may abound” but for those who walk in the Light this might be the last bit of strength we need to resist the sin and fight the temptation.
Make no mistake about it, as the sons of Adam, we are going to sin. John reminds us that if we say that we are without sin, we are liars. It’s going to happen and sometimes, those sins will be the last gasp of our dying old man.
We aren’t perfected yet and sometimes our ego is still enough to make us engage in some act of rebellion against our loving, patient Father. So, next time you find yourself heading towards this sin, just think to yourself, “Jesus has already forgiven me and is planning my rescue from this state”. Perhaps it will be enough for you to repent even before it happens.
Paul reminds us:
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.Col 1:13-14 (ESV)
So, walk in light in the kingdom of Jesus in whom we have already received the forgiveness of sins.