The Christian doctrine of forgiveness is that God has lifted the sentence of condemnation upon Christians for their sins through the death of Christ on their behalf and no longer counts them as guilty.
The Christian doctrine of forgiveness is that God has lifted the sentence of condemnation upon Christians for their sins through the death of Christ on their behalf and no longer counts them as guilty. Forgiveness is necessary both because God is just and because all humans are guilty with sin. Rather than simply ignoring the guilt of sin, God the judge became the one who was judged for the guilt of men; the guilt was punished justly, but the guilty received forgiveness instead of punishment. God did not unfairly or abusively punish his Son, but Christ submitted to his Father’s will joyfully and willingly. This forgiveness provides the center of the Christian proclamation in the world and should lead all those who have received it to rejoice and praise God for his mercy and grace.
“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity.” These opening words of Psalm 32 capture a theme central to Scripture: the forgiveness of sins is a supreme blessing of God for his people. The psalmist marveled that God “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10). Among the first of the “spiritual blessing[s] in the heavenly places” Paul mentions is “the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph. 1:3, 7).
Because “forgiveness” is a familiar term in the English language, we might assume everyone knows what it means. But in fact, philosophers and theologians have long debated what forgiveness really is and what it requires. And when we consider the idea that God forgives sin, it raises challenging theological issues that touch upon matters at the heart of Christian faith and life.
This article will address three topics in succession: first, some important theological background for understanding forgiveness; second, how Scripture presents the gift of forgiveness through Christ’s work, received by faith; finally, how the good news of forgiveness shapes the church’s ministry and the Christian’s devotion to God.
At least two topics are crucial background for understanding forgiveness. First, because God is the one who forgives, we need to appreciate who God is. And second, because sin is what God forgives, we need to reflect on humanity’s guilt before the Lord. These two themes are intimately related.
Who is God? One of the things Scripture most emphasizes about God is his justice. God “is not partial and takes no bribes,” but “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow” (Deut. 10:17–18). He “will render to a man according to his work” (Ps. 62:12). When Abraham asked God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25), the implied answer is clear: Absolutely! Scripture also emphasizes that God is merciful. When God made all his goodness pass before Moses, he declared, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exod. 33:19). He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8). As we consider below, both God’s justice and his mercy are foundational for the doctrine of forgiveness.
Also foundational is the reality of human guilt. Many people in the world call certain deeds “wrong” or “immoral,” but when Christians speak of “sin,” they imply that God is the one they’ve ultimately offended. David may have grievously wronged Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 11), but he still confessed, “Against you [God], you only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). To sin against God renders a person guilty. This is a legal or judicial idea. To be guilty is to stand condemned under God’s just judgment. Because all are sinners, all are “accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19). Adam’s first sin provoked God’s “judgment” which “brought condemnation” for the human race (Rom. 5:16). Since God is just, as considered above, it makes sense that sin brings us under his judgment.
Forgiveness, then, is also legal or judicial. It means that God lifts his sentence of condemnation for our sins and no longer holds us guilty for them. We stand in need of forgiveness because God is just, and we have hope of forgiveness because God is merciful.
Forgiveness through Christ, by Faith
This last statement, however, raises difficult theological questions that have been a source of debate for many years. Can God really be just and merciful at the same time? If he forgives sin rather than punishes it, is he acting unjustly? Didn’t God say, “I will not acquit the wicked” (Exod. 23:7)? Scripture makes very clear that God is both just and merciful, but it is not immediately obvious how he can be both.
Many Arminians believe God can forgive sins at his discretion. He is the moral governor of the universe, and if he wishes to forgive, that is his prerogative. Of course, they say, God is grieved by evil and does not want his mercy to make people take sin lightly. Thus, in the crucifixion of Christ, God displayed how seriously he regards sin. But Christ did not actually take others’s guilt upon himself on the cross or endure their punishment. That was not necessary. This is called the “governmental” view of the atonement. The famous Dutch Arminian jurist Hugo Grotius promoted it in the 17th century, and the influential American Wesleyan theologian John Miley defended it in the 19th century. Recently, the well-known Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff has advocated a similar view of God’s justice and forgiveness.
Reformed theologians and many other Protestant thinkers have rejected this position. God’s declaration that he will not acquit the wicked (Exod. 23:7) cannot be dismissed so easily. We would ordinarily be horrified to learn that a human judge, with a notorious criminal standing before her court, announced that this person was forgiven and would not be punished. We wonder why it would be different for God, especially when he declares that the one who “justifies [declares righteous] the wicked” is an “abomination” to him (Prov. 17:15). God is just, and this signals that he will not treat guilty people in the way he treats innocent people. Yet, God does forgive. He “justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5)—which is what other biblical texts say God will not do! There must be an explanation deeper than appealing to God’s discretion.
Scripture provides an explanation: Christ’s atonement. Throughout his perfectly obedient life on earth Christ bore “our griefs and carried our sorrows,” and climactically on the cross “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities,” for the Lord “laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:4–6). Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). Just prior to his striking claim that God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), Paul wrote about “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (Rom. 3:24–25).
