I’ve had a tough time with forgiveness.
Ours was the dedicated Christian family of the late 20th century that went to church thrice a week and was always the last to leave. My mother led me to the Lord when I was 5, and I grew up enlightened to the faith, tasting the heavenly gift of grace and the power of God’s Word. But I couldn’t seem to grasp the blessed assurance we sang about in the old hymn lyrics by Fanny Crosby: “Perfect submission, perfect delight, visions of rapture now burst on my sight.”
I knew that God was faithful and righteous, willing to forgive sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). But when I fought with my sisters or acted in selfishness, the good feelings of my confession disappeared like a vapor, and I’d be left with the sinking feeling I once was found but now I’m lost, was blind and still can’t see. Eternal forgiveness wasn’t a condition for earth but would only be experienced in heaven. If I made it there.
Dr. Stanley has long understood the believer’s confusion when, troubled by sin, we recall the great holiness of God and recoil at our inability to be good. In the sermon “You Are Forgiven” he says, “Why do we feel guilty? Because we violated the law of God.” I knew what it was like to ache from my sin, but I didn’t know how common that was, nor did I fully grasp the good news of Jesus Christ. I needed to hear Dr. Stanley say that the believer must recognize this: Once we confess our wrongdoing, we no longer have to bear it. He expressed the idea this way: “My guilt is relieved and removed because God’s forgiveness has been there for me all along.”
As I read my Bible and listened to people who knew God for His never-changing, covenant-making nature, I began to wrestle with the knowledge that saving grace could be both temporal and eternal, for not only this life but also the one to come. This began with the nagging truth that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our wrongdoings from us” (Psalm 103:12), a promise I submarined with a personal footnote: that is, until next time.
The reason I had such difficulty believing the gospel was because it seemed too good to be true.
It wasn’t until I encountered Abraham that things began to change. To me, Abraham was the picture of obedience: He was the father of faith, a man willing to sacrifice his son and certainly worthy of God. Then I looked more closely. Abraham was an idol worshipper before God called him (Josh. 24:2). Yes, he left everything comfortable and familiar to follow God (Gen. 12:4), but he didn’t stay true blue: he wandered to Egypt (Gen. 12:10). Then he lied to two different kings and let his wife be taken (Gen. 12:13; Gen. 20:2), a situation from which only God could rescue him. And perhaps most famously, Abraham tried to fulfill God’s promise of a blessed lineage in his own way (Gen. 16:2-4). Time and again great failures arose in his life, but none were so great as to cancel the good work God had prepared in advance for Abraham to do (Eph. 2:10). In fact, I saw that it’s not our work to stay true, but God’s work in us.
Awash in this richer knowledge of God’s loving providence, I saw that we’re not only saved from what we’ve done but our acts of disobedience are also folded into God’s unchanging plan (Rom. 8:28). And what’s more, I recognized that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to all who are adopted by Him, so that we can never be orphaned again. As Jesus said, “The one who comes to Me I certainly will not cast out … And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of everything that He has given Me I will lose nothing, but will raise it up on the last day” (John 6:37-39).
In Psalm 139:5-6, David celebrates God’s vast knowledge of his ways, his tongue, and his acts, marveling that “You have encircled me behind and in front, and placed Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot comprehend it.” That resonated with me: The reason I had such difficulty believing the gospel was because it seemed too good to be true.
Even today I am not immune to the Enemy’s accusations and doubt. That’s why Jesus left us with His Spirit to teach us all things and to remind us of all truth.
The burden the believer feels for his or her sin is different from the condemnation that overwhelms the unredeemed. As Dr. Stanley puts it, “The moment we confess it to Him—what happens? It all lifts. Because communion and fellowship are restored and He cleanses us of that contamination of whatever we’re involved in … Listen, if you sin against God, confess it and keep moving. Don’t begin to wallow and to fret and see what you’re going to do to get accepted by God because—I want to tell you—because of what He did at the cross, you are as accepted as you will ever be. Because you are accepted … in the beloved, Jesus Christ, the Lord.”
Yet even today I am not immune to the Enemy’s accusations and doubt. That’s why Jesus left us with His Spirit to teach us all things and to remind us of all truth (John 14:26).
About 18 months ago I sat in church, swallowing the bread of the Lord’s Supper. With elbows on my knees, I stared into the cup of red grape juice and heard these words in my spirit: “You are forgiven.” The tiny cup seemed so full, the drink so dark and rich, the words so simple. You are forgiven. Take and drink. Receive. Taste. Enjoy. You have been forgiven; you remain forgiven. It was a sweet, rare moment when my emotions broke through to confirm the whispered truth of the Holy Spirit: The sacrifice of Christ accomplished what I could not; it is finished. It’s a conviction proved over and over in God’s Word in a fashion I could never express in words alone. Praise be to God.
Illustration by Adam Cruft