Forgiveness and Atonement
What sins can God forgive?
All people everywhere need forgiveness. We have all sinned against others and against God and fallen short of his expectations of us. Is there hope for us, and can God forgive us? No one has lived a life free of sin. Even those we consider “good” fall far below God’s standards. The Bible talks about both forgiveness and atonement. What is atonement and what does it mean to us?
Some of us have strayed far from the right path and caused great harm to ourselves and others. Prisons are full of people who have committed heinous crimes such as murder and rape. Can God forgive these people? At one time when Jesus was being accused by his critics, he made this statement:
Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin. (Mark 3:28-29)
I deal with sin against the Holy Spirit in another article, but for now let’s look at the first part of this statement. It tells us that for every kind of sin, even the most horrific and shameful of crimes we would consider unforgivable, God can forgive. In a parallel passage in Matthew 12:32 the Savior said even blasphemy and slander against himself can be forgiven. But some people ask: Why would God want to forgive those people?
God doesn’t punish every sin
King David wrote:
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. (Psalm 103:8-10)
It’s so good that God is slow to anger. If he wasn’t, none of us would have a chance. For most of our lives, God withholds his judgment and gives us many chances to find a better path. He gives most of us a lifetime of opportunity to find the path that leads to him.
The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. (Psalm 145:8-9)
Have you done things in the past that you are totally ashamed of? And have you ever wondered how God could forgive you for these? The answer to this question is also the answer to the earlier question, Why would God want to forgive those people?
Answer: because God is merciful and forgiving. He is good and delights in giving good gifts to us. And we are all in the same boat—we all need God’s mercy regardless of how far we have strayed.
Forgiveness is a sacrifice
When someone sins against another, real damage has been done—physical, financial, or emotional. The damage doesn’t just magically go away. Someone must bear the cost of that damage. One option is for the one who committed the wrong to pay for it. The best way is for them to repent and pay a just restitution. Then both parties are satisfied. But if they don’t, then the victim may try to make them pay by making them suffer. This is called revenge. They can say bad things about them and ruin their reputation. They can destroy something of value to them, or they can attack them and inflict pain. But God commands us not to take this route.
The other option is to forgive. If you forgive someone, it means you allow them not to pay for the damage. But someone must bear the damage, and in this case, it is you. You may decide to forgo any restitution. But in any case, you relinquish the pleasure of inflicting pain on them, and you absorb the loss. The loss may be physical, financial, or emotional, but you take it upon yourself. It is a form of pain, and so it’s a sacrifice.
This is what God does when he forgives us: he takes all the pain upon himself. He forgoes punishing us for our sins against him, forgetting them and putting them in the past. This restores our relationship with him.
God’s forgiveness is conditional
The Bible teaches that God’s love is unconditional, meaning he loves every one of us, independently of anything we do. Love is his attitude and motive toward all people at all times, regardless of their attitude toward him.
But the Bible also teaches that God’s forgiveness is conditional. Some may protest: “If God’s love is unconditional, why is his forgiveness conditional?” Because a love relationship must be mutual to be a real relationship. God is open to a relationship with us, but if we are not open to him, then there is no forgiveness, no reconciliation, and no relationship. God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our willingness to accept it. This is the same as saying forgiveness is conditional upon repentance and faith, as we will explain shortly.
We are not automatically forgiven just because we exist. We must accept God’s grace to be forgiven. If we refuse it, we are rejecting God himself.
What is repentance?
The Bible clearly says that we must repent to be forgiven. The word repent in the Bible does not mean that we become perfect and vow to never sin again. Repentance first refers to the act of reversing course in our relationship to God. We renounce our defiance of him and welcome him into our hearts. We cease ignoring or rejecting God and start seeking him, embracing our Creator in a love-faith relationship.
Second, repentance means we no longer approve of the sin in our life but repudiate it. Because we now love God, we take real and intentional steps in our lives to abandon the things that displease him. Repentance and faith are the key ingredients to receiving forgiveness from God.
What is the difference between forgiveness and atonement?
