What does God actually do when He forgives us our sins? We often throw around the word “forgiveness,” I think, as an abstract concept in our Christian talks. Yet how are we to understand this concretely? To forgive, after all, is a verb; it’s an action. So, what does God actually do—or enact—when He forgives us?
The Scriptures are filled with an immense plethora of examples of God’s actions when He forgives, all of which are beautiful images that can be described in no other way than the word we’re all familiar with: grace. For grace is to receive the good you do not deserve rather than the bad you do deserve for literally no reason other than that it pleases the one doing the good to you.
My aim here is not to provide an exhaustive list of God’s forgiveness as His actions. That would better suit a Master’s or even doctoral thesis. Instead, I will cover those that appear most evocative for me. The idea of writing on this first came to me in a dream a couple days ago. In my dream, for some reason I had the idea to write about what forgiveness is and began actually writing down an outline in my dream lest I forget. I woke up thinking, “Maybe I should start writing that… Naahhh.” Unfortunately, I eventually forgot what that outline was I “wrote down” in my dream. But then the idea resurfaced as I was reflecting on the 5th petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
When I woke up from my dream, a question was pounding at the forefront of my consciousness: What does the act of forgiveness encapsulate? We don’t just say we forgive one another; we actually do it. So, how do we properly do that forgiveness to one another? Because our forgiveness of one another flows first and foremost from God’s forgiveness of us, our act of forgiving must look like God’s act of forgiveness. So, what does God’s forgiveness look like? What does He do?
The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
The first image that came to mind as I’ve been pondering on these questions is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s a long text, so I’m not going to cite the entire text, but feel free to read it on your own to become familiar with it. While proper scholarship focuses on all three characters of Jesus’ parable—the prodigal son, the son who stayed, and the father—I want to focus primarily on the father’s act, who represents God the Father.
In this parable, what does the father’s forgiveness look like? What does the father do? After who knows how long, the father’s son finally returns home. The father does not question his son’s whereabouts. Neither does he demand he explain himself. This is remarkable considering the son demanded his father’s inheritance early, which was literally to wish his father dead. Instead of doing these things we would expect a father to do, what does the father actually do?
“And [the son] arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (v. 20). While his son was still a long way off, the father felt compassion, ran to him, embraced him, and kissed him. As the son began confessing his sins to his father (v. 21), the father literally ignores him and says to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (vv. 22-24).
Even though the son brings up his sins and his errors, the father doesn’t even consider it. It’s already forgiven. Instead, he welcomes him back into the family and calls for a celebration feast. Even more, his son is made alive.
When you and I are lost, wandering in our iniquities, and we return to the Lord confessing all our sins, God the Father is filled with so much compassion for you and me. Indeed, He hears our confession, but He is not concerned with the laying out of your sins but with welcoming you back into the family, calling for a celebration feast, and making you alive.
This is all fulfilled in Christ. In Christ, you are welcomed into the family: “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). He welcomes you to the feast at the Lord’s Table with Jesus’ body and blood truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, literally feeding you His forgiveness. And in Christ, God the Father makes you alive: “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” (Romans 6:4).
Thus, one image we have of God’s doing forgiveness to you is that of a father running to His long lost child, not laying on him questions of his whereabouts and demanding explanations, but bringing Him back into the family, throwing a feast celebration, and making him alive again. No questions asked. What a beautiful image!
There are many other images that portray God’s act of forgiveness. The prodigal son is simply my favourite and it’s the only one I’ll cover here. What are some images from Scripture that come to mind for you?
Still, there are two other acts we see. The second takes the form of speech.
Justification by Faith/Declaration of Innocence
Justification by faith occurs on the cross of Christ, which is faith (belief) in who Jesus is and what He did on the cross as well as His resurrection. Yet as my prior focus was on what God does when He forgives, here my focus will be on what He says, which is nevertheless still God’s act/doing.
Whenever God speaks, He acts. God literally spoke the entire universe into existence, and when He spoke, He acted—that is, He created. When God speaks a promise, He acts on that promise. God also acts on threats He warns with. Yet we are concerned with His promise here, specifically His spoken declaration of justifying you, or making you right with Him, or declaring you innocent because of Christ’s perfect obedience. So, as we think of God’s spoken declaration of our forgiveness/justification, we must properly understand it as God’s actual doing as well.
I believe the best way to understand what God does here is by picturing what takes place during justification as in a courtroom. I believe I spoke it well on my Good Friday sermon for 2020:
“Justification by faith” is a legal term; we also call it “forensic justification.” So, let’s think of what Jesus did in terms of the court of law. Specific laws and its systems have changed throughout history in its different empires, but the one common thing among them all is that the person being accused needs to be proven of his guilt. We know what this looks like; we have a lot of TV shows that portray this. The accused typically has a defence attorney arguing on his behalf while the prosecuting attorney argues for his guilt. Both lawyers lay evidence before the judge and the jury that would prove either his guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.
Only, God’s Court of Law is vastly different. God the Judge is omniscient—He knows all things; He doesn’t need a jury, though certainly His angelic hosts would be watching your court case. You stand before God the Judge guilty of all the things you’ve done, even the things left undone but you thought about doing. You cannot prove your supposed innocence because it’s non-existent. You know the bad things you’ve done, even the ones you think you’ve hidden! On the scales of justice, all the bad you’ve done always far outweigh all the good you’ve done. In fact, all the “good” you’ve done are considered bad because of your sinful nature!
Even worse, you don’t have a defence attorney. No one comes to your defence because there is nothing to defend! The only lawyer who stands before the Judge is Satan, whose very name in Hebrew means “Accuser.” Satan does what he does best: he accuses you of everything you’ve done and left undone, and the Judge already knows it. The Devil is merely a redundant annoyance. The curse of the Law is clear: you must suffer the punishment. You must die and face God’s eternal rejection.
Yet the Judge is not finished with your case. He is waiting to hear from Someone else. He is waiting to hear from His Son. After hearing the case of the Accuser, His Son steps forward as your defence attorney—as your Justifier—and the Judge says, “What say You?” And Jesus says, “Father, You know.”
Then the Judge slams His holy hammer down and declares the final sentence: “The evidence before the Court is incontrovertible: I hereby judge you innocent! For all eternity, I declare you justified in the name of My Son!”
In His heavenly court, God says you are justified, innocent, blameless, and He at the same time makes it so because of what Jesus has done for you. Therefore, and ultimately, we see what God does in forgiveness in the very person and work of Jesus, especially on the cross.
God the Father Does Forgiveness in Jesus
Everything we see Jesus do and say is what God the Father does in forgiving us, all of which culminate on the cross. This is the final image we get of God’s act of forgiveness, one that is simultaneously bloody and glorious. God’s act of forgiveness is violent. In order to forgive you, God had to kill. Yet instead of killing you and me as we justly deserve, God instead decided to send His Son in our place. As St. Paul says, “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things” (Romans 8:32)?
And as I continued in my Good Friday sermon:
Under the curse of the Law, only blood can be offered for one’s life. As it is written in Leviticus, God speaks through Moses, “‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life… For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life'” [17:11, 14].
Blood must be shed. YOUR blood must be shed. Yet God gave up the blood of His Son to make atonement for your soul. Whoever believes this, Jesus says, has eternal life. Only the justified can have such life.
The ultimate image we get of God’s act of forgiveness is Jesus laying Himself down on the cross. And that is the key. We might consider Jesus’ death to be murder, but as Jesus said, “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from My Father” (John 10:17-18). According to Jesus, no one would take His life; He purposefully came to lay down His life for you and me.
Thus, when God forgives us, He does the act of running to us as His long lost children, bringing us back into the family, celebrating, and making us alive. He speaks verbal words of justification, declaring you innocent and in right standing with Him as Judge of the universe, which is culminated in His final act on the cross in Christ.
