I have a confession to make. A while back, I realized I have a problem. I have a struggle with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Deep down, I haven’t really wanted forgiveness of my sins. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I have asked for forgiveness again and again and again, that is, if simply saying those words counts. But I realized that while saying those words, I had not really been asking for what God really offered. Please, let me explain.
What is Forgiveness?
I can certainly record for you the technical definitions of forgiveness found in lexicons, concordances, and commentaries. But perhaps the best definition is found in Psalm 103.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity…
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.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
—Psalm 103:2-3, 10-14 (ESV)
That is forgiveness. It is the removal of my sins. It is sending my sins away from me. It is separating my sins from me. Forgiveness means when God looks at me, He doesn’t see sin even though I have committed them. And He does this because of His steadfast love and compassion, not because of my awesomeness or personal righteousness. He does this because of Him, not because of me.
I Don’t Want Forgiveness
That is a strong statement. And, to be certain, I am wording it that way for a bit of shock value to get you to keep reading. I do want forgiveness, at least on a surface level. However, I’ve come to realize that at a gut level, as much as I use the language of forgiveness, forgiveness is not what I’ve wanted.
Rather, I’ve been like the servant of Matthew 18:26. The servant had embezzled the king’s money and owed something along the lines of 200,000 years worth of daily wages. There is no coming out of that debt. But did the servant ask for forgiveness? No. Rather, the text says:
So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”
That is exactly where I have been. I’ve been using the words, “God, please forgive me,” because I know that is what I’m supposed to say. But what I’ve really meant was, “God, please be patient with me, and I’ll make it up to you.” “God, please hang on, and I’ll show you I’m really not as bad as all that.” “God, please just ignore my sins for a while so I can prove to you that I really am good enough.”
In my heart of hearts, I don’t really want forgiveness. I don’t want God to simply take my sins away because He is merciful, loving, and gracious. I want Him to overlook my sins because I’ve done enough righteous things to make up for them. I can’t even accept someone paying for my lunch without me saying, “At least let me get the tip.” How much less do I want God to just pardon my sins, sending them away without me being able to say, “He did that because of how well I did such and such.”
I have become not only like that unforgiving servant, but also like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11-12. I come to God bringing my righteous acts. “God, I thank you that I’m not like others who don’t follow the pattern as well as I do. I thank you that I’m not like others who don’t ‘go to church’ on Sundays. I thank you that I’m not like others who ignore Your will. I ‘go to church’ every time the doors are open. I give more than 10% of my income each week.” All of this is as if to say, “See, God, I told you if you would be patient with me, you’d see that I really am a good person, deserving of pardon for those other sins I committed.”
Sadly, there is part of me that wants to say, “Look at me, God. See how good I can be. Don’t I deserve some grace?” But I keep running into Ephesians 2:9:
Not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
I Need Forgiveness
The problem, of course, is I can’t make up for my sins. I can’t buy my way out of them. I can’t barter with God– “Hey God, I’ll give you five good deeds, if You’ll ignore this one bad one.” It just doesn’t work like that. My righteous deeds cannot possibly make my sins clean. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. As Isaiah 64:6 says:
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
My righteous acts can’t cleanse my sins. Rather, my sins defile my righteous acts. I cannot possibly repay my debt to the King. I don’t need His patience; I need His forgiveness. I need His cleansing. I need His righteousness.
I don’t need God to ignore my sins long enough for me to make up for them. I don’t need Him to overlook them for a while as I prove to Him they aren’t really what defines me. They do define me. They will always define me. That is, unless He does something like take them away from me. I need forgiveness so my sins won’t define me and defile me.
And in the midst of all this, I realize the great mistake I have too long made. Forgiveness is not God ignoring my sins. God never ignores sins. I’ll put it in bold to make sure you see this:
God never ignores sins; He either punishes them or pays for them.
I can’t pay for them. If I think I can, I’m as foolish as the servant of Matthew 18:26. God’s patience won’t help me if I think He extends it so I can make up my sins to Him. God doesn’t extend patience so I can pay off my sins. He extends patience so I will grow enough to realize I can’t pay them off and finally humbly surrender in His presence and beg for mercy and forgiveness. Then I can be like the Tax Collector of Luke 18:13. This is a tough realization. If I don’t let Him pay for my sins, if I keep trying to pay for them by myself, the only outcome is punishment for them. That brings me to a powerful conclusion.
I Want Forgiveness
Having realized all of this. I have come full circle. I do want forgiveness. And yes, there is a sense in which I’ve always wanted it, but simply did not fully understand what I was asking. And thus, I surrendered to the teaching of Acts 2:38:
Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I must not view baptism as a work that I did to prove how good I was at keeping God’s law about baptism. Rather, I need that forgiveness. My baptism doesn’t pay for my sins, rather Jesus’ death does. Yet, Jesus has said that baptism is for the forgiveness of my sins. If I want forgiveness, I must be baptized, not because it conveys my work, but because in it God works to raise me to a new life (cf. Colossians 2:12).
Further, as I’ve recognized continued sin in my life, I’ve repented and confessed that sin to God (cf. I John 1:9). Again, I must not view my confession as proof of how good I am at keeping God’s law on confession. Rather, I need His forgiveness. Confession is not a demonstration of how good I am at confessing, it is a demonstration of my faith in how good God is at forgiving.
Have I always completely understood all of this. No. But I can’t help but notice that the unforgiving servant of Matthew 18 asked for patience, but received forgiveness. That is how awesome my King is. I didn’t understand the full extent of His grace, but He gave it to me anyway. Too many times I’ve only asked for patience, but God has forgiven me. But He has also been patient with me. Not patient with me as He awaited me to pay off my debts, but patient with me as I have figured out how much I truly owe Him.
And now I’m going to live more like it.
That leaves me with one final question:
Do You Want Forgiveness?
Thanks for being my guest at God’s Way Works. I hope today’s post has helped you. There is more to this. So keep your eyes open for the next installment “I’m Forgiven! Now What?“