Forgiveness restores a broken relationship. A person is forgiven by God when they repent and accept his forgiveness. But for God to forgive anyone, there must be a basis for the sins to be forgiven—to be put away and put in the past. This basis is the sacrificial death of Christ, which “atoned” for the sin of the world. This means the damage from our sin has been paid for through the death of Jesus his Son. The Apostle John wrote of Christ:
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
In this verse the word atoning is the English translation of the Greek word hilasmos. Another form of this Greek word is also found in Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5. These passages speak of God providing a covering for our sins through the death of Christ. The penalty for our sins was death, but Jesus took that penalty upon himself.
His death atoned for our sins, and not only ours, but those of the whole world. He died for everyone. This of course does not mean that God forgives the whole world of everything. It means that Christ absorbed the damage that was caused by the sins of the world. For everyone, the penalty for all sins (which was death), has been paid. So, the atonement makes forgiveness possible.
God’s invitation to all
Have you ever been treated to dinner at a restaurant? What is required of you to enjoy it? You must accept the invitation, show up, and partake of it. That’s it. At the end—and maybe even more than once—you will probably want to express your appreciation to the host! The host may also have invited many others that did not come. These people could have come, but they chose not to, so they missed out. This is how God’s forgiveness works: the offer is good for anyone, but it must be taken to be enjoyed.
After the meal, no one worries, because the bill is paid for by the host, it is taken care of. If the others had come, their bill would’ve been paid also, because there was plenty to go around for everyone. This is the meaning of atonement. When atonement was made for our sins, the sins were “covered,” and they were no longer a barrier between us and God. They are now paid for and taken care of.
We may not understand the motivation of a person who invites us to a free dinner. If we suspect he has ulterior motives, we probably won’t come—we don’t trust him. So to accept the invitation we must have some level of confidence (faith) in the one who is inviting us, believing his gift and his motives are good. People who don’t respect or trust the host and don’t believe the gift has any value will not accept it.
It is the same with God’s gift of forgiveness. We would never accept it from him unless we believe it is valuable and his motive behind giving it is good. And we know what motivates God: his unconditional love toward all. He desires a relationship with those he created in his image, and to obtain it he is therefore more than willing to extend his forgiveness and mercy.
Grace is God’s abundant and undeserved provision of favor and blessing. His grace includes forgiveness, mercy, a secure relationship with God, and much more. It is so abundant that everyone’s past, present, and future sins have all been paid for in full through the sacrificial death of Christ. There is plenty of grace to go around, but we still must accept it to enjoy it. How can we receive God’s grace? Through faith, believing that God is good, and trusting that he will reward us for seeking his blessing.
So to summarize:
- Forgiveness is God forgoing punishing us, putting our sins in the past, and restoring our relationship with him.
- God’s love is the motive.
- Christ’s sacrificial death is the basis (atonement). He took the damage from our sin upon himself.
- Grace is the provision of God’s undeserved blessings.
- Our faith is the means of receiving it.
Believers in Christ need to know just how complete our forgiveness really is. David wrote of God’s love and forgiveness:
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:11-12)
This means that those who “fear God” (who have a faith relationship with him) won’t be separated from his love. Their sins have been removed as far as the east is from the west—an infinite distance. In other words, their sins will never again come between them and God—they are gone forever. That is what salvation in Christ is: full and free forgiveness. We can be assured that God does forgive our sins and forgets them.
Forgiving others and restitution
Of course, our sins may have caused damage to the lives of others. As followers of Christ we are obligated to make restitution for the damage we may have caused in the past. This can be a painful process, but a necessary one. Also, in the same way that God has forgiven us, we are to forgive others.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
If we have received mercy from God, then we are to extend it to others also. Those who receive it from us may then realize who God is, and give praise to him for his mercy. In this way God’s love comes full circle: from God to us, from us to others, and from them back to God.
As a final thought, it’s my hope that the reader will consider the following. It is one thing to understand that Christ died for all. But it’s another to understand that Christ died for me. Have you personally accepted God’s offer of forgiveness and his provision of atonement? By doing so, your broken relationship with God will be restored, and you will begin a love relationship with him that is eternal.
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