There are two kinds of divine forgiveness—judicial and parental. In the former, God acts as Judge; in the latter, as Father.
The word "forgiveness" not only carries in it the thought of pardon but also of deliverance, freedom, liberty from bondage. There is in it, furthermore, the idea of sending off, or sending away. When a sinner is forgiven by God, his sins and the righteous judgment due upon those sins, are sent away forever. "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us" (Psa. 103:12). We see this pictured when the Old Testament priests, on the Day of Atonement, illustrated typically this removal of sin and sin's penalty. After the slaying of the goat for a sin-offering, and the sprinkling of the blood upon the mercy seat, then "Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness" (Lev. 16:21, 22).
Just as this scapegoat typically removed, "sent away," the sins of the Israelites, so did our Lord send away sins forever, when He "His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree" (I Pet. 2:24). He is "the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). "Once in the end of the world hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself" (Heb. 9:26).
Who needs forgiveness? Who needs to have his sins "sent away"? Let God's own Word answer this for us: "For there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:22, 23). "For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not" (Eccl. 7:20). "But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away" (Isa. 64:6).
Thus it can be said to the whole human race that "your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you" (Isa. 59:2), for He is "of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity" (Hab. 1:13). Not only have we sinned personally but we were born into a lost, condemned race, carried down into death and judgment by Adam, its federal head. "By one man's offence death reigned by one...By the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation...By one man's disobedience many were made sinners" (Rom. 5:17-19).
Therefore, if any member of the human race ever has a standing before God, his sins must be forgiven. Nor does God forgive as man forgives. When a man forgives another man who has offended him, he simply passes over the offense and the penalty which is due for that offense. He excuses his fellow man. But God cannot excuse sin, no matter how great His love for the sinner is. His inflexible and unchangeable Word is: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezek. 18:4). "For the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). So, when God forgives, He forgives not because He excuses the offense but because His penalty against it has been executed. And well do we know how it has been executed. God's judgment against sin, against all sin, fell upon His beloved Son. "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God" (I Pet. 3:18). "Him who knew no sin He made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (II Cor. 5:21, ASV). "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6).
His life was laid down, His blood was shed, for us. He died in our place. Just before He went to the cross, as He instituted the Lord's Supper, we read that "as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is My body. And He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is My blood of the new [covenant], which is shed for many for the remission [forgiveness] of sins" (Matt. 26:26-28). "Without shedding of blood is no remission" (Heb. 9:22) because, we repeat, the penalty of a holy God against sin must be executed.
How then may a sinner be forgiven? How is forgiveness procured? It does not become ours by ordinances. We are not forgiven our sins either by being baptized or partaking of the Lord's Supper. Neither does church membership have anything at all to do with forgiveness. No kind of good works can cause our sins to be forgiven. God alone can forgive sins. "Who can forgive sins but God only?" (Mk. 2:7) And He can forgive them only because He, in love, mercy, and grace, has executed His judgment against them in the person of Christ, "in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace" (Eph. 1:7).
Therefore the sole condition of forgiveness is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who bore our sins. "To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission [forgiveness] of sins" (Acts 10:43). "Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:38, 39). "To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses" (Dan. 9:9), and He freely forgives all who trust in the finished work of His Son.
"I write unto you, little children," says the Apostle John, "because your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake" (I John 2:12). To the soul who has realized, by the Holy Spirit's power, something of the awfulness of sin and the holiness of God, there is nothing sweeter than to hear the Lord say by His Word: "Be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee" (Matt. 9:2). "And you, being dead in your sin and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath He quickened together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses (Col. 2:13).
Because our Lord did a complete work on the cross, we have a complete forgiveness. God has "forgiven you all trespasses." "But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God from henceforth expecting till His enemies be made His footstool. For by one offering He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified. Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us: for after that He had said before, This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them, and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. Now where remission [forgiveness] of these is, there is no more offering for sin" (Heb. 10:12-18). A perfect sacrifice secured a perfect and eternal forgiveness so that God now remembers no more the sins of those who have trusted in His Christ.
In considering the doctrine of forgiveness, we must distinguish between judicial forgiveness, in which God forgives a sinner; and family forgiveness, in which He forgives a saint.
In the judicial sense, God sits as Judge and freely and eternally forgives all the sins, past, present, and future, of the sinner who trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ. Never again will He mark down sin against us. "Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin" (Rom. 4: 7, 8).
Nevertheless, we must face the fact that we sin after we are saved. To be sure, this is not of necessity; for God has made perfect provision for us that we might overcome Satan, the world, and indwelling sin. But sad to say, we fail to use this perfect provision at all times. We take our eyes off the Lord who is our Overcomer, and we sin. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us... If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us" (I John 1:8,10).
When we, as believers, sin, it does not cancel our judicial forgiveness, which is perfect and eternal. It does break our fellowship with the Father and, thus, we lose our joy, our power, and our testimony, but not our salvation. And our loving Father has made perfect provision for our restoration. "My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous; and He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (I John 2:1, 2).
Because Christ on the cross satisfied God about the sin question, and because Christ is there in the Father's presence as our Advocate, our standing before God never changes, even when we sin, because our standing is in Christ. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9). When we see our sins as God sees them (and this comes by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, who is in us to glorify Christ), and acknowledge them so, God forgives them in faithfulness to Christ, who bore them. Moreover, God is just in doing so, for the sin question was righteously settled on the cross. "For Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon Thee" (Psa. 86:5).
Because our great Saviour has made a great sacrifice we have a great forgiveness. "The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression" (Num. 14:18). Let us never cease to praise Him "who forgiveth all thine iniquities (Psa. 103:3). To the believing sinner He says: "Thy sins are forgiven...Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace" (Lk. 7:48, 50). And the testimony of a restored saint is: "I acknowledged my sin unto Thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD: and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin" (Psa. 32:5).
"And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32); "forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye" (Col. 3:13).
From Great Doctrines Relating to Salvation by John B. Marchbanks. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1970. Chapter 6.