In short, God remains just when he mercifully forgives our sin because Christ has stood in our place. Though he was not personally sinful, Christ took our guilt upon himself and suffered the punishment we deserved. In forgiving his people, God does not wink at sin. He administers the just penalty for sin, but a substitute bears it in our place. Justice is served. Divine forgiveness is thus rooted in the “substitutionary” or “vicarious” atonement, as this view is often called.
It may be helpful to address a couple of objections sometimes raised against this position. One of them comes from advocates of the Arminian view described above. If God receives full payment for our sins in Christ’s atonement as a matter of justice, then he doesn’t really forgive us or show us mercy. If Christ suffered our penalty, they reason, there’s nothing left to forgive. A brief response might simply note this: God himself provided the substitute. The judge himself took the place of the condemned. This is mercy beyond compare. Rather than saying that God does not need to forgive because he satisfied his justice through Christ, we should look at it the other way around: because God wished to forgive us, he did exactly what was necessary—send his Son to die for us—if he was to forgive us in a way fully consistent with his justice.
Another objection comes from “feminist” theologians. They claim it would have been cruel for God to inflict another person’s punishment upon his innocent Son. The substitutionary atonement, they charge, makes God a child abuser. More fundamentally, they object to the very notion that God would find it necessary and just to inflict harsh penalties on all sin. They think a kind God could find other ways to respond to wrongdoing. Such objections raise many serious challenges to classical Christian teaching, but there is only space for two brief replies. First, these objections inevitably underestimate the holiness of God and the heinousness of sin in his sight. If sin were really no big deal, these feminist theologians would have a point. But Scripture emphasizes that God is infinitely holy, and that he hates sin. Would a God who is something less than this really be worthy of all glory and adoration? Second, these objections fail to reckon with the fact that Christ submitted to his Father’s will voluntarily and joyfully, and laid down his life on his own accord (John 10:17–18; Heb. 12:2). In an abusive relationship, the abuser imposes his will on the abused. But in the Holy Trinity, the Father and Son enjoyed perfect agreement, although the Son had to walk a hard road (Luke 22:42–44).
One final thing to note about the doctrine of forgiveness concerns how we obtain this wonderful blessing. Scripture teaches that we receive forgiveness by faith. That is, God forgives us not because of any good work or virtue we’ve achieved, but only by trusting in him and resting in the perfect work of Christ. Romans 3–4 is again helpful. There, Paul explains that forgiveness comes “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22), that is, for the one who “believes in him who justifies the ungodly” (4:5). This is “the faith of Abraham” (4:16), who “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (4:20–21). Confessing that we’re forgiven only by faith is another way of confessing that we’re justified by faith alone. Justification involves more than simply forgiveness, but forgiveness is one crucial aspect of justification: God justifies people by forgiving their sins and imputing (or crediting) to them Christ’s perfect obedience.
Forgiveness, the Church, and Christian Devotion
Forgiveness of sins has any number of practical implications for the Christian life, but we will only comment briefly on two matters: how the reality of forgiveness defines the ministry of the church and how it provokes a grateful response from Christians.
There is a lot of debate about the mission of the church and the proper scope of its ministry. We cannot delve deeply into that topic here, but one thing ought to be clear: the preaching of the gospel must be central to the church’s work, and at the heart of the gospel is the proclamation of forgiveness through Christ Jesus. Looking at how the apostles carried out their ministry in Acts is a good place to see this. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus commanded his apostles to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19; cf. Luke 24:46–47) and to be his witnesses unto the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). So, we ask, how did they do this? As we continue reading Acts after the account of Jesus’s ascension, we find that the apostles preached, and what they preached centered in the work of Christ and forgiveness in him. The apostles’s first public ministry was at Pentecost. On this day, Peter proclaimed the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ (Acts 2:22–36), and when the people asked what they should do in response, Peter replied: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (2:38). The apostles’s next recorded public action was the healing of a lame beggar, followed by another sermon by Peter. Here again he proclaimed Jesus’s death and resurrection (Acts 3:13–15) and called his hearers to respond: “Repent, therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out” (3:19). Many more examples follow. There is no other way to build the church and to make disciples throughout the world than to preach the gospel of forgiveness through Christ.
The experience of forgiveness should also be decisive for the life of individual Christians. There is no turning point in a person’s life more important than when she goes from being under God’s condemnation to enjoying his favor, from being on the road to hell to becoming an heir of heaven. The forgiveness of sins through justification by faith is what marks this turning point. Accordingly, Scripture often calls Christians to respond in abounding gratitude to this wonderful gift. I mention just a few examples. Believers should respond with joy. After Psalm 32 declares that the one whose transgression is forgiven is blessed (32:1–5), it concludes: “Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart” (32:11)! Believers should also respond by praising the Lord. Psalm 103 begins: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” Why, we ask? What are these benefits? The first one the psalmist mentions: he “forgives all your iniquity” (103:3). And finally, Christians should respond by fearing the Lord—not with terror of God, but with a holy reverence before such an awe-inspiring king: “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Ps. 130:3–4).
- Heidelberg Catechism, Questions 12–19, 56
- Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 33
- Westminster Larger Catechism Questions 70–73
- Augsburg Confession, Article 4
- Belgic Confession, Article 23
- Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 11
- Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 11
Systematic Theologies of Forgiveness
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, 176–229
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, chs. 11–18
- Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine, 256–64
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Part 4, Section IX
- Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 620–42
Topical Theologies of Forgiveness