Doing Forgiveness to Your Neighbour
Now that we know what God actually does when He forgives you and me, what do we do when we forgive one another? At least, what should we do? I’m thinking beyond the practical steps here, which are delineated in Matthew 18:15-20.
Again, I think the Parable of the Prodigal Son is also helpful here. The father pretends his son’s sins do not exist. He knows they exist, but he pretends as if they don’t because to him, they don’t matter since his son has finally returned home and to life. The father already forgave him as soon as he saw him a ways off into the distance—over yonder.
Ultimately, I think, this is what we ought to do when we forgive one another: have compassion on one another, welcoming one another back into the family, maybe even throwing a feast, proclaiming the life of Christ.
This is somewhat similar to the modern proverb, “Forgive and forget.” However, I don’t think this term is entirely helpful. The idea comes from the notion that God “forgives and forgets.” It comes from Isaiah 43:25 where God says, “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
God the Father, in His unfathomable grace and mercy, may pretend as if our sins don’t exist, but I don’t think this means He “forgets” them in the sense that they are no longer in memory. He remembers our sins because He is omniscient, but He no longer considers them. Thus, He does forget them in the sense that He never recalls them to mind, but He does not forget them in the sense that He suffers some sort of amnesia.
Another verse close to this is Psalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.” Here, the psalmist is describing the endless limits of God’s forgiveness. That is, God’s forgiveness—His removal of our transgressions—knows no bounds.
God also says through Isaiah, “‘Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool'” (1:18).
God still sees ours sins, but in Christ He no longer sees them as red blemishes upon us but as pure, clean—justified. That is, justified, or made right, in Christ.
God forgives, but He does not forget, since He is omniscient. God forgives, which means He no longer considers yours and my sins. Since God does not forget due to His omniscience, how can we expect to forget each other’s sins? After all, we love to bring up each other’s former sins in a future argument when we supposedly say we forgive each other. Even if I am wrong about everything I said regarding God’s forgetting our sins, we can never exercise such divine forgetfulness.
When it comes to reconciliation, we must absolutely say the actual words, “I forgive you,” but these words must not only be genuine, but they must also be accompanied with action. So, I return to my question at the beginning: How do we properly do forgiveness to one another? When we say it and mean it, how do we actually do it? After all, our words are vastly different from God’s Words. God speaks and stuff happens; when we speak nothing truly happens. So, how is the forgiveness we speak accompanied with genuine action?
Return to the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The father’s forgiving actions were the result of his compassion. Without this compassion, he could not forgive. We must, first and foremost, have compassion on one another. When I say I forgive you, or when I move to forgive you, I must think to myself, “Oh dear brother/sister of mine, I feel deeply for you. I, too, am a miserable sinner in need of Christ. I am just like you. I am so sorry for the pain we’ve caused one another. Come, let us come to Jesus and repent, receiving His boundless grace and mercy to remove our transgressions far from us.”
Embrace your brother/sister. Hug him/her. Even cry. I know, that’s hard for us stoic Lutherans. Yet potlucks are not so hard for us. Therefore, throw some sort of meal together, celebrating the reconciliation you have made together through Christ. Even reconcile before you come to the Lord’s Supper together. Then continue to live in this life of Christ He has given each of you.
“Really? Every time? But that’s hard! It requires a lot of time!” Duh. But so what? Making disciples costs time, and a lot of it. Also, consider the time Jesus took to suffer and to die for you before He rose from the grave for you. Those were hours of agony. What is a mere couple minutes or hours to not only speak forgiveness to your brother/sister, but also to show compassion in your warm embrace, meal, and fellowship in the life of Christ? Is that really too much to ask?
Forgiveness is painful. Coming to reconciliation and rebuilding that relationship hurts. God’s act of forgiveness on the cross was also painful. If Jesus can bear the cat of nine tails, a crown of thorns, nails in his hands and feet, and a pierced side to forgive you all your sins and grant you eternal life, you can suffer a conversation with your brother/sister to forgive one another and give that warm embrace the Father has given you in Christ Jesus our Lord.