For thy name’s sake, O LORD, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great.
~ Psalm 25:11
And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.
~ Exodus 34:5-7
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
~ Isaiah 1:18
To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against him;
~ Daniel 9:9
Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.
~ Psalm 2:11-12
Then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive, and do, and give to every man according to his ways, whose heart thou knowest; (for thou, even thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men;) That they may fear thee all the days that they live in the land which thou gavest unto our fathers.
~ 1 Kings 8:39-40
Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the LORD their God, and David their king; and shall fear the LORD and his goodness in the latter days.
~ Hosea 3:5
The True Nature of Gospel Forgiveness, and the Discovery of It, by John Owen. The following contains an excerpt from his work, “The Forgiveness of Sin: A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm 130”.
But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
~ Psalm 130:4
The true nature of gospel forgiveness—Its relation to the goodness, grace, and will of God; to the blood of Christ; to the promise of the gospel—The considerations of faith about it
Forgiveness discovered or revealed only to faith—Reasons thereof.
Discovery of forgiveness in God a great supportment to sin- entangled souls—Particular assurance attainable.
(1.) Sometimes faith fixes upon the name and infinite goodness of the nature of God, and draws out forgiveness from thence. So doth the psalmist: Ps. 86:5, “Thou, Lord, art good and ready to forgive.” He rolls himself, in the pursuit and expectation of pardon, on the infinite goodness of the nature of God. So Neh. 9:17, “Thou art a God of pardons,” or ready to forgive,—of an infinite gracious, loving nature, —not severe and wrathful; and this is that which we are encouraged unto, Isa. 1:10, to stay on the name of God, as in innumerable other places.
And thus faith oftentimes finds a peculiar sweetness and encouragement in and from the consideration of God’s gracious nature. Sometimes this is the first thing it fixes on, and sometimes the last that it rests in. And ofttimes it makes a stay here, when it is driven from all other holds; it can say, however it be, “Yet God is gracious;” and at least make that conclusion which we have from it, Joel 2:13, 14, “God is gracious and merciful; who knoweth but he will return?” And when faith hath well laid hold on this consideration, it will not easily be driven from its expectation of relief and forgiveness even from hence.
(2.) Sometimes the soul by faith addresseth itself in a peculiar manner to the sovereignty of God’s will, whereby he is gracious to whom he will be gracious, and merciful to whom he will be merciful; which, as was showed, is another considerable spring or principle of forgiveness. This way David’s faith steered him in his great strait and perplexity: 2 Sam. 15:25, 26, “If I shall find favour in the eyes of the LORD, he will bring me again. But if he thus say, I have no delight in thee; behold, here am I, let him do to me as seemeth good unto him.” That which he hath in consideration is whether God hath any delight in him or no; that is, whether God would graciously remit and pardon the great sin against which at that time he manifesteth his indignation. Here he lays himself down before the sovereign grace of God, and awaits patiently the discovery of the free act of his will concerning him; and at this door, as it were, enters into the consideration of those other springs of pardon which faith inquires after and closeth withal. This sometimes is all the cloud that appears to a distressed soul, which after a while fills the heavens by the addition of the other considerations mentioned, and yields plentiful refreshing showers. And this condition is a sin-entangled soul ofttimes reduced unto in looking out for relief,—it can discover nothing but this, that God is able, and can, if he graciously please, relieve and acquit him. All other supportments, all springs of relief, are shut up or hid from him. The springs, indeed, may be nigh, as that was to Hagar, but their eyes are withheld that they cannot see them. Wherefore they cast themselves on God’s sovereign pleasure, and say with Job, ” ‘Though he slay us, yet will we trust in him;’ we will not let him go. In ourselves we are lost, that is unquestionable. How the Lord will deal with us we know not; we see not our signs and tokens any more. Evidences of God’s grace in us, or of his love and favour unto us, are all out of sight. To a present special interest in Christ we are strangers; and we lie every moment at the door of eternity. What course shall we take? what way shall we proceed? If we abide at a distance from God, we shall assuredly perish. ‘Who ever hardened himself against him and prospered?’ Nor is there the least relief to be had but from and by him, ‘for who can forgive sins but God?’ We will, then, bring our guilty souls into his presence, and attend the pleasure of his grace; what he speaks concerning us, we will willingly submit unto.” And this sometimes proves an anchor to a tossed soul, which, though it gives it not rest and peace, yet it saves it from the rock of despair. Here it abides until light do more and more break forth upon it.
