The Problems Of Forgiveness

Much of the time truth is found in finding the balance between competing ideas. For example,

  • Parental Love = Unqualified love – consistent discipline
  • Good worker= one who works quickly – but is also careful
  • The way of salvation = involves God’s Sovereignty–Man’s Responsibility
  • Good athlete = someone with confidence – but is also teachable
  • Good teacher = someone with an academic knowledge – but also an ability to relate truth to others

Solid theology sometimes involves “balancing acts” like these. This morning is one example. In order to understand the true nature of God’s forgiveness we have to find the balance between two scale tipping extremes.

So far, in our study of Real Deal Christians we have seen that genuine believers,

  • Are convinced of the truth
  • Put God at the Center of their lives
  • Take off their masks and are honest with God about their sin

Today we see that a real deal believer lives in light of God’s forgiveness. There are two potential problems that come with the message of God’s forgiveness and they are on opposite sides of the scale. If we can keep these things in balance we can walk faithfully with the Lord.


John tells us

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (2:1)

John says he is writing so we will NOT sin. That is a nice thought but our experience is one of continuing struggle. We identify more with Paul who said, “the good I want to do I don’t do, and the evil I don’t want to do, that I do” (Romans 7).

We read Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48 “Be Perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” and know that this is way outside of our experience. The only way to meet this standard is to either pretend to be something we are not or try to redefine sin and perfection so that we fit the definition. Because of this the message of God’s forgiveness can be very discouraging. We may even believe we are true believers because we continue to struggle. Some actually give up because they feel they will never measure up.

I think the words of Jesus about perfection can be understood in another way. Often a coach will tell his/her team that they need to play “errorless ball” in order to win. However, every coach knows that perfection is an unreachable goal. A coach knows that

  • A pitcher will miss his spot or a player will bobble a ball
  • A lineman will miss a block or a quarterback will miss his target
  • A basketball player will miss a shot or be called for an unnecessary foul
  • A Volleyball player will go for a block and guess wrong as to where the ball is being hit

The coach knows all this. However, the coach is setting a goal for the team. Perfection is what the team needs to strive and work for. They may never play completely errorless ball, but they should always be working to eliminate mistakes.

I believe this is what Jesus is doing. He is setting a standard for us to work toward. When we ask, “Are Christians supposed to be sinless?” The answer really is “yes and no”. God wants us to be sinless. This is the goal and the standard. However, the reality is that we are growing toward a perfection (sometimes seemingly imperceptibly) that will not be fully realized until we get to Heaven.

John is not naïve and that is why he follows up the words, “I write this to you so that you will not sin” with the words, “but if anybody does sin . . .” (and he knows we will). He is well aware of the fact that the Christian faith is growth process.

To keep us from getting discouraged and frustrated, John reminds us of two important truths: Christ is our Advocate and He is our Propitiation or Atoning sacrifice. These aren’t words we use with regularity so we need to work to understand them.

The word for advocate is the Greek word paraclete. It means “one who is called alongside”. The picture is similar to that of an attorney who stands at our side when we are accused. This advocate pleads our case before the judge. Every time sin is charged against us, Jesus is there to say, “Charge it to my account”. He pleads for us on the basis of the sacrifice that He has already made on our behalf.

We are also told that Jesus is our “atoning sacrifice” or in some versions, “propitiation”. These translations are from the Hebrew word “kippur” as in Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the “Day of Atonement”.

You can read about the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. On the Biblical Day of Atonement the sins of the people are confessed before God. There are a number of sacrifices made. The key part of the ceremony is when two goats are brought forward. Lots are cast. One goat is slain and its blood is poured out on the altar as a way of “paying for” the sin of the people. The second goat is called the scapegoat. The priest placed both hands on this goat, confessed the sins of the people, and then the goat was led out into the desert and released. This goat symbolized the removal of sin and God’s wrath from the community.

John says that this is what Jesus does for us every time we sin. He dies as our substitute and He is the one who makes us right again with God. Perhaps an illustration will help.

Consider the case of a certain factory worker who was seriously injured on the job. After the doctors had done all they could, he was still left partially paralyzed. An investigation revealed that the company was at fault because it did not provide a safe work place or the proper safety equipment for its employees. Thus, it was liable for the dangerous conditions that resulted in this man’s injury and permanent paralysis.

The court awards the injured man a great sum of money for his pain, suffering, and permanent injury. Once the company pays the judgment against it, it has “covered” its wrongdoings. The demands of justice have been satisfied. The company no longer has any responsibility toward the injured man. That is what the first goat does.

But the injured man may still be filled with resentment, bitterness, even hatred. He may spend the rest of his life abhorring the name of that company, even though it has been directed to give him all the money he could possibly use. The debt that the wrong incurred has been paid for, but the wrath that the wrong incurred has not been removed. When Christ died, he not only paid the debt for our sin but also reconciled us to God by satisfying and removing the Father’s wrath.[1]

John tells us that Jesus was the kippur for the “sins of the whole world”. He is not saying that everyone is going to Heaven. There are many other places in the Bible that say this is not the case. What John was saying is that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for people from everywhere in the world. He is the Savior for all who will trust Him. He provides salvation for any person in any place at any time. He is the Savior of the whole world in this sense.

In theological terms we make a simple but important distinction: Jesus death is sufficient for all; it is efficient for those who believe. The death of Christ has enough merit for anyone to be saved and made new. It has the power and the potential to cancel every person’s sin. However, God has made this sacrifice efficient or effective only for those who confess their sin and put their hope and confidence in Christ.

Suppose someone had a huge windfall of money. Because they love their friends and neighbors, they offer to buy groceries for the entire community for an entire year. They tell the people at R & D Foods that every bill should be charged to their account. We could say that this individual is buying everyone’s groceries. However, even though the person is willing to buy everyone’s groceries, they will only actually buy the groceries of the people who go into R & D Foods and make their purchases. Their offer is sufficient for everyone but efficient only for those who take advantage of it. That’s what Jesus does for us.

So, the first problem with forgiveness is the disparity that exists between what we should be, and what we actually are. Instead of becoming discouraged, John wants us to remember that the work of Christ continues on our behalf. He continues to be our advocate and our payment for our past and present sin.


The second problem that tips the balance scale in the other direction is an attitude that says, “since I have been forgiven, and since the blood of Christ continues to be efficient for me, it doesn’t matter what I do . . . God will forgive me through Christ.” Listen to John’s words,

3 We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. 4 The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.

John seems to anticipate this presumption of forgiveness. John is clear; the person who says they “know God” or that “they are a Christian” but is not concerned about obeying God’s commands is really a liar. The true believer “must walk as Jesus did.” To do anything less is to take God’s grace for granted. This attitude is abhorrent for several reasons.

First, when we presume upon God’s grace we dishonor the gospel. Suppose your child heads off to college. You have scrimped, saved, and sacrificed to pay their tuition. Your son or daughter flunks the first semester because they are having such a “good time”. You talk to your child and they ask to be given another chance. You talk to the school, and pay the next semesters’ bill. However, the same thing happens. What will you do now as a parent? Will you continue to pay out your hard earned money to indulge the recklessness of your child? I hope not. I suspect you would tell them that the gravy train has stopped and any future education will be something they have to pay for on their own. Their actions have shown that they don’t appreciate the sacrifice that is being made.

Jesus did not die so that we could sin without consequence. Jesus died so we could be free of the hold of sin on our lives. When we continue to live with disregard for God’s standards we show that we don’t appreciate or understand what Jesus did for us. We make a mockery of His sacrifice.

Second, the person who continues to sin with disregard is deluding themselves about their salvation. John says we come to know him if we obey his commands. The true believer is one who trusts Christ as Savior and as Lord. They not only turn to Him for forgiveness, they turn to Him for daily living!

Mickey Cohen was an infamous gangster of the postwar era. One night Cohen attended an evangelistic meeting and seemed interested. Realizing what a dramatic impact his conversion could have on the world, many Christian leaders began to visit him. After one long night session, he was urged to open the door and let Christ in, based on Revelation 3:20. Cohen responded.

But as the months passed, people saw no change in his life of crime. When confronted, he responded that no one had told him he would have to give up his work or his friends. After all, there were Christian football players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians; why not a Christian gangster?

It was at this time that Cohen was told about repentance. And at that point Cohen announced that he wanted nothing to do with Christianity. [Colson p. 153]

People make professions of belief for many different reasons (the promise of forgiveness, the appearance of respectability, the desire to please friends, a desire to “cover all the bases”). John says, If you want to know if you are a true follower of Christ look at your life. The true believe is trying to live as Jesus lived. The true believer is a changed individual.

Third, the person who continues to sin is moving toward a hardened heart. When we continue to ignore the Word of God we are training ourselves to tune God out. People who live by train tracks learn to ignore the sound of the train passing by. The same is true of people in the path of a runway or in one of those apartments right next to the subway. The sound is still there but they have ignored it for so long that they no longer hear it. When we ignore God’s commands long enough we too can reach a point where we no longer hear the whispers of God’s Spirit.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented on the superficial faith that was being peddled by contemporary Christians. He called it “cheap grace”

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance… . Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate… . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 35–37).

To take a carefree attitude toward sin is to show that you have no real understanding or experience of God’s forgiveness.


Our challenge is to have a balanced view of God’s forgiveness. This means a couple of things. First we must be realistic. We must recognize that we are not going to arrive at perfection on this side of the grave. There will be bad days. At times you are going to “blow it”.   We must not use this fact as an excuse for being lackadaisical in our faith, but do need to keep it in mind for those times when we stumble and fall. When you fail in your pursuit of holiness, don’t hide, deny or justify your sin. Instead get up and run to Jesus. Confess you sin honestly. Take responsibility. Ask for His healing and then trust His grace. Put your confidence in his advocacy and atoning sacrifice.

Second we must remember true discipleship requires diligence and persistence. Too many people begin the Christian life in a sprint, they slow to a jog, and before long they are walking, sitting, or even wandering off in another direction. For them Christian life is a temporary amusement. True discipleship is not a fad we go through; it is a lifestyle that must be cultivated and developed.

Every strong marriage demands the same kind of work. The euphoria of newlyweds wears off. At this point we must begin to learn to love. You must work through petty annoyances, weather storms, and develop a commitment to the person rather than just the form or body of the person we married. There are good days and bad days but the strong marriage is the one that keeps working, learning, and growing.

It is the same way in the Christian faith. Genuine discipleship requires persistence. It means confessing our sin to the Lord and getting up after we fall; it means not settling for the goal of being viewed as a good person by others but focusing and re-focusing on the goal of being like Jesus. It is a lifetime commitment.

When we live with this kind of balance we will not only show that we are true followers of Jesus Christ, we will show that we understand the wonder and responsibility of God’s grace and forgiveness.

%d bloggers like this: