In a world filled with strife, hatred, anger, and unspeakable atrocities, the issue of forgiveness is a touchy one, considering the number of people who have suffered for many years at the hands of cruel people. Many are bitter, even though they might seem to be doing just fine on the outside, but inside, they are hurting. With such a reality, such people end up viewing God from the lens of their hurt and pain. The most challenging thing for hurt and broken people is to think that God can and may forgive their offenders. Shouldn’t God deal justly with them, given what they have done? Does God ever withhold forgiveness from men? Are there things God can not forgive?
To sufficiently respond to this matter of forgiveness, we need to clarify a few things. In a world where people effectively hold grudges and never let go at will, we must redefine forgiveness in light of what God does when he forgives and what it means for someone to live and die without being forgiven.
What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is the release, on the part of the creditor or offended party, of any expectation that a debt will be repaid or that an offender will receive punishment for an offense. When describing the removal of an inappropriate offense in this way, the removal does not condone the behavior or suggest approval. It is ceasing to feel resentment for wrongs and offenses done; pardon seeks to restore the relationship between the offender and the offendee.
God’s nature and Forgiveness
J. David Stark explains, “God’s forgiveness is a deliberate and loving act of God to release you from all guilt associated with your sin.”An act of God represents and is synonymous with the character of God. When God revealed Himself to Moses, he said that his nature was one of forgiveness, which means we cannot talk about forgiveness and not have God in mind. That’s his character (Exodus 34:5-7, Numbers 14:17-20; Nehemiah 9:16-17; Psalms 103:1-18; Isaiah 43:25; Micah 7:18-20; 1 John 1:8-9). God does not just offer forgiveness. It is his nature. It is who he is. It is a foundational truth for our hearts because everything else we believe about God and what he does when we sin is hinged on this reality: God’s forgiving nature.
Why do we need Forgiveness?
On the one side, we have God, who is eternally holy (Isaiah 57:15), who cannot tolerate sin (Habakkuk 1:13), and who is at odds with fallen humanity (Romans 8:7). The primary meaning of Holy is ‘separate.’ It comes from an ancient word that meant ‘to cut’ or ‘to separate.’ Perhaps even more accurate would be the phrase ‘a cut above something.’ Therefore, we must understand that God is cut above us, our emotions, our responses to evil, and even our conclusions about who and what actions should receive forgiveness. That his ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9) is an excellent reminder that God is set apart from us; he is holy.
The reality of humanity is such that we are fallible, weak, prone to wander, sinful, and susceptible to the vilest offenses anyone could ever think of (Romans 5:5-8, Jeremiah 17:9-10). All our efforts towards righteousness are wanting because they come from an inherently sinful place, the heart of man. Even the priestly sacrifices in the book of Leviticus could not bridge the gap for us. Man after Eden was corrupt in every sense of the word, without the capacity to please God. Unlike God’s nature, our nature is sinful (Psalm 51:1-5, Romans 3:23).
God is Holy through and through (Isaiah 6:1-5) and cannot tolerate sin in his presence without cleansing. Isaiah had to be touched by a hot coal for him to be worthy of standing in the presence of God. We must be forgiven. Otherwise, we are all under God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3). Man is nowhere near worthy enough to stand in the sight of a Holy God (Romans 3:10-12). Even if one were to claim that they have done some ‘good deeds’, they are nothing but filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). There is a definite need for sinful man to know and receive the forgiveness of God.
All the evils we see today result from man’s sin. We are helplessly inclined to pursue and fulfill our sinful lusts and passions, hence our need for forgiveness. We also need forgiveness because we were born in and with sin.
God’s Promise of Forgiveness
Since his nature is forgiveness, God has promised forgiveness to those seeking it. He declares in Jeremiah 31:31-34 that there is a time when he will give men a new heart, and every man shall be responsible for their actions. Here, God declares that he will no longer remember our sins once he forgives us. In the Old Testament, God tells the children of Israel that if they come to him in humility, he will hear from heaven and heal their land; essentially, he will grant them forgiveness (2 Chronicles 7:14). So, we see that God is not only characterized by forgiveness, he also offers people an opportunity to come to him and receive the promise of forgiveness. (1John 1:8-9, Psalms 51:7; 103:8-12; 130:3-4; Proverbs 28:13; Isaiah 1:18; Acts 2:38; Jasmine 5:13-16; 1 John 2:1-2).
How has God achieved Forgiveness?
To bridge the gap between man and God, a gap brought by the original sin of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), God granted man an opportunity to be reconciled with Him. Paul says in Romans 5:10-11 that while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, Jesus Christ. So we know that, though we are separated from God, he has offered us reconciliation by the sacrifice and death of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18, Colossians 2:13-15). In this, God achieved the impossible for men by making his Son take our fault so that we can know forgiveness (2 Corinthians 5:21). The writer of Hebrews says that where there is no shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin (Hebrews 9:22). Hence why John 3:16 is a very significant portion of scripture. The promise and assurance is that whosoever believes in him (the Son, Jesus Christ) shall receive eternal life.
When is Forgiveness not Applicable?
So, at what point does God withhold forgiveness? And does he ever do that in the first place?
Firstly, we need to have a response for those who may bring the question of God forgiving Satan/Lucifer and fallen angels. Well, much as scripture does not give too much detail about it, portions of scripture, like Ezekiel 28:14, describe as one of the highest angels who was continually before the presence of God. He and the fallen angels fully understood God’s glory and had no excuse to rebel and turn away. They weren’t tempted either. In their pride, they chose to defy God. Their offense warranted the highest punishment, eternal banishment from God’s presence.
Secondly, God did not provide a plan of salvation for the angels as he did for man. Our fall necessitated an atonement, and God provided for that before the foundations of the world (Revelation 13:8). No such sacrifice was designed for angels.
Thirdly, that the Devil is roaming around seeking people to devour (1 Peter 5:8) gives no hint that he and his demons are willing to repent.
Finally, according to Romans 10:13, Christ forgives anyone who repents their sins by calling on his name. The vilest offender who truly believes shall receive pardon, as the hymn says. However, Christ said in Mark 3:22-30 and Matthew 12:22-32 that every sin committed by man shall be forgiven (we know that this happens at salvation and not any other time), but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, in the New Testament times, happened when, for instance, people accused Jesus Christ of being demon-possessed instead of Spirit-filled. This particular type of blasphemy cannot be duplicated today. The Pharisees were in a unique moment in history: they had the Law and the Prophets, they had the Holy Spirit stirring their hearts, they had the Son of God Himself standing right in front of them, and they saw with their own eyes the miracles He did. Never before in the history of the world (and never since) had so much divine light been granted to men; if anyone should have recognized Jesus for who He was, it was the Pharisees. Yet they chose defiance. They purposely attributed the work of the Spirit to the Devil, even though they knew the truth and had the proof (Matthew 12:22-32).
The unpardonable sin today is the state of continued unbelief. The Spirit currently convicts the unsaved world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). To resist that conviction and willfully remain unrepentant is to “blaspheme” the Spirit. There is no pardon, either in this age or the age to come, for a person who rejects the Spirit’s promptings to trust in Jesus Christ and then dies in unbelief. The choice is crystal: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever does not believe the Son will not have life, and the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36).
God only withholds forgiveness from those who refuse to turn their eyes upon Jesus in repentance for the salvation of their soul!
J. David Stark, “Forgiveness,” ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).
James M. Houston, “Forgiveness,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 810.
Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).