The Foundation of All Forgiveness

By John MacArthur

God doesn’t change (Malachi 3:6). But man’s view of Him frequently does—driven by man’s own fluid emotions and flexible morality. And as the world around us becomes increasingly permissive, it expects God to adjust with that moral shift.

Specifically, sinners count on the Lord to take sin as carelessly and casually as they do. And they expect His forgiveness to be equally casual. That should not surprise us—if you don’t take sin seriously, how can you ever fully appreciate what it means to be truly forgiven?

A Corrupt Caricature

But when God’s forgiveness is reduced to blind acceptance it reflects a corrupt caricature of His holy character. God cannot and will not acquit transgressors by blithely dismissing or ignoring the evil they’ve done. To do so would be unjust, and God is a God of perfect justice.

The Bible repeatedly stresses that God will punish every sin. In Exodus 23:7 God says, “I will not acquit the guilty.” Nahum 1:3 is unequivocal: “The Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” In the gospel message itself, “The wrath of God is revealed . . . against all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).

Scripture describes the relationship between God and the sinner as enmity (Romans 5:10; 8:7). God hates sin, and therefore all who sin have made themselves God’s enemies. “God is angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11, KJV).

Those who violate some minor point of God’s law are as guilty as if they had broken every commandment (James 2:10). No sin is trivial (Romans 3:10–18). All people are born with an insatiable penchant for sin (Psalm 58:3). They are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1), objects of God’s holy anger (Ephesians 2:3), and utterly without hope (Ephesians 2:12). From the human perspective, this is a truly desperate state of absolute futility.

God, on the other hand, is perfect, infinitely holy, absolutely flawless, and thoroughly righteous. He cannot violate His nature by blindly pardoning sin. He says: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 17:15). His justice must be satisfied by punishing every violation of His law. And the due penalty of our iniquity is infinitely severe: eternal damnation.

What About the “Good News”?

The gospel is good news because it tells us that God does justify the ungodly (Romans 4:5). But how can God grant such forgiveness without compromising His own standard of justice? How can He forgive sinners without breaking His own Word, having already sworn that He will punish every transgression?

The answer is: God Himself has made His Son, Jesus Christ, the atonement for our sins. This truth lies at the very heart of the gospel message. It is the most glorious truth in all of Scripture. It explains how God can remain just while justifying sinners (Romans 3:25–26). And it is the only hope for any sinner seeking forgiveness.

Perhaps the most important single passage in all of Scripture about Christ’s substitution on sinners’ behalf is found in 2 Corinthians 5:

God . . . reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18–20)

The truth is glorious: God has a plan by which He can accomplish the very thing that seemed so completely impossible. There is a way to satisfy His justice without damning the sinner. He can both fulfill His promise of vengeance against sin and reconcile—extend complete forgiveness to—sinners. He can remain just while justifying the ungodly (Romans 3:26).

Too many people think of divine grace as a sort of benign forbearance, by which God simply excuses sin and looks the other way—as if grace involved a lowering of the divine standard in order to accommodate what is unholy. Scripture teaches no such thing. Again, God Himself has sworn that every transgression and disobedience will receive a just penalty (cf. Hebrews 2:2), and He cannot relinquish His perfection in order to indulge the wicked. To do so would compromise His own righteousness.

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Source: The Foundation of All Forgiveness