(3.) Faith dealing about forgiveness doth commonly eye, in a particular manner, its relation to the mediation and blood of Christ. So the apostle directs, 1 John 2:1, 2, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins.” If any one hath sinned, and is in depths and entanglements about it, what course shall he take, how shall he proceed, to obtain deliverance? Why, he must unto God for pardon. But what shall he rely upon to encourage him in his so doing? Saith the apostle, “Consider by faith the atonement and propitiation made for sin by the blood of Christ, and that he is still pursuing the work of love to the suing out of pardon for us; and rest thy soul thereon.” This, I say, most commonly is that which faith in the first place immediately fixes on.
(4.) Faith eyes actual pardon or condonation. So God proposeth it as a motive to farther believing: Isa. 44:22, “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto me; for I have redeemed thee.” Actual pardon of sin is proposed to faith as an encouragement unto a full returning unto God in all things, 2 Sam. 23:5. And the like may be said of all the other particulars which we have insisted on. There is not any of them but will yield peculiar relief unto a soul dealing with God about forgiveness, as having some one special concernment or other of forgiveness inwrapped in them;—only, as I said, they do it not exclusively, but are the special doors whereby believing enters into the whole. And these things must be spoken unto afterward.
Let us now take along with us the end for which all these considerations have been insisted on. It is to manifest that a real discovery of gospel forgiveness is a matter of greater consequence and importance than at first proposal, it may be, it appeared unto some to be. Who is not in hopes, in expectation of pardon? Who think not that they know well enough at least what it is, if they might but obtain it? But men may have general thoughts of impunity, and yet be far enough from any saving acquaintance with gospel mercy.
Forgiveness discovered or revealed only to faith—Reasons thereof.
For a close of this discourse, I shall only add what is included in that proposition which is the foundation of the whole,—namely, that this discovery of forgiveness is and can be made to faith alone. The nature of it is such as that nothing else can discover it or receive it. No reasonings, no inquiries of the heart of man can reach unto it. That guess or glimpse which the heathens had of old of somewhat so called, and which false worshippers have at present, is not the forgiveness we insist upon, but a mere imagination of their own hearts.
This the apostle informs us, Rom. 1:17, “The righteousness of God is” (in the gospel) “revealed from faith to faith.” Nothing but faith hath any thing to do with it. It is that righteousness of God whereof he speaks that consists in the forgiveness of sins by the blood of Christ, declared in the gospel. And this is revealed from the faith of God in the promise to the faith of the believer,—to him that mixes the promise with faith. And again more fully, 1 Cor. 2:9, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” The ways whereby we may come to the knowledge of any thing are, by the seeing of the eye or hearing of the ear, or the reasonings and meditations of the heart; but now none of these will reach to the matter in hand,—by none of these ways can we come to an acquaintance with the things of the gospel that are prepared for us in Christ. How, then, shall we obtain the knowledge of them? That he declares, verse 10, “God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit.” Now, it is faith only that receives the revelations of the Spirit; nothing else hath to do with them.
To give evidence hereunto, we may consider that this great mystery, —1. Is too deep, 2. Is too great, for aught else to discover; and,—3. That nothing else but faith is suited to the making of this discovery.
1. It is too deep and mysterious to be fathomed and reached by any thing else. Reason’s line is too short to fathom the depths of the Father’s love, of the blood of the Son, and the promises of the gospel built thereon, wherein forgiveness dwells. Men cannot by their rational considerations launch out into these deeps, nor draw water by them from these “wells of salvation.” Reason stands by amazed, and cries, “How can these things be?” It can but gather cockleshells, like him of old, at the shore of this ocean, a few criticisms upon the outward letter, and so bring an evil report upon the land, as did the spies. All it can do is but to hinder faith from venturing into it, crying, “Spare thyself; this attempt is vain, these things are impossible.” It is among the things that faith puts off and lays aside when it engageth the soul into this great work. This, then, that it may come to a discovery of forgiveness, causeth the soul to deny itself and all its own reasonings, and to give up itself to an infinite fulness of goodness and truth. Though it cannot go unto the bottom of these depths, yet it enters into them, and finds rest in them. Nothing but faith is suited to rest, to satiate, and content itself in mysterious, bottomless, unsearchable depths. Being a soul-emptying, a reason- denying grace, the more it meets withal beyond its search and reach, the more satisfaction it finds. “This is that which I looked for,” saith faith, “even for that which is infinite and unsearchable, when I know that there is abundantly more beyond me that I do not comprehend, than what I have attained unto; for I know that nothing else will do good to the soul.” Now, this is that which really puzzles and overwhelms reason, rendering it useless. What it cannot compass, it will neglect or despise. It is either amazed and confounded, and dazzled like weak eyes at too great a light; or fortifying of itself by inbred pride and obstinacy, it concludes that this preaching of the cross, of forgiveness from the love of God, by the blood of Christ, is plain folly, a thing not for a wise man to take notice of or to trouble himself about: so it appeared to the wise Greeks of old, 1 Cor. 1:23. Hence, when a soul is brought under the power of a real conviction of sin, so as that it would desirously be freed from the galling entanglements of it, it is then the hardest thing in the world to persuade such a soul of this forgiveness. Any thing appears more rational unto it,—any self-righteousness in this world, any purgatory hereafter.
The greatest part of the world of convinced persons have forsaken forgiveness on this account; masses, penances, merits, have appeared more eligible. Yea, men who have no other desire but to be forgiven do choose to close with any thing rather than forgiveness. If men do escape these rocks, and resolve that nothing but pardon will relieve them, yet it is impossible for them to receive it in the truth and power of it, if not enabled by faith thereunto. I speak not of men that take it up by hear-say, as a common report, but of those souls who find themselves really concerned to look after it. When they know it is their sole concernment, all their hope and relief; when they know that they must perish everlastingly without it; and when it is declared unto them in the words of truth and soberness,—yet they cannot receive it. What is the reason of it? what staves off these hungry creatures from their proper food? Why, they have nothing to lead them into the mysterious depths of eternal love, of the blood of Christ, and promises of the gospel. How may we see poor deserted souls standing every day at the side of this pool, and yet not once venture themselves into it all their days!
2. It is too great for any thing else to discover. Forgiveness is a thing chosen out of God from all eternity, to exalt and magnify the glory of his grace; and it will be made appear to all the world at the day of judgment to have been a great thing. When the soul comes in any measure to be made sensible of it, it finds it so great, so excellent and astonishable, that it sinks under the thoughts of it. It hath dimensions, a length, breadth, depth, and height, that no line of the rational soul can take or measure. There is “exceeding greatness” in it, Eph. 1:19. That is a great work which we have prescribed, Eph. 3:19, even “to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge.” Here, I suppose, reason will confess itself at a stand and an issue; to know that which passeth knowledge is none of its work. “It cannot be known,” saith reason; and so ends the matter. But this is faith’s proper work, even to know that which passeth knowledge; to know that, in its power, virtue, sweetness, and efficacy, which cannot be thoroughly known in its nature and excellency; to have, by believing, all the ends of a full comprehension of that which cannot be fully comprehended. Hence, Heb. 11:1, it is said to be the ὑπόστασις of “things not seen,” their subsistence; though in themselves absent, yet faith gives them a present subsistence in the soul. So it knows things that pass knowledge; by mixing itself with them, it draws out and communicates their benefit to the soul. From all which is evident what in the third place was proposed, of faith’s being only suited to be the means of this discovery; so that I shall not need farther to insist thereon.
Discovery of forgiveness in God a great supportment to sin- entangled souls—Particular assurance attainable.
Fourthly. There yet remains a brief confirmation of the position at first laid down and thus cleared, before I come to the improvement of the words, especially aimed at. I say, then, this discovery of forgiveness in God is a great supportment for a sin-entangled soul, although it hath no special persuasion of its own particular interest therein. Somewhat is supposed in this assertion, and somewhat affirmed.
First, [As to what is supposed]:—
1. It is supposed that there may be a gracious persuasion and assurance of faith in a man concerning his own particular interest in forgiveness. A man may, many do, believe it for themselves, so as not only to have the benefit of it but the comfort also. Generally, all the saints mentioned in Scripture had this assurance, unless it were in the case of depths, distresses, and desertions, such as that in this psalm. David expresseth his confidence of the love and favour of God unto his own soul hundreds of times; Paul doth the same for himself: Gal. 2:20, “Christ loved me, and gave himself for me;” 2 Tim. 4:8, “There is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day.” And that this boasting in the Lord and his grace was not an enclosure to himself he shows, Rom. 8:38, 39.
Nothing can be more vain than what is usually pleaded to remove this sheet-anchor of the saints’ consolation,—namely, that no man’s particular name is in the promise. It is not said to this or that man by name that his sins are forgiven him; but the matter is far otherwise. To think that it is necessary that the names whereby we are known among ourselves, and are distinguished here one from another, should be written in the promise, that we may believe in particular every child of God is in the promise, is a fond conceit. And believing makes it very legible to him. Yea, we find by experience that there is no need of argumentation in this case. The soul, by a direct act of faith, believes its own forgiveness, without making inferences or gathering conclusions; and may do so upon the proposition of it to be believed in the promise. But I will not digress from my work in hand, and, therefore, shall only observe one or two things upon the supposition laid down:—
(1.) It is the duty of every believer to labour after an assurance of a personal interest in forgiveness, and to be diligent in the cherishing and preservation of it when it is attained. The apostle exhorts us all unto it, Heb. 10:22, “Let us draw near in full assurance of faith;” that is, of our acceptance with God through forgiveness in the blood of Jesus. This he plainly discourseth of; and this principle of our faith and confidence he would have us to hold fast unto the end, chap. 3:14. It is no small evil in believers not to be pressing after perfection in believing and obedience. Ofttimes some sinful indulgence to self, or the world, or sloth, is the cause of it. Hence few come up to gospel assurance. But yet most of our privileges, and upon the matter all our comforts, depend on this one thing. A little by the way, to encourage unto this duty, I shall desire you to consider both whence this assurance is produced and what it doth produce,—what it is the fruit of, and what fruit it bears:—
[1.] It is, in general, the product of a more plentiful communication of the Spirit than ordinary, as to a sense and participation of the choice fruits of the death of Christ, procured for those who are justified by their acceptance of the atonement. It flourisheth not without his sealing, witnessing, establishing, and shedding abroad the love of God in our hearts. See Rom. 5:1–5. And what believer ought not to long for and press after the enjoyment of these things? Nay, to read of these things in the gospel, not experiencing them in our own hearts, and yet to sit down quietly on this side of them, without continual pressing after them, is to despise the blood of Christ, the Spirit of grace, and the whole work of God’s love. If there are no such things, the gospel is not true; if there are, if we press not after them, we are despisers of the gospel. Surely he hath not the Spirit who would not have more of him, all of him that is promised by Christ. These things are the “hundredfold” that Christ hath left us in the world to counterpoise our sorrows, troubles, and losses; and shall we be so foolish as to neglect our only abiding riches and treasures,—in particular, as it is the product of an exercised, vigorous, active faith? That our faith should be such always, in every state and condition, I suppose it our duty to endeavour. Not only our comforts but our obedience also depends upon it. The more faith that is true and of the right kind, the more obedience; for all our obedience is the obedience of faith.
[2.] For its own fruit, and what it produceth, they are the choicest actings of our souls towards God,—as love, delight, rejoicing in the Lord, peace, joy, and consolation in ourselves, readiness to do or suffer, cheerfulness in so doing. If they grow not from this root, yet their flourishing wholly depends upon it; so that surely it is the duty of every believer to break through all difficulties in pressing after this particular assurance. The objections that persons raise against themselves in this case may be afterward considered.
(2.) In ordinary dispensations of God towards us, and dealings with us, it is mostly [by] our own negligence and sloth that we come short of this assurance. It is true it depends in a peculiar manner on the sovereignty of God. He is as absolute in giving peace to believers as in giving grace to sinners. This takes place and may be proposed as a relief in times of trial and distress. He createth light and causeth darkness, as he pleaseth. But yet, considering what promises are made unto us, what encouragements are given us, what love and tenderness there is in God to receive us, I cannot but conclude that ordinarily the cause of our coming short of this assurance is where I have fixed it. And this is the first thing that is supposed in the foregoing assertion.
2. It is supposed that there is or may be a saving persuasion or discovery of forgiveness in God, where there is no assurance of any particular interest therein, or that our own sins in particular are pardoned. This is that which hath a promise of gracious acceptance with God, and is therefore saving: Isa. 50:10, “Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God.” Here is the fear of the Lord and obedience, with a blessed encouragement to rest in God and his all- sufficiency, yet no assurance nor light, but darkness, and that walked in or continued in for a long season; for he cannot walk in darkness, meet with nothing but darkness, without any beam or ray of light, as the words signify, who is persuaded of the love of God in the pardon of his sins. And yet the faith of such a one, and his obedience springing from it, have this gracious promise of acceptance with God. And innumerable testimonies to this purpose might be produced, and instances in great